Social & Economic Changes in Latin America: 1900-1950

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  • 0:02 Hardships of Region
  • 0:39 World War I
  • 1:53 Conflicting Ideas
  • 2:53 U.S. Involvement & Revolution
  • 3:34 Lesson SUmmary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson explores Latin America during the first half of the 20th century. It highlights the economic strains linked to World War I. It also discusses U.S. involvement in the region.

Hardships of Region

I have a friend who always seems to be down on her luck. She bought a new car; she crashed it a week later. She planned an island vacation, a hurricane hit. Really, the poor thing just can't win.

Sadly, the same can be said of Latin America throughout much of the 20th century. Like my friend, it just can't seem to get ahead. However, its hardships aren't limited to cars and ruined vacations. They go much deeper, carrying economic devastation and war. To see what I mean, we'll spend today looking at Latin America during the first half of the 20th century. We'll start at World War I.

World War I

Prior to the war, most Latin American countries made their money through exporting. For instance, Chile supplied nitrates to the world, Brazil supplied coffee, and Argentina exported wheat and wool. In other words, Latin America depended on world trade for much of its survival. Therefore, World War I hit its pocketbook and hit it hard.

For instance, take a look at Chile and its nitrate production. As most of us know, nitrates are used to make explosives. For this reason, the war could have been a real boom for Chile. After all, explosives and war tend to go hand in hand. Indeed, Germany was one of Chile's biggest customers. However, when Britain blockaded the German trade routes, Chile's wallet took a major hit. Sadly for the people of Latin America, naval blockades and battles wreaked havoc on all their products trying to cross the seas.

Speaking of Britain, before the war the Brits probably held the greatest economic sway in Latin America. However, when British trade ships were reassigned to carry soldiers, trade definitely took a back seat. Not only did Latin America lose its German markets, it lost lots of Britain's money as well. When the war started causing Europe's entire economy to tank, Latin America started going down with the ship. This is a bit ironic considering Brazil was one of the only countries that actually fought in the war!

Conflicting Ideas

Fortunately, or unfortunately (depending on your perspective) the U.S. stepped up to take Britain's place in the world of Latin American trade. Nevertheless, this did not solve all its problems. In fact, many would argue it added new ones, which lasted long after the shots of World War I ended.

To explain, toward the end of the war several Latin American countries began making a bit of a comeback. However, the war was soon followed by the Great Depression. With this, Latin America's economy followed the U.S. right into the dumps.

Due to this, some Latin Americans began calling for their region to get out of business with the outside world. Speaking rather officially, they wanted to begin import substitution industrialization or replacing foreign imports with domestic production. In short, they wanted to make and use their own stuff rather than relying on the outside world. However others, especially the wealthy leaders with ties to the U.S., didn't want to give up the old import-export game they were playing with Uncle Sam.

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