Spanish-Speaking South America

A HUMAN PERSPECTIVE In the early 1500s, the Inca empire was at the height of its glory. Then Spanish soldiers under the command of Francisco Pizarro invaded the South American empire. The Spanish attacked the Inca army, killed many of its warriors, and took the emperor prisoner. The Spaniards held him for ransom. Although the Inca filled a room with silver and gold to win his release, the Spanish executed the emperor. This broke the spirit of the Inca nation, already weakened by civil war, and the Spanish conquered the rest of the empire. As in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, the Spanish conquest would have a deep effect on the history and culture of South America.

Conquest and the End of Spanish Rule

South America is divided into two main regions, based in part on whether the people speak Spanish or Portuguese. In this section, you will learn about Spanish-speaking South America. This region is composed of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Suriname is a Dutch-speaking country. French Guiana is a part of France.


One of the great civilizations of the Americas arose in the rugged Andes Mountains of Peru. This civilization was created by the Inca—descendants of people who came across a land bridge from Siberia to Alaska and eventually crossed the Isthmus of Panama into South America. When they reached the west coast of South America, they found the Andes Mountains, which rise to heights of more than 20,000 feet in some places. In spite of the harsh terrain, the Inca were able to build an advanced civilization.

They built their empire on the foundation of earlier cultures. From their capital at Cuzco in Peru, the Inca extended their power. They brought other tribes under their control and built a great empire. By 1500, the Inca empire extended 2,500 miles along the west coast of South America. It ran from present-day Ecuador in the north to Argentina in the south. A road system that was about 20,000 miles long crossed mountains and deserts to link the empire.


As you read earlier, Pizarro and his soldiers invaded and conquered the Inca empire. The Spanish were primarily interested in claiming the gold and silver of the Inca.

The Spanish settlers forced the natives to work in mines and on farms and ranches. The Spanish landlords received the rights to the labor of the natives from officials in Spain, who passed laws to protect the Indians. But in spite of the laws, many of the settlers abused the natives or worked them to death.

The presence of the Spanish had an important geographic effect on the Inca, who were forced to move from their villages to large plantations. This disrupted and destroyed Inca families and communities, and made the region difficult to govern even into the 20th century.

The Spanish forced their own language and religion on the conquered peoples. The Quechua (KEHCH•wuh) language of the Inca was overshadowed by Spanish as the settlers became the dominant culture. Likewise, the Inca religion of the native peoples was replaced by the Catholic religion of the conquerors as the official religion. Spanish rule in the region continued for almost 300 years. But one lasting legacy of the Inca is that millions of native peoples still speak Quechua.


Inspired by the American Revolution (1776) and the French Revolution (1789), the countries of South America sought their independence from Spain in the first half of the 19th century. Two great leaders of independence movements in the region in the first half of the 19th century were Simon Bolivar and Jose de San Martin. Bolivar helped to liberate the countries of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Jose de San Martin helped to free the countries of Argentina, Chile, and Peru from Spanish rule.

Argentina and Chile were the first to achieve independence because they were the farthest from Lima, the center of Spanish control. However, once independence was achieved, geography contributed to the failure of various countries to unify or work together for common goals. The continent has tended to be populated around its edges, with mountains and rain forests limiting interaction. This has contributed to underdevelopment and political instability.


Oligarchy (government by the few) and military rule have characterized the governments of many of the countries of South America since they won their independence from Spain. In fact, before his death in 1830, Simon Bolivar had become discouraged about the future of democracy in Latin America.

Throughout South America, authoritarian rule—which stresses obedience to authority over individual freedom— delayed the development of democracy. Although many South American nations gained freedom in the 1800s, hundreds of years of colonialism had their effects. Strong militaries, underdeveloped economies, and social class divisions still exist in the region today.

A Cultural Mosaic

South America is one of the most culturally complex regions in the world, due in part to the region's isolation after independence. These countries form a cultural mosaic—a number of societies with different cultures living near each other but not mixing.


Spanish-speaking South America has a strong literary heritage. Particularly in the last quarter of the 20th century, South American writers claimed the world's attention with their extraordinary novels. Perhaps the most famous of these writers is Gabriel Garcia Marquez of Colombia, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1982. Among his best-known novels are One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and The General in His Labyrinth (1989), a novel about Simon Bolivar.


Popular music and folk music are important artistic traditions in South America. You can hear street music everywhere throughout the region. Musicians play drums, guitars, marimbas, maracas, and flutes, among other instruments. This music combines Indian, African, and European elements to make a thick cultural brew, as can be heard in the tango of Argentina. Classical music is also important in the region. Many cities in South America have symphony orchestras and opera companies.


Beautiful craftwork and handmade items can be found throughout Latin America. Pottery, textiles, glasswork, and metalwork all manage to combine beauty and usefulness. Many handmade items are decorated with folk art or Indian religious symbols. Beautiful examples of handmade items can be found in tools and other household items throughout the region. Indian weavers, for example, make ponchos from the wool of the animals of the region, such as llamas and alpacas.

Economics: Resources and Trade

Most economies in South American countries are based upon agriculture and the mining and extraction of resources such as oil and minerals. However, the income gap between rich and poor reflects the region's poverty and failure to develop economically after independence. Economic development of the entire region holds out the hope of improving the lives of millions of people.


One of the advantages in the region is that it produces a wide variety of products. This is because of its unique combination of resources, landforms, climate, and vegetation. In the north, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana grow crops for export on large farms. Colombia and Venezuela both have huge oil reserves that are probably their greatest economic asset.

In the west, Peru has an important fishing industry. Ecuador exports huge quantities of shrimp. Bolivia has deposits of tin, zinc, and copper. In the south, Argentina produces great quantities of grain and livestock on its vast pampas. Uruguay is a prosperous agricultural country that has major farming and grazing areas in its portion of the pampas. Paraguay exports products such as soybeans, cotton, and animal hides.

The Mercosur Trade Group


Chile is South America's greatest economic success story. It has been able to participate in the global economy by trading the products of its mines and fields with nations as far away as Japan. The export of fruit and vegetables to North American markets is an important part of Chile's economy because its harvest comes during the Northern Hemisphere's winter. Chile also has huge deposits of copper, which remains its largest export. However, Chile has recently begun to focus on its own hemisphere. It has been a leader in working for economic cooperation in the region, where it is an associate member of Mercosur. Associate members (Chile and Bolivia) are countries with free-trade agreements with Mercosur.

Education and the Future

The people of Spanish-speaking South America face a number of challenges. Education is a critical issue as young people move to the cities in search of jobs.


The countries of Spanish-speaking South America have higher literacy rates than do the countries of Central America and the Caribbean, or Mexico and Brazil. In Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, for example, literacy rates are higher than 90 percent. Moreover, the literacy rates for women are about the same as for men in those three countries; in fact, in Uruguay, the rate is slightly higher for women. Most of the countries of South America support colleges, universities, and technical schools that train students for careers. As measured by the number of students in school and copies of daily newspapers and books published per capita, most of the countries of the region show high rates of education and literacy.


Chile's literacy rate for the total adult population is around 95 percent. For young people between the ages of 15 and 19, it is even higher—close to 98 percent. The number of books and daily newspapers sold and read is very high—approximately 46 copies of daily newspapers are sold for every 100 people.

Education is very important in Chile. When they are between the ages of 6 and 13, all children must attend school, and public education is free. Higher education has suffered because of political unrest. The universities had been independent and of high quality. Then a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet overthrew Salvador Allende's government in 1973. Afterwards, the military introduced reforms that undermined higher education. Nonetheless, since Pinochet's departure from power in 1990, universities have regained some of their independence and standards. Today, there are many business schools in Chile that have contributed to the country's economic success.

In the next section you will read about Brazil. This Portuguese-speaking country is the giant of South America, both in terms of population and land area.