|Political Revolutions in Latin America
Columbus’s voyage west across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492 initiated European interest in the Americas. In the years that followed, Spain claimed most of Latin America. Portugal acquired Brazil. There they established colonies, from which they extracted resources that brought them great wealth. They held on to those colonies for some three centuries, until a string of revolutions rocked the entire region.
Haiti In 1791, inspired by the French Revolution, slaves in the French colony of Saint-Domingue revolted. In this sugar- and coffee-producing colony on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, slaves far outnumbered the dominant whites. A third class included freed people of color and mulattos, or people of mixed black and European ancestry. This class lacked social and political equality with the whites.
A free black, Toussaint L’Ouverture, joined the rebels and helped lead what became known as the Haitian Revolution. It was a combined slave rebellion and anti-colonial uprising. By 1800, L’Ouverture and his army had eliminated their opponents and taken control of the colony. After Napoleon gained power in France, he sent a French force to the colony to suppress the revolt. Mulattos joined with black leaders to defeat the French troops in 1804, declaring their independence from France and massacring thousands of French colonial administrators and their families. They founded the first black republic in modern history, which they renamed Haiti.
Revolution in the Spanish Colonies Social tensions within Spanish America’s multiracial societies also played a role in the drama that unfolded there. After the Haitian Revolution, whites feared that rebellions might arise among the lower classes of Indians, enslaved Africans, and people of mixed blood. The minority white population dominated politically. It consisted of Creoles and peninsulares. Creoles were American-born descendants of Spanish colonists. Peninsulares were Spanish-born settlers. No major slave rebellions took place. But a series of Creole-led revolutions resulted in the founding of new nations throughout Spanish America.
Creoles had once played a leading political role as colonial officials. But in the late 1700s, Spain’s leaders decided to exert greater control over their colonies. They introduced reforms that took the right to rule their own areas away from the Creoles. From then on, Spain entrusted important political and military positions to the peninsulares and generally snubbed the Creoles.
In 1808, French forces under Napoleon invaded and occupied Spain, severing the link between Spain and its colonies. Many Creoles saw this as an opportunity to restore their position in colonial society—both political and economic. The more radical among them, influenced by Enlightenment ideas and motivated by the American Revolution, sought to free themselves from Spanish rule. Wherever these liberal-minded patriots could gain control, they set up local councils to govern themselves.
The peninsulares, too, established councils. But these Spanish citizens were not revolutionaries or liberals. They were royalists—they, along with a significant number of Creoles, remained loyal to the Spanish king. They fully expected Spain to restore its control of the colonies one day.
These differing visions collided throughout Spanish America as the revolutionary movement grew. Spain had divided its colonial territory into regions, called viceroyalties. New Granada occupied northwestern South America. Río de la Plata, present-day Argentina, was located in the south. Peru lay between them. New Spain included Mexico and most of Central America, as well as Spain’s Caribbean colonies. The story of the revolutions in Spanish America varied from one viceroyalty to another.
San Martín in Río de la Plata The first solid achievement for the Creole patriots occurred in Buenos Aires. They established self-rule in this southeast coastal city and maintained it in spite of several assaults by royalists. Buenos Aires became a base for spreading the revolution throughout the southern part of South America. In 1816, patriot groups within the viceroyalty joined together to form the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata and declared their independence from Spain. They chose Buenos Aires as the new country’s capital.
The patriots realized that their country could not be secure until the Spanish had been driven from power throughout the continent. The viceroyalty of Peru, a key royalist stronghold, had to be conquered. In 1817, patriot leader José de San Martín formed and trained an army in Río de la Plata. It included blacks, mulattos, and mestizos—people of mixed Indian and European ancestry. He led this 4,000-man army across the Andes on a bold mission against royalist forces in Peru.
First, Martín’s Army of the Andes marched into Chile, south of Peru. In 1814, a Peruvian army had stamped out the revolutionary movement in this province. San Martín restored the Chilean patriots to power in 1818 by defeating the royalist forces.
In September 1820, San Martín and his army headed north, by sea, to Peru. By July of the next year, the Army of the Andes had carried the revolution all the way to Lima, Peru’s capital. The royalist army fled into the mountains. In July 1821, San Martín declared Peru independent. The patriots had succeeded in taking control of the towns, but a powerful royalist army still had support in the countryside. To plan his next move, San Martín decided to consult with another great patriot commander, Simón Bolívar.
Bolívar in New Granada Bolívar, a wealthy Creole, had led the revolution in New Granada. That revolution began in his home state of Venezuela. He and his small Army of the North supported independence movements there and elsewhere in the viceroyalty. For his success in freeing various regions, he received the title “The Liberator.”
However, the road to independence was not easy. Bolívar suffered many defeats along the way, and the rule of key cities often shifted back and forth between patriot and royalist forces. Patriots in Caracas, Venezuela, for example, twice established a republic only to later lose control. The second republic was overturned in 1815 by a large army sent from Spain. That army forced Bolívar to flee to Jamaica. From there he sailed to Haiti, which provided him the resources needed to continue the fight for independence.
Still, the Army of the North made little headway in New Granada until 1819. By then, Bolívar had changed his strategy. He and his army had relocated to the Venezuelan countryside to escape Spanish forces. They engaged in guerrilla warfare, living off the land and making quick, hit-and-run strikes against the enemy. Bolívar’s army now consisted of not only Creoles but also a number of British and Irish troops and, for the first time, mulattos. In addition, Bolívar had help from an unlikely source, the llaneros. He persuaded these horse-riding cattle herders of the plains to switch sides after being poorly treated as mounted soldiers in the royalist army.
In the spring of 1819, Bolívar led his diverse army on a long and perilous march west across the Andes into present-day Colombia. There he launched a surprise attack on the Spanish force. It was the first in a series of patriot victories that, by May 1822, had brought independence to New Granada.
Resistance to Revolution in Peru and Mexico In July 1822, Bolívar and San Martín met in Ecuador. There San Martín decided to step aside and let Bolívar take the lead in the effort to liberate Peru. Bolívar and his army accomplished this task in a series of battles starting in August 1824. By April 1825, he had tracked down and defeated the remaining royalist forces in the region then called Upper Peru. The nation formed from Upper Peru would rename itself Bolivia in honor of their Liberator.
Mexico, like Peru, remained staunchly loyal to Spain. Peninsulares there ran the government and blocked attempts by Creoles to introduce liberal reforms. In 1810, a radical Creole priest, Miguel Hidalgo, called for independence. He inspired a nationalist uprising of Indians and mestizos across the Mexican countryside. Their goal was to force the Spanish out of Mexico. Hidalgo’s followers killed many peninsulares and destroyed much property. The independence movement threatened to become a social revolution. Fearing that, many Creoles joined Mexico’s royalist army.
The army finally overpowered the rebel forces and executed Hidalgo and his successor, José María Morelos. But the movement for independence did not die. In 1821, in an unexpected turnabout, Creole soldiers conducted a successful coup d’état against their Spanish officers. They achieved independence and the promise of a constitutional monarchy. But their leader, the former royalist Agustín de Iturbide, declared himself emperor. His reign lasted less than a year, as Mexicans from across the political spectrum opposed him.
Mexico remained unstable in the years that followed, as political, economic, and social ills plagued the country. This was the case in many of the nations to which the revolutions of Latin America gave birth. Liberals and conservatives continued to clash. Military strongmen—known as caudillos—vied for control at the local, provincial, and national levels. They promised order but often used oppressive measures to secure it. Economies wrecked by revolution could not bring about the prosperity that people hoped for. Also, hostility among the various social classes persisted.
Brazil Napoleon’s invasion of Portugal in 1807 did not set off a major uprising in Brazil, a Portuguese colony. It did, however, cause a reversal in the relationship between the mother country and the colony. The French army’s conquest of Portugal forced the nation’s royal family to flee to Brazil. They arrived in the city of Rio de Janeiro in March 1808, along with thousands of members of their court.
The Portuguese ruler enacted economic reforms that pleased Brazil’s privileged class and helped keep liberal-minded Brazilians in check. Brazil quickly became the political center of the Portuguese empire. When the king finally returned to Portugal in 1821, he put his son, Dom Pedro, in charge of the colony. The following year, faced with growing calls for political reform by republicans, Dom Pedro declared Brazil’s independence and became Pedro I.