Central America is a land bridge connecting the North and South American continents, with the Pacific Ocean to its west and the Caribbean Sea to its east. A central mountain chain dominates the interior from Mexico to Panama. The coastal plains of Central America have tropical and humid type A climates. In the highland interior, the climate changes with elevation. As one travels up the mountainsides, the temperature cools. Only Belize is located away from this interior mountain chain. Its rich soils and cooler climate have attracted more people to live in the mountainous regions than along the coast.
Hurricanes, tropical storms, earthquakes, and volcanic activity produce recurring environmental problems for Central America.
The volcanic activity along the central mountain chain over time has provided rich volcanic soils in the mountain region, which has attracted people to work the land for agriculture.
Central America has traditionally been a rural peripheral economic area in which most of the people have worked the land. Family size has been larger than average, and rural-to-urban shift dominates the migration patterns as the region urbanizes and industrializes. Natural disasters, poverty, large families, and a lack of economic opportunities have made life difficult in much of Central America.
Central American countries might share similar climate patterns, but they do not share similar political or economic dynamics. The political geography of the region is diverse and ranges from a history of total civil war to peace and stability.
In the late 1900s, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua experienced devastating civil wars that divided their people and destroyed their economies. The territory of modern Guatemala once formed the core of the Maya civilization.
In the coffee republic of El Salvador, the civil war of 1979–92 was fought between the government-backed wealthy land-owning elite and the peasants who worked the land and lived in poverty. A few powerful families owned almost the entire country. Coffee is a major export crop for El Salvador, a country with a mild climate at its higher elevations. Arabica coffee grows well at these elevations. To protect their economic interests, US coffee companies backed the wealthy elite in El Salvador and lobbied the support of the US government. US military advisors and CIA support aided El Salvador’s government forces. At the same time, the peasants of El Salvador were soliciting support from Nicaragua and Cuba, which were backed by the Soviet Union. El Salvador is a small country about the size of the US state of New Jersey with a population of more than six million people. The war devastated this rural mountainous country and forced more than three hundred thousand people to become refugees in other countries.
At the same time that civil wars were going on in Guatemala and El Salvador, there was conflict in Nicaragua. After US marines occupied the country from 1926 to 1933, the US-backed Somoza family took power and remained there for decades. By 1978, violent opposition to governmental manipulation and corruption engulfed the country. An estimated fifty thousand people died in a bitter civil war that ousted the Somoza regime and brought the Marxist Sandinista government to power in 1979.
Nicaraguan aid to leftist rebels in El Salvador caused the United States to sponsor anti-Sandinista contra (short for counterrevolutionary) guerrillas through much of the 1980s and to bring about a second Nicaraguan civil war. In 1982, the US Congress blocked direct US aid to the contra forces through the Boland Amendment. Covert activity by CIA operatives continued to fund the contra forces by selling surplus US arms to Iran, brokered through Israel. In spite of a US embargo against Iran and animosity between Israel and Iran, the deals went through with hopes of negotiating the release of US hostages in Lebanon. The profits from these illegal covert arms sales were funneled into support for the contra forces in Nicaragua, and the scandal, known as the Iran-Contra Affair, has become a standard reference for US intervention in Central America.
Honduras has not experienced civil war, even though it is located in the midst of three troubled neighbors. It is considered a banana republic. It’s one of the most violent and crime-ridden countries in the region.
In political science, the term banana republic describes a politically unstable country with an economy dependent upon the exportation of a limited-resource product, such as bananas or minerals.
American fruit companies have dominated the economy of this poor country and have supported the buildup of arms to ensure its stability. The term banana republic applies here only in the manner in which the region was dominated by foreign companies that grew bananas for export. Often the fruit companies would buy up large tracts of land and employ (for low wages) those displaced from the land to help grow the bananas.
Honduras may have issues with violence, but it’s also a beautiful place:
If there is a bright spot in Central America, it is the democratic and peaceful Costa Rica, which does not have an army. The stable, democratically elected government and growing economy has earned the country the nickname the Switzerland of Central America. Multinational companies have been moving here to take advantage of the stable economic conditions, low labor costs, and supportive environment for its employees. The California-based Intel Corporation has a large microchip-manufacturing site in Costa Rica, which contributes heavily to the country’s economy. The tropical climate and stable economy of Costa Rica also attract US tourists and people looking for a place to live after retirement.
At the northern end of Central America is the former British colony of Belize, which in gained independence in 1981. Belize borders the Caribbean Sea and has a hot, tropical type A climate. It is small in size—about the size of El Salvador—and in population, with only about three hundred thousand people. Belize’s lingua franca is English, but Spanish is increasing in usage because of immigration. It has the longest coral reef in the Western Hemisphere and has been promoting ecotourism as a means of economic development to capitalize on this aspect.
Currently, the only connection between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean is through the Panama Canal. The canal was started in 1881 by the French, in what was then territory owned by Colombia, but the project was a failure. French construction workers were unprepared for the torrential Central American rainy season, dense jungle, and difficult geology. 22,000 workers were killed due to disease and accidents.
Many workers were imported from the Caribbean to help build the canal, which changed the ethnic makeup of Panama’s population. About 14 percent of the population of Panama has West Indian ancestry, and many of the laborers were of African descent. The difference in ethnicity caused an early layering of society, with those from the Caribbean finding themselves at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale.
The United States helped Panama achieve independence from Colombia and in exchange, Panama granted the US rights to build and control the canal. In 1904, the US continued where the French had left off and in just ten years, the project was completed. Over 5,600 workers died during the US construction project. Panama regained control of the canal in 1999.
The Panama Canal has been a vital transportation link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans for the United States and the world and is a marvel of engineering. Today, around 15,000 ships pass through the canal each year.
Central American cuisine combines Spanish, Caribbean, and pre-Columbian influences. In Honduras, they use more coconut than any other Central American cuisine.
In Guatemala there are foods that it is traditional to eat on certain days of the week – for example, on Thursday, the typical food is “paches” which is like a tamale made with a base of potato, and on Saturday it is traditional to eat tamales.
Corn is a staple in Nicaragua, as it is in many other Latin American countries. Many of Nicaragua’s dishes include fruits and vegetables such as jocote, grosella, mimbro, mango, papaya, tamarind, banana, avocado, and yuca.
Panama is blessed by nature with an unusual variety of tropical fruits, vegetables and herbs that are used in native cooking.
✎ Central America shares a similar climate type and physical features. It has enormous potential for tourism development. The political history of the region is quite diverse, with each republic experiencing different political and economic conditions.
✎ The United States has had a major impact on this region both politically and economically. The United States has intervened in civil wars and invaded Panama. US companies have dominated much of the region’s fruit and coffee production.
✎ The Panama Canal has been a vital transportation link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans for the United States and the world.
Next: Chapter 5: South America
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Image and additional information credits:
Central America map
By Cacahuate, amendments by Joelf – Own work based on the blank world map, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22746265
Banana republic definition
Panama Canal map
By Thomas Römer/OpenStreetMap data, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19678675
By Juancbg2015 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39435065
By Nicaraguan food – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8401676
By Elveoflight – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4116938
By Mlvalentin at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Trengarasu using CommonsHelper., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6324692