Cultural Commonalities

Although the human geography of the Americas is sometimes described as diverse, in fact the peoples of this region share many common cultural characteristics. These include similar colonial histories, cultural orientation, religious traditions, political values and systems, and economic organization. With the exception of Aus tralia, the contemporary human geography of the Americas is one of the least varied in the world when examining regions on a continental scale.

The Colonial Experience

Culturally and politically, all of the countries and peoples of the Americas share a strong colonial legacy. For nearly two centuries, the seventeenth and eighteenth, England and France occupied and controlled much of the eastern half of North America leaving a permanent and indelible imprint on the present day cultures and societies of that part of the continent, the United States, and Canada. Spanish colonial control extended over much of the rest of the Americas including the western and southern parts of North America (the modern day US states of California, Texas, and Mexico), Central America, and all of South America except the present day country of Brazil, which was a Portuguese colony. Colonial control in the Spanish and Portuguese areas lasted from the early to mid sixteenth century to the beginnings of the nineteenth, almost a century longer than in the French and Anglo areas in North America.

The colonial experience and legacy varied in different spheres of influence. In the English and French colonies, Amerindian populations were small and the European settlers soon subjugated, and sometimes eliminated, these peoples, eventually overwhelming them as seemingly endless waves of new settlers arrived from Europe. French colonial control and influence had been eliminated from North America by the end of the eighteenth century. In the areas that eventually became the United States and Canada, the colonists and later settlers, after political independence, established new societies that replicated many of the social, economic, and political systems and practices of England and other northwestern European countries.

In the colonies controlled by the Spanish and the Portuguese, a different colonial experience unfolded. In these regions, direct migration from the home countries to the colonies was insignificant as opposed to the experience in the US and Canada. Another key difference was that in some regions, especially those controlled by the Spanish Crown, dense populations of Amerindians survived the colonial experience despite conquest and exposure to devastating epidemics caused by Old World diseases. These peoples became the colonial subjects of the Spanish and Portuguese Crowns and suffered the imposition of a colonial bureaucracy. Colonial control was deep and longlived and it transformed indigenous social, economic, and political systems and practices and imposed models from the Iberian Peninsula in southern Europe forming the cornerstones of the region’s societies today.

Cultural Orientation to Western Europe

The present day human and political landscape of the Americas reflects strong cultural and historical ties to Western Europe. Religious affiliation and orientation reflects one of the strongest and most profound ties of the Americas to the Europe. Christianity is absolutely dominant throughout the Americas. Catholicism predominates in those parts of the Americas once colonized by the Iberian powers of Spain and Portugal (Latin America) and is the official religion in some countries there.Within Latin America, evangelical Protestants have made stunning inroads on the religious landscape since the 1950s and at the beginning of the twenty first century, perhaps as much as 20% of the region’s population professes an evangelical Protestant faith. In the Anglo America realm of the Americas (US and Canada), a more variegated pattern of religious beliefs occurs. Christianity is still undisputed as the dominant religion, but the number and variety of its denominations is more diverse here than perhaps anywhere else in the world. Perhaps as much as one quarter of the population professes no religious affiliation. Among those that do adhere to a clear religious faith, Catholics comprise a sizeable proportion, perhaps as many as one half, while traditional Protestant denominations (Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists), Baptists and Southern Baptists, and a myriad of evangelical Protestant denominations account for most of the remainder. Other distinctive Christian denominations which have prospered in Anglo America include the Mormons, Amish, and Mennonites. A small minority, perhaps totaling just 2% of total population, practices a range of other world religions – Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam, among others.

Political ties to Europe are also significant in some cases. Canada and the United States are closely tied to Europe through their membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This alliance, established in the immediate post World War II period, serves to insure the security and freedom of its 29 member nations, all but two of which are located in Europe. In recent decades, Spain has increasingly ratcheted up its efforts to reconnect with its former colonies in the Americas, investing considerable resources in fostering closer cultural, economic, and political ties with those states.

Dominant language usage represents another significant unifying characteristic of human landscape of the Americas. The predominant languages today, and almost without exception, the languages of government, business, commerce, and social life, are European in origin. Furthermore, three of the four, Spanish, Portuguese, and French, are closely related Romance Languages sharing a common root in Latin. English, the other dominant tongue, is Germanic in origin, but also shares significant influence from Latin.

Indigenous languages have survived on a limited scale in the Americas, but most survivals are limited to small numbers of speakers in geographically limited areas. There are some exceptions. In Mexico, nearly 10 million people, 10% of the nation’s population, speak an indigenous language. Nahuatl and Maya speakers are the most numerous and they number in the millions. Maya speakers predominate over a broad area of southern Mexico and neighboring Guatemala, where they account for 40–50% of the population. In South America, about 10 million Quechua speakers are distributed throughout the Andes Mountains, running from southern Colombia into northern Argentina, with the highest concentration of speakers found in Bolivia. Aymara speakers represent perhaps 1 million people in Peru and Bolivia. Despite a Spanish colonial heritage, in Paraguay, Guarani, the language of preconquest Amerindians there, survived and is spoken by nearly the entire population of almost 7 million, although almost all are bilingual in Spanish. In southern Chile, about 1 million people speak Araucarian (Mapuche), the language of the region’s people prior to the European conquest. Despite these and many other exceptions to the dominant use of European languages in the Americas by Amerindians, most Amerindian individuals are at least somewhat bilingual in one or another of the region’s dominant European languages.

Political Values and Orientation

A widely held commitment to democracy and representative government is another common characteristic of the nation states and peoples of the Americas. With an end of colonial rule beginning at the end of the eighteenth century, and inspired by the American and French Revolutions and informed by the experience of the Enlightenment, the newly independent governments of the region enshrined democratic values in constitutions and political systems. The distance between theory and practice was often immense and democracy and representative government often took a back seat to dictators and military rulers for much of the postcolonial period. The United States and Canada are important exceptions to this generalization. Nevertheless, by the last decades of the twentieth century, democratic values and institutions had become more firmly entrenched both politically and culturally (notably within the Latin American portion of the region). At the present, in the first decade of the twenty first century, all of the region’s states can be reasonably described as representative democracies. No significant military intervention in civilian governance anywhere in the region has occurred in recent decades.

For nearly two centuries, the United States of America has cast a long shadow over much of the Americas, and especially Latin America where it has intervened, often militarily, in the internal affairs of its neighbors. This has been justified by a long standing policy known as the Monroe Doctrine, first enunciated in 1823 by then president James Monroe. Monroe asserted that the Americas were no longer to be the object of European colonization or interference, and that when necessary the United States would intervene to protect the sovereignty of other states in the Americas. And it has done so directly on many occasions y sending its military into Haiti, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Nicaragua, Grenada, Cuba, and most recently Panama. Protecting US economic interests has usually provided the justification for these incursions and the prospect of European intervention has almost never been an issue.

Economic Organization and Market Systems

Today, capitalism is the principal economic ideology and it dominates the political economy of the nation states of the region. Generally, a neoliberal capitalist economic model prevails in one form or another. Free and open markets, a reduction in state participation or regulation of the economy, transparency in financial dealings, and a reduction of trade barriers are among the model’s key pillars. This has not always been so, and during the twentieth century many nation states in Latin America experimented with a range of economic models. Most of these models were essentially capitalistic in one way or another, crony capitalism and state capitalism, for example. These practices usually involved a favored elite class with strong intervention of the state in the economy and often included state ownership of key industries, a practice still common in some Latin American countries – Mexico, Venezuela, and Bolivia, for example. A few experiments with more socialist modes of economic organization occurred, as in Chile and Peru, but these were generally short lived. Chile’s experiment with socialism died in a coup supported by the United States in 1973, while Peru’s transitioned peacefully into a capitalistic democracy.