Latin America (Spanish: América Latina or Latinoamérica; Portuguese: América Latina; French: Amérique latine) is the region of the Americas where Romance languages (i.e., those derived from Latin), particularly Spanish, Portuguese and French, are primarily spoken.
The distinction between Latin America and Anglo-America, and more generally the stress on European heritage (or Eurocentrism), is simply a convention by which Romance-language and English-speaking cultures are distinguished, currently being the predominant languages in the Americas. There are, of course, many places in the Americas (e.g. highland Ecuador, Bolivia, Guatemala, and Paraguay) where American Indian cultures and languages are important, as well as areas in which the influence of African cultures is strong (e.g. the Caribbean, including parts of Colombia and Venezuela, coastal Ecuador, coastal Peru, and coastal Brazil).
U.S. influences shaped the cultures of Latin America, especially those of Mexico, Cuba and Puerto Rico as a U.S. territory. In addition, the U.S. held a territory in a swath of land in Panama over the 20-mile-long Panama Canal from 1903 (the canal opened to transoceanic freight traffic in 1914) to 1979 when the U.S. government agreed to give the territory to Panama.
Originally, Amérique latine was a political denomination thought coined by French Emperor Napoleon III, in citing Amérique latine and Indochine as goals for his region's imperial expansion, thus justifying French imperial claims to the native peoples and their lands; eventually, Amérique latine denominated the Americas colonised by Spanish, Portuguese, and French settlers between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries; nevertheless, Michel Chevalier introduced his alternate etymology, the Southern Americas, in 1836, in Lettres sur l'Amérique du Nord. In the United States, before the 1890s, Spanish America was the nominal term for the region until early in the twentieth century when Latin America became current.
Contemporaneously, Latin America is equivalent to Latin Europe, implying supranationality greater than statehood and nationhood. Supranational identity is expressed through common socio-economic initiatives and organizations, such as the Union of South American Nations; nevertheless, the terms Latin American, Latin, Latino, and Hispanic denote and connote different things.
Many Latin Americans do not speak Latinate languages, but native tongues transplanted by immigration, e.g. German in Paraguay. Moreover there are Latin European-derived cultures resultant from European immigrants blending with the indigenous peoples and with the imported African slaves. Thus, they are Latin American, but not Spanish, Portuguese, and French, as usually connoted by the Latin American term.
Francophone Canada (except Québec) and the U.S., such as Acadia, French Louisiana, and places north of Mexico are often excluded from the socio-political definition of Latin America, despite significant or predominant populations speaking a Latinate language, because they are not sovereign states and are geographically discrete from Latin America proper; yet, French Guiana, a French dependency, is included. Some Latin American countries do not have a Romance language as the official language, yet are denominated Latin American countries, i.e. Dutch-speaking Suriname, and the Anglophone country Guyana.
To avoid the ambiguities inherent to Latin America, the term Ibero-America is used in Spain and Portugal referring to the nations and countries once colonies of itself and of Portugal; Ibero-America derives from the Iberian Peninsula wherein lie Spain and Portugal. The Organization of Ibero-American States (OEI — Organización de Estados Iberoamericanos) extends the definition by including Spain and Portugal (the Mother Countries of Latin America) as member states.
The Americas are thought to have been first inhabited by people crossing the Bering Land Bridge, now the Bering strait, from northeast Asia into Alaska more than 10,000 years ago. Over the course of millennia, people spread to all parts of the continents. By the first millennium AD/CE, South America’s vast rainforests, mountains, plains and coasts were the home of tens of millions of people. The earliest settlements in the Americas are of the Las Vegas Culture from about 8000 BC and 4600 BC, a sedentary group from the coast of Ecuador, the forefathers of the more known Valdivia culture, of the same are. Some groups formed more permanent settlements such as the Chibchas (or "Muiscas" or "Muyscas") and the Tairona groups. The Chibchas of Colombia, the Quechuas of Peru, and the Aymaras of Bolivia were the three Indian groups that settled most permanently.
The region was home to many indigenous peoples and advanced civilizations, including the Aztecs, Toltecs, Caribs, Tupi, Maya, and Inca. The golden age of the Maya began about 250, with the last two great civilizations, the Aztecs and Incas, emerging into prominence later on in the early fourteenth century and mid-fifteenth centuries, respectively.
With the arrival of the Europeans following Christopher Columbus's voyages, the indigenous elites, such as the Incans and Aztecs, lost power to the Europeans. Hernán Cortés destroyed the Aztec elite's power with the help of local groups who disliked the Aztec elite, and Francisco Pizarro eliminated the Incan rule in Western South America. European powers, most notably Spain and Portugal, colonized the region, which along with the rest of the uncolonized world was divided into areas of Spanish and Portuguese control by the Line of Demarcation in 1493, which gave Spain all areas to the west, and Portugal all areas to the east (the Portuguese lands in South America subsequently becoming Brazil). By the end of the sixteenth century, Europeans occupied large areas of North, Central and South America, extending all the way into the present southern United States. European culture and government was imposed, with the Roman Catholic Church becoming a major economic and political power, as well as the official religion of the region.
Diseases brought by the Europeans, such as smallpox and measles, wiped out a large proportion of the indigenous population, with epidemics of diseases reducing them sharply from their prior populations. Historians cannot determine the number of natives who died due to European diseases, but some put the figures as high as 85% and as low as 20%. Due to the lack of written records, specific numbers are hard to verify. Many of the survivors were forced to work in European plantations and mines. Intermarriage between the indigenous peoples and the European colonists was very common, and, by the end of the colonial period, people of mixed ancestry (mestizos) formed majorities in several colonies.
By the end of the eighteenth century, Spanish and Portuguese power waned as other European powers took their place, notably Britain and France. Resentment grew over the restrictions imposed by the Spanish government, as well as the dominance of native Spaniards (Iberian-born peninsulares) over the major institutions and the majority population, including the colonial-born Spaniards (criollos, Creoles). Napoleon's invasion of Spain in 1808 marked the turning point, compelling Creole elites to form juntas that advocated independence. Also, the newly independent Haiti, the second oldest nation in the New World after the United States and the oldest independent nation in Latin America, further fueled the independence movement by inspiring the leaders of the movement, such as Simón Bolívar and José de San Martin, and by providing them with considerable munitions and troops.
Fighting soon broke out between the Juntas and the Spanish colonial authorities, with initial Creole victories, including Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla in Mexico and Francisco de Miranda in Venezuela, crushed by the Spanish troops. Under the leadership of Simón Bolívar, José de San Martin and other Libertadores in South America, the independence movement regained strength, and by 1825, all Spanish Latin America, except for Puerto Rico and Cuba, gained independence from Spain. Brazil achieved independence with a constitutional monarchy established in 1822. During the same year in Mexico, a military officer, Agustín de Iturbide, led conservatives who created a constitutional monarchy, with Iturbide as emperor (followed by a republic, 1823).
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Owing to their geographical location the Falkland Islands, Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago could be added to this grouping, but they are not culturally or linguistically Latin American. They maintain economic ties with nearby countries, and are grouped by the United Nations in the predominantly Latin American region of South America. All except Suriname are also the objects of long-standing territorial claims by their Latin American neighbors.