Chronicling the Diaspora: South America
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When people from the United States call their country “America,” many across the Western Hemisphere are quick to roll their eyes, and rightfully so. 

Within the last half century, people in the Global North have become more familiar with South America, considering rising immigration from those countries within that time period.

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Using the term “America” to refer to the United States excludes the numerous regions that make up the broader “America,” which includes Latin America, Canada and Greenland.

Offense taken against this practice is especially common in South America, a continent where 12 independent countries exist. Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano summed it up himself: “I am astonished each time I come to the U.S. by the ignorance of a high percentage of the population, which knows almost nothing about Latin America or about the world.”

Galeano was right. Many people in the United States aren’t aware about history or current events in Latin America, much less that another large continent with 12 countries also considers itself to be part of “America.”

South America, however, is increasingly being talked and learned about, given its rising prominence in the global political and economic arena. Brazil, for example, the continent’s largest and most populated country, is now ranked among the world’s ten largest economies. 

Within the last half century, people in the Global North have also become more familiar with South America, considering rising immigration from those countries within that time period. Unfortunately, many in the Global North are also unaware of the particular circumstances that led South Americans to leave their continent, facilitating inaccurate depictions that persist today.

teleSUR takes a look at the origins of the South American diaspora in an effort to dispel these depictions. 

Argentina

Source: Wikimedia Commons


Argentina, South America’s second-largest country, borders Chile to the west, Bolivia and Paraguay to the north and Brazil and Uruguay to the northeast. 

After declaring independence from Spain in 1816, the South American country was torn apart by a decades-long brutal civil war, which eventually came to an end in 1861. Following the end of conflict between federalists and unitarians, Argentina became one of the region’s wealthiest nations with the rise of industrialization.

Economic growth during the late 19th Century and early to mid-20th Century, especially during World War II, made it an ideal place for European immigrants fleeing conflict to settle. Throughout this time period, emigration from Argentina was virtually non-existent. Things changed, however, during the early 1970s with the beginning of the Dirty War.

The Dirty War was a local offshoot of Operation Condor, a decades-long campaign of terror and repression backed by the United States against Southern Cone leftist movements. Argentina’s far-right military dictatorship reportedly killed and kidnapped thousands of people, prompting mass emigration. 

Most Argentines emigrated to North America and Europe, with a vast majority moving to the United States. There, approximately 248,823 people of Argentine descent live today, according to 2012 U.S. Census Bureau data. Most live in the Miami, Los Angeles and New York City metropolitan areas. 

A smaller group of emigres moved to Canada, where just over 16,000 people of Argentine descent live, according to a 2011 National Household Survey.

Bolivia

Source: Wikimedia Commons


Bolivia, the heartland of South American Indigeneity, borders Brazil to the north, Peru to the west, Chile to the southwest and Argentina and Paraguay to the south.

The Andean nation declared independence from Spain in 1825, after which it participated in several wars with neighboring Argentina and Chile in defense of its lands. Throughout the second half of the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th Century, a string of right-wing military governments, predominately run by wealthy white colonizers, governed the country virtually unchallenged. 

Things temporarily changed after 1952, when former President Víctor Paz Estenssoro and the leftist Revolutionary Nationalist Movement, MNR, took power. After this drastic political shift, many wealthy white Bolivians emigrated, relocating to North America and Europe. Though eventually being ousted in 1964 by a military junta, the Indigenous-led movement behind Estenssoro and the MNR resisted the return of right-wing military rule for decades. 

During the 1970s and 80s, when the military government intensified crackdowns on leftist and Indigenous movements, emigration by poor Mestizo and Indigenous Bolivians intensified. They mainly settled in North America and Europe, the regions that imposed austere neoliberal economics in the landlocked country. Thus, a combination of right-wing military violence and poverty-producing free market conditions sparked mass emigration during this time period.

Most Bolivians settled in the United States, where there are currently 119,115 of them living today, according to 2011 U.S. Census Bureau data. They also relocated to Canada and the United Kingdom, where there are currently 4,605 and 3,765 of them living respectively, according to 2011 National Household Survey and International Organization for Migration statistics.

Brazil

Source: Wikimedia Commons


Brazil, the continent’s largest and most populated country, borders all South American countries except for Ecuador and Chile. 

The ethnically-diverse nation declared independence from Portugal in 1822, when it became known as the Empire of Brazil. Monarchic rule, which lasted until 1889, was marked by the intensification of societal hierarchy that placed white wealthy elites at the top and Afro-Indigenous slaves at the bottom. In fact, Brazil was one of the last countries in the Western Hemisphere to outlaw slavery.

With the introduction of republican and federal political reforms, extreme social inequality persisted under the guise of democracy. Power grabs between right-wing military juntas and center-left leaders like Getulio Vargas and João Goulart persisted into the 1960s, when the former of the two sides came into power by force. 

Brazil’s military rule, which lasted until 1985, was similar to that of other South American nations during Operation Condor. Leftist leaders were slaughtered. Wages were suppressed. Black and Indigenous people were massacred. 

Although many wealthy Europeans immigrated to Brazil after World War II, creating pockets of financial grow in some areas, grueling economic and political conditions experienced by the masses forced millions to leave the country.

The Brazilian diaspora is numbered to be roughly 3.1 million people, according to Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Relations. The top five nations with Brazilian immigrants include the United States with 1.1 million people, Japan with 210,032, Paraguay with 201,527, Portugal with 140,426 and Spain with 128,238. 

Emigration from Brazil has declined in recent years, given the country’s rapid domestic growth as the world’s eighth-largest economy.

Chile

Source: Wikimedia Commons


Chile borders Argentina to the east, Peru to the north and Bolivia to the northeast.

The South American country, which lines the continent’s Pacific coast, declared independence from Spain in 1818. Upon becoming an independent country, the country’s white settler class based in Santiago and Valparaiso began stealing lands in neighboring Peru and Bolivia.

Annexation and plunder of these regions allowed Chile’s economy to grow at a faster rate than others in the region, as evidenced by scholar Jörg Baten’s 2016 “A History of the Global Economy: From 1500 to the Present.”

Chile’s expansion-based economic growth continued until 1891, when the executive and legislative branches of government engaged in civil war, ushering in a more inward-looking parliamentary system. By the 1920s, socialism began to gain a stronghold in the country, which also witnessed a subsequent tug of war between conservative military and liberal democratic forces.

Left-leaning politicians like Eduardo Frei Montalva began gaining more appeal over the country’s right-wing military and financial elite, which ruled the country through most of the 20th Century. By 1970, with the election of former Marxist President Salvador Allende, the United States and its local compradors set their sights on restoring traditional conservative order and wiping out leftist movements in line with Operation Condor. 

Three years later, when Allende was forcibly removed from power and died, the right-wing regime of dictator Augusto Pinochet sparked mass emigration. Prior to this, many wealthy Chileans emigrated to northern California, where they participated in U.S. gold mining projects. Following Pinochet’s Washington-backed coup, most Chilean emigres were working class people fleeing political repression and neoliberal austerity.

Today, there are approximately 140,045 Chileans living in the United States, according to 2012 U.S. Census Bureau data. Meanwhile, there are roughly 25,195 living in Canada and 7,130 living in the United Kingdom, 2011 National Household Survey and Office for National Statistics studies reported.

Colombia

Source: Wikimedia Commons


Colombia, South America’s second-most-populated country, borders Ecuador and Peru to the south, Venezuela to the east, Brazil to the southeast and Panama to the northwest. 

The country declared independence in 1810 as part of the larger Gran Colombia, which was eventually dissolved in 1830. In the decades following its dissolution, the United States began setting its eyes on the country, given its geopolitical importance. 

Access to both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the abundance of cash crops like coffee and bananas and cheap labor via slavery made Colombia an attractive place for U.S. investors. By 1903, Washington and local comprador elites imposed the partition of modern-day Panama,  making their commercial and political domination of the region clear. 

Throughout the rest of the early 20th Century, U.S. companies and right-wing military elites held a dictatorship over the country’s political landscape. Multinationals like the United Fruit Company had Colombia’s Armed Forces at its disposal against rising militancy within workers. This is exemplified by the 1928 Banana Massacre, when the aforementioned company called in troops to squash a labor strike, leaving thousands of poor workers dead.

By the mid 20th Century, especially with the assassination of leftist presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, the Colombian state waged unrelenting war against workers and communist movements. This period, known as La Violencia (The Violence) sparked the first waves of emigration from Colombia. 

Subsequent decades of right-wing military and paramilitary suppression of worker, peasant Black, Indigenous and communist guerrilla movements also facilitated emigration from Colombia. This peaked during the 1980s, when thousands of activists from the leftist Union Patriotica (Patriotic Union) group were massacred. Neoliberal economic policies implemented during the late 20th Century also facilitated emigration.

Most Colombians emigrated to the United States, where there are an estimated 1.1 million, according to 2016 U.S. Census Bureau data. There, most live in New York and Florida. 

In Canada, there are roughly 60,000 people of Colombian descent, a 2011 National Household Survey reported. In the United Kingdom, that figure is about 25,000, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Ecuador

Source: Wikimedia Commons


Ecuador, named after its position on the Equator, borders Colombia to the north and Peru to the east and south.

The former Spanish colony was also a member state of Gran Colombia, going through many of the trials and tribulations that Colombia and Venezuela went through after the 1930 dissolution. 

During the mid and late 1800s, conservative military leaders like Gabriel Garcia Moreno surrendered their economy to U.S. and European multinationals, setting the scene for Ecuador joining the list of other “banana republics” in the region. Cacao, one of the country’s most profitable crops, was exported en masse as chocolate to wealthy elites in Switzerland, Italy and the United States. 

By the mid 1900s, Ecuador lost significant amounts of land in the Amazon region to Peru, solidifying its position as one of the cotinent’s smallest and poorest nations. Throughout the ensuing decades, the country was ruled by liberal and conservative elites who exported rich crops at low prices and made minimal investments in domestic social programs.

Poverty and military repression of leftist movements in the 1960s led to the first wave of emigration. Although the 1979 election and subsequent presidency of leftist leader Jaime Roldos Aguilera temporarily disrupted the political status quo, his suspicious death two years later brought the country back under the control of the New York and London stock exchanges.

Decades of neoliberal economic depression after Roldos’ 1981 death metastasized desires to leave the country. Emigration peaked in 1999, when the country went through one of its worst financial crises. The crisis, known as the Feriado Bancario (Banker’s Holiday), began with former right-wing President Jamil Mahuad imposing the U.S. dollar as the primary form of commerce, eliminating its domestic Sucre currency. Mahuad and many other right-wing bankers walked away with millions. 

Today, there are about 712,084 Ecuadoreans living in the United States, according to a 2015 American Community Survey. There are 13,635 and 8,767 living in Canada and the United Kingdom respectively, according to 2011 Canadian and British census figures.

Guyana

Source: Wikimedia Commons


Guyana, one of four non-Spanish-speaking nations in South America, borders Venezuela to the west, Suriname to the east and Brazil to the south. 

The English-speaking nation was a colony of the United Kingdom until 1966, when it won independence from the British Crown. It was also colonized by The Netherlands prior to British imperial rule, which began in 1796. 

Under Dutch and British rule, Guyana served as a plantation worked by kidnapped African, Indian and Indigenous Amerindian slaves. After 1834, when slavery was abolished there, the descendants of these slaves became low-wage peasants in the countryside and impoverished workers in the urban centers, like Georgetown. 

Throughout the second half of the 19th Century and first half of the 20th Century, Guyana continued to remain under complete colonial control by the British. Things changed in the 1960s, when the country’s socialist and anti-imperialist movement played a leading role in fighting for independence. After British retreat and Guyanese insurrection, the country became independent. This sparked the first wave of Guyanese emigration.

After independence, however, the United States began supporting right-wing forces in the country that targeted leftist movements like the People’s Progressive Party, which fought against rising U.S. imperialism.

Rising military repression and poverty throughout this period led to another wave of emigration.

Most Guyanese emigrants resettled in the United States — particularly in Queens, New York — where an estimated 208,899 live, according to 2011 U.S. Census Bureau statistics. Many also resettled in Canada and the United Kingdom, where 75,345 and 21,417 live respectively, according to National Household Survey and Office for National Statistics data. 

Paraguay

Source: Wikimedia Commons


Paraguay, one of South America’s smallest countries, borders Argentina to the south and Bolivia and Brazil to the north.

The landlocked nation gained independence in 1811, ushering in centuries of military rule and power-sharing among wealthy white settlers. The country’s large Indigenous Guarani population was legally, economically and socially segregated. 

By 1864, Paraguay was drawn into war with neighboring Argentina and Brazil and nearby Uruguay, which all sought to colonize the country by invasion. The Triple Alliance, as it was known, won the war and gained control over vast regions of the country. Devastation from the war prevented Paraguay from developing at rates as fast as other, more prosperous Southern Cone nations during the late 19th Century.

The first half of the 20th Century in Paraguay was marked by political instability. Civil war and power struggles between the Liberal and Colorado parties resulted in short incumbencies for leaders from both sides. 

Following the coming to power of right-wing military dictator Alfredo Stroessner in 1954, political repression against peasants, activists and Indigenous people intensified. This caused the first wave of Paraguayan emigrants to leave the country. Another wave of Paraguayan emigration began in 1989, when Stroessner was overthrown by other military leaders. 

Today, there are about 24,933 Paraguayans living in the United States, according to 2011 U.S. Census Bureau data. Most live in New York and Florida. About 7,110 live in Canada, according to a 2011 National Household Survey report.

Peru

Source: Wikimedia Commons


Peru, the heart of the Andes mountain range, borders Ecuador to the north, Colombia to the northeast, Brazil to the east, Bolivia to the southeast and Chile to the south.

The country declared independence from Spain in 1821, despite remaining loyal to the Spanish Crown during earlier South American independence movements. With help from regional independence heroes Jose de San Martin, Bernardo O’ Higgins and Simon Bolivar, Peru’s anti-colonial movement defeated the Europeans.

Following the mid 19th Century, when Peru became indebted to European and U.S. companies that built railroads in the country, it began using territorial expansion as a way to tackle its deficit. 

Peru engaged in wars over land disputes with Ecuador, Chile and Colombia during the second half of the 19th Century and first half of the 20th Century. Throughout this time, the country was ruled intermittently between military juntas and comprador liberals.

Beginning in the 1960s, Peru’s communist movement presented a serious threat to the country’s ruling class, prompting military crackdowns on those suspected of “treason.” Those targeted were mainly poor, Indigenous and lived in rural areas. Violence between leftist militants and right-wing military forces prompted the first major emigration wave.

Campaigning on promises to eradicate communist groups, former right-wing President Alberto Fujimori took power in 1990. His administration was marked by relentless human rights violations committed against Indigenous people, leftist activists and the poor. These include forced sterilizations, scorched earth campaigns and political assassinations, among others. 

Fujimori’s administration ignited a second mass wave of emigration.

Most Peruvians moved to the United States, where 646,395 people of Peruvian descent currently live, according to 2015 U.S. Census Bureau statistics. Many Peruvians also moved to Canada and the United Kingdom. There are 26,715 who live in Canada and 7,246 who live in the United Kingdom, according to 2011 government statistics from both countries.

Suriname

Source: Wikimedia Commons


Suriname, another non-Spanish-speaking South American country, borders Guyana to the west, Brazil to the south and French Guiana to the east.

The former English and later Dutch colony, like Guyana, was used as a plantation for slaves of diverse backgrounds. The nation became home to the Maroon people — the descendants of runaway African slaves who mixed with Indigenous people. The Maroons also became the face of resistance to European colonization, often attacking settlements. 

After 1863, when slavery was abolished in Suriname, many sons and daughters of slaves moved to Paramaribo, the country’s capital, to work in factories. The Netherlands maintained its overt grip of power on the nation until 1954, the year it gained partial independence. 

Full independence didn’t come until 1975. This was the year that many Surinamese began to leave the country amid political instability and economic depression. 

Several waves of Surinamese emigration occurred during the 1980s and 90s, when civil war erupted between the Maroons and the National Army. 

Today, there are almost 3,000 Surinamese people living in the United States. Most of them live in Queens, New York and Miami, Florida. Several hundred also live in Canada, The Netherlands and the United Kingdom, according to their respective census statistics.

Uruguay

Source: Wikimedia Commons


Uruguay, South America’s second-smallest independent nation after Suriname, borders Brazil to the north and Argentina to the west. 

The early 19th Century in Uruguay was marked by ongoing conflict between locals and Spanish, Portuguese and Brazilian invaders. The Uruguayans were able to defeat the Spanish in 1811, but were eventually annexed into the Empire of Brazil until 1825. 

Montevideo elites eventually sided with Argentina and Brazil after independence, helping them in conquests of nearby Paraguay. Several civil wars also took place during the middle of the 19th Century, ushering in a larger military presence.

During the late 19th Century, the military-led government implemented rapid industrialization plans, attracting thousands of European immigrants, like in neighboring Argentina. Uruguay’s unfettered industrialization, coupled with rising numbers of skilled immigrants and its strategic position on a main trading route, made it one of Latin America’s wealthiest countries.

By the 1930s and 40s, however, economic depression in Uruguay’s urban centers sparked unrest among industrial workers whose living standards went down. This depression lasted for several decades, paving the way for urban leftist groups like the Tupamaros to emerge during the 1960s and 70s. 

In line with Operation Condor, which was taking place across the region, right-wing military leaders in Uruguay hunted down leftist activists, facilitating rising emigration. It should be noted, however, that Uruguay has one of the lowest emigration rates in Latin America, given the country’s longstanding prosperity relative to the rest of the region.

There are roughly 67,000 Uruguayans who live in the United States, according to 2014 U.S. Census Bureau information. Meanwhile, there are 6,600 living in Canada and just over a thousand living in the United Kingdom, according to National Household Survey and Office of National Statistics reports. 

Venezuela

Source: Wikimedia Commons


Venezuela, South America’s fifth most populated country, borders Colombia to the west, Brazil to the south and Guyana to the east. 

Alongside Colombia and Ecuador, the country gained independence in 1811 as part of Gran Colombia under the leadership of Simon Bolivar and others. 

Following independence, Venezuela was marked by incessant civil wars between federalists and unitary conservatives who promoted different political systems for the country. Although slavery was abolished in 1854, oppression against Black and Indigenous people was rampant and overt. 

Throughout the rest of the 19th Century and the first decade of the 20th Century, Venezuela remained one of the poorest countries in the region. It wasn’t until the 1910s and 20s that a handful of wealthy elites reached international prominence, given the discovery of mass amounts of oil. This created economic growth for the country’s white urban elite, distancing them even further from the Black, Indigenous and mixed-raced masses.

Despite minor attempts to democratize Venezuela’s oil wealth by leaders like Rómulo Betancourt, petroleum profits remained privately in the hands of the status quo. During the mid 20th Century, dozens of communist groups promoting the nationalization of oil sprang up, paving the way for future revolutionary movements. 

By the 1980s and early 90s, Venezuela’s economy was hit with rising inflation and increasing inequality, prompting many to leave the country. Those who left Venezuela at this time were predominantly working class people.

After 1999, when former President Hugo Chavez took office and ushered in the leftist Bolivarian Revolution, Venezuelan emigration took a different turn. Many white, wealthy elites who had their property nationalized by the revolutionary government fled the country, relocating to prosperous cities like Doral, Florida. Those who left Venezuela after 1999 were predominantly well-off Venezuelans who disapproved of the new government. 

Mass emigration also began in 2014, when right-wing opposition forces in the country contributed to sabotaging the country’s economy and sparking violent protests.

Today, there are about 321,609 Venezuelans living in the United States, according to a 2015 American Community Survey. Moreover, there are roughly 16,005 living in Canada and 9,150 living in the United Kingdom. 

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