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War is a constant theme in the history of Latin America. Soon after discovery of the New World in 1492, the Spanish and Portuguese fought and conquered the indigenous peoples. Between the fifteenth and twentieth centuries, wars for independence, indigenous uprisings, battles for rights to navigation and resources, and internal revolutions took place throughout the continent.
The collision of Eastern and Western Hemispheres that began in 1492 with the first voyage of Christopher Columbus unleashed a wide range of encounters on many planes, and war played a central role. The two largest wars of the age of sixteenth-century Iberian conquest in the Americas were won by Spain in Mexico (1519–1521) and in Peru (1532–1536). Historians generally attribute the final Spanish victory over the American empires to three major factors: (1) divisions among American peoples, some of whom opposed Mexican and Inca rule; (2) the effects of sudden, acute exposure to Eastern Hemisphere diseases, such as smallpox, to which Americans had no immunities; (3) the superior weapons and battlefield tactics of the Spaniards. The weapons advantages included steel-edged swords and pikes, crossbows, and cannons and infantry fi rearms. Armed with obsidian-tipped weapons, Mesoamerican warriors traditionally deployed in loose formations to capture victims for religious sacrifice, although Andeans, armed with clubs, deployed like Spaniards in massed infantry formations.
Portuguese colonization of Brazil began in 1500. The combination of disease, weapons technology, and tactics ensured the defeat of yet another group of indigenous Americans. Concerned about French forays into Brazil, King Joao III of Portugal (reigned 1521–1557) redoubled colonization efforts in the 1520s. A final French incursion into present-day Rio de Janeiro was ejected by 1567. Latin America was divided between the overseas empires of Spain and Portugal.
Wars of the Colonial Powers
Spain and Portugal were concerned about preserving their American colonies and especially the bullion wealth that they produced, just as their rivals were interested in gaining access to them. Although it was not a major theater of operations during the Thirty Years War (1618–1648), England and Holland at times carried the war to the Western Hemisphere.
Armed ships of the Dutch East India Company forayed into the Pacific in 1614. That spurred improvements to fortifications of key Spanish harbors. Dutch and English activities in the Caribbean resulted in like efforts there. Dutch incursions into Brazil were eventually ejected, and in 1641 the Dutch capture of Luanda, Angola, was soon reversed, removing the threat to the transatlantic slave trade that had become the principal source of Brazilian plantation labor. The defensive posture assumed by the Iberian powers was for the most part successful, although a Dutch squadron once captured a Spanish treasure fleet off Cuba, and weakly defended Spanish Jamaica was lost to England.
The European powers fought a series of wars around the world throughout the eighteenth century, and the wealth of the Americas remained a central concern.. Expanding British power heightened the threat to Spanish America. Technological and tactical developments in Europe were often mirrored in the Americas, but many American campaigns included guerrilla-style tactics as well as the fixed ranks characteristic of battle on the European peninsula. Small permanent American garrisons were often supplemented by militia units that also quelled internal rebellions.
British forces captured the Caribbean port city of Portobelo, in present-day Panama, immediately following the outbreak of the War of Jenkins’s Ear between Britain and Spain in 1739. This conflict became enveloped in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748). The heavy fortifications of Cartegena de Indias, in present-day Colombia, withstood a British siege in 1741. Another British squadron cruised the Pacific coast of Spanish America and then crossed to the Philippines. There it captured the annual Manila galleon, outbound from Acapulco and loaded with silver bullion.
During the Seven Years’ War (1754–1763) Spain pushed Portugal out of Uruguay and went on to capture Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost state in present-day Brazil. Britain captured Havana, Cuba, by taking the harbor fortifications from the landward sides. Also falling to British power was Manila, which prior to 1821 was administratively subordinate to Mexico City. Spain ceded Florida to Britain in exchange for Havana’s return. Spain also received all French territory west of the Mississippi River in North America, but at the price of the ejection of its French ally from the continent. Portugal later reestablished its town of Colonia in Uruguay but lost it again during the war that led to the independence of the United States (1776–1783). Spain provided monetary support to the rebels in North America and launched a successful campaign against the British that recovered Florida.
Rebellions and Independence Struggles
The Bourbon kings of Spain implemented political reforms that included heightened tax burdens on American subjects. Animosity increased between American-born white Spaniards and those born on the Iberian Peninsula. Consequently, Latin American colonies experienced many uprisings during the eighteenth century and later.
We can see many rebellions as responses to increased taxation and abuses by officials. Also important was cultural defense by anti-Spanish consciousness among indigenous villagers. Uprisings by African slaves occurred in areas where slave plantations were common. The larger rebellions often had multiple causes. Rebellions among Andean people often contained currents of Inca millenarianism, manifesting a desire to create an indigenous empire led by a descendant of the pre-1571 hereditary rulers known as Incas.
The most extensive of these rebellions took place in the Andes from 1781 to 1784. Some 15,000 regular and militia troops took the field against the Tupac Amaru II rebels, and an estimated 100,000 persons were killed during the rebellion. In the end royalist troops restored Spanish colonial authority. Rebels at times gained an initial advantage through surprise attacks, but they always suffered from a shortage of effective battlefield weapons. Although never the only factor, superior armaments enabled Spanish troops to defeat rebels in the end.
The prestige of the Iberian powers and the monarchs themselves provided a sort of final authority that held colonial rule together; Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1808 upset this arrangement. Napoleon put his brother Joseph on the throne, wherefore guerilla war broke out in Spain, while in the Americas, three separate independence movements arose. One was led by Simon Bolivar (1783–1830) and centered in present-day Colombia and Venezuela. Jose de San Martin (1778–1850) led another in Argentina and joined forces with Bolivar in Peru. The Mexican independence struggle erupted in 1810. Each conflict featured a large royalist faction that offered fierce resistance. Both sides had access to supplies of fi rearms and munitions, negating an important advantage enjoyed by royalists against earlier rebels. The conflicts were complex and protracted, but by 1824 all of Latin America except Cuba and Puerto Rico had achieved political independence.
Independence replaced two large colonial empires with a number of separate states. Each state faced many problems; prominent among them were disputes between liberals and conservatives that usually manifested themselves as conflicts over centralization of political power. Conflicts erupted within states over breakaway provinces and between states over borders and resources, some of which continue to the present.
The Portuguese king departed Rio de Janeiro in 1821 and left behind his son Pedro as prince regent. Pedro declared independence in 1822 and implemented a centralist constitution. During the next twenty-five years five major armed rebellions occurred in different parts of Brazil, each one seeking to decentralize power. The Brazilian army defeated each in its turn. In 1835, the Brazilian government also suppressed a major slave uprising in Bahia.
Argentina failed to hold together the boundaries of the viceroyalty (the territory or jurisdiction of a ruler) of the Rio de la Plata. The Bolivar faction in Peru created Bolivia out of Upper Peru. Paraguay, lying beyond effective reach of Buenos Aires, Argentina, achieved independence. Uruguay sought more local autonomy than Buenos Aires leaders wished to give, and the Spanish-Portuguese rivalry over that region reemerged as one between Argentina and Brazil. A lengthy conflict characterized by cavalry action followed. In 1828 Britain and France intervened to force the creation of a buffer state, not incidentally guaranteeing freedom of navigation on the Parana and Uruguay rivers.
Wars against Indigenous Societies
Indigenous societies formed important parts of many Latin American states. Settled indigenous peoples had been largely incorporated into new nation-states in varying degrees of social subordination. Indigenous nomads resisted the onslaught of European-derived societies and attempted to maintain their ways of life. Argentina undertook its Campaign of the Desert (1833–1836) to eject the Pampas nations from lands intended for cattle ranching. Argentina achieved battlefield successes, but indigenous peoples continued to raid along the frontier of settlement. The Second Campaign of the Desert (1879) became largely aimed at Araucanian peoples who had migrated into Argentina because of Chilean military actions. Both Argentine campaigns ranged across large plains and were fought largely on horseback. During the second campaign especially, the Argentine army had superior weaponry and logistics and employed tactics similar to those used by the U.S. Army against Plains nations. Argentina’s successful campaign resulted in the destruction of the indigenous nomads.
Wars between Nation-States
Beset with internal conflicts between liberals and conservatives, Mexico also had to confront the westward-expanding United States. Mexico lost Texas to independence in 1836 and then faced U.S. pressure on California in the following decade. The United States declared war in 1846. After a land campaign in the north, the United States staged an amphibious landing at Veracruz and went on to capture Mexico City in September 1847. Mexico lost half of its territory. The U.S. victory can largely be attributed to the professionalism of its officer corps, effective use of mobile artillery, and state-of-the-art firearms. Internal conflicts between Mexican liberals and conservatives continued, leading to the War of the Reform (1857–1859). Liberal victory was followed by a conservative alliance with France, which in 1863 invaded Mexico and enthroned a puppet emperor. Liberals expelled the French in 1867.
In South America landlocked Paraguay disputed borders with all of its neighbors and sought expanded navigation rights to the Atlantic along the Parana River. President Francisco Solano Lopez (1827–1870) pressed his country’s claims and embroiled it in a war against Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay (1864– 1870). Poorly equipped Paraguayan troops fought courageously but lost to the overwhelming force of its opponents; the male population of Paraguay was depleted by at least 50 percent.
Chile during the nineteenth century expanded to the north at the expense of Bolivia and Peru. At issue in the War of the Pacific (1879–1883) were mineral rights in the nitrate-rich Atacama Desert. The Chilean army was outnumbered by its Bolivian and Peruvian opponents, but the Chileans were much better equipped and led by better-trained officers. Naval power was important in this war, although maintenance problems plagued the fleets of both sides. Victory gained for Chile the Atacama region and Peru’s three southern provinces, of which northernmost Tacna was returned in 1929.
Loss of its Pacific coast turned Bolivia’s attention toward the Parana River route to the Atlantic. The unsettled Chaco region along the Paraguayan-Bolivian frontier contained oil and mineral reserves, and in 1932 Bolivia provoked a war with Paraguay over the Chaco region. Although Bolivia was expected to win because of its larger army and its aircraft, Bolivia’s efforts to secure the region failed because soldiers from the highlands fell victim to disease when they entered the humid Paraguayan jungle and because Paraguayan generals deployed their forces effectively and kept them supplied by rail. Paraguay gained the lion’s share of the spoils in the subsequent peace conference.
In the Caribbean, rebels started the third war for Cuban independence from Spain in 1895. Fierce guerrilla fighting continued for three years. Following an explosion that sank the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana, the United States declared war on Spain. Suffering defeats at sea and on land in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, Spain lost its last American and Asian colonies. The United States created a system of protectorates in the Caribbean and Central America that guarded the approaches to the Panama Canal (which opened in 1914).
Several Latin American states entered World War I, most notably Brazil, which was provoked by German attacks on its shipping. More countries declared war on the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, Japan) during World War II, including Mexico and Brazil, which allowed U.S. aircraft to use their airfields to combat the German submarine threat in the Atlantic. Brazil’s army fought in Europe, and its navy escorted convoys across to Allied (United States, United Kingdom, France, Soviet Union, China) bases in Africa. A Mexican aircraft squadron fought in the Philippines during 1945.
In 1982 the military government of Argentina invaded the British Falkland Islands colony in the South Atlantic. Attempting to bolster public support for the military government, the junta (a group of persons controlling a government) sought to enforce Argentina’s long-standing claim to the islands, which Argentina calls the “Malvinas.” Despite the long sea lines of communication, a British expedition recaptured the islands. Argentine naval and air units achieved some success, but in general weaker Argentine forces faced British opponents who were trained to exacting North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) standards. Britain’s victory led to the fall of Argentina’s military government.
Wars of Revolution
Between 1910 and 1920 Mexico experienced revolutionary upheaval and civil war. The Mexican Revolution began with the overthrow of Porfirio Diaz (1830–1915) and continued through a lengthy and complicated set of political twists and turns. Two short-lived successor regimes failed to consolidate power, and by 1914 a full-scale civil war raged across Mexico.
Three major factions emerged. South of Mexico City peasant followers of Emiliano Zapata (1879–1919) sought restoration of rural lands to their villages. Zapata’s followers tended to fight on foot. The other two factions emerged in the north. Each drew heavily upon the cowboy population for its membership and made extensive use of horse cavalry. Throughout the revolution the railroad network constructed by the Diaz regime played a determining role in the ebb and flow of combat. The two northern factions also employed small aviation units. One northern faction was led by Francisco “Pancho” Villa (1873–1923), and the other by Alvaro Obregon (1880–1928), whose political loyalty lay with Venustiano Carranza (1859– 1920). Villista and Carrancista forces both had access to U.S.-made weapons at first, but President Woodrow Wilson later cut off Villa’s sources.
In April 1915 Villista and Carrancista forces clashed in two major battles around Celaya, northwest of Mexico City. Villista cavalry mounted several charges against Carrancista machine-guns emplaced in barbed-wire defenses, resulting in decimation of Villa’s forces. Retreating northward, Villa again faced Obregon at Aguascalientes on 10 July 1915, and suffered a crushing defeat that relegated the Villa faction to relative insignificance. A Carrancista column ejected Zapata’s forces from Mexico City in the following month, and the Zapatistas retreated south into their home area of Morelos. Zapata himself fell victim to a trick and was assassinated in an ambush in 1919. The Zapatista forces lost cohesion and dissolved, ending the military aspects of the revolution. The Mexican Revolution was the largest-scale conflict in twentieth-century Latin America, but the revolution in Cuba affected many parts of the entire region.
In 1956 Cuban exiles led by Fidel Castro (b. 1926) landed in eastern Cuba and began a guerrilla war from mountain bases against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista (1901–1973). The Cuban military was outfitted with U.S. equipment from World War II and also jet aircraft. The difficult terrain afforded the rebels adequate security, and they quickly gained the support of peasants in the region. Thousands of troops moved against hundreds of rebels, but the guerrilla strategy succeeded. Castro’s forces swelled to seven thousand as the public reacted unfavorably to repressive tactics employed by the Batista regime. (When Castro victoriously entered Havana, he had not clearly allied himself with the Communist Soviet Union.) A key factor in the rebels’ victory was their high morale and good discipline. Operation from a remote base (foco) was a common strategy, and the Cuban Revolution served as a model for other revolutionary forces. However, only in Nicaragua did such a revolutionary force actually gain political power. Castro’s Argentine-born comrade, Ernesto “Che” Guevara (1928–1967), died in Bolivia leading a failed focobased revolutionary guerrilla force.
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