IN Latin America, as elsewhere, population trends are a significant clue to political, economic and social developments. Indeed, in certain areas, population is regarded as the problem. Yet scarcely any other branch of Latin American study is exposed to so much careless handling -- so much myth, fiction and straight neglect -- as this one.

There are two opposite views concerning the statistics of the region, both erroneous and both a priori. One holds that no reliable statistics on population can be obtained in the countries to the south, and that consequently nobody knows what is going on down there demographically. The other blithely assumes that all Latin American population figures appearing in print are correct, and draws its conclusions accordingly. The truth, of course, lies between the two. A number of the republics and dependencies have reliable figures on population, and a number of them do not. The question of validity cannot be decided for the region as a whole, nor can it be decided on an a priori basis. It requires a painstaking study of each country's statistics. Most countries are good on some kinds of figures but bad on other kinds. Even in a country where the data are not accurate, systematic analysis and correction may produce information of real value.

Like most other countries, including the United States, the Latin American nations generally have better censuses than vital statistics. Yet it often happens that the vital statistics can be checked against the censuses and thus corrected in some respects. The censuses themselves vary as to what they include and leave out, and as to what they do well or do poorly. Some countries (e.g. Brazil) get data on race, while others (e.g. Colombia) ignore this topic. Some have good returns on cities (Chile, Mexico), while others have poor returns on them (Guatemala, Jamaica). Some have taken many censuses (Chile, Cuba, Guatemala, Mexico, Venezuela) while others have taken few or none (Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay, Haiti). Argentina has good registration returns but has not taken a census since 1914. Chile and Puerto Rico have not only good censuses but also good vital statistics.

This wide variety of statistical achievement has a signal advantage. It enables one to find somewhere in Latin America fairly good figures on almost any demographic topic. Within each major region one or more countries can usually be found with figures reasonably reliable and roughly representative of the region as a whole. By critical analysis of sources, by due regard for regional patterns, by judicious use of corrections and estimates, it is possible to arrive at acceptable results. The margin of error can be reduced to the point where, in many instances, social and economic conclusions may be drawn with some confidence.[i]


The opinion is sometimes held that the growth of population in South America is slowing down, if not approaching a decline. Olson and Hickman, in their "Pan American Economics," say that "population increase in many of the areas is beginning to taper off." This view apparently comes, in most cases, from the writings of Alejandro Bunge on Argentina, but it represents a misinterpretation of what he said. Bunge, an able demographer and thoughtful patriot, repeatedly emphasized the decline of the birth rate with progressive urbanization in his country. He predicted that if this trend continued, the growth of the Argentine population would eventually stabilize itself, and (perhaps in order to arouse his government to action) he predicted that the point of stabilization might come as early as 1960, though possibly not until 1990. He did not deny, however, that at the time he was writing (in the early 1940's) the rate of natural increase of the Argentine population was quite high. Not only had the birth rate been declining, but the death rate had been doing the same, leaving still a substantial difference between the two. Today the Argentine population seems to be growing about as fast as that of any other country in South America. If this is true of the most advanced country in the Latin American region, we could not expect an immediate slowing down of population growth in the other countries.

As a matter of fact, the population of the entire region to the south of the United States is growing faster than that of any other major region in the world. It is growing at a phenomenal rate. During the 20 years from 1920 to 1940 it added approximately 40,000,000, or about 41 percent, to its number. In the same period the United States, starting with a larger population, added only 26,000,000, or roughly 25 percent. With a 1947 total of almost 150,000,000, Latin America now has about 8,000,000 more people than the United States. The present rate of increase in the region as a whole is more than double that of the world in general, although the world population itself is growing at the fastest pace in human history.

Rapid growth characterizes all regions of Latin America. The Caribbean, the Middle American, the Andean and the South Temperate areas all show a surprisingly uniform rate of increase. These regions may differ in other particulars, but not in this one. Even the crowded Caribbean islands, where one might hope for a slackening of human multiplication, are growing (as a whole) at as fast a pace as the rest. Puerto Rico, the Java of the western hemisphere, has a birth rate nearly three times its death rate. Mexico, second to Brazil in total numbers, adds almost half a million to its population every year.

How long will the Latin American area continue its extremely rapid population increase? The answer is difficult to give, because in the present condition of the statistics systematic projections such as those that have been made for Europe and the United States cannot be undertaken. Perhaps the continental census of 1950, a potential milestone in Latin American demography, will make possible such projections. In the meantime, certain things can be said. If, for example, the present rate of growth continues, the population of the entire region will be twice as large in 1987 as it is now, for it is doubling every 40 years; and by the year 2000 it will reach 373,000,000. Such a total would not be impossible, because by the employment of today's technology, not to mention tomorrow's, the region is vast and rich enough to accommodate 400,000,000 people.

It is doubtful, however, that the current rate of growth will continue until the year 2,000. Social and economic changes now occurring suggest that the peak rate will be passed within the next three or four decades, after which a trend toward a stationary population will commence. On the basis of a study of trends in mortality, fertility and migration, the writer thinks that the break will not take place before 1970, but that it may occur shortly after that. He therefore believes that the population in 1970 will lie between 200,000,000 and 225,000,000, and that in the year 2000 it will lie between 300,000,000 and 375,000,000. By way of comparison, one should note that the high and low estimates for the United States (much more systematically made) are: in 1970, between 150,000,000 and 170,000,000; in the year 2000, between 130,000,000 and 200,000,000. In little more than half a century, then, the Latin American population may be more than double our own. It should be emphasized, however, that the estimates for Latin America are hardly better than guesswork.

The prodigious growth rate in Latin America is not mysterious. Whenever an area has passed through the industrial revolution, it has manifested in the early stages a veritable crescendo of population increase, because industrial progress brings a drop in the death rate before it brings a drop in the birth rate. Later, as an urban-industrial milieu emerges, the birth rate begins to fall to the level of the lowered death rate and the population approaches again the same stationary condition it manifested before the great transition. The new balance, resting on both low mortality and low fertility, is much more efficient than the old, and its effects on human welfare are tremendous.

Western Europe, the United States and the British Dominions have already passed through the rapid growth phase of the industrial revolution. Their populations are now becoming stationary. The agricultural countries of Asia, on the other hand, are just entering the early phases of the cycle. Their populations, already abundant, have great and perhaps tragic potentialities for expansion in the future. The Latin American countries, in contrast to both these groups, find themselves in various intermediate stages of the industrial transition. Some have hardly begun the shift; others are far along. Everywhere in this region, however, we find urbanization accelerating, literacy increasing, health improving and communication expanding. It seems likely, then, that Latin America as a whole will make the transition from illiterate agriculturalism to literate industrialism in a few decades, and that her population growth will taper off as the change is completed.

There can be no doubt that death rates are falling in Latin America. In no country in the region can a long-run rise in the death rate be proven, whereas in every country having reasonably complete registration a downward trend is manifest. To be sure, the mortality is still discouragingly high, the crude rate in most countries being double or triple that in the United States. Yet the situation now is better than it used to be, and in the future it will doubtless be better still. The Latin Americans are taking an active interest in public health, and since new discoveries in the control of tropical diseases are being made, and financial aid and public education are being extended, a continued reduction in the death rate can be expected in the next decades.

Scattered evidence indicates that fertility is also declining, but not nearly so fast as mortality. Latin America still exhibits some of the world's highest birth rates -- usually more than twice, sometimes thrice, what they are in the United States. With death rates likely to fall still further, future population growth will depend mainly on what happens to the birth rate. It seems likely that the rate will decline gradually, almost imperceptibly, for two or three decades, and more rapidly after that. In the most advanced countries, such as Argentina and Chile, fertility already shows a strong downward tendency. Throughout most of the entire region, as will appear later, social changes that normally produce a lowering of the birth rate, such as increasing literacy and urbanization, are spreading rapidly. The cities have a much lower fertility than the country regions, and as their influence spreads they should exert a strong downward pressure on the general birth rate. It is the probable decline of fertility that leads us to predict an eventual slowing down of population growth.


Mortality and fertility, of course, are not the only factors governing population growth in particular regions. There is also migration. One of the great myths about Latin America is that it contains huge open spaces that can easily absorb mass migration from a crowded world. This myth, believed by Latin Americans as by outsiders, apparently arises from the fact that the region has less than its share of the world's population. The region embraces 16 percent of the earth's inhabitable area, but only 6 percent of the earth's people. Asia, with a population of almost 1.2 billion, has an over-all density per square mile seven times that of Latin America. One recalls the empty Amazon valley, the vacant Patagonian plains, the unworked Chilean forests, the unexploited Guiana highlands. Then one imagines teeming populations in these huge areas and predicts that, in a crowded world, Latin America will provide a home for millions of immigrants. Immigration, however, is a political and economic question, as well as a demographic one.

Under certain conditions Latin America might absorb immigrants to the limit of her physical capacity, but it is not likely that these conditions will be realized. First of all, Latin American desires for a great influx of people conflict with the trend of the times. Immigration changed its character some time ago. Once it meant the pioneer settlement of new lands; now it is directed toward the centers of industry. Once a rural movement, it is now an urban movement. The Latin American nations refuse to recognize or conform to this great change. Though they enjoy a rising industry and might thus attract immigrants to their cities (bidding, however, against favored countries such as Canada and Australia) they turn their backs on this idea and think instead of attracting farmers and farm laborers.

Like peoples everywhere, they want somebody else to do what they themselves are loath to do -- in this case, the grinding labor on the big pioneer-farming estates in the hinterland. They have deplored and tried to discourage the tendency of immigrants to settle in the cities. They know that historically, even in the heyday of immigration to their shores, the main attraction did not come from the open spaces. They know, or should know, that Europe itself has become heavily industrialized and urbanized, and therefore does not have a mass of peasants eager to become plantation peons or wilderness pioneers. Yet Latin Americans persist in assuming that somehow immigrants can be attracted to agriculture in the open spaces. These open spaces are, indeed, slowly and haltingly being settled, but more by the expansion of old settled areas than by the importation of aliens. The common notion that the hinterlands can be quickly filled by the simple process of bringing over masses of European immigrants is a myth that never was true and is certainly not true today.

Not only has Europe become urbanized, but its population growth has virtually ceased. No longer can it furnish millions of immigrants to the rest of the world without depleting its own human resources. As a consequence, many European nations refuse to permit large-scale emigration, and when they do permit it, other countries in Europe often bid for the migrants. There may be some distress migration on the part of displaced persons, but the estimated number of these is less than 1,000,000. There may be some emigration of Italians, but the Italian birth rate is declining steadily, and France offers a nearby outlet for surplus population. The prospect that Europe will supply a heavy migration to Latin America is not good.

But despite this fact the Latin American countries, like the rest of the world, want European -- not Asiatic -- immigrants. There are literally hundreds of millions of Asiatics who, under conditions far less favorable than the existing ones, would be willing to settle new territories in Latin America, especially the tropical parts so hazardous for Europeans. But the oriental exclusion policy of the United States and Canada has now been adopted by the Latin American republics. Brazil stipulates that only "white" immigrants shall be admitted. Guatemala forbids persons of Mongolian race to enter. Other countries have similar restrictions. This resistance to Asiatic immigration is understandable in view of Japanese fifth-column activities and the difficulty of assimilation. But it is clear that the bars are being erected against the one kind of immigrants most likely to serve as laborers on the estancias, and pioneers in the tropical frontiers.

The exclusion of orientals is but one aspect of a far-reaching change of immigration policy in Latin America. The old policy, extending from the Wars of Independence to the great depression of the 1930's, was one of laissez-faire. The fledgling republics, feeling that they needed labor to replace the emancipated slaves, settlers to populate the vacant lands, capital to prime the economic pump, and ideas to overcome the colonial isolation, threw open their doors to immigration. They granted aliens the same rights as citizens, and sometimes even more favored treatment. The Argentine Constitution of 1853, for example, inspired by Alberdi's famous dictum that "in South America to govern is to populate," placed the foreign born in a better position than the citizens, giving them all the advantages that the natives enjoyed and exempting them from certain obligations such as military service. In general, the immigrants were treated with respect and admiration, because they were in many ways more civilized than the erstwhile colonial population. The emphasis was not so much on assimilation of the stranger as on assimilation of the native. The immigrant often rose to the top of the economic ladder, frequently maintaining his connection with foreign interests.

The new immigration policy, beginning in 1930, reversed this century-old liberalism. It rests on a philosophy of protection and enhancement of the state as an integral unit, and of special privileges for citizens as against foreigners. Whereas the old law took rapid assimilation for granted, or else implied that the immigrants would assimilate the natives, the new legislation assumes that only certain races, ethnic groups or nationalities are capable of assimilation in Latin America. Peoples of Latin culture, especially those speaking the same language as the nation concerned, are likely to be favored, while others are discouraged. Certain occupations are also favored. The desire to bring in farmers or estate laborers leads to a preference for agriculturalists; but, once admitted, the aliens of this type are likely to suffer restraints not applied to the citizen. Such an alien may be forbidden to adopt certain occupations without express permission; he may be denied the privilege of employment in a government enterprise or public utility. As is well known, the Latin American nations are trying to divest themselves of foreign control over their economic life. As a consequence, a high percentage of the positions in foreign-owned businesses must, in many countries, be reserved for citizens. Latin America is no longer open territory.

Clearly, this new nationalism, this new self-sufficiency and resentment of foreigners have led to policies that discourage large-scale migration into Latin America. Yet this does not mean that immigrants are not wanted. Nearly all South American and some Central American countries are looking for settlers and are ready to offer active inducements. The recent policies are not intended to curtail migration, but simply to select and control it in the national interest. If the Latin American republics can get the kind of individuals they want, they are ready to absorb millions of strangers.

In fact, at the present moment, a new phase of immigration policy is emerging. Instead of emphasizing national interest through restriction, as was done during the depression and the recent war, the republics are stressing national interest through the promotion of selected immigration. They are talking about immigration and making plans for it. There seems no likelihood, however, that they will return to the old laissez-faire policy, or that they will forget the questions of assimilation, ethnic status, economic competition, foreign domination and national security in choosing their immigrants. The latest phase of policy still places its emphasis on the immigration of farm workers and colonists, still looks to Europe as a source, and still leaves unsolved the thorny economic problems associated with European immigration in the modern world. Above all, it still undertakes to promote selected immigration and mass immigration at the same time, and still confuses the purpose of increasing the population with that of building the economy.

This inconsistency apparently rests in part upon the illusion to which we have already referred. The average Latin American contemplates the empty spaces of his country and jumps to the conclusion that, if they were populated, they would be economically exploited and his country would become rich. But such reasoning places the cart before the horse. The Latin American hinterlands are sparsely settled precisely because they have not been economically exploited. If the economic and social institutions of the original settlers had encouraged thrifty agriculture, a productive industry, and a low mortality, their natural increase and their power of attracting immigrants would long since have filled the favorable areas. But a régime of large estates, peon labor, non-productive expenditure and fixed social classes did not operate to produce the capital and enterprise necessary for adequate exploitation. The tendency was to rely on cheap labor to do what in other frontier regions was done by machinery and advanced technology. It follows that the remedy is not more people, but a new economic and social orientation. To acquire the people first would be to create problems rather than solve them; and, obviously, if people were all that were needed to fill Latin America's open spaces, they could be supplied from the region's great natural increase. Many Latin Americans, including experts, do not realize how fast the population is growing. Since Latin American fertility is bound to remain high for some time to come, the lowering of the death rate by only a point or two would create more population than any amount of encouragement of European immigration is likely to do; a reduction of just one point in the death rate would add approximately 150,000 to the annual population growth.

Doubtless there will be some immigration. With several Latin American countries actively seeking it, and with many people anxious to leave Europe, a certain amount of transfer is bound to take place. Furthermore, small migratory currents may prove highly useful. Any country, especially if trying to industrialize, can use persons above the average in training and capacity (though usually such persons do not want to migrate and, if they do, may be successfully wooed by competing countries). The real question concerns the long-run movement of masses of unskilled immigrants. Since the region cannot attract the kind of immigrants it wants, and does not want the kind it can attract; and since it does not need mass immigration anyway, it is a reasonable conclusion that Latin America will not receive mass immigration comparable to that of the past.

Moreover, it is easy to exaggerate the amount of land open to settlement in Latin America. Mexico, with some 22,000,000 people, is pressing hard, in terms of its economy, upon the available land, and is exerting strong migratory pressure on the United States border. Many of the Caribbean and Central American nations are also experiencing sharp pressure of population against land. There is no indication that wealth in Latin America increases as the density of population rises. If anything, the reverse is true. It seems odd, therefore, to expect mass immigration to enrich the nations to the south. The fundamental problem in Latin America is not lack of people, but lack of skills and capital.


North Americans frequently hold the opinion that Latin America is virtually static economically and socially. The statistics prove otherwise. Two excellent indices of development -- urbanization and literacy -- both show a rapid advance in recent decades.

It may come as a surprise to some people to learn that Latin America is heavily urbanized in relation to its economic base, and at first this may not seem to be the case. The percentage of persons living in places of more than 5,000 inhabitants in the United States in 1940 was 53, and in Canada 43. In Latin America it was approximately 27. But in view of the very wide differential between the two regions in wealth and industrial output, the difference in the proportion urbanized seems small indeed. Argentina and Uruguay have as large a percentage of their people living in cities of 25,000 and more as does the United States, as the following table shows:

Uruguay 40 Germany 44
Argentina 40 United States 40
Chile 34 Canada 33
Cuba 29 France 30
Panama 25 Sweden 27
Mexico 17 Poland 16
Brazil 15 India 8

Latin America has five cities with more than 1,000,000 inhabitants, and four others with more than 500,000.

The growth of cities has been rapid, and it shows no sign of slowing down. In five countries with available data (Chile, Cuba, Mexico, Panama and Puerto Rico), the population in places of 2,500 or more is growing about twice as fast as the rural population, on the average. And the larger the city the faster the growth. If there has been so much urbanization with a minimum of industrialization, it appears inevitable that future industrial development will enormously stimulate the already advanced urban growth.

The cities are growing primarily by virtue of migration from the rural areas. Their birth rates are much lower than those of the country regions, and their natural increase is consequently lower; but they are attracting people from the countryside. This does not mean that the rural areas are losing population; on the contrary, they have such a high natural increase that they can send a steady stream of people to the cities and still augment their own numbers. It does mean, however, that the growth of the urban population is relatively greater. Fragmentary figures suggest that well over 50 percent of the increase in urban numbers is due to rural migrants, but that this loss to the cities removes only about 20 percent of the natural increase of the rural areas. The Latin American population is truly growing on all fronts.

Although the cities are dependent on the countryside for their people, the countryside is dependent on the cities for its cultural advance. By almost any index one cares to use, the cities are in the van of social change. They show a higher percentage of literate as against illiterate persons, a higher percentage of legal marriages as against consensual unions, and a higher percentage of legitimate as against illegitimate births. It seems safe to assume that as the cities continue to grow, they will have an ever greater influence on the rest of the region and thus increase the tempo of modernization.

Already the influence of the cities on illiteracy can be seen. It is true that, for the region as a whole, more than half the population ten years of age and over is illiterate, but nevertheless the region is less illiterate than the world population in general. Furthermore, great strides have been made, and in the most urbanized countries illiteracy is now on the way out. In 1875 Chile's population (of all ages) was 77 percent illiterate; by 1930 that percentage was reduced to 44. In 1869 Argentina's population age 14 and above was 78 percent illiterate; by 1943, only 17 percent. The current figures on literacy by different age groups indicate that in the future the proportion of illiterates will be substantially reduced, and that in this respect the countryside will begin to catch up with the cities.

The fertility pattern of the cities also puts them in the van of progress. It is so low that only one conclusion is possible, namely, that their inhabitants are practising birth control. If this is true, and if the pattern of family limitation should spread with the continued growth of the cities, the rapid growth of the Latin American population will eventually wane. It is on this basis that an ultimately stationary population can be predicted. Fortunately, this stage will probably be reached before the region reaches the density of Asia. Already Puerto Rico, Haiti, Jamaica and some of the smaller Caribbean islands have fallen into a condition of chronic overpopulation, but the forces of modernization will doubtless exercise their moderating influence before the whole Latin American region reaches this sad state of affairs.

The countries of Latin America are not static. Social change is occurring there as elsewhere. We may summarize by saying that at present the region is in the midst of a cycle of rapid population growth, but the changes now under way will eventually alter this trend. So rapid is the population growth that mass immigration is not needed to fill the remaining open spaces, nor is such immigration likely to come, in view of the new nationalistic policy and the preoccupation with Europe as a source of rural labor. The need for capital and skills, more pressing than the need for people, can eventually be met by the capacity of the region itself. The immense human resources of the future, joined to a fuller and more equitable exploitation of the equally rich natural resources, offer the promise of a higher standard of living than the Latin Americans have enjoyed in the past.

[i] For bibliographic citations on the data presented here, and for further discussion, see the writer's technical papers based on research conducted at the Office of Population Research, Princeton University, as follows: "Population Trends and Policies in Latin America," in "Some Economic Aspects of Postwar Inter-American Relations" (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1946); "Urbanization in Latin America" (with Ana Casis; New York: Milbank Memorial Fund, 1946); and "Future Migration into Latin America," Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly, v. 25, January 1947, p. 44-62.

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  • KINGSLEY DAVIS, of the Department of Economics and Social Institutions, Princeton University, and of the Office of Population Research, School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton
  • More By Kingsley Davis