What is Latin America?: a short guide to understand the regions’ main issues

Amanda Ramalho Guimarães
UNODC 2017 Director


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The idea of regionalism embedded in ‘Latin America’ has a controversial origin; it is possible to attach this ambiguity to the concepts attributed to the region.

In spite of its wide range use, the term ‘Latin America’ only started to circulate in the academic community at the beginning of the 20th century. Previously, all literature about the area (which includes South America, Central America and the Caribbean), referred to it as ‘Iberic America’ – a term that is still connected to the colonial past of Latin America, and troubled in its essence. This etymological change follows a turn of events in Latin America history, mostly due to the shift from it being perceived as merely colonies to being perceived as sovereign states. Some claims are that ‘Latin America’ first appears in the work of Manoel Bonfim, a Brazilian academic, in 1905 and by this definition, the territorial and colonial aspects are brought within an ethical approach of the region (RIBEIRO DA SILVA, 2011).

But the question left unanswered is: what does the term mean, then?

While there are deep disagreements between historians about the origins of the name, geographers argue intensively on where Latin American borders lie. The truth is that depending on the idea that the term conveys, it covers different ranges of theoretical possibilities. In this article, we are using Bianculli’s definition:

As a socially constructed and politically contested space between the national and global levels, the region builds on relevant historical, cultural, and linguistic traits, and social, political, and economic interactions at various levels, among state and non-state actors, and an early idea of regional unity and solidarity (BIANCULLI, 2015).

In our pursuit of understanding Latin Americans’ issues, it is important to see beyond state limits, on a regional and global level, and reaching history, culture and the other relevant features pointed by Bianculli above. Furthermore, it is also mandatory to comprehend that although our senses of the word ‘region’ usually bring about a homogenous thought, Latin America is able – as most human associations – to convey similar patterns in a highly pluralistic environment (BIANCULLI, 2015).

Following a historical lead, one of the most important elements for linking the pieces of Latin America is asserting a common colonial past. Most of the memory of the pre-Colombian[i] times was shattered and upon the eradication of native indigenous people and their societies a market was built (PRADO JR., 2010); alongside the implemented commercial policies of our colonizers, a pack of institutions was forcefully driven into the ‘crude’ and ‘uncivilized’ Latin America. With the blessing of the Pope[ii] and over one of the greatest and most silent genocides of humankind, the New World emerged, an important part of the era of industrial capitalism (EDKINS; ZEHFUSS, 2013).

It is no surprise when we barely see the Latin American Countries (LAC) in the first positions of development ranks. If we consider the Latin American role on the early stages of capitalism to be that of a provider of mostly raw products, with a domestic implementation of slavery, neither deepening its markets nor creating consumption basis that would allow fair competition on the actual development ranks, growing seemed and still seems a far-reaching possibility (NORTH AMERICA CONGRESS IN LATIN AMERICA, 2009).

However, the link between a common past, a troubled present and the possibility of a joint future is one of the aspects which establishes Latin America as an emerging subject to different study branches.

            On the post-war era, one of the main concerns of the international community, besides security, was categorizing and understanding poverty in Latin America. Organs such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB) were pioneers in stating poverty as part of an equation whose core was the lack of economic growth and the bad administration of LAC governments (KONKER, 2014). At some point, this definition of poverty was able to provide some answers, but it also failed to compose a broader notion of the issue, not addressing any social or historical concepts.

            Other important debates while talking about Latin American concerns are the democratic gap, the dependence, the impacts of imperialism and the race, gender and sexuality issues. Relying on the social and political patterns of the region, we are able to oversee such issues through the lenses of Historical Institutionalism and Post-Colonial approaches. Thus, the barricades between Latin America and the determination of universal standards of democracy and human rights are also under a lot of criticism concerning whether LAC should comply with institutions settled by the imperialistic center, or even be judged by such conventions. It is impossible to not be aware of the severe and reiterated abuses suffered by minorities; consequently, this situation might lead to an attempt to achieve, by our own means, the construction of a solid judgment basis that properly attends to our needs of fairness and humanity (MCPEARSON, 2006).

            Finally, this piece of work intended to raise a theoretical debate engrained in our main subject at UNODC 2017, which is the extension of the War On Drugs for the next decade. Such an objective agenda is based on time-constructed concepts, but also in the evolution of states policies and, after all, on intersected perspectives of justice, rightness, development, dependence and growth, which we shall address one by one until October, 2017.

“Yes, Latinos dream more. When you live in poverty, when your president is imposed upon you, when they kill someone and no one gets indicted, and when only a few get rich, of course you dream more. It’s no coincidence that magic realism happens in Latin America, because for us dreams and aspirations are part of life.” ― Jorge Ramos


BAER, Monica; LICHTENSZTEJN, Samuel. FMI e Banco Mundial: estratégias e políticas do poder financeiro. Ed. Brasiliense, 1987.

BIANCULLI, Andrea. Regional organizations and social policy in Europe and Latin America: a space for social citizenship?. Development, justice and citizenship, 2015.

DA SILVA, F. Quinze anos da onda rosa latino-americana: balanços e perspectivas. Observador Online, nº 12. Rio de Janeiro, 2014.

EDKINS, Jenny; ZEHFUSS, Maja. Global politics: a new introduction. Routledge, Second Edition, 2013.

KONKEL, Rob. The monetarization of global poverty: the concept of poverty in World Bank history, 1944-90. Journal of Global History, 2014.

MCPEARSON, Alan. Anti-Americanism in Latin America and Caribbean. Ed. Alan McPearson, 2006.

NORTH AMERICA CONGRESS IN LATIN AMERICA. “Progressive Policy for the Americas? A NACLA Roundtable.” NACLA Report on the Americas, January/ February, 2009.

PRADO JR., CAIO. Formação do Brasil contemporâneo. Ed. Companhia das Letras, 2010.

RIBEIRO DA SILVA, A. Diálogos sobre a escrita da história. Fundação Alexandre de Gusmão. Brasília, 2011.

SILVA, Eduardo. Challenging Neoliberalism in Latin America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

[i] The pre-Colombian era is the historical division which referes to, mainly, the pre-history of the Americas, the previous period on the appearance of the European in the American continent.

[ii] Pope Alexander VI’s, in 1493 permitted Spanish and Portuguese evangelization and territorial acquisition but denied enslavement.



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