The two great empires, Aztec in Mexico and Inca in Peru, controlled a relatively small number of the 25 million people thought to be living on the continent when Columbus bumped into it in 1492. Prior to the Aztecs, sophisticated cultures had been developed by the Maya to the south and by the Olmecs along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Before the Inca in the Andean highlands, the Nasca and Chimu peoples organized complex systems of irrigation along the lowland coastal strips of Ecuador and Peru. Some estimates suggest that in the Amazon basin there were 2,000 different groups and seven million people. Evidence is only now emerging of the many groups inhabiting the grasslands of southern Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. The ancestry of the majority of Latin Americans today derives from all of these peoples.
European colonizers exploited the diversity of indigenous groups, even persuading them to fight on the side of the invaders. In 1493 the Papal edict Inter Caetera pronounced that 'barbarous nations be overthrown'. The Treaty of Tordesilles was signed by the Spanish and Portuguese crowns in 1494 and divided the continent between them - roughly along the current borders of Brazil. A genocide of indigenous peoples followed, to the point where slave labour had to be brought in from Africa, not just to Brazil and the Caribbean but right across the continent. The feudal structures of Europe were replicated in colonies designed to extract their natural wealth - particularly silver and sugar - thereby enriching both the imperial rulers and their local agents.
Following the US Declaration of Independence in 1776, independence movements proliferated in Latin America. They were for the most part controlled by the local European - 'Creole' - élites, which cultivated populist nationalism to strengthen their own position. They wanted to preserve the administrative subdivisions and vast landed estates of the old feudal order, and thus their own wealth and privilege. However, when the most prominent 'liberator', Simon Bolivar, became the first President of Colombia in 1819, it included present-day Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela. Bolivar went on to control Peru - Upper Peru was named Bolivia in his honour in 1825 - in pursuit of his vision of a single Andean republic, which never materialized. The vast territory of the former Portuguese colony became the state of Brazil.
In 1823 President James Monroe told the US Congress that 'the American continents... are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers'. The US declared itself protector of the Americas, thereby discouraging independent alliances between Latin American nations. The 'Monroe Doctrine' has informed US foreign policy ever since, justifying repeated interventions into its own 'back yard'. In 1948 the Organization of American States (OAS) was founded, dominated by the US and the politics of the Cold War - although Latin American states have far more in common with each other than with the US. Only with the Cuban Revolution in 1959 was there a concerted effort to link Latin American countries independently from the US. Failure was symbolized by the death of Ché Guevara, an Argentinean, while trying to promote revolution in Bolivia in 1967.
Since the end of the Cold War the official emphasis in Latin America, as elsewhere, has been on trade. The US wants to create a single Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), dominated by US business interests, supported by Mexico, Colombia and Chile but excluding Cuba. There also exist two independent Latin American trading blocks. MERCOSUR includes Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. The Andean Community includes Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela - replicating Bolivar's visionary Andean republic. Though still in their infancy, these new blocks may yet be able to supplant 'free' with 'fair' trading arrangements in the interests of the Latin American people - unless the FTAA is imposed first. In addition, groups like the Sâo Paulo Forum are working across national boundaries to develop and implement alternatives to free-market 'neoliberalism'.