If we only consider countries that are connected by land, there are 16 Spanish speaking countries in the Americas, totaling 11,301,072 km2 in area. That's only slightly larger than Canada (9,984,670 km2) and the United States (9,826,675 km2)

Brazil alone (8,459,417 km2) is almost as large as all Spanish-speaking South American countries combined (8,837,787 km2).

How did former Spanish colonies in the Americas become so fragmented compared to their Portuguese and English counterparts?

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    Europe is even more fragmented in a smaller area...
    – Jose Luis
    Commented Nov 10, 2011 at 7:07
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    @Joze: Bad example - Europeans speak lots of languages and are historically separated. The former Spanish colonies in the Americas all speak the same language (at least they used to, now there are different dialects) and share the same history. Commented Nov 10, 2011 at 13:51
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    @WladimirPalant Being a latin american myself, we still speak the same language but we are culturally separated even more so than europeans.(dialects are meaningless we can understand each other to 100% (maybe not in equatorial guinea or philippines though)) There are other factors. I am for now elaborating a good answer for this question. We may share a MODERN history and just the war of independence history but not more. Europeans historically separated? In what sense? To me europe is historically inherently united.
    – Jose Luis
    Commented Nov 10, 2011 at 13:58
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    I don't think it's accurate to say that Brazil is so special becuase it's big, remember a lot of brazil is jungle and wouldn't have been populated by settlers Commented Nov 11, 2011 at 10:10
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    Brazil is also big by population as well as by area. There are more Portuguese speakers than Spanish speakers in South America. Commented Nov 19, 2011 at 11:44

5 Answers 5



Strong perpetual rulers after independence from Spain led to the eventual breakup of early alliances.


First we must consider the political subdivisions of the Spanish Empire in the Americas when Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808 (Peninsular War):

The Napoleonic Empire imprisoned king Ferdinand VII and replaced him with Joseph Bonaparte. The Spanish resistance both in the Iberian Peninsula and the Americas formed governing juntas and claimed sovereignty in the absence of a legitimate monarch. In addition, the Spanish territories in the were considered a possession of the king of Spain rather than colonies of Spain. Thus the juntas in the Americas justified self government under the principle of retroversion of the sovereignty to the people.

These juntas fought wars that led to independent countries and merged into larger nations, such as:

These nations were usually led by a strong centralized government with a perpetual military ruler (or a monarch in the case of the Mexican Empire). The strong autocratic governments led to the breakup of these nations:

  • Agustín de Iturbide was overthrown by General Antonio López de Santa Anna
    • Central America broke away but the federation failed due to conflicts between Conservatives and Liberals.
    • López de Santa Anna's prompted revolts that led to the independence of Texas and the Mexican-American War, causing Mexico's loss of present-day Southwest US.
  • Simon Bolivar declared himself dictator of (Gran) Colombia in August 1828, a month later survived a failed assassination attempt, and resigned in 1830 when the collapse of the nation was imminent. The collapse led to the independent countries of Ecuador, Colombia (known as New Grenada at the time), and Venezuela. Panama remained part of the current Colombia (New Grenada) until 1903 when it broke away mostly due to the rejection of the construction of the Panama Canal by the Colombian Congress.
  • Inter-province wars in Río de la Plata eventually led to separate countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay.
  • Bolivia joined Peru and was ruled by the Supreme Protector Marshal Andrés de Santa Cruz. Opposition to the inclusion of Chile led to conflict and the dissolution of the Confederation.

One reason is because of the poor topography, and the lack of good transportation. Take the southern cone, for instance. The Andes Mountains divide Argentina and Chile. They also divide Colombia and Venezuela further north.

One kind of wonders why Uruguay and Paraguay are separate entities from Argentina, until one realizes that they formed around Montevideo and Asuncion respectively, and are badly connected to population centers in Argentina and Brazil. (Plus some 18th century Jesuit priests trained "local" Indian armies to repel invasions from invaders from the other two countries.)

Peru and Bolivia might have logically united, except for opposition from Chile.

Unlike Brazil, which is relatively compact, the Spanish speaking parts of Latin American are basically strung out in a long, thin, line. Even the six or seven central American countries basically consist of settlements along the coasts, with jungle in between DISconnecting the main cities (and hence countries) from one another.

  • Also, Uruguay was locked between Portuguese and Spanish possessions and fought after both before and after both Empires' colonial break-up process. It was for a brief period of time annexed by Brazil as their Cisplatina province. When Uruguay sought independence, it was backed by the British who had their own interests in the area (mostly related to being able to have their own commerce ties with Uruguay). Thus, Uruguay is nowadays not part of either of its neighbour countries because of their important geographical position in the area which impossibilitated trade monopoly by its neighbours.
    – aenariel
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 17:20
  • @aenariel: "Impossibilitated"! If it was short enough for Scrabble I would say "Nice Word". "Prevented" might suit better. ;-) Commented Jan 20, 2018 at 2:52

If you study Brazilian History as well (I am Brazilian and I have read some very good Brazilian history books), you see that in Brazil many of the provinces had separatists feelings, in several occasions along the time. I will not mention examples, but there are dozens of rebellions that happened along the XIX century. And even in 1930 we had an armed "Revolution" in São Paulo state, with strong "autonomous" feelings.

But the fact that we had a "strong" personality king in the XIX century (arguably not a wise king, but a vigorous one), especially on the early days of Independence, that repressed the rebels, helped to keep the union. In many other occasions, the "central government", based on Rio de Janeiro, managed to contain other revolutionary instincts/actions as well.

In resume, when one reads about Brazilian history, one can realize that for several occasions we were on the verge of getting fragmented in a similar way to what happened with the Spanish colonies, but for many particular reasons, along the time, the central government managed to keep the unity.

  • And - Brazil is less compact than might initially appear when one realizes how difficult travel through the Amazon Basin was historically, even along the river. Commented Jan 20, 2018 at 2:53

The truth is that more Spaniards colonized america after their independence than before.

Between XV-XVIII Spain colonized those lands with 750.000 Spaniards in overpopulated lands. Majority of them men were soldiers, marines and low-class class Spaniards and of course the nobility that occupied the elite. The majority of the population were "mestizos" the mixture of the race between Spaniards and natives.

However, after their independence, between 1857-1930 was the period of the great Spanish colonization.

In details, 4.600.000 settlers. 600.000: Puerto Rico and Cuba. 2.000.000: Argentina. 750.000: Brasil rest in small groups to other american countries.

30s, after the civil war 1.000.000 Spaniards exiled: Francia 500.000.

Argentina, Venezuela and mexico arrived the majority of the rest.

So at any case, the reality is that the Americas more populated country by Spanish settlers is Argentina.


This question has already been answered, but no-one has brought up the issue of compactness. The US, Canada, and Brazil have vastly more compact shapes and therefore many landlocked subregions and multiple internal routes of travel. By comparison, Spanish America is incredibly elongated. Almost all subregions are on the coast in the line described by the Panamerican Highway.

At the time of Latin American independence, only a few land routes connected the colonies. Long-distance travel was subject to native raids, and the Spanish's cherished horses couldn't cross areas without pasturage, making the Sonoran and Atacama deserts practically impassable.

In California, the first contact with Lima merchants and Rioplatense raiders happened only in the last decade before independence. Veracruz and Havana were well-linked by packet-boat throughout the colonial period -- but only in that direction, because the return route was to Spain and back.

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    Regine Pernoud has a interesting anecdote in one of her books, to illustrate how the geography can make things difficult: XIX century, there were a riot on the amazonian provices of Peru (that is, beyond the Andes, near the border to Brazil). When Lima got the news, they had to send a minister there, ASAP. What was the fastest way to travel? Going by mule trail over the Andes? Nope. It was: boat Lima -> Panama; land travel up to the other side of the istmus; boat to New York; then boat New Youk -> Belem (mouth of amazon river); finally, boat from belem to Iquitos!
    – Luiz
    Commented Jan 13, 2018 at 19:23

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