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European-Latin American Relations: A History

europe-meets-latin-america2Europe’s relationship with Latin America began in 1492, when Christopher Columbus, believing he had reached Asia, first set foot on the Caribbean island of San Salvador. Though not the first European to reach the Latin American continent, Columbus and his voyage of ‘discovery’ marked the beginning of European colonization of the ‘New World’ and a period of turbulence, imbalance and inequality, during which business was conducted on European terms.

Before the arrival of European ‘conquistadores’, Latin America was populated by a number of indigenous groups, descendents of hunters who had migrated from the Asian mainland across the Bering Straights land bridge between 40,000 and 25,000 BC. Of these 350 groups, many were culturally, linguistically and socially autonomous and had little or no contact with each other. It was the European conquistadores who, by referring to them collectively as ‘Indians’, imposed an artificial unity on the indigenous peoples of Latin America, paying no heed to their differences. As far as the conquistadores were concerned all ‘Indians’ were darker-skinned and therefore inferior, and thus, rather than initiating dialogue or attempting cooperation, they began a mission to destroy the existing indigenous civilisations. The foundation of the ‘New World’ involved bulldozing everything that had existed before it and single-mindedly imposing European culture.

After a few centuries of European presence in Latin America an autonomous Latin American identity began to emerge. Descendents of Europeans born in Latin America, particularly those of mixed indigenous heritage, of whom there were an ever increasing number, no longer felt Spanish and began to resent colonial rule. These feelings became stronger as time went by and eventually, at the turn of the 19th Century, sparked wide-scale rebellion against the Spanish and colonial authorities, resulting, eventually, in Latin American independence.


Center for Cultural Diplomacy Studies Publication
Institute for Cultural Diplomacy

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