This chapter will establish the physical, demographic, social and economic settings within which the subsequent analysis is set. Thumbnail sketches of the Latin American republics are provided along with an outline of their geographical setting. This is important because talking about ‘Latin America’ may obscure the continent’s diversity. Demographic trends are presented next, highlighting diversity in a context in which native Amerindians were joined by Spanish Conquistadores, European settlers and African slaves. Difference and heterogeneity rather than common pattern are key points. Next we outline some of the main trends in social development, setting Latin America in a global context. High levels of social inequality are a dominant feature. Finally we turn to broad economic trends. Again diversity is immediately apparent with Brazil now seen as a major economic power while Central America, for example, is quite stagnant. This is not a story of simple under-development — a region waiting to take off — but a particularly unequal and distorted pattern of economic development.
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