Nations of Latin America

*There are 33 independent nations in Latin America, 8 in Central America, 12 in South America, and 13 in the Caribbean. 

*Today, about 74% of Latin Americans live in cities, so although the region is not quite as urban as Anglo-America, it is close.

*Brazil is the largest nation in South America, and the most populous, with a population of 186,112,794.  It also has the 9th highest GDP in the world ($1.555 trillion).  Brazil’s currency is the real.  Its official language is Portuguese, which helps to make Portuguese the 6th most spoken native language in the world.  It is a federal republic, in which the various states are fairly powerful.

*Like the United States, Brazil’s capital is in a separate federal district.  Also like Washington, D.C., Brasilia was built out of the way, far from the major cities, so no part of the country could feel it had too much or too little influence on national affairs—replacing Rio de Janeiro as capital in 1960.  This has become increasingly popular in developing nations, especially those trying to create their own identities after a colonial period, and Brazil’s attempt to build a perfect capital city was seen as such a pioneering effort, that to build a special capital city in a remote location is sometimes known as Brasiliazation.

*Today, Brazil is one of the few Latin American nations not to suffer from Primate City syndrome.  Although Rio de Janeiro (20th largest city in the world) and Sao Paulo (6th largest city in the world) are huge, they compete with one another, and with many other cities:  Brazil has at least 14 cities with over a million people. 

*Many of these cities have vast slums of impoverished people, known as favelas, on their outskirts.

*Mexico is the third largest, second most populous, and second richest (13th highest GDP in the world:  $1 trillion a year)—the currency is the peso.  Mexico is a Federal Republic, and Mexico’s capital, Mexico City, is also in a separate Federal District, but not an unimportant one, and Mexico City is unquestionably the Primate City of Mexico—its subway system is the 4th busiest in the world (after those of Moscow, Tokyo, and Seoul). 

*The city was built on the ruins of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, which was largely built on and artificial island and rafts in Lake Texcoco.  Eventually the lake was drained, and today Mexico City suffered from water shortages, and is slowly sinking into the ground.  It is located on the Mexican Plateau, just north of the Sierra Madre del Sur.

*Most of Mexixco’s other big cities are maquiladora cities along the US border, and ports and tourist towns on the coast, especially the Yucatan Peninsula.

*Argentina is the second largest and fourth most populous nation in Latin America, as well as the 3rd richest (GDP:  $484 billion).  It is a republic ruled from the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, the 17th largest city in the world, and a Primate City.  Buenos Aires lies on the Rio de la Plata, and the country contains the pampas in the north and Patagonia in the south.  The currency is the Argentine Peso, but Argentina has considered dollarisation:  the replacement of its own currency with the US dollar, and from 1991 to 2001, pegged the Nuevo Peso to the US dollar, but today it fluctuates again; this gives Argentina more control over its own money.

*Columbia is the third most populous nation in Latin America, and the fourth largest by area.  It is a republic with its capital at Bogota, which is in its own federal district.  The national currency is the Peso.  Columbia faces both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and the Andes run through it.  Los Llanos are also present in the south of the country. 

*The country is badly split by paramilitary groups funded by drug money or supported by peasants who desire land reform, or by any number of other private parties.  The most famous of these is FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People's Army), which is a Marxist group supporting land reform a socialist government.  Murder, kidnapping, and terror are commonplace throughout the country.  However, FARC and other paramilitary groups have recently begun peace talks, and violence is beginning to decline. 

*Chile has traditionally been seen as one of the wealthiest and important South American nations, and, indeed, it has the second highest GDP/capita of any South American nation (after Argentina) and one of the lowest debt ratios of any Latin American nation
(it only owes half its GDP).  It is a republic and its capital is Santiago.  The currency is the Peso.  Overall, it is a mountainous country, and in the north it contains the Atacama Desert.  The nation has been pretty stable since Pinochet stepped down as dictator in 1990.

*Ecuador is a small republic located on the Equator (for which it is named).  Even its capital, Quito, is on the Equator, and, unusually for a Latin American capital, it is not the major city of the nation, although it is big—the biggest is Guayaquil, the main seaport (but both have over a million people, and neither is a primate city).  The currency is the US dollar.  Ecuador is also famous for the Galapagos Islands, a series of isolated islands with unique fauna located on the Equator about 600 miles west of the mainland.  Ecotourism there is an important part of Ecuador’s economy.

*Venezuela has recently had a change in government.  Although still officially a federal republic, the new president, Hugo Chavez, has renamed the country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (with the Bolivar as the currency), and has begun land reforms and government spending on social issues.  His goal is to begin a new series of socialist revolutions throughout Latin America.  He has the wealth to try:  Venezuela has vast stores of oil, and is even a member of OPEC.  The capital is Caracas.  Historically Venezuela’s government has wasted the money made from oil sales; time will tell if Chavez if different—and although he hates Bush, he has recently offered oil to America to help out during the current fuel crisis.

*In contrast to the wealth of Venezuela, Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, and the poorest in South America (the currency is the Boliviano).  Named after Simon Bolivar, it is a republic with two capitals on the Altiplano, Sucre (named after the man who helped win the nation’s independence, and the first president) and La Paz (named after a peace treaty signed after a rebellion in the 1500s).  La Paz holds most government offices today, and was made the second (and main) capital in 1898, when the tin mines in the area became more important than the old silver mines of Potosi in the area around Sucre.  Thanks to the War of the Pacific, Bolivia is now landlocked.

*One of the wealthier countries of South America is also among its smallest and its most stable:  Uruguay is a republic with its capital at Montevideo on the Rio de la Plata and, except for a period between 1973 and 1984, it has been a stable democracy, with power usually alternating between the Colorado and Blanco Parties.

*One of the most stable countries of Central America is Costa Rica. Its capital is San Jose and its currency is the colon.  One thing that has maintained stability is the lack of any military whatsoever.  In 1949 the military was abolished; only a small police force was retained.  This has done wonders for the longevity of local government there.  One of its main industries today is tourism, as people come to see the local rainforests.

*Haiti, with Part-au Prince as the capital, was the first free republic in Latin America, but it has rarely gotten to enjoy its freedom.  1957-1986 saw Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier running the country.  Even once Baby Dock was gone, gangs still roamed the streets, and eventually, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a man who had long opposed the Duvaliers, was chosen to be the president.  He soon turned to similar tactis, and had little success.  Today Haiti is one of the smaller and poorer countries in the region, although it still changes dollars for Gourde.

*Cuba’s capital is Havana, and the currency is the Peso.  The whole nation has been cut off from the United States since Castro’s revolution of 1953-59.

*Latin America has some non-Latin places:  Dutch Suriname, for example, plus British Belize, Guyana, and many little island nations in the Caribbean that are still part of the British Commonwealth; this is a relic of Europeans from outside the Mediterranean settling unclaimed islands and coastline.  Most of these are populated by former slaves.

*One thing the class may have noticed is that since many of the national capitals in this region, especially those in Central America, tend to share their names with the cities around them.  This is partly because many of the old colonies set themselves up round existing cities, upon which they depended, and took the name of it.  These often ended up as both capital cities and primate cities.

*Many nations retain colonies in the area, especially Britain, the Netherlands, the USA, and France, and France considered all people of French background to be French, so they consider all their various little possessions to be part of a few overseas departments of France.  The French space programme is based in French Guiana.

This page last updated 3 September, 2006.