Latin American History: Civil Wars and Revolutions

Cuba, Mexico and Colombia Top the List

Latin America
Jennifer Maravillas/Getty Images

Even since most of Latin America gained independence from Spain in the period from 1810 to 1825, the region has been the scene of numerous disastrous civil wars and revolutions. They range from the all-out assault on the authority of the Cuban Revolution to the bickering of Colombia's Thousand Day War, but they all reflect the passion and idealism of the people of Latin America.

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Huascar and Atahualpa: an Inca Civil War

Atahualpa, last king of the Incas
Atahualpa, last king of the Incas. Public Domain Image

Latin America's civil wars and revolutions did not begin with independence from Spain or even with the Spanish conquest. The Native Americans who lived in the New World often had their own civil wars long before the Spanish and Portuguese arrived. The mighty ​Inca Empire fought a disastrous civil war from 1527 to 1532 as brothers Huascar and Atahualpa fought for the throne vacated by the death of their father. Not only did hundreds of thousands die in the fighting and rapine of war but also the weakened empire could not defend itself when ruthless Spanish conquistadors under Francisco Pizarro arrived in 1532.

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The Mexican-American War

The Battle of Churubusco
The Battle of Churubusco. James Walker, 1848

Between 1846 and 1848, Mexico and the United States were at war. This does not qualify as a civil war or revolution, but it was nevertheless a significant event that changed national boundaries. Although the Mexicans were not completely without fault, the war was basically about the United States' expansionist desire for Mexico's western territories -- what is now nearly all of California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and ​New Mexico. After a humiliating loss that saw the ​U.S. win every major engagement, Mexico was forced to agree to the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Mexico lost nearly a third of its territory in this war.

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Colombia: The Thousand Days' War

Rafael Uribe
Rafael Uribe. Public Domain Image

Of all of the South American republics that emerged after the fall of the Spanish Empire, it is perhaps Colombia that has suffered the most from internal strife. Conservatives, who favored a strong central government, limited voting rights and an important role for the church in government), and Liberals, who favored separation of church and state, a strong regional government and liberal voting rules, fought it out with one another off and on for more than 100 years. The Thousand Days' War reflects one of the bloodiest periods of this conflict; it lasted from 1899 to 1902 and cost more than 100,000 Colombian lives.

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The Mexican Revolution

Pancho Villa
Pancho Villa.

After decades of the tyrannical rule of Porfirio Diaz, during which Mexico prospered but the benefits were felt only by the rich, the people took up arms and fought for a better life. Led by legendary bandit/warlords like Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, these angry masses were turned into great armies that roamed central and northern Mexico, battling federal forces and one another. The revolution lasted from 1910 to 1920 and when the dust settled, millions were dead or displaced.

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The Cuban Revolution

Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro in 1959. Public Domain image

In the 1950s, Cuba had much in common with Mexico during the reign of Porfirio Diaz. The economy was booming, but the benefits were only felt by a few. Dictator Fulgencio Batista and his cronies ruled the island like their own private kingdom, accepting payments from the fancy hotels and casinos that drew wealthy Americans and celebrities. Ambitious young lawyer Fidel Castro decided to make some changes. With his brother Raul and companions Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, he fought a guerrilla war against Batista from 1956 to 1959. His victory changed the balance of power around the world.