Effects of Colonialism on Latin America

Effects of Colonialism on Latin America


The effects of colonialism in Latin America are diverse. Most Latin American countries were colonized by the Spanish who brought many changes to their societies. A large number of viceroys and royal governors were sent from Spain to rule the Latin American colonies in the name of the King (Castellanos, 2017). Silver and Gold from these countries were shipped to Spain making it the most powerful country during the 16th century. The natives were exploited to work in the mines and their farms. The Spanish also came with diseases like smallpox and measles which lead to a significant decline in the native population. However, the colonization of Latin America led to an exchange of customs, ideas, and technologies (Bakewell, 2018). While colonialism in Latin America led to many negative effects, there were major economic developments and changes in politics, gender, and society in general.

How Colonialism affected Politics, Economics, Gender and Society


The Spanish colonial rule in Latin America incorporated elites for economic reasons, their major work was to ensure indigenous labor is used. The elites intermarried with the colonists were granted titles and held both church and political offices. Many people tried different approaches, yet most of them failed. Perhaps they didn’t see far enough. Latin America, despite incredibly different strategies, ended up having impressively similar results in their political systems (Rappaport & Cummins, 2020). This resulted from colonialism and because even when the power changed hands, the structures within it did not change. The institutions could be more easily managed, and the economy was at some point booming, bringing resources to try things impossible in the 19th century. With the substantial political change, as in most cases regions converted from royal colonies into de jure constitutional republics. De facto, however, there was limited penetration of the state into peripheral areas, weak rule of law, frequent regime changes, and a highly exploitative social structure that carried over from the colonial period and prevented the emergence of a powerful, landowning middle class that could moderate swings in the economy and that led to internal and external shocks to development.

Over time, Latin America has progressed. The frequency of new constitutions has declined, supporting faith in markets, property rules, and institutions. The 20th Century saw the emergence of social security systems with healthcare programs, first in Uruguay, then elsewhere (Kaltwasser, 2018). Social and economic inclusion has spiked through fiat measures by leftist governments in the last 15 years after the loss of appetite with the Washington Consensus of the 1990s. Contemporarily, the negative effect of rapid wealth redistribution is being felt, as middle classes without high HDI have stopped their massive consumer spending, and instead are struggling with limited skills and training to find employability and therefore reignite growth through production and consumption.


Colonialism in Latin America had many impacts on its economics. One huge environmental impact was the wholesale destruction of natural habitats to convert to agriculture and farming (Bakewell, 2018). This economic creation produced a little economic benefit to the local economy but aided the colonialists immensely. When the colonists left so did a lot of the economic benefits and it has taken a very long time for the domestic markets to recover. This is mainly due to the lack of political stability in those countries. Where colonists created “new” lands the economy continued to grow into modern countries mainly due to political stability. Again, in Latin America, the economy was diverted from manufacture into raw material production. These raw materials were then exported to Spain, to be re-imported as manufactured goods (Castellanos, 2017). Furthermore, colonies were barred from importing goods from outside by “Empire Preference”, which meant effectively that they had to buy from Spain.

However, most of Latin America was taken from the stone age to pre-industrial in a blink of an eye. That is not underdevelopment – it is development at an astonishing pace. The stone age peoples may have wanted to keep their old ways; this has proven to be impossible in virtually all cases (Duer & Vegliò, 2019). The dynamics of this change are unimaginable. In Peru, for example, before the Spaniards, the people were the serfs of the Inca. They lived a subsistence existence. They could expect to live maybe three decades. It was one of the most highly advanced stone age civilizations, metals like copper and gold being used as ornaments. They had no system of writing, but despite this developed a highly organized agricultural system, system of communication, and travel. They did some pretty impressive stuff. Modern Peru is a product of the Spanish colony, no facet of modern Peruvian life remains from the pre-Colombian time (Merino, 2018). Peruvians create brilliant music, literature, and art, and their life expectancy is about 75 years. Far too many people still live at a subsistence level, especially in rural areas where almost half of the people live in poverty, this is as opposed to virtually all of the people during the time before the Spaniards. So, on an economic development scale, the country has developed significantly and continues to do so.

Naturally, the Spaniards paid heavily for this – the amount of gold and silver that they took from Peru kept the Spanish economy in trouble for four centuries, one of the few examples of high inflation while using a gold standard (Bakewell, 2018). They had so much gold that they produced nothing to get that it was inflationary. Spain suffers from this until the present time. It can clearly be said that the country was benefited by having the world’s third most spoken language, and many of Spain’s former colonies have higher economic growth than Spain does. Colonialism led to the development of America, not its underdevelopment. Three percent growth of Spain’s economy would be spectacular, Peru and Chile aim much higher. Argentina was a “developed” country before Spain was. Colonialism probably had a positive effect on the physical infrastructure. As an example, the Argentinian railway system is still the backbone of the country.


Apart from economics and politics, colonialism also significantly changed the aspects of gender in Latin America. During the colonialism period, no aspect of the native woman’s status, life, and the role went untouched by the Colonizers. Before the colonial era, both men and women had equal status in society even though their primary roles remained the same (Rappaport & Cummins, 2020). The constructions of gender were quite egalitarian and gender equality was inherent. Women as much as men enjoyed higher privileges compared to European women. However, the Spanish constructs of gender hierarchies and colonialism sought to eradicate the native norms and gender roles through any means. Under colonial rule, Latin American women could no longer hold important religious offices, own land independently, enjoys the myriads of political, social, and economic rights, access community resources. They were systematically subordinated and disenfranchised in the colonial society.


Colonialism led to significant impacts on Latin American society. The Spanish Empire created Latin America. First, there were no Latins in America before the Spanish, hence no Latin America existed at the time. Secondly, the native inhabitants lived in stone age societies, the more advanced on a cultural level comparable to ancient Mesopotamia, but quite backward compared to the level of culture of Europe, the Middle East, or Asia at the time (Merino, 2018). The Spanish founded hundreds of cities and established universities and hospitals. They introduced literacy, transcribing the native tongues into alphabetical forms and publishing books in those languages (contrary to the myth that the intention was to eradicate the native tongues). They implemented systems of law and governance far more advanced than the natives had known. The first viceroy of Peru even took care of introducing donkeys, to eliminate the custom of workers carrying merchandise on their back. 80% of all the generated wealth of the Viceroyalties stayed in America, only 1/5th went to Spain, contrary to the claim that ‘the Spanish took our gold’ (Bakewell, 2018). When the Spanish Empire collapsed in 1810–1820, Spanish America was as prosperous and urbane as Europe, and this included not just those of direct Spanish descent, but the mixed and many natives (the native aristocracy had preserved its wealth and power after the conquest, for instance). Spanish America at that time had for example already produced scientists of merit, some well known in Europe. The present conditions in Latin America are the result of the fragmentation, civil wars, and mediocre governance which followed independence, not the result of the Spanish Empire.

Unlike the population replacement that occurred in the US, Canada, and Australia, what occurred in most of Latin America (except most of Argentina, Uruguay, etc) as a result of colonialism was a population fusion and assimilation of Indigenous, African, and even Middle Eastern cultures into the dominant Hispanic (Iberian) cultures brought by the colonizers (Rappaport & Cummins, 2020). Any other immigrants that would arrive later would also be quickly assimilated and melted in. So, in many ways, there is a continuation of indigenous traditions which is evident in their food, music, dances, and much more. Some countries like Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic have little Indigenous left at all (Castellanos, 2017). Only in the Yucatan region of Mexico and Guatemala as well as the Andes/Amazonian regions are there tens of millions of people who are mostly indigenous with traditions that are still predominantly native. But out of a population of 650 million, this is the minority.


Colonialism in Latin America significantly changed their economics, political systems, gender, and society in general. While it had many negative effects such as distortion of products, exploitation of the natives, the extension of indigenous people, and destruction of the environment, colonialism led to many developments in terms of infrastructure and trade. The downside of colonialism was the distortion of the economic system. Also, gender equality was greatly affected as women became powerless and disfranchised. There was also the assimilation and fusion of indigenous communities. Generally, colonialism in Latin America led to both negative and positive changes.











Castellanos, M. B. (2017). Introduction: settler colonialism in Latin America. American Quarterly69(4), 777-781. DOI: 10.1353/aq.2017.0063

Bakewell, P. (2018). Colonial Latin America. In Latin America Its Problems and Its Promise (pp. 77-85). London: Routledge.

Rappaport, J., & Cummins, T. B. (2020). Literacy and power in colonial Latin America. In Social Construction of the Past (pp. 89-110). London: Routledge.

Kaltwasser, C. R. (2018). Political Elites in Latin America. In The Palgrave handbook of political elites (pp. 255-271). London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Merino, R. (2018). Reimagining the nation-state: Indigenous peoples and the making of plurinational in Latin America. Leiden Journal of International Law, 31(4), 773-792. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0922156518000389

Duer, M., & Vegliò, S. (2019). Modern-colonial geographies in Latin America: The mirage of the civilizing city and the archaic countryside. Journal of Latin American Geography, 18(3), 11-29. DOI: 10.1353/lag.2019.0058



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