Central America, region of the western hemisphere, made up of a long, tapering isthmus that forms a bridge between North and South America. Central America, which is defined by geographers as part of North America, has an area of about 521,500 sq km (about 201,300 sq mi) and includes the countries of Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. The region has a population of approximately 36.4 million (2000 estimate).
|II||THE NATURAL ENVIRONMENT|
In strictly geological terms, Central America begins at the narrow Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in southern Mexico. That narrow section divides the volcanic rocks to the northwest from the folded and faulted structures of Central America. The southernmost geological limit of Central America is the Atrato River valley, in Colombia, South America, just east of the Panama border.
Central America, a particularly unstable region of the earth’s crust, is on the western edge of the Caribbean plate (see Plate Tectonics). Subduction of oceanic crust beneath this edge, beginning in the Miocene Epoch, about 25 million years ago, has lifted the land from the sea. In the earliest stage, a peninsula and archipelago formed. Later, about three million years ago, the scattered islands coalesced to form a true land bridge, or isthmus, linking North and South America.
Keeping pace with subduction and uplift have been volcanic eruptions—Central America has at least 14 active volcanoes—and frequent earthquakes. In this century alone, Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, has twice been destroyed by earthquakes. The most recent, in 1972, took 10,000 lives. In 1976 some 25,000 people were killed in an earthquake registering 7.5 on the Richter scale and centered in the Motagua depression in Guatemala. This quake left 25 percent of the country’s population homeless. Volcanic activity has produced a landscape dotted with majestic cones built from eruptions of ash and lava, and beautiful lakes formed in collapsed volcanic craters called calderas.
For the most part Central America is a rugged, mountainous area, with 109 large volcanoes, some more than 4,000 m (13,000 ft) high; Tajumulco Volcano, in Guatemala, is the highest at 4,220 m (13,845 ft). Central America is one of the most active volcanic zones in the western hemisphere. The land surface slopes up rather abruptly from a narrow coastal plain along the Pacific Ocean to the mountain crests, and then descends more gradually to a broader plain along the Caribbean Sea. Two major interoceanic passes cut through the highlands of Central America, one in Nicaragua (from the mouth of the San Juan River to Lake Nicaragua) and the other in Panama (along the route of the Panama Canal). The Pacific coastline is about 2,830 km (about 1,760 mi) long, and the Caribbean coastline is approximately 2,740 km (approximately 1,700 mi) long. Several groups of small islands lie off the Caribbean coast, and some of them, such as the Bay Islands (Islas de la Bahía) in the Gulf of Honduras, are inhabited.
|C||Rivers and Lakes|
The longest rivers of Central America flow to the Caribbean, and many small streams drain into the Pacific. Longer rivers include the Motagua of Guatemala; the Ulúa, Aguán, and Patuca of Honduras; the Coco, which forms part of the Honduras-Nicaragua boundary; the Río Grande and Escondido of Nicaragua; and the San Juan, which forms a section of the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border. Some of the rivers flowing to the Caribbean are navigable by small craft, but the streams flowing to the Pacific are too steep or too shallow for navigation.
Central America has three large lakes—Lake Nicaragua and Lake Managua in Nicaragua and Gatún Lake in Panama. Part of the Panama Canal, a great commercial waterway between the Atlantic and the Pacific, is in Gatún Lake.
Temperatures in Central America, which is situated between the tropic of Cancer and the equator, vary principally according to altitude rather than latitude. Three main temperature zones are discernible. The tierra caliente (“hot country”), which extends from sea level to an altitude of about 915 m (about 3,000 ft), has average yearly temperatures of 24° C (75° F) or more; the tierra templada (“temperate country”), from about 915 to 1,830 m (about 3,000 to 6,000 ft), has a mean annual temperature of 18° to 24° C (65° to 75° F); and the tierra fría (“cold country”), from about 1,830 to 3,050 m (about 6,000 to 10,000 ft), has average yearly temperatures of 13° to 18° C (55° to 65° F).
The Caribbean coast and eastern mountain slopes generally receive twice as much annual precipitation as the Pacific coast and western mountain slopes. The relative dryness of the Pacific slope is due to the presence of cold stable air caused by the cold California Current. This current, much like the Peru, or Humboldt, Current along the Peruvian coast, chills the air, thus preventing it from absorbing much water vapor and reducing the possibilities for precipitation. In contrast, the effects of the warm water of the Caribbean Sea allow the air to absorb abundant moisture, which is then carried by the prevailing easterly winds. Much condensation and rainfall occur as the winds flow up and over the high slopes of Central America. Rainfall is greatest along the Mosquito Coast of easternmost Nicaragua—San Juan del Norte receives about 6,350 mm (about 250 in) of rain per year.
In October 1998 Hurricane Mitch savaged Central America, killing at least 11,000 people, leaving thousands more missing, and displacing more than two million others. Nicaragua and Honduras absorbed the brunt of the damage, but El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, and other countries in the region also felt the effects of the storm. Some observers called Mitch the worst natural disaster ever to strike Central America.
Central America is essentially a land bridge uniting two previously isolated ecosystems. As a result, a mixture of both North and South American plant and animal species is found here. The lowland rain forest of the Caribbean and Pacific coasts resembles the selva, or tropical rain forest, of South America. This is especially true below an elevation of about 1,000 m (about 3,280 ft), with large numbers of palms, tree ferns, lianas, and epiphytes (air plants) reflecting the high rainfall and humidity of the region. Vegetation at altitudes of about 1,000 to 1,600 m (about 3,280 to 5,250 ft) shows ties with North America. The pine and oak forests of these highlands are like those of the Mexican highlands. High-altitude regions of Guatemala contain grasses like those of Mexico and the United States, and at about 3,100 m (about 10,170 ft) in Costa Rica are tall grasses similar to those growing above the tree line in the Andes Mountains of South America.
Most of the animal life of Central America is similar to that of South America, but some animals have ties with North America. The marley and opossum have links with South America, as do the jaguar, ocelot, jaguarundi, and margay, which are members of the cat family. In contrast, the puma, gray fox, and coyote are of North American origin. The armadillo, anteater, and sloth have ties to the south, deer to the north. The large manatee, an aquatic plant eater, survives in the isolated lagoons of eastern Central America. Other food sources are the large green turtle and the iguana. Central America provides a habitat for numerous snakes such as the boa constrictor and the bushmaster. Parrots, the quetzal, toucans, and fish are common; notable are the landlocked sharks of Lake Nicaragua.
The minerals of Central America were an early lure for European settlers, especially the gold and silver found in Honduras and the highlands of Nicaragua. In addition, Honduras has significant deposits of lead, zinc, copper, and low-grade iron ore, and Nicaragua has large deposits of natural gas offshore in the Pacific. Large nickel deposits are in the vicinity of Izabal in Guatemala, and the country also has substantial reserves of petroleum, including those near Chinajá. Panama has considerable deposits of copper at Cerro Colorado.
Most of the inhabitants of Central America live on the Pacific side of the isthmus, where they occupy both lowland and highland environments. The rainy, forested Caribbean slope and coast are sparsely settled.
A substantial majority of the people of Central America are Native Americans or mestizos (people of mixed heritage, chiefly of Spanish and Native American descent). Along the narrow Caribbean coast blacks and mulattoes (people of mixed white and black-African backgrounds) predominate. About half of the people of Belize are of black-African or partly black-African ancestry. The great majority of Costa Ricans are of unmixed Spanish background, and approximately 90 percent of the inhabitants of El Salvador and Honduras are of mixed Spanish and Native American descent. About 45 percent of Guatemalans are Native Americans, and mestizos make up most of the rest of the country’s population. About 70 percent of Nicaragua’s and Panama’s inhabitants are mestizos. Panama has a sizable black minority. In general, the Native American element is less apparent in the southern countries of Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.
The population of Central America is concentrated in districts of dense settlement, separated by areas of sparse habitation. Population densities reach more than 385 persons per sq km (more than 1,000 per sq mi) in parts of the Meseta Central of Costa Rica, but vast areas of eastern Honduras and Nicaragua have fewer than 4 persons per sq km (fewer than 10 per sq mi). The rate of population increase in much of Central America is high; in 2008 Nicaragua had an annual growth rate of 1.82 percent; Guatemala, 2.11 percent; Costa Rica, 1.38 percent; and Panama, 1.53 percent. The population increase is principally the result of continuing high birth rates and falling death rates. Increasing political unrest, economic hardship, guerrilla warfare, and military repression have forced many rural residents into urban centers; thousands also decided to begin the long trek to the United States via Mexico.
The people of Central America are becoming increasingly urbanized. In the mid-1990s about 45 percent of the inhabitants of El Salvador and Honduras and about 40 percent of Guatemalans were considered urban, while more than half the people of Panama and nearly two-thirds of Nicaragua’s people lived in urban areas. In each country except Belize the national capital is the largest city; the biggest urban center of Belize is Belize City.
|C||Language and Religion|
Spanish is the official language of all Central American countries except Belize, where English is the language of government. Many highland Native Americans use traditional languages, such as Quiché, Mam, and Kekchí in Guatemala, and Chortí in Honduras. Some Native Americans also speak Spanish as well. Roman Catholicism is by far the dominant religion of Central America although Evangelicalism, Methodism, and Mormonism are making increasingly significant inroads in Costa Rica, Honduras, and Panama.
Cultural patterns in Central America are based largely on the heritage of the Maya and other Native Americans and of the Spanish colonial period. Considerable change has occurred in the region’s cities, however, where the mass media and modern cultural institutions have much influence. The countries of Central America have established many educational facilities, but a comparatively large proportion of the children do not attend school. Although the great majority of people aged 15 and over in Costa Rica and Panama are literate, this figure drops to three-quarters in El Salvador and Honduras, about two-thirds in Nicaragua, and just over one-half in Guatemala.
|IV||PATTERNS OF ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT|
In the early 1990s the countries of Central America had relatively undeveloped economies in which agriculture was the most important sector. Manufacturing largely involved processing raw materials. The annual per capita income was low.
Farming is by far the leading economic activity in Central America. The principal cash crops, such as coffee, bananas, sugarcane, and cotton, are typically produced on large landholdings, and a substantial proportion are exported, mainly to the United States and Europe. Food for local consumption is raised mainly on small farms; most of it is consumed by the farm families, and relatively little is marketed. The chief subsistence food commodities are corn, beans, bananas, manioc, rice, and poultry. Cattle are raised on big ranches located mainly in the drier regions of western Central America. Modern farming methods are used on the large landholdings, but the small farmers generally use relatively simple techniques that hold down productivity.
|B||Forestry and Fishing|
About 40 percent of Central America is forested. The early years of European activity in Belize, for example, revolved around the extraction of dyewoods, and later mahogany, chicle, and pine timber were produced. British timber companies also cut mahogany and cedar along the greater Caribbean coast. Today, forestry is a relatively unimportant aspect of the Central American economy. Pine is the main wood harvested, and some hardwoods, such as cedar, mahogany, and rosewood, also are cut.
Fishing too is a comparatively minor economic activity in Central America. Shrimp and spiny lobster, caught off the coasts of Belize, El Salvador, and Panama, are mostly exported to the United States. Since the mid-1960s Panama has developed a fish-meal and fish-oil industry. Central America has a low rate of per capita fish consumption.
The mineral output of Central America is small. El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua produce limited quantities of silver, gold, lead, copper, and antimony. In the early 1980s Guatemala began to export small quantities of crude oil.
Most of the manufacturing plants of Central America process raw materials of the region such as sugarcane, coffee, cotton, timber, and fish. In addition, since the 1950s a concerted attempt has been made to reduce the need to import basic fabricated articles. Thus, factories making paint, detergents, tires, paper and cardboard articles, fertilizer, and insecticide have been established in the major urban areas.
Many manufacturing establishments in Central America involve only a handful of workers, and few employ more than 10 people. Large-scale manufacturing is hindered by the region’s lack of energy sources, its undeveloped transportation systems, and its small markets.
About half of the electricity of Central America is generated by hydroelectric installations; important dams include those on the Lempa River in El Salvador, the Cajón River in Honduras, and the Corobicí and Arenal rivers in Costa Rica. Most of the rest is produced in plants using petroleum products. A small amount is generated in wood-burning facilities.
The mountains of Central America present a major obstacle to overland transport, and the only surface transportation artery linking all the countries of the region is a section of the Pan-American Highway. Railroads connect the Caribbean and Pacific coasts in Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama. Inland water transportation is of little economic importance, but Central America has several important seaports, such as Puerto Santo Tomás de Castilla and Puerto San José in Guatemala; Puerto Cortés in Honduras; Acajutla in El Salvador; Corinto in Nicaragua; Puerto Limón in Costa Rica; and Bahía las Minas in Panama. The Panama Canal is a major shipping link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans; Panama took over its operation from the United States in 1999. A crude-petroleum pipeline across western Panama was completed in 1982. Airlines provide transportation among the big cities of Central America and serve some remote mountain communities.
About half of Central America’s intercontinental trade is with the United States and Canada. Almost all the rest is with Western Europe, Mexico, and countries of South America. Central America’s principal imports are manufactured goods, such as motor vehicles, farm machines, textiles, electrical equipment, processed food, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals. The main Central American exports are basic commodities, which include bananas, coffee, cacao, meat, chicle, cotton, mahogany, balsa, hides and skins, and rubber.
The Central American Common Market (CACM), established in 1960, included all the Central American countries except Panama and Belize. However, several circumstances kept it from achieving its goals of trade liberalization and the establishment of a free-trade area. Among these was the infamous “Soccer War” of 1969 between El Salvador and Honduras, caused in part by CACM rules that favored El Salvador as well as Honduran policies against migrant Salvadoran workers. As a result, CACM trade was affected for more than a decade. Other countries’ internal conflicts also played a role in the disturbance of trade and by 1970, intra-CACM trade was insignificant. Today, Central American countries are facing new tariff barriers as the result of the Caribbean Basin Initiative (1984) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) (1994) and these barriers are preventing them from benefiting from increased global trading patterns.
The region between Mexico and Colombia supported a large pre-Columbian population, the most important of whom were the Maya. The Maya civilization originated in the highlands of Guatemala before the 1st millennium bc and reached its greatest flowering between ad 300 and 900 in autonomous city-states in what are now northern Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, and Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Maya unity was cultural rather than political, but the civilization’s influence was widespread. Maya artistic and scientific achievements surpassed those of contemporary Europeans. After 900, however, the Maya civilization declined, and its people came under the influence of Toltec people from Mexico.
Numerous peoples inhabited the remainder of the isthmus and traded with both South and North American tribes, making ancient Central America an archaeological bridge between the Americas. The population of the isthmus on the eve of the Spanish conquest may have been as large as six million, a figure not again achieved until the 20th century.
|A||The Colonial Period|
Christopher Columbus established Spain’s claim to Central America in 1502, when he sailed along its coast from the Gulf of Honduras to Panama. His reports of great wealth beyond the mountains that ran the length of the heavily populated isthmus stimulated Spanish conquest, which was launched from Hispaniola under Columbus’s son, Diego. The charismatic Vasco Núñez de Balboa founded Spain’s first truly productive colony in America at Darién in 1510, and went on to reach the Pacific Ocean in 1513. His successor, Pedrarias Dávila, who ordered Balboa’s death in 1517, extended the colony considerably, founding Panama City in 1519, from which he initiated the subjugation of Nicaragua and Honduras. The subsequent conquest of Central America became a bloody struggle among Spaniards representing interests in Panama, Hispaniola, and Mexico. Eventually, Pedro de Alvarado, the loyal lieutenant of the conqueror of Mexico, Hernán Cortés, consolidated control over most of the isthmus. The conquerors killed many Native Americans, but the majority died from devastating epidemics of smallpox, plague, dysentery, and influenza, introduced by the Europeans. The Spanish reduced to serfdom those who remained, establishing an agricultural society based on institutions they had brought from Spain. Native American customs and traditions survived, however, because most of the relatively few Spaniards remained in the towns and cities.
Colonial Central America was divided into two jurisdictions. The captaincy general of Guatemala extended from Chiapas (present-day Mexico’s southernmost state) through Costa Rica. Although nominally part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, it was relatively autonomous. Its capital city, Antigua Guatemala, became a center for bureaucrats, clerics, and the landholding and commercial elite of the colony. The rest of Central America (all of what is present-day Panama), with its important transit route, became attached to New Granada (modern Colombia) in the Viceroyalty of Peru.
Spanish decline during the 17th century permitted increased autonomy for the colonial elite who, with the cooperation of church and state, dominated the oppressed Native American and mestizo (mixed Spanish-Native American heritage) working class. In the 18th century Spain’s Bourbon kings, trying to regenerate the empire, inaugurated reforms that promoted new economic activity, but also challenged the longtime accommodation between the landholding elite and the bureaucracy.
The Creole elite in the captaincy general of Guatemala followed Mexico’s lead and severed its allegiance to Spain in 1821. The area then became part of the Mexican Empire of Agustín de Iturbide, but when Iturbide’s conservative government fell in 1823, liberals seized control, declared independence from Mexico, and formed the United Provinces of Central America. Chiapas, however, remained with Mexico, and Panama joined the Republic of Colombia (also known as Gran Colombia), headed by Simón Bolívar.
The United Provinces embarked on an ambitious but unrealistic program of republican reform and economic development, rejecting the Spanish heritage. Intense regionalism, political intrigue among the elite, and civil war resulted. In 1834 the liberals moved the capital from Guatemala to El Salvador, but their policies still faced bitter opposition and rebellion from conservative members of the elite and the rural masses. After the Guatemalan peasant leader Rafael Carrera captured Guatemala City in 1838, the federation began to disintegrate; the federal president, Francisco Morazán, finally resigned in 1840. Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica emerged as independent, conservative republics.
|C||The Central American Republics|
England, by this time, had replaced Spain as the dominant external force in the region. The British settlement at Belize had grown from a buccaneering and logging camp in the 17th century to become the principal port of Central America’s foreign trade. British influence extended along the Caribbean coast as far as Panama, and in 1862, Belize officially became a British colony (British Honduras). United States interest, however, rivaled British interest after 1849, for the isthmus offered the quickest routes to the gold mines of California. The Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850 resolved some areas of this Anglo-American conflict, but in 1855 William Walker, a U.S. soldier of fortune, invaded Nicaragua with an army of followers. A united Central American conservative army drove him out with British assistance in 1857. Meanwhile, the completion of the Panama Railroad in 1855 caused Central American commerce to shift away from Belize to the more accessible Pacific coast ports, and British influence receded thereafter.
After 1870 liberal dictatorships arose which, in the name of order and progress, promoted the development of coffee as the region’s main export; at the expense of a more diversified agriculture, banana cultivation, mostly controlled by foreign interests, also became important. After 1900, the U.S.-based United Fruit Company was a major force in Central America’s economy. Developing railroads, shipping, and other subsidiary interests, the company was known as the “Octopus” among resentful Central Americans. U.S. investment and government became the dominant force on the isthmus, beginning with the establishment of Panamanian independence in 1903. The United States helped form the Central American Court of Justice, but U.S. military occupation of Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933 undermined its effectiveness.
Economic growth in the 20th century produced new middle classes that began to challenge the continued rule of traditional elites. Beginning in Costa Rica, reformist and revolutionary parties had emerged in every country by the middle of the century.
The second half of the 20th century has seen persistent poverty, political instability and social injustice in many of the Central American republics still undergoing modernization. In Nicaragua, the Sandinista guerrilla movement overthrew the Somoza dynasty in 1978 and 1979. The United States then became involved in a major effort to support the counter-revolutionary (“contra”) forces against the leftist Sandinista government, leading to many deaths and great suffering on both sides. El Salvador’s people and economy were ravaged by civil war through the 1980s. Guatemala witnessed 36 years of fighting between alleged left-wing groups and a repressive military. Thousands of people were killed and hundreds of thousands migrated to escape this conflict, which ended with the signing of a peace agreement in December 1996. Political repression and corruption in Panama prompted the United States to intervene in 1989 to remove Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega, who was allegedly connected to Colombian drug cartels.
One of the most significant problems confronting all Central American countries is the difficulty of bringing about significant socioeconomic development without affecting the democratic rights of their populations. Given its geostrategic significance (especially because of the Panama Canal and U.S. military bases, which reverted to Panamanian control in 1999), Central America is inevitably a key zone for U.S. foreign policy. In the past, political stability has often been allowed to outweigh democratic and human rights. With the formation of new hemisphere-wide trading blocks, Central America may find itself once again left behind in the competitive Latin American struggle to achieve true development.