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The European colonies in Latin America were inspired by the success of the American Revolution and the ideas of the French Revolution. To be sure, there had been unsuccessful revolts and uprisings in the Latin American colonies for two or three centuries prior to those revolutions. In the early nineteenth century, however, the world order was different. Europe was in chaos because of the rise and fall of Napoleon, and this distracted the European powers from their American holdings, a development that gave rebellious leaders an opportunity to assert themselves more than they previously could have.

Haiti: Slave Revolt Sends France a Jolt

The first successful Latin American revolt took place in Haiti, a French island colony in the Caribbean. The French, true to their mercantilist policies, exported coffee, sugar, cocoa, and indigo from Haiti to Europe. French colonists owned large plantations and hundreds of thousands of slaves, who grew and harvested these crops under horrible conditions. By 1800, 90 percent of the population was slaves, some of whom had been freed, but the vast majority of whom worked on the plantations.

In 1801, as Napoleon was gaining momentum in Europe, Pierre Toussaint L’Ouverture, a former slave, led a violent, lengthy, but ultimately successful slave revolt. Enraged, Napoleon sent 20,000 troops to put down the revolt, but the Haitians were capable fighters. They also had another weapon on their side—yellow fever—that claimed many French lives. The French did succeed, however, in capturing L’Ouverture and imprisoning him in France, but by then they couldn’t turn back the revolutionary tide. L’Ouverture’s lieutenant Jacques Dessalines, also a former slave, proclaimed Haiti a free republic in 1804 and named himself governor-general for life. Thus, Haiti became the first independent nation in Latin America.

South America: Visions of Grandeur

In 1808, when Napoleon invaded Spain, he appointed his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, to the Spanish throne. This sent the Spanish authorities in the colonies into a tizzy. Who should they be loyal to? The colonists decided to remain loyal to their Spanish king and not recognize the French regime under Bonaparte. In Venezuela, they ejected Bonaparte’s governor and, instead, appointed their own leader, Simon Bolivar. Tutored on the republican ideals of Rousseau during his travels to Europe and the United States, Bolivar found himself in the midst of a great opportunity to use what he learned. In 1811, Bolivar helped establish a national congress, which declared independence from Spain. Royalists, supporters of the Spanish crown, declared civil war. But Bolivar proved to be a wily and effective military leader, and during the next decade, he won freedom for the area called Gran Colombia (which included modern-day Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela). Bolivar envisioned a huge South American country spanning across the continent, similar to the growing United States in North America, but it wasn’t meant to be. In the following decades, the individual nation-states of northwestern South America formed their own governments.

Meanwhile, farther south in Argentina, the conflict between the French governor and those who still wanted to support the Spanish crown created another opportunity for liberation. Jose de San Martin was an American-born Spaniard (or Creole) who served as an officer in the Spanish army. In 1814 he began to put his extensive military experience to use—but for the rebels—taking command of the Argentinian armies. San Martin joined up with Bernardo O’Higgins of Chile and took the revolutionary movement not only through Argentina and Chile, but also to Peru, where he joined forces with Bolivar. The Spanish forces withered away. By the 1820s, a huge chunk of South America had successfully declared its independence from Spain.

Brazil: Power to the Pedros

Brazil, of course, was a Portuguese colony, and so when Portugal was invaded by Napoleon’s armies in 1807, John VI, the Portuguese king, fled to Brazil and set up his royal court in exile. By 1821, Napoleon had been defeated and it was safe for John VI to return to Portugal, but he left behind his son, Pedro, who was 23 years old at the time, and charged him with running the huge colony. Pedro, who had spent most of his childhood and teenage years in Brazil and considered it home, declared Brazilian independence and crowned himself emperor the next year. Within a few more years, Brazil had a constitution.

In 1831, Pedro abdicated power to his son, Pedro II, who ruled the country through much of the nineteenth century. While he reformed Brazilian society in many ways and turned it into a major exporter of coffee, his greatest single accomplishment was the abolition of slavery in 1888 (which actually occurred under the direction of his daughter, Isabel, who was running the country while Pedro II was away). This action so incensed the land-owning class that they revolted against the monarchy and established a republic in 1889.

Mexico: A Tale of Two Priests

As in other parts of Latin America, a revolutionary fervor rose in Mexico after the French Revolution, especially after Napoleon invaded Spain and Portugal. In 1810, Miguel Hidalgo, a Creole priest who sympathized with those who had been abused under Spanish colonialism, led a revolt against Spanish rule. Unlike in South America, however, the Spanish armies resisted effectively, and they put down the revolt at Calderon Bridge, where Hidalgo was executed.

Hidalgo’s efforts were not in vain, however, because they put the revolution in motion. Jose Morelos picked up where Hidalgo left off and led the revolutionaries to further successes against the loyalists. But similar to what later happened in Brazil, the land-owning class turned against him when he made clear his intentions to redistribute land to the poor. In 1815, he was executed.

It wasn’t until 1821, after the landowning class bought into the idea of separation from Spain, that independence was finally achieved. In the Treaty of Cordoba, Spain was forced to recognize that its 300-year-old domination of Latin America was coming to an end. Mexico was granted its independence and Central America soon followed.

The Effects of the Independence Movements: More Independence than Freedom

While Europe was effectively booted out of many parts of the American continents during a 50-year time span beginning in about 1780, in some Latin American countries the independence from colonial power wasn’t accompanied by widespread freedom among the vast majority of citizens. As in the United States, slavery still existed for decades. Peasants still worked on huge plantations owned by a few landowners. But unlike in the United States, a significant middle class of merchants and small farmers didn’t emerge, and many of the Enlightenment ideas didn’t spread to populations other than the land-owning male class.

There were several reasons for this. The Catholic Church remained very powerful in Latin America, and while many of the priests advocated on behalf of the peasants and of the slaves (some martyred themselves for that cause), the church hierarchy as a whole protected the status quo. The church, after all, was one of the largest landowners in Latin America.

What’s more, the economies of Latin America, while free of Europe, were still largely dependent on Europe. Latin American countries still participated in European mercantilism, often to their own detriment. They specialized in a few cash crops, exported almost exclusively to Europe, and then bought back finished products. In other words, most Latin American economies didn’t diversify, nor did they broaden opportunities to a larger class of people, so innovation and creativity rarely took root.

There are notable exceptions. Chile diversified its economy fairly successfully, and Brazil and Argentina instituted social reform and broadened their economies to include a growing middle class. But ultimately, the hugely successful independence movements in Latin America didn’t result in noticeable changes for a majority of the population for more than a century.

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