Latin America has a rich economic history that traces its roots back to pre-Columbian times. Latin America consists of more than 20 countries across North, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. The languages of these countries are primarily Spanish, Portuguese and French. In modern times, Latin America has proven to be a strong economic power internationally with considerable growth experienced in the 21st century. In 2010, Latin America's combined gross domestic product (GDP) was $5.16 trillion, and this rate is expected to grow.
In history, Latin America appeared to have little economic significance in comparison to other global markets, such as those found in Europe and North America. Because the region's official languages do not include English, the language often spoken in business proceedings, this region was often ignored when discussing economic matters.
The countries of Latin America were originally grouped together due to their common languages and location. Additionally, research has shown that there are many cultural similarities across the region that help provide an understanding of how to work, live and interact amongst this group of people. However, across this region a number of differences can also be seen, and in some ways, these differences are a key element to Latin America's uniqueness from an economic perspective.
Historically, Latin America has evolved significantly from colonial times and through a number of political changes. These changes include influence from the Spanish and Portuguese empires, which were critical in shaping the economy across Latin America. Following independence, Latin American countries went through further changes that helped to form their economies. This helped them to evolve into a larger economic force in the global marketplace.
Prior to European colonization, many of the indigenous tribes ruled the land around Latin America. This meant it was a society that was based on obtaining resources from the land, as well as bartering. Once Columbus set sail on his voyages and landed in Latin America, this reality gradually changed.
During the times of European colonization, following the voyages of Columbus, the indigenous tribes in Latin America lost power to the Europeans. Portugal and Spain took over the power roles, and European customs and culture were introduced. From an economic perspective, this included implementing greater capitalist ideals. Historically, these were quite foreign to the indigenous tribes of Latin America. Also, with the influx of Europeans came an influx of disease from these foreign countries. This placed a further burden on the traditional economic structure of indigenous societies and led to further growth in European economic colonization in the region. The indigenous populations that did survive were forced into working in European plantations and mines, creating further assimilation to European ideals.
Following the colonial period and into the 19th century, much of Latin America's international economic presence started to take shape. In additional to establishing economic strength at the local level, Latin American countries began developing an export strategy. Latin America is quite rich in natural resources and the export of these resources proved to be a solid source of income for the region. They began exporting to industrialized nations during this period. Not only did this assist in developing their economy but it also reinforced the shared ideals and culture of Latin Americans as a whole.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, Latin America continues to develop as a strong economic player in comparison to other global economies. The largest countries in Latin America -- Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Venezuela and Columbia -- experience consistent growth in their GDP and other economic indices. A wide range of Latin American countries are becoming high-income-earning nations and contributors to the global economy.
Although Latin America has grown substantially into a large economic power, it has its fair share of critics with regard to its economy. Poverty is an issue that plagues the region and it is said to be one of the most unequal regions in the world in terms of income. Much of the wealth in Latin America is held by a specific group of individuals while there is a large group at the lower end of the financial ladder. This demonstrates that Latin America is a region with a small-sized middle class. This situation impacts negatively on the overall economic ability of Latin America on both the regional and international levels.