Hidden Empire: Dependency, Domination, and Neo-Colonialism in the Americas, 1783–1933
Nowhere did imperialism undergo more dramatic change than in the Americas, where colonial relationships shifted from formal, direct empire to a more informal, indirect kind of economic control known as neo-colonialism. At first, in the eighteenth century, European colonialism in the Americas followed a pattern similar to that of previous case studies. A fierce global rivalry between Britain and France played out partly in the New World, as the two empires fought sporadically over colonial possessions in North America; meanwhile the Spanish and Portuguese empires dominated Mexico, Central, and South America. In the decades after 1750, however, European wars and indigenous revolutions forced these financially and militarily overstretched metropolitan states to withdraw, in whole or in part. By 1830 the European empires seemed, on the surface at least, to have suffered near-total defeat, as independent states arose throughout the mainland of the Americas. Formal decolonization thus came early to the Western Hemisphere, with many colonies achieving political independence by the mid-nineteenth century-ironically, just as other parts of the world (such as India and Africa) were coming more fully under the
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control of these same European powers. (The Caribbean, where Spain’s first American colonies had been established, followed a different path: here formal empire had a longer run.)
Yet political independence (on the mainland) did not always bring freedom to former colonial subjects. In an ironic twist, some of the new American states themselves developed into imperial powers: the United States seized enormous amounts of Native American territory and warned European powers to stay out of the hemisphere, while starting in the 1840s, the Mexican state fought a long war against indigenous (“Indian”) rebels.1 Across Latin America, moreover, a new kind of hidden, informal colonialism appeared. Revolutions carried out in the name of national liberation benefited small, wealthy elites, drawn especially from the descendants of colonial settlers. These elite groups maintained strong ties to European and US banks and multinational companies. By the late nineteenth century, systems of informal, economic control-based on complex arrangements for loans, debt, and the provision of aid, and frequently coupled with behind-the-scenes political influence-replaced older, formal empires. Scholars today debate the historical extent and full implications of this “dependency,” but the Latin American case highlights the global character of financial networks, and shows vast flows of capital as well as personnel among world regions. Neo-colonial relationships, based on the indirect exercise of power, may be less obvious (and thus harder for local populations to target or resist), but can be no less pervasive in their effects.