Latin America, 33 independent countries and 13 other political entities in Central and South America where Romance languages are spoken: Spanish in most of Latin America; Portuguese in Brazil; and French in Haiti. Sometimes the term includes Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana in South America, and, less often, also all the Caribbean islands.
The population growth of almost 2% per year is one of the highest in the world. The population lives by the Pacific or Atlantic oceans, rivers, or in highland farm areas. The people are of European, African, Indian, and mixed ancestry. After World War II, large numbers of people moved from rural to urban areas in search of employment, and most large cities suffer from overcrowding, pollution, homelessness, inadequate medical services, and high unemployment.
The literacy rate varies from less than 50% (Haiti) to more than 90% (Argentina).
Historically, Latin America economies depended on one export commodity—oil, copper, tin, coffee, bananas, livestock, fish—to earn foreign currency. In several countries there have been efforts at diversification, but economic development is hampered by poor transport, political instability, and burdensome effects of foreign aid. Although about half of the people work on the land, agriculture is mostly primitive and inefficient.
Important changes in recent decades include the emergence of Brazil as a leading industrial power, and use of oil revenues in Mexico and Venezuela to finance economic growth. Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and other nations borrowed huge sums from the International Monetary Fund and from private banks, leading to a near-crisis in the 1980s when they were unable to repay their debts.
Before the arrival of Columbus in 1492, several highly developed civilizations flourished in the region, most notably the Mayans, Aztecs and Incas. During the conquest the indigenous populations were decimated by war and European diseases. Spanish and Portuguese colonial rule lasted about three hundred years, and by 1825 most of the colonies, inspired by the leadership of Bolivar and San Martin, gained their independence. Power and wealth, however, remained in the hands of tiny minorities, and political life was marked by corruption and instability. In the 20th century, several countries have enjoyed long peaceful periods of constitutional rule while others have experienced military dictatorships, revolution, and violent factional strife.