Travelling, what a romantic notion: sandy white beaches, not a care in the world, cocktails at any hour of the day and mind broadening experiences.  Yes it’s all these things and more, when travelling it’s nearly impossible not to catch whisps of politics, tensions and history from anywhere you go. Every country in this great big world of ours has its own story, it’s own tale to tell full of vivid characters, rich culture and intriguing customs. It’s in the raft of this diversity that travelling sails so romantically into the sunset for so many of us. Obviously travelling the world wouldn’t be the same if it was all the same now would it?

As we near the end of our journey in Latin America we’ve seen a wide range of amazing sights, tasted exquisite food along with some culinary atrocities (looking at you Argentina), bathed in culture and soaked ourselves in the rich history of this continent. We are due for a dash through Uruguay tomorrow but for now we’ve been to seven countries and it’s in the sad history that we have learned lessons and now shoulder a greater affinity with this region. 

The story we are now so familiar with; is of a pillaging conquest of a greater power over a weaker one. What we see existing today are so many legacies, so many hints and reminders of a broken corpse that’s been left at the side of the road when a great power has used up the best of a carcass that it leaves behind. In the plain view of everyday life we see people struggle with inequality so deeply ingrained, great wealth divides, people devoid of hope intermingled with those rising so hopefully from the ashes. One judicious look at our current world sadly paints such a familiar picture for anyone travelling Latin America repeated across the globe. Sure the bigger powers have developed more diplomatic methods to hunt and feed on their prey, but not always. Atrocities today are all too common and entire nations are dragged into a barbaric world that belongs to movie screens not to the lives of innocent millions.  

Sadly this is not only a historical tale. From my view of the world via the media I consume:

  • China really should learn that declaring another country as theirs doesn’t simply make it so. 
  • Russia seems to spin the wheel on who it wants to torment next with its draconian ways. 
  • Syria needs a slap like a screaming child on a bus, along with Israel and Saudi Arabia among others in the region (yes I mentioned Israel in the same breath as Saudi Arabia, so bold aren’t I). 
  • Africa, don’t get me started. 
  • Oh and there’s IS, they’re in the news a bit lately. 

For every victim in this world there seems to be five opinions and I welcome them all, I’m far more a part time wikipedia warrior than a learned historian so shoot me down at will, I’m always up for an education. 

Back to Latin America; it’s impossible to be here for any real length of time with eyes open and not be affected, inspired and outraged. In this country there is a summed up history that runs so simply and is in various stages of repetition around the world, anyone can hit Google and become an instant historian and even plot the chart of nations for years to come. Such is the consistency of aftermath post-conquest that it seems like it’s a path that all conquered countries must tread, more a matter of how fast they can move through the steps rather than attempting to avoid or skip them. I wonder where Australia is on this pathway? So what are these steps? They might look something like this: Conquest over an indigenous culture, independence, power vacuum leading to dictatorship, intervention by a world power and years of torment in recovery. It seems it is sadly all too common. 

But I must apologise, I have been sadly remiss in naming this country; sad for the most part because it’s all of them. Don’t believe me? In attempting to make a very long and complicated history digestible I’ve summarised, e.g. Greater Colombia was a region that roughly covered Colombia, Ecuador and Panama but I’ll use modern borders for now. Not all dictators were entirely evil and not all came directly after Independence. Indulge me if you will.

STEP 1: Crush, Kill, Destroy; Spanish conquest

  • Cuba – Tainos 1511
  • Mexico – Aztecs 1519-21 (Teotihuacans and Mayans existed earlier)
  • Colombia – Incas 1532
  • Ecuador – Incas 1532
  • Peru –  Incas 1532
  • Chile – Mapuchas1540-1553 (Southern Chile arguably never conquered)
  • Argentina – Various groups 1536 (Charruas, Minuane, Guaranies, Yamana) 

STEP 2: Liberation in Independence

  • Colombia – 20 July 1910 
  • Chile – 1 Sept 1810 
  • Mexico – 16 Sept 1810 
  • Argentina – 9 July 1816 
  • Peru – 28 July 1821 
  • Ecuador – 24 May 1822 
  • Cuba- 20 May 1902 

STEP 3: Someone to fill the vacuum (note, there are many more names than this, this is a short list of the well known figures)

  • Mexico – Porfirio Diaz (Ruled for 35 years)
  • Chile – Augustine Pinochet (Ruled for 20 years)
  • Ecuador – Eloy Alfaro (Ruled for 11 years
  • Argentina – George Rafael Vileda (Ruled for 5 years)
  • Colombia – Gustavo Rojos Pinilla (Ruled for 4 years)
  • Cuba – Fulgencio Batista (Ruled for 7 years), Fidel Castro (Ruled for 49 years)
  • Peru – Manuel Odria (Ruled for 8 years)

STEP 4: The powers meddle


Colombia disagrees with the US over the area now known as Panama. US is not happy. US supports war to help form Panama as independent country. US get use of the Panama Canal. 500 dead officially, unofficially approximately 3,000.

Question from reporter: “Was it really worth it to send people to their death for this? To get Noriega?

George Bush (Snr): “Every human life is precious, and yet I have to answer, yes, it has been worth it.”


In September 1973, the military overthrew the government with US backing killing democratically elected president Allende in the process. Pinochet takes control, 3,000 executed, thousands more tortured or disappeared.


Fidel Castro came to power at the beginning of 1959 by overthrowing the US’ man Batista (he was a very nasty character that one). U.S. National Security Council meeting of March 10, 1959 included on its agenda the feasibility of bringing “another government to power in Cuba.” There followed 40 years of terrorist attacks, bombings, full-scale military invasion, sanctions, embargoes, isolation and assassinations.


The U.S. had helped the Mexicans achieve independence and supported Benito Juárez in his overthrow of emperor Maximilian, but had also forcefully annexed half of Mexico’s territory after the Mexican–American War and supported dictator Porfirio Díaz 


1948-1956: US backs Manuel Odria. To overthrow elected government

1968-1980: US backed Major General Juan Valesco Alvarado seizes military rule for seven years. Alvarado’s junta ousts Belaunde Terry, who was resistant to nationalizing oil production and had devalued the Sol by over forty percent. 


Ecuador 1960-63: The CIA infiltrated the Ecuadorian government, set up news agencies and radio stations, bombed right-wing agencies and churches and blamed the left, all to force democratically elected Velasco Ibarra from office.  When his replacement, Carlos Arosemara, refused to break relations with Cuba, the CIA-funded military took over the country, outlawed communism, and cancelled the 1964 elections. And we thought they were independent at this stage?


1970’s: While Argentina was receiving worldwide condemnation for their human rights abuses during the “Dirty War”, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger financially backed Argentina and foreign minister Augusto Guzzetti saying “We would like you to succeed”. From 1975 to 1983, about 30,000 civilians accused of subversion either died or disappeared.

There is a huge amount of detail in this long and bloody story of American History, both north and south. I am no historian, I am a traveller gathering stories, looking up data and simply observing. I believe all of the above to be true and given that history always has many points of view have had a good crack at being as impartial as I can. 

Flash forward to now and we see inspiring cases like Ecuador (Rafael Correa isn’t entirely un-dictatorial) rising from the ashes formed from centuries of torment and Chile making great gains to stand tall in terms of economic progress and safety. Brazil is a global economic powerhouse and Venezuela is happy to boldly stamp its ground and not be bullied in terms of its valuable oil. Times they are a changing and maybe Latin America is in the first throes of shaking off the centuries of abuse and resultant bloody rebuilding. The meddling power of course it’s not all the US and it galls me a little to paint the US as the worlds sole modern bad guy here; that’s far from the case, they just happen to be the most recent big player in the seven countries we’ve visited. Spanish brutality and atrocity clearly tops the list in this tale, make no mistake, this is a phenomenon, a comment on power and abuse thereof, not sandy beaches and cocktails at all. Remove the countries names and it’s a human story that so sadly gets forgotten in this story; then as it still is now.