How Latin America Gained Independence from Spain

Independence of Argentina
The first flag of Argentina presented to the revolutionary army by General Belgrano on February 27, 1812.

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Independence from Spain came suddenly for most of Latin America. Between 1810 and 1825, most of Spain's former colonies declared and won independence and had divided up into republics.

Sentiment had been growing in the colonies for some time, dating back to the American Revolution. Although Spanish forces efficiently quashed most early rebellions, the idea of independence had taken root in the minds of the people of Latin America and continued to grow.

Napoleon's invasion of Spain (1807-1808) provided the spark the rebels needed. Napoleon, seeking to expand his empire, attacked and defeated Spain, and he put his elder brother Joseph on the Spanish throne. This act made for a perfect excuse for secession, and by the time Spain had gotten rid of Joseph in 1813 most of their former colonies had declared themselves independent.

Spain fought valiantly to hold on to its rich colonies. Although the independence movements took place at about the same time, the regions were not united, and each area had its own leaders and history.

Independence in Mexico

Independence in Mexico was sparked by Father Miguel Hidalgo, a priest living and working in the small town of Dolores. He and a small group of conspirators started the rebellion by ringing the church bells on the morning of September 16, 1810. This act became known as the "Cry of Dolores." His ragtag army made it partway to the capital before being driven back, and Hidalgo himself was captured and executed in July of 1811.

Its leader gone, the Mexican Independence movement almost failed, but the command was assumed by José María Morelos, another priest, and a talented field marshal. Morelos won a series of impressive victories against Spanish forces before being captured and executed in December 1815.

The rebellion continued, and two new leaders came to prominence: Vicente Guerrero and Guadalupe Victoria, both of whom commanded large armies in the south and south-central parts of Mexico. The Spanish sent out a young officer, Agustín de Iturbide, at the head of a large army to quash the rebellion once and for all in 1820. Iturbide, however, was distressed over political developments in Spain and switched sides. With the defection of its largest army, Spanish rule in Mexico was essentially over, and Spain formally recognized Mexico's independence on August 24, 1821.

Independence in Northern South America

The independence struggle in northern Latin America began in 1806 when Venezuelan Francisco de Miranda first attempted to liberate his homeland with British help. This attempt failed, but Miranda returned in 1810 to head up the First Venezuelan Republic with Simón Bolívar and others.

Bolívar fought the Spanish in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Colombia for several years, decisively beating them several times. By 1822, those countries were free, and Bolívar set his sights on Peru, the last and mightiest Spanish holdout on the continent.

Along with his close friend and subordinate Antonio José de Sucre, Bolívar won two important victories in 1824: at Junín, on August 6, and at Ayacucho on December 9. Their forces routed, the Spanish signed a peace agreement shortly after the battle of Ayacucho.

Independence in Southern South America

Argentina drew up its own government on May 25, 1810, in response to Napoleon's capture of Spain, although it would not formally declare independence until 1816. Although Argentine rebel forces fought several small battles with Spanish forces, most of their efforts went towards fighting larger Spanish garrisons in Peru and Bolivia.

The fight for Argentine Independence was led by José de San Martín, an Argentine native who had been trained as a military officer in Spain. In 1817, he crossed the Andes into Chile, where Bernardo O'Higgins and his rebel army had been fighting the Spanish to a draw since 1810. Joining forces, the Chileans and Argentines soundly defeated the Spanish at the Battle of Maipú (near Santiago, Chile) on April 5, 1818, effectively ending Spanish control over the southern part of South America.

Independence in the Caribbean

Although Spain lost all of their colonies on the mainland by 1825, it retained control over Cuba and Puerto Rico. It had already lost control of Hispaniola due to uprisings by enslaved people in Haiti.

In Cuba, Spanish forces put down several major rebellions, including one which lasted from 1868 to 1878. Carlos Manuel de Cespedes led it. Another major attempt at independence took place in 1895 when ragtag forces including Cuban poet and patriot José Martí were defeated at the Battle of Dos Ríos. The revolution was still simmering in 1898 when the United States and Spain fought the Spanish-American War. After the war, Cuba became a US protectorate and was granted independence in 1902.

In Puerto Rico, nationalist forces staged occasional uprisings, including a notable one in 1868. None were successful, however, and Puerto Rico did not become independent from Spain until 1898 as a result of the Spanish-American War. The island became a protectorate of the United States, and it has been so ever since.


Harvey, Robert. "Liberators: Latin America's Struggle for Independence." 1st edition, Harry N. Abrams, September 1, 2000.

Lynch, John. The Spanish American Revolutions 1808-1826 New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986.

Lynch, John. Simon Bolivar: A Life. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006.

Scheina, Robert L. Latin America's Wars, Volume 1: The Age of the Caudillo 1791-1899 Washington, D.C.: Brassey's Inc., 2003.

Shumway, Nicolas. "The Invention of Argentina." University of California Press, March 18, 1993.

Villalpando, José Manuel. .Miguel Hidalgo Mexico City: Editorial Planeta, 2002.

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Minster, Christopher. "How Latin America Gained Independence from Spain." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Minster, Christopher. (2023, April 5). How Latin America Gained Independence from Spain. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "How Latin America Gained Independence from Spain." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).