South America, Latin America



The two geographical totalities only partly overlap.

South America, the subject of Sebastian Santander’s book, is the southern part of the American continent which extends latitudinally as far as the northern and southern polar regions. The South American sub-continent is found to the south and east of the Panama Canal, which crosses the thin central American isthmus and allows shipping to reach the Atlantic and Pacific without going round  Cape Horn, at the continent’s southern extremity.

The word ‘America’ comes from the first name of the Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci, who was the first to suggest that the continent discovered in 1492 wasn’t the ‘East Indies’, as was believed at the time (and why the indigenous peoples were erroneously given the name ‘Indians’), but a New World still unknown by the Europeans.

South America consists of 12 countries (without including Guyana, which is a French Overseas Department) and extends over 17,840,000 km², which places it fourth in terms of surface area in world ranking terms, after Asia, Africa and North America.

Its population of some 380 million inhabitants, speaking mainly Spanish and Portuguese (Brazil), places it fifth in world terms after Asia, Africa, Europe and North America. In reality South America possesses a much larger ethnic and linguistic diversity than these bald statistics would have us believe. There, one can count 600 languages belonging to 115 different linguistic families. But they are mainly spoken by the descendants of the continent’s first inhabitants, the Amerindians, who were exterminated in large part by the consequences of European colonisation. Most of the Amerindian languages are on the way to extinction.

Latin america map

The economies and social conditions in South America throw up very sharp contrasts, ranging from real prosperity to great poverty. Brazil (with 186 million inhabitants) is by far the major economic power, followed by Argentina (38.5 million), Colombia (41 million) and Chile (16 million).



In geographical terms, South America holds several world records: it hosts the river with the greatest flow (the Amazon), the longest mountain chain (the Andes), the driest desert (the Atacama, in northern Chile), the highest capital (La Paz, Bolivia: 3.700m) and the most southerly city (Puerto Toro, Chile : 55°O5’ lat. south.).

Latin America is a much greater grouping. It consists of all the countries of the American continent where one speaks Latin Iberian languages (Spanish and Portuguese) and French (Guyana, Haiti, Martinique and Guadeloupe). The francophone regions of North America (Quebec, Acadia) are traditionally excluded. In geographical terms Latin America includes the south of North America (Mexico: 105 million inhabitants), the Latin Antilles (Cuba, Puerto Rico), the countries of central America (Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras) and South America (with the exception of Guyana, Anglophone, and Surinam, Dutch speaking).

From a geopolitical perspective, Latin America is generally considered as a whole distinct from North America, which is very predominantly Anglo-Saxon.

Latin America includes 24 countries spreading over 22 million km² and provides a home to 550 million inhabitants. Its demographic and political ‘weight’ is thus appreciably larger to that of South America on its own.




© 2007 ULiège