Latin America has a very special relationship with Europe. The utopia of European thinkers meant dystopia for the people living there before the Europeans. After all, it was this continent that first fell under European colonial rule. Here, explorers and conquerors rehearsed the exploitation of other regions of the world that was to become the basis of Europe's rise in the 19th century. At the same time, a diversity of populations and cultures emerged here, in which people from all parts of the world participated. In the course of the last 500 years, this phenomenon has slowly spread across the world, and since the 20th century it has also been increasingly perceived in Europe and named with the term "globalization".
For about 400 years, the orientation toward Europe remained determinant for Latin America's self-positioning in the world. The Europeans were initially the foreign rulers, but they soon became part of the new Latin American populations by putting down roots there, by "creolizing" themselves. It was these creoles whose criticism of European rule and exploitation became increasingly vocal during the colonial period until, toward the end of the 18th century, it culminated in calls for independence, which was then achieved in the continent in the first third of the 19th century, with few exceptions.
But did the end of the colonial empires also mean the end of the focus on Europe? Not at all, because only the focus shifted from the Iberians to the British and French, who were considered particularly progressive. From then on, this progressive Europe was regarded for about 100 years as a role model and pole of development, both economically and culturally. The Creole elites traveled to Europe, especially to Paris. Schools taught mainly classical antiquity and the history of Europe. In art and literature, imitation sometimes took on curious forms. The imitation of models from the Old World, however, already found many critics in this period, who demanded a reflection on one's own and a reorientation to the concerns and realities of Latin America. A postcolonial situation emerged here in the 19th century, whose discourses anticipated many arguments that have taken center stage again since the end of World War II and especially today.
Europe's imperialism in Latin America at the end of the 19th century was to prove the critics right. It was new and different from classical colonialism in that it no longer sought formal colonial rule. With the inglorious outcome of Napoleon III's adventure in Mexico and the failure of Spanish recolonization efforts in the 1860s, as well as the defeat of the Spanish in the war against the Cubans and the U.S. Americans in 1898/99, the era of European colonial rule in Latin America - apart from a few Caribbean islands and the enclaves of the Guianas - had ended. On the other hand, the European powers, including upstarts such as Germany and Italy, acted much more aggressively than ever before due to increasing international rivalries. This, and the discussions of colonial enthusiasts in Europe, allowed the reasonable impression to arise in Latin America that the great powers intended to partition the subcontinent along African lines.
The U.S. also saw it this way and reacted by decisively expanding the Monroe Doctrine. Ultimately, the Europeans accepted the expansion of U.S. power at their expense relatively unopposed. An explanation for this can only be found in the constellation of the international power system on the eve of World War I, in which the United States rose to become an attractive potential partner. Although it was not yet clear to most contemporaries, European interventionism in sovereign Latin American states, which had strongly characterized the 19th century, ended with the Venezuelan crisis of 1902/03. The United States flexed its diplomatic muscles, so that the Anglo-German alliance of convenience quickly fell apart and the issue of the outstanding Venezuelan debt was settled along Washington's lines.
Latin America, however, was not only a pawn of the powers. As the intellectual confrontation with imperialism and considerations of international law showed, Latin Americans developed their own ideas about changing their international situation during this period, ideas that would gain relevance in the 20th century against the backdrop of decolonization. Many of the arguments that postcolonial critics have voiced in recent decades already emerged in this context.
Criticism reached its peak during World War I, when Europe was tearing itself apart. The war thus stands as a turning point in Latin American perceptions of the old continent. From the beginning, the outbreak of war in Europe created numerous problems for Latin America. Despite their neutrality, the states of the region could not keep out of the conflict, for the Europeans had little respect for the rights of neutrals. However, Latin American initiatives to strengthen these rights failed because of internal antagonisms or pressure from the European powers and the United States. The economic warfare of the Allies, with the blockade of Germany, the restriction of neutral trade, and especially the blacklists, affected all Latin American states, which found themselves deprived of part of their state sovereignty as a result, but could do little about it. The propaganda of the two warring parties also carried the initially purely European conflict to Latin America and ensured that a new, repulsive image of Europe took root here, not only among the elites but also among the general population.
Crucial to the historical development of the subcontinent were the economic and social effects of the war. The end of the classical liberal world economic system triggered major transformations in Latin American economies and societies. The one-sided economic orientation toward Europe was replaced in many countries by a reorientation toward the United States. U.S. leadership in politics and economics became irreversible during the war. At the same time, the first beginnings of industrialization also occurred on a small scale in Latin America, but they were hampered by supply shortages and the export boom. Overall, the awakening of nationalism was an important element that was to decisively determine Latin America's further images of Europe. Social changes, such as the rise of the working and middle classes, which had already begun before the war, were also to become important parameters for these relations.
The economic orientation toward the United States during World War I brought with it a reorientation of anti-imperialist criticism toward the large neighbor to the north, which had already been in place since 1898 at the latest and was a reaction to U.S. expansionism. It was fed by various sources. Some representatives of this thinking called for a leaning toward Europe, which was now no longer seen as a threat to be taken seriously. More than ever after the World War, intellectuals, writers, philosophers and politicians called for a fundamental intellectual-cultural renewal as a prerequisite for Latin America's independent development and strengthening in all areas of social life. A new cultural nationalism made itself felt. This thinking emerged in continuous interaction with Europe and other parts of the world; ideas were already circulating globally at the time. This is particularly evident in the rise of socialist and communist thought during this period, which resulted in the founding of numerous parties. In addition, the return to the indigenous heritage was discovered as a counter-model to the European model, which had lost much of its appeal. Latin America, it was said since the war, can and should be better than Europe because it is younger. It should no longer just be Europe's utopia, but go its own way and develop further.
The Second World War deepened the rupture in Latin America's relations with Europe. The decisive element in this was the undisputed hegemony of the United States. The United States ousted Europe from almost all remaining economic positions and, moreover, became the clear moral and cultural supremacy during the war years. If most Latin American governments did not fully share the concern about the fascist threat, they sympathized, as did the public in almost every country, with Washington's anti-fascist policies, sweetened even more by the rhetoric of good neighborliness. They generally left the defense effort against this threat from Europe to the United States, which also provided economic stability in the region. The increasing unilateral dependence that this loss of ties to Europe entailed was observed with some concern, but there was no other choice. In detail, the attitudes of the Latin American states toward the war did show gradual differences. They ranged from unconditional allegiance to the United States on the part of the Caribbean and Central American states to adherence to neutrality until it was almost too late, in the case of Argentina.
In economic terms, the dominance of the USA remained undisputed after 1945. Its share of total Latin American foreign trade was 60% in 1948. But Europe's economic resurgence in the 1950s was accompanied by a return to Latin American markets at the expense of the United States. For Germany in particular, Latin America was important for rebuilding foreign trade, as other markets were slow to open. There were also transformations in the political sphere due to the new U.S. position on the world stage as a result of the Cold War. Thus, the United States consolidated its position as a power in Latin America, which it considered a region of strategic interest for its security and therefore its zone of political and economic influence.
On the other hand, the North Atlantic alliance between the United States and Western Europe influenced Europe's insertion in the world and its foreign policy to such an extent that Europeans refrained from interfering in Latin American issues. Thus, this new international scenario did not allow Europeans to have an independent voice in Latin American affairs, resulting in a loss of diversity and depth in relations between the two regions.
The U.S.'s increased interest in Latin America as a result of the Cuban Revolution, which was perceived as a threat, meant that the Europeans had to take a back seat, even though various governments in the region had certainly flirted with closer ties with Europe as a counterweight to its large neighbor to the north. Europe thus remained politically interesting, even if it did not play a role due to the realities of power politics. Latin Americans followed with interest the European unification process that began in the 1950s.
However, this did not change the fact that the 1960s and '70s saw the continuation of the process of alienation. Counterproductive for relations with Europe was the rise of right-wing military dictatorships that did not shy away from crimes against human rights. In addition, many Latin American countries pursued an economic policy of import-substitution development during this period in order to boost their own industrialization. This was accompanied by attempts at regional integration, such as the founding of the Asociación Latinoamericana de Libre Comercio (ALALC) in 1960, which merged with the Asociación Latinoamericana de Integración (ALADI) in 1989. In these and many other attempts to liberalize intra-Latin American trade and achieve a strengthening of the region's political weight, Europe served as a certain model. However, European integration produced difficulties for relations between the two regions, because the European Community's agricultural and trade policies resulted in discrimination against Latin America in favor of European colonies.
It was not until the 1980s that European politics "re-discovered Latin America," thanks above all to the activities of Spain, which saw itself as a bridge to its former colonies. The world-historical turning point of 1989/90 was also significant for Latin America. Not only the end of the dictatorships in Chile, Nicaragua and Paraguay, but also the new foreign policy situation resulting from the end of the East-West conflict brought new opportunities and risks. For Latin America and Europe, relations as a counterweight now remained of some importance, not only against the United States but also against China and Russia. Today, however, not much seems to be left of the awakening and disillusionment has set in. The eastward expansion of the EU and the political and economic crises since 2009 have caused European interest in Latin America to cool. The same applies vice versa. The rapprochement is made more difficult by the fact that the promising approaches to stronger regional integration of Latin America through the founding of Mercosur in 1991 were not sustainable, so that there is a lack of coordination within the region.
In the new multipolar world of the present, Europe is one world region among many from the perspective of Latin America and certainly not the most important. Culturally, however, the old world has remained an important point of reference, because the majority of Latin Americans also feel committed to the liberal, democratic and constitutional heritage of the West, with its values such as human rights. However, since the First World War, the people of the region are no longer prepared to recognize the superiority of the Europeans, but rather see themselves, with their problems and challenges, on an equal footing with their former masters. The cultural "decolonization" that was proclaimed in the course of the boom in Latin American literature in the 1980s has long since been completed. The former admiration has given way to a benevolent indifference that is still accompanied by a certain basic sympathy. For the average Latin American, Europe today is above all a tourist (and soccer) place of longing, nothing more but also nothing less.