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Terms and Definitions

This is a glossary of some basic terms commonly used in the study of Latin American studies.

Capitalism is an economic theory which stresses that control of the means of producing economic goods in a society should reside in the hands of those who invest the capital for production. It is a system based on the production of goods and services for exchange rather than use. Private ownership and free enterprise supposedly leads to more efficiency, lower prices, better products. Adam Smith popularized this theory in his 1776 book The Wealth of Nations.

"Caudillismo is derived from the term caudillo, which is an adaptation of an Arab word meaning "leader." The caudillo tradition . . . is based on the combined principles of loyalty to place and chieftain, honor, and leadership in battle."(1)

Communism is an economic and political system based on the principle "From each according to their ability, to each according to their need." It stresses that the control of the means of producing economic goods in a society should reside in the hands of those who invest their labor for production. In its ideal form, social classes cease to exist, there is no coercive governmental structures, and everyone lives in abundance without supervision from a ruling class. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels popularized this theory in their 1848 Communist Manifesto.

Political conservatives in Latin America have traditionally been associated with the Catholic Church and have supported the rights of large landholders (hacendados).

Democracy is a political system which has many different meanings and can take different forms. It is often incorrectly used as a synonym for capitalism. Fundamentally, it means a government of, by and for the people.
  • Economic Democracy: An idea that people should have equal access to and say in the distribution of the wealth and resources of a country.
  • Electoral Democracy: The idea "that, to be legitimate, government authority must derive from periodic free, fair, broadly particpatory, and genuinely contested elections."(2)
  • Participatory Democracy. A system by which people have direct say in policies that effect them without the mediating influence of elected or other governmental officials.
  • Representative Democracy: A system whereby people select others to represent their interests in government rather than having direct influence or say over such decisions.

"A situation in which the economy of certain countries is conditioned by the development and expansion of another economy to which the former is subject."(3)
  • Dependency Theory "assumes that Latin American underdevelopment cannot be understood without reference to the international capitalist system," and, in fact, is a result of that system.(4)

Ethnicity is a social construction that indicates identification with a particular group which is often descended from common ancestors. Members of the group share common cultural traits (such as language, religion, and dress) and are an identifiable minority within the larger nation-state. In Latin America, it often refers to Indians and Africans, although perhaps everyone has some type of ethnic identity.

"A philosophy or system of government that is marked by stringent social and economic control, a strong, centralized government usually headed by a dictator, and often a policy of belligerent nationalism." (From The American Heritage Dictionary)

"Globalization refers in general to the worldwide integration of humanity and the compression of both the temporal and spatial dimensions of planetwide human interaction." It "has aggravated many of the region's most chronic problems--such as the pronounced degree of economic exploitation and social inequality that have characterized Latin America since it came under European colonial domination in the sixteenth century."(5)

"A member of an irregular military force operating usually in small, independent groups capable of great speed and mobility." (From The American Heritage Dictionary)

The practice of one country extending its control over the territory, political system, or economic life of another country. Political opposition to this foreign domination is called "anti-imperialism."

Indigenismo was a construction of the dominant culture, particularly that of elite urban intellectual mestizos, which sought to improve the lives of Indigenous peoples. The people who adhered to this ideology (called indigenistas) were usually non-Indian outsiders who had little experience with Indian communities. The Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui was one of the primary examples of this trend.

Indigenous Peoples
Indigenous peoples (also called Indians, Native Americas, American Indians, Amerindians, First peoples, First nations, aboriginal peoples, etc.) were the original inhabitants of the Americas before the arrival of the European colonists.

Latin America
A geographic and cultural region comprised of 18 Spanish-speaking countries, Brazil, and Haiti, or generally the areas which Spain and Portugal colonized in the Americas.

A 19th-century political idea which championed individual rights, civil liberties, and private property. In Latin America, it also opposed the Catholic Church's extensive control over society (anti-clericalism) and favored an end to special privileges (fueros) for military and clerical members.

Mestizaje is an ideology which believes that the fusion of various cultural traditions (including language, religion, food, music, etc.) in the Americas created a new and better mestizo race. This idea gained strength after the Mexican Revolution, and José Vasconcelos popularized it in his 1925 essay La raza cósmica (The Cosmic Race).

Mestizos are the people resulting from the blending of European, Indian, and African traditions in Latin America. At different places and times, they have also been called ladinos or cholos.

"A self-identifying people who share a common history, often language, a common culture and a homeland. A nation is the most persistent and resistant organization of people-culture- territory. There are between 7,000 and 10,000 nations. (Examples: Hopi, Miskito, Catalunya, Ainu, Ndebele)" (from FWDP)

Close identification with the concerns of a particular country or nation.

The state of poor, third-world countries which enjoy formal political independence, but continue to remain economically dependent on rich, industrialized countries.

"The policies of privatization, austerity, and trade liberalization dictated to dependent countries by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as a condition for approval of investment, loans, and debt relief."(6)

"'Paramilitary groups' are bodies which act together with the military institution but which at the same time exercise irregular action, deviated, deformed, from the military."(7)

"In Latin America, populism has encompassed many forms, but all have shared qualities of being urban-based, multiclass coalitional, hierarchical, cooptive, ad hoc, and nonrevolutionary, led by ebullient (if not charismatic) figures who promised to redress popular grievances and to build social solidarity." They "are nationalistic in character but often have no consistent ideology or agenda; rather, they often adopt a range of issues to fit the needs of the times." Populist leaders include Juan Perón in Argentina, Getúlio Vargas in Brazil, Lázaro Cárdenas in Mexico, and José María Velasco Ibarra in Ecuador.(8)

"...means an alteration in the personnel, structure, supporting myth, and functions of government by methods which are not sanctioned by prevailing constitutional norms. These methods almost invariably involve violence or the threat of violence against political elites, citizens, or both . . . and a relatively abrupt and significant change in the distribution of wealth and social status."(9)

An "economic, social and political doctrine which expresses the struggle for the equal distribution of wealth by eliminating private property and the exploitative ruling class. In practice, such a distribution of wealth is achieved by social ownership of the means of production, exchange and diffusion."(10)

"A territory built by conquest in which one culture, one set of ideals and one set of laws have been imposed by force or threat over diverse nations by a civilian and military bureaucracy. States are ephemeral and originate and disappear with the stroke of a pen (e.g. the end of the U.S.S.R., December 25, 1991). In 1993 there existed 191 states. (Examples: USA, Sudan, China, Spain, Nicaragua)" (from FWDP)

The government is in the hands of a minority who often rule through military might and extreme political repression. The Chilean government under General Pinochet (1973-1990) is an example of a totalitarian government.


1. Neil Harvey, The Chiapas Rebellion: The Struggle for Land and Democracy (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), 250.

2. Jorge I. Domínguez and Abraham F Lowenthal, eds., Constructing Democratic Governance: South America in the 1990s, An Inter-American Dialogue book (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 5.

3. Brazilian scholar Theotonio dos Santos quoted in Benjamin Keen, A History of Latin America, 5th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996), x.

4. Jan Knippers Black, ed., Latin America: Its Problems and Its Promise; A Multidisciplinary Introduction (Boulder: Westview Press, 1984), 3.

5. Richard L. Harris, "The Global Context of Contemporary Latin American Affairs," in Capital, Power, and Inequality in Latin America, eds., Sandor Halebsky and Richard L. Harris (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995), 279, 80.

6. Keen, xi.

7. Javier Giraldo, Colombia: The Genocidal Democracy (Monroe, Me: Common Courage Press, 1996), 77-78.

8. Robert M Levine, Father of the poor? Vargas and his era (Cambridge. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 7, 8.

9. Thomas Greene quoted in John A. Booth, The End and the Beginning: The Nicaraguan Revolution, Second edition, revised and updated (Boulder: Westview Press, 1985), 2.

10. Rius, Marx for Beginners (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976), 152.

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Last updated: March 1999

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