Repeated Cycle of Colonialism in Latin America

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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In Latin America, there is an evident repeated cycle of colonialism. Starting with the first encounter between indigenous people and Spanish conquistadors, outside influence has dominated the social and economic climate of the continent for hundreds of years. According to Merriam Webster, colonialism is “control by one power over a dependent area or people”. When Spain colonized Latin America, they reorganized the entire economic structure by developing a system which relied on forced free labor and hegemony. Once the potential for profit from natural resources was suspected in these areas, colonizers were ruthless in their control of the indigenous people.

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Neo-colonialism, or modern-day colonialism, “uses economic and political policies to indirectly maintain or extend influence over other areas or people” (Merriam Webster). Led by the United Fruit company, the enterprise colonized the Americas in order to grow bananas and sugar. In order to benefit as much as possible, both the United Fruit Company and colonial Spain monopolized the commodities in the area to the shipping and ports needed to transport the bananas and silver. Due to the rich natural resources in Latin America, countries and businesses take extreme measures in order to profit. While the mining in Potosi and the United Fruit Company were significant in different time periods, both demonstrate evident similarities and link colonialism and neocolonialism.

In order to understand how Spain turned Latin America into one of the most profitable areas, the history leading up to the colonization is essential. The Spanish War for reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula occurred from year 711 to 1492 against the Moors. As a result, once Spain was victorious, proving to be one of the most powerful empires in the world, the people were looking to expand in order to profit as much as possible and spread the Catholic religion. The year 1492 was pivotal as it sparked the beginning of the Spanish Inquisition and the need to spread, protect, and inspire the Christian faith. Limpieza de sangre, purity of blood, originated from the Spanish Inquisition with Muslim and Jews converting to Christianity. However, even though many converted, they were not seen as equals since they were not born as Christians. As a result, the ideology of limpieza de sangre traveled with the Spaniards and forced many indigenous individuals to convert to Christianity. Nevertheless, those that changed religion were still not seen as equal since they were not born as Christians.

When Spaniards encountered the indigenous people in Latin America, the colonizers enforced their will, changing the entire system of Latin America. Moreover, the first meeting between the two different groups, they saw each other through their own lenses. Those that entered saw the indigenous with scorn, curiosity and judging admiration. Specifically, the Spaniards saw indigenous people as noble savages. Colonizers saw this as an opportunity to develop their own system, which benefitted them significantly. As a result, the inquisition took advantage of the indigenous and used their superior technology and weapons in order to gain control of the area. Once in control of Latin America, they made the natives either convert to Christianity or die. In addition, they took advantage of the women by raping them and removed them from the work force. The people instilled order by creating a social hierarchy that had the colonizers at the top and the indigenous at the bottom. Thus, the natives were treated as slaves, working long days doing hard labor and were given no rights.

The origin of colonization was fueled not only by religious objectives but also the thirst for gold and resources. When Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492 and landed in Latin America, he noted how the land was filled with gold and many other commodities. After finding new land in the western hemisphere, Columbus wrote a letter to the king and queen, stating how there was a ton of money to be made. Also, he noted how the indigenous people were generous and could easily be taken advantage of. In his letter to the King and Queen, he exaggerates the discovery in order to gain higher status. This discovery was the turning point for Spaniards since it became an opportunity for those struggling in Spain to profit in new regions. Additionally, they saw it as an opportunity to be in power and feel purposeful by converting people to the Christian religion. As a result, people traveled to the new world in hopes of a better life and a chance to profit.

In order to get as many workers as possible, colonial Spain looked to other continents and developed a legal system. Since indigenous and African people were categorized as inferior than Christian whites, they used these people as an opportunity to gain a larger labor force. The encomienda system is a process where the country of Spain would reward expansion by granting colonizers slave labor from the indigenous. This was a major shift in the colonization since Spaniards used this scheme as an opportunity to broaden and still be able to get the work force to profit from it. As a result, conquerors expanded all around Latin America and legally took advantage of those they took the land from. Additionally, Spain created an even larger workforce by taking Africans and bringing them to Latin America as slaves. The significance of both ways of gaining a larger workforce is that it helped establish categorization since those that were indigenous and slaves were immediately put in the workforce. Finally, the fact that the colonizers only saw men as a way to help the workforce, a society of paternalism had developed.

Since men were valued for the work they contributed, women were overlooked and a society of paternalism was created. Before colonizers arrived, indigenous women held a vital role in society. Women were seen as equals and were responsible for raising their children, which is essential to the indigenous society. However, once the Spaniards arrived, the role of women completely changed for the worse. Because they did not see women as help to the workforce, they were taken advantage of. Specifically, women were seen as sexual objects in which they were raped and were forced to have children. Also, the indigenous and African women were given the role of nurturer to their European counterparts’ children. The responsibility of these women was to breast feed children that were not theirs. Thus, they were forced to neglect their own children and leave them while the fathers were working. While the men were forced to complete hard labor, the women were completely neglected and abused by the colonizers.

When Silver was discovered in Potosi, the entire culture of the town and the people there had completely transformed. Before silver was discovered, Potosi was known as a town where many people stopped at in the middle of a trip. Additionally, the area was known for their markets rather than its commodities. However, in the 1550s, once silver was discovered by a llama driver, Potosi began to transform into a city (Bingham, 4). Moreover, the author states, “Potosi became the most important part of all the Spanish possessions in America… It attracted the presence of Spanish adventures, including many grandees” (Bingham, 4). In other words, Potosi was no longer the place people would stop at during a trip; instead, it was a place where people devoted their lives in order to make money on silver. Consequentially, the city of Potosi became the most valuable place in all of the Americas in the 17th century. Therefore, Spain installed many more churches in the city for the purpose of converting people who came. The significance of building more churches is that Spain wanted to make sure that those that came knew that Christianity held the highest significance. Also, due to the fact that many of the people that came did not follow the religion, Potosi was responsible for converting many people. By enforcing religion during a period of economic growth, it demonstrates how Spain used religion to help colonize Potosi.

Since Spain knew that silver was a valuable commodity, they monopolized the mining, the transportation and the shipping of the natural resource. Spain began by creating road systems, which went to shipping ports. Additionally, Spain had full control of the ports and the shipping of silver. Therefore, the monopoly of the entire process of profiting off silver allowed Spain to create revenue machine, which made the country billions of dollars. Specifically, during a long span of time “Potosi accounted for between 60 to 70 percent of the entire world’s silver production” (Barragan, 208-209). The fact that Spain was capable of generating that much silver for a substantial amount of time demonstrates how the country focused their attention on Potosi and the mining there. Moreover, Spain used every aspect from the free labor of the transportation to profit as much as possible from the mining in Potosi. Additionally, Spain used the ports to transport as many slaves to the city that benefitted them exponentially. Furthermore, many Spaniards saw this monopoly as an opportunity to profit. Thus, many came and ran the mines, to the transportation systems, to the ports in Spain. This demonstrates colonialism since thousands of Spaniards came and took complete control of a system that was executed by indigenous and slaves.

Since indigenous and blacks were seen as inferior, the labor was dangerous, grueling, barely being paid.

Even though the Spanish conquest and the United Fruit Company colonized the Americas at two completely different time periods, the entire process demonstrates parallelism between both of them. In the beginning of the 20th century, America had the strongest navy and its president expressing how the United States is the only country allowed to occupy Latin America. Specifically, President Theodore Roosevelt gave his corollary where he advised European company to stay out of the Americas. His speech corroborated with the Monroe Doctrine, in which the United States assumed control of Latin America. Also, the significance of this was that it marked the beginning of American influence rather than European colonial authority. As a result, America expected all other countries for the eastern hemisphere to remove themselves from the Americas. President Roosevelt was known for his big stick policy, which was making sure that everyone knew America had full control of the western hemisphere. As a result, it was the perfect time for them to assert their dominance in order to help their own economy. The United Fruit company, which is a government backed company, was in search for land in tropical areas to grow bananas and sugar. Thus, America saw it as the perfect business venture to grow more bananas and assert dominance in Latin America.
As the United Fruit Company arrived in Columbia, they turned the area into an economic machine, which profited immensely. Before the influence of the enterprise, the city of Magdalena, in Columbia, was undervalued by the Columbian government. Nevertheless, the area faced dramatic changes when the United Fruit Company arrived in 1899 (Bucheli, 1). When the company entered Latin America, “Its arrival represented the start of a process that changed Magdalena forever… it underwent dramatic changes with the arrival of the United Fruit, which developed an infrastructure for producing bananas and exporting them to the United States” (Bucheli, 1). With the backing of the United States government and its navy, the company was able to immediately change the climate of Columbia.

Moreover, many farmers who thought there was an opportunity for making money came to Magdalena but were exploited for gruesome labor with very little pay. Since the workers were not coming from the United States, the country did not care for the laborers and took full advantage of them. By using the leverage of having a wealthier economy as well as a powerful navy, Columbia could not do anything about the United Fruit Company. Also, America was giving these countries money, brought industry and more job opportunities even though they were not great. Therefore, the institution turned the city into a farming mecca in Latin America. Demonstrating leverage on a smaller country, proves how America was responsible for modern day colonization.

While the colonization of Latin America was executed by two different institutions, the transformation of Potosi and Magdalena were mirror images of each other and demonstrate the progression of colonialism to neocolonialism. Both locations began as basic areas that were known for travelers to rest at. However, once the opportunity for making money off the resources presented itself, both institutions knew it needed to be the focal point. Consequently, the towns transformed into cities where all types of industry were invited. Furthermore, Potosi became a tourist attraction known for its market and wide spread of cultures while Magdalena became one of the most notorious farming regions in Latin America. The ability to transform two areas into an economic machine proves the ability of colonialism and the power of profiting.

Additionally, what makes both so similar is how they used their leverage as a way to take advantage of those who were there before them. Spain and the United States during their period of colonization began the process by demonstrating the ability they had when it came to the military. Furthermore, Spain who easily occupied the area even before the discovery of silver in Potosi, had instilled fear in the indigenous by killing, raping the women and building Churches over sacred structures. In the case of the United States, America demonstrated its power in the Spanish American War, which ended a year before the United Fruit Company came. During the war, America proved to every country in Latin America that the United States had the most powerful navy and was a country to be feared. As a result, when Spain and America found a way to profit in Latin America, they were capable of changing the entire climate since they both knew no one can stop them. This proves the link between colonialism to neocolonialism because both demonstrated the control they had before the profit came.

The United Fruit has demonstrated neocolonialism by owning every aspect of profiting off of bananas and sugar, which expanded into many new countries in Latin America. Once realizing that bananas was a profitable commodity, the United Fruit Company expanded into the sugar business. Moreover, America used there leverage and expanded into countries such as Cuba and Mexico. Therefore, the United Fruit company saw profits they had never seen before due to their expansion and control of the entire process of sugar and bananas. Specifically, America gained control of the land that belonged to those who were there before them and did not have to pay taxes on the land. In Cuba, America took over a city known as Banes that was unimportant to them and turned it into one of the biggest ports. Furthermore, Frances Peace Sullivan states, “United Fruit transformed Banes from a sleepy harbor town into a hub of capital, migration, and sugar production for export in the first decades of the twentieth century” (Sullivan 232-233). The usage of these ports in order to migrate laborers all over Latin America played a major role for the company during the expansion. Even though having a monopoly is illegal in the United States, there was no rule against it in Latin America. Therefore, the country ensured full control of the land to the railways as well as the ports in order to profit on bananas and sugar. Executing a monopoly on the entire process of bananas and sugars proves how America colonized Latin America and had full control over the continent.

As a result of the production the production of bananas, sugar and silver, Spain and the United States colonized and influenced the areas they occupied. While the process was controlled by the two enterprises, the people who were doing the labor were those who are from Latin America. Specifically, both took complete advantage of those who were there, barely paying those who worked tirelessly, thinking they were getting paid substantially. Although there were many people who opposed the process, the nations who backed them demanded control, which they received. Specifically, many of the workers on the farms fought against the unfair labor in these Latin American countries. However, the United States brought an army in order to put the workers in their place and ensure that the workers would continue doing their job in order to help profit the institutions. Additionally, Spain would execute those who went against the labor, demonstrating to all the workers that Spain had full control and was willing to do whatever it takes in order to profit as much as possible. Since both had full control of the entire process as well as a control over the work force, it demonstrates the significance of money and the value it held to the countries. The fact that both were mirror images of each other demonstrates how colonialism and neocolonialism are extremely similar.

While the workers for the United Fruit Company faced terrible conditions, the company used its power to keep control of the laborers and control migration. Being employed by the United Fruit Company as a farmer was extremely demanding. Furthermore, workers were expected to work long days without much pay in terrible conditions. Specifically, in all types of weather, farmers were expected to be working, reaching their quota each day. As a result, many workers tried to protest by boycotting, going on strike, or resort to violence. In particular, the author states, “workers staged a strike, the largest ever seen in Columbia, against United Fruit, which thus became one of the first companies to feel the impact of the new social conflicts” (Bucheli, 185). Thus, America was forced to bring in a special army unit in order to stop the protesting and go back to work. The fact that America responded by bringing an army demonstrates the importance of the company and how the profits were worth protecting.

Similarly, to the Spanish conquest, the United Fruit Company was responsible for forcefully migrating many workers. Since America wanted to increase the revenue for bananas, they had to bring in more laborers. As a result, they went into densely populated areas such as the Cameroons and Nigeria and brought them to the plantations (Heinzen, 142). While these migrant workers believed they were getting paid, they were financially exploited and were paid nothing. Consequently, the migration of many workers resulted in a social hierarchy since those that were migrating were seen as inferiors. This is parallel to the encomienda system since both institutions went into densely populated areas and manipulated the work force into believing that it was a smart business opportunity. Also, what makes both so similar is how the importation of workers generated a social hierarchy, which favored those in control and oppressed the laborers.

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Repeated Cycle of Colonialism in Latin America. (2021, May 20). Retrieved from