The physiography of South America is dominated by the Andes Mountains, which run the length of the Pacific coast of the continent. The Amazon Basin dominates the interior of the continent and is drained by the Amazon River, the largest river in the world. The Pampas grasslands extend through the mid-latitudes of Argentina. Patagonia is at the tip of South America and is a cold, windswept region. The following map displays the key physical features of Latin America.
The contact between Europe and the native peoples of the Western Hemisphere has been an epic disaster for the latter. Prior to the arrival of Columbus in 1492 there were hundreds of Amerindian civilizations in the Western Hemisphere. The largest were the Aztec, located in modern Mexico; the Maya, located in Central America; and the Quechua/Aymará (known more commonly as the Inca), located in the Andes of South America. Diseases brought by the Spanish were the primary factor in the elimination of the native people of the Western Hemisphere. The Spanish came without their families and quickly began the process of miscegenation with the native people. The majority of people in Latin America today are a mix of European, African and Amerindian.
The concept of altitudinal zonation is paramount across this region, in which coastal areas are dominated by European culture and plantation agriculture, while highland regions are dominated by indigenous culture and domestic agriculture. The diagram below demonstrates this geographic process.
The latter half of the 20th century has seen hyperurbanization across Latin America. This has led to massive unemployment and urban crime in many major urban centers throughout the region that cannot contend with the influx of rural migrants who move into squatter settlements.
Mexico has benefited from its proximity to the United States. Illegal immigration into the USA has long been a way for poor Mexicans to escape the poverty of their country. The implementation of NAFTA in 1994 brought many American factories into Mexico, known locally as maquilladoras, to take advantage of cheap labor. NAFTA has indeed slowed the tide of illegal migrants into the USA but critics contend it has taken away tens of thousands of well-paying factory jobs from American workers.
The nations of Central America --- Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, share a common geography. They all are blessed with good volcanic soils, suffer from several natural hazards, primarily have plantation economies, and have hierarchical social structures in which an extremely wealthy land owning elite hold power over the landless majority. Several civil wars have been fought in the region, namely in El Salvador and Nicaragua, that have been sparked by this class structure and fueled by American and Soviet geopolitical interests. The ratification of CAFTA in early 2005 will bring free trade to Central America and all of the incipient challenges faced by Mexico in the past decade.
The nations of the Caribbean are dominated by the sugar cane and tourism industry. Tourism has brought hundreds of thousands of jobs to a poor region but critics contend that the majority of the money generated by tourism does not stay in the region. Haiti, which occupies the western half of the island of Hispaniola, is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Cuba, led by Fidel Castro, has survived a stifling trade embargo imposed upon by the USA since 1960. Most agree the embargo has been a dismal failure as it has not achieved its objective in toppling Castro and has sparked an exodus of Cubans to south Florida seeking a new life.
The nations of Spanish speaking South America are diverse in both geography and culture. Colombia has become the world’s leading supplier of cocaine and is increasingly becoming more in the grip of powerful cocaine cartels that control both the economy and the government. Perú is at the heart of the former Inca Empire and has a stunning vertical physical geography dominated by a narrow coastal desert, the high Andes, and the interior lowlands of the Amazon Basin. Argentina and Chile differ from the rest of South America in that they were colonized by later generations of Europeans and hence the class based system found elsewhere on the continent is not as prevalent here, hence a more equitable social structure.
Brazil is the giant of South America and is dominated by the Amazon Basin, the largest repository of rain forest in the world. Brazil is the only Portuguese-speaking nation on the continent. The population of Brazil is concentrated along the Atlantic shoreline in major cities such as Salvador, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Industrialization in the 20th century triggered a migration from the plantation dominated north into the wealthier south. A second migration, starting in the 1970s, has been from the crowded Atlantic coastal plain into the vast Amazonian rain forest, which has led to massive deforestation and destruction of this ecologically fragile region.
The lingering effects of the Debt Crisis continue to stymie this region, in which several nations, most notably Mexico and Brazil, took out massive loans to stimulate development and were subsequently unable to pay back their creditors. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) took over the loans and ordered these nations to impose fiscal austerity plans that triggered rampant hyperinflation within the country.