A History of Civilization and Culture in Central America
Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
Central America is the region of North America located between the southern border of Mexico and the northwest border of Colombia, in South America. Some geographers classify Central America as a large isthmus, and in this geographic sense it sometimes includes the portion of Mexico east of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, namely the Mexican states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo. However, Central America is much more commonly understood to correspond with the nations between Mexico and Colombia; Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama.
The region has made several attempts at political unity since its independence from Spain in the nineteenth century, though the region remains divided today.
Countries of the Region
The area considered Central America comprises an area of approximately 202,265 square miles (523,865 km²) and a width between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea ranging from about 350 to about 30 miles (560 km to 50 km).
Geopolitically, Central America has traditionally consisted of the following countries:
Many modern definitions of Central America include Belize and Panama, neither of which existed upon the formation of the Federal Republic of Central America, a short-lived union created after most of the region gained independence from Spain in the nineteenth century. The territory now occupied by Belize was originally contested by the United Kingdom and the Spanish Empire and, later, Guatemala (which has considered it, wholly or partially, an eastern department); it became a British colony (British Honduras) in 1871 and gained independence in 1981.
Panama, situated on the Isthmus of Panama, is sometimes regarded as a transcontinental territory. Today, it is often considered a part of North America alone; however, for much of its history Panama has been connected to South America. Panama was originally a possession of the Viceroyalty of New Granada, and then, following independence, became a part of la Gran Colombia (Greater Colombia). Only after independence from Colombia in 1903 did some begin to regard Panama as a strictly North American entity.
Fertile soils from weathered volcanic lavas have made it possible to sustain dense populations in the agriculturally productive highland areas. The majority of Central America rests on the Caribbean Plate and it surrounded by the Cocos Plate, North American Plate and the Nazca Plate. The geology of Central America is active, with volcanic eruptions and earthquakes occurring from time to time. The meeting point of the Caribbean and Cocos plates causes most of the geologic instability in the region. In 1931 and 1972 earthquakes devastated Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. The Cocos Plate is moving in a Northeastward direction at about 30 feet per century relative to the Caribbean Plate.
About four-fifths of the region is hilly or mountainous. More than 40 volcanoes lines up along the Pacific coast from Guatemala to Costa Rica. Half the volcanoes in the region are considered dormant, while one-fourth are extinct, the remaining volcanoes are active and together make up the most active volcanic region in the Americas. The highest point in Central America is Volcán Tajumulco in Guatemala which is an extinct volcano and is 13,845 feet (4,220 m) high.
The narrowest part of The Americas, Central America is the site of the Panama Canal as well as the proposed, but never-completed, Nicaragua Canal.
The climate is mainly tropical although this varies with altitude, distance from the ocean, and latitude. Temperature can range from over 100° F to below 46° F mainly depending on altitude and moisture content. Rainfall across Central America varies from north to south and from the Pacific coast to the Caribbean coast. Between May and November, and especially from August to October, the Caribbean coast of northern Central America is prone to hurricane damage.
Central America boasts a rich diversity in both flora and fauna, however to a lesser extent than South America. Central American forests are richly populated in birds, reptiles and insects, whereas mammals are much less common. Birds that live in the isthmus include parrots, hummingbirds, eagles, toucans and numerous migratory birds. Snakes can be found in all parts of Central America, as well as sea turtles, lizards, iguanas, the caiman and abundant species of tree frogs. Many of the endemic Central American species are endangered or near extinction due to deforestation, hunting and the pressure of human population growth on the area.
The vegetation of Central America is diverse and can be described as a tropical rain forest for the eastern half of the low lying portion of the region. The high interior region of Central America is mainly covered in montane forest.
In pre-Columbian times, most of modern Central America was part of the Mesoamerican civilization. The Native American societies of Mesoamerica occupied the land ranging from central Mexico in the north to Costa Rica in the south. The pre-Columbian cultures of Panama traded with both Mesoamerica and South America, and can be considered transitional between those two cultural areas.
European Conquest and Independence
After the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century, most of the inhabitants of Central America shared a similar history. The exception was British Honduras (the modern-day nation of Belize), a sparsely populated area that was leased by the Spanish Crown to Great Britain for 150 years for the exploitation of certain natural dyes. Later the region was claimed as a colony by the English Crown and was never to return to Spain or Guatemala, which claimed it as its territory until the 1970s. British Honduras for the English and Belice for the Spaniards and Guatemalans, gained its independence from Great Britain in 1973 and adopted the name “Belize.”
From the sixteenth century through 1821 Central America formed the Captaincy General of Guatemala, sometimes known also as the Kingdom of Guatemala, composed by the states of Chiapas (now part of Mexico), Guatemala (including present day Belize), El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Officially, the Captaincy was part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain and therefore under the rule of the Spanish viceroy in Mexico City. It was, however, administered not by the viceroy or his deputies, but by an independently appointed Captain General headquartered first in Antigua, Guatemala and later in Guatemala City.
In 1821 a congress of Central American criollos declared their independence from Spain, effective on September 15th of that year. (That date is still marked as the Independence Day by most Central American nations.) The Spanish Captain General, Gabino Gaínza, sympathized with the rebels and it was decided that he should stay on as interim leader until a new government could be formed. Independence was short-lived, for the conservative leaders in Guatemala welcomed annexation by the First Mexican Empire of Agustín de Iturbide on January 5, 1822. Central American liberals objected to this, but an army from Mexico under General Vicente Filisola occupied Guatemala City and quelled dissent.
Central American Unity
When Mexico became a republic the following year, it acknowledged Central America’s right to determine its own destiny. On July 1, 1823, the congress of Central America declared absolute independence from Spain, Mexico, and any other foreign nation, and a Republican system of government was established.
In 1823 the nation of Central America was formed. It was intended to be a federal republic modeled after the United States of America. It was provisionally known as “The United Provinces of Central America,” while the final name according to the Constitution of 1824 was “The Federal Republic of Central America.” It is sometimes incorrectly referred to in English as “The United States of Central America.” The Central American nation consisted of the states of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. In the 1830s an additional state was added, Los Altos, with its capital in Quetzaltenango, occupying parts of what is now the western highlands of Guatemala and part of Chiapas (now part of Mexico), but this state was reincorporated into Guatemala and Mexico respectively in 1840.
Central American liberals had high hopes for the federal republic, which they believed would evolve into a modern, democratic nation, enriched by trade crossing through it between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. These aspirations are reflected in the emblems of the federal republic: The flag shows a white band between two blue stripes, representing the land between two oceans. The coat of arms shows five mountains (one for each state) between two oceans, surmounted by a Phrygian cap, the emblem of the French Revolution.
The Union dissolved in civil war between 1838 and 1840. Its disintegration began when Honduras separated from the federation on November 5, 1838.
In practice, however, the federation faced insurmountable problems. The liberal democratic project was strongly opposed by conservative factions allied with the Roman Catholic clergy and wealthy landowners. Transportation and communication routes between the states were extremely deficient. The bulk of the population lacked any sense of commitment towards the broader federation perhaps largely owing to their continued loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church in Spain. The federal bureaucracy in Guatemala City proved ineffectual, and fears of Guatemalan domination of the union led to protests that resulted in the relocation of the capital to San Salvador in 1831. Wars soon broke out between various factions both in the federation and within individual states. The poverty and extreme political instability of the region prevented the construction of an inter-oceanic canal (Nicaragua Canal and Panama Canal), from which Central America could have obtained considerable economic benefits.
Various attempts were made to reunite Central America in the nineteenth century, but none succeeded for any length of time. The first attempt was in 1842 by former President Francisco Morazán, who was quickly captured and executed. The abortive attempt aimed to restore the union as the Confederation of Central America and included El Salvador, Guatemala (which withdrew early), Honduras, and Nicaragua. This first attempt lasted until 1844. A second attempt was made and lasted from October to November 1852, when El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua created a Federation of Central America (Federacion de Centro America). Guatemalan President Justo Rufino Barrios attempted to reunite the nation by force of arms in the 1880s and was killed in the process, like his 1842 predecessor. A third union of Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador as the Greater Republic of Central America or “Republica Mayor de Centroamerica” lasted from 1896 to 1898. The latest attempt occurred between June 1921 and January 1922 when El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras formed a second Federation of Central America. This second Federation was nearly moribund from the start, having only a Provisional Federal Council made up of delegates from each state.
Despite the failure of a lasting political union, the concept of Central American reunification, though lacking enthusiasm from the leaders of the individual countries, rises from time to time. In 1856-1857 the region successfully established a military coalition to repel an invasion by U.S. adventurer William Walker. Today, all five nations fly flags that retain the old federal motif of two outer blue bands bounding an inner white stripe. (Costa Rica, traditionally the least committed of the five to regional integration, modified its flag significantly in 1848 by darkening the blue and adding a double-wide inner red band, in honor of the French tricolor).
In 1907 a Central American Court of Justice was created. On December 13, 1960, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua established the Central American Common Market (“CACM”). Costa Rica, because of its relative economic prosperity and political stability, chose not to participate in the CACM. The goals for the CACM were to create greater political unification and success of Import Substitution Industrialization policies. The project was an immediate economic success, but was abandoned after the 1969 “Soccer War” between El Salvador and Honduras.
The Central American Parliament, also known by the abbreviation “Parlacen” (from the Spanish Parlamento Centroamericano) is a political institution devoted to the integration of the Central American countries. The Parlacen represents a modern renewal of the historic Federal Republic of Central America which existed from 1823 to 1840, though not including Costa Rica but including Panama and the Dominican Republic.
The Parlacen has its more recent origins in the Contadora Group, a project launched in the 1980s to help deal with civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Although the Contadora was dissolved in 1986, the idea for Central American Integration remained, and its works were taken by the Esquipulas Peace Agreement, which, among other acts, agreed to the creation of the Central American Parliament.
In spite of its efforts to promote the Esquipulas Agreement, Costa Rica has not yet ratified and is consequently not represented in the Parlacen. It has been seen by many as a “white elephant.”
The Parlacen has three branches: Plenum, Board of Parliament, and Secretariat. If ten members of at least two or more countries join together, they can from a Parliamentary Group.
- The Democratic Centre (CD)
- The Democratic Alliance of Central America (ADC)
- The Parliamentary Group of the Lefts (GPI)
- Democratic Convergency of Central America (CDC)
- Democratic Integration
Esquipulas Peace Agreement
The Esquipulas Peace Agreement was an initiative in the mid-1980s to settle the military conflicts that had plagued Central America for many years, and in some cases (notably Guatemala) for decades. It built upon work laid by the Contadora Group from 1983 to 1985. The agreement was named for Esquipulas, Guatemala, where the initial meetings took place.
In May 1986, a summit meeting, “Esquipulas I,” took place, attended by the five Central American presidents. On February 15, 1987, Costa Rican President Óscar Arias submitted a Peace Plan which evolved from this meeting. During 1986 and 1987, the “Esquipulas Process” was established, in which the Central American heads of state agreed on economic cooperation and a framework for peaceful conflict resolution. The “Esquipulas II Accord” emerged from this and was signed in Guatemala City by the five presidents on August 7, 1987.
Esquipulas II defined a number of measures to promote national reconciliation, an end to hostilities, democratization, free elections, the termination of all assistance to irregular forces, negotiations on arms controls, and assistance to refugees. It also laid the ground for international verification procedures and provided a timetable for implementation.
The United States government refused to recognize the agreement due to its de facto recognition of the Sandinista regime, which the US government rejected as illegitimate and undemocratic. The US declined on the agreement thus it was unsuccessful. However some have said it was successful as they considered it a sly political attack on Sandinista government of Nicaragua. Eventually the agreement was rewritten and in subsequent years, Esquipulas laid the groundwork for the 1990 Oslo Accord (not to be confused with the 1993 Oslo Accords between the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)). This was a preliminary agreement between the Guatemalan National Reconciliation Commission (CNR) and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) which brought to an end more than three decades of strife in Guatemala. It also inspired the signing of a general peace agreement in El Salvador. Arias’ efforts on behalf of the Esquipulas Peace Agreement earned him the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize.
Central America has maintained one of the highest population growth rates in the world, with the estimated population in 2007 at over 40,500,000. This has risen from a population of 10 million in the early 1950s. The population density is 77.3 inhabitants per square kilometer, though in reality, the population is distributed very unevenly throughout the region.
The dominant language of the region is Spanish and is the official language in six of the nations. Belize’s official language is English, which is also the lingua franca along much of the Caribbean coast. Many of the Native tribes speak only their native tongue, though some speak Spanish while a large number speak more than one native language.
During colonial times the native populations were converted to Catholicism, of which the majority of Central Americans follow to this day. Among the Native peoples the Catholic faith was blended into the native religious practices. The original beliefs and rituals have become a part of the Catholic faith of the region.
The population of Central America consists of a large majority (two-thirds) of people of mixed ancestry. It is estimated that approximately 60 percent are of mixed European and American Indian descent (called “ladinos” in Guatemala and “mestizos” elsewhere), with an additional 5 percent being descended from European and African ancestors (referred to as “mulattoes”), and one percent descending from a mix of native and black ancestors. Amerindian (original indigenous population) comprise 20 percent of the population. Those of strictly European ancestry make up approximately 12 percent, with the remainder claiming descendency from Chinese and East Indian indentured servants.
The population breakdown between nations in the region is approximated at one-third in Guatemala, one–sixth in El Salvador, one–sixth in Honduras, one–eighth in Nicaragua, one–tenth in Costa Rica, and one–twelfth in Panama. Less than one percent of the population resides in Belize. The population density of each nation varies greatly. The above table shows the population and area of each country with its respective density.
The White Population
The white ethnic group, or White Latin Americans, have an approximate population of 5,380,885 inhabitants, of which more than half are located in Costa Rica, followed by Nicaragua with almost one million. El Salvador and Guatemala also have significant white populations.
The Mestizo Population
The mestizo population (mixed Amerindian and Caucasian) is formed by 27,456,772 inhabitants, occupying the majority of the Central American population. All seven republics have significant Mestizo populations, the majority of which are located in Guatemala and Honduras.
The Creole, Afro-Caribbean, and Garifuna populations form the majority of the Afro-Latin Americans in Central America, of which the majority is concentrated on the Caribbean coasts of the region. It is important to note that all these groups are distinct, speaking English, English creoles, Garifuna, Miskito, and Spanish. The highest percentage is 31 percent in Belize, where Belizean Kriol people and Garifuna were once the majority. The largest population, however, is in Nicaragua of Creole, Miskito, and Garifuna descent, also concentrated on the Caribbean coast in the area often referred to as the Mosquito Coast. In Panama a small black population was already present when the construction of the Panama Canal saw the large arrival of immigrant Afro-Caribbean people. Honduras has a small population of creole people, but the overwhelming majority of blacks are Garifuna. Although El Salvador is the only Central American country with no official black percentage, Salvadorans with some African heritage are present.
The Amerindian Population
The only plurality of Indigenous people located in Central America is in Guatemala. Amerindians are small minorities in the rest of Central America.
- Countries ranked by Population CIA World Factbook Retrieved August 9, 2007.
- Tommie Sue Montgomery. 1995. Revolution in El Salvador: from civil strife to civil peace. (Boulder: Westview Press.)
- 31 percent is the combined from the Creoles and Garifuna in Belize.
- Booth, John A., Christine J. Wade, and Thomas W. Walker. 2006. Understanding Central America: global forces, rebellion, and change. Boulder, Colo: Westview Press.
- LaFeber, Walter. 1983. Inevitable revolutions: the United States in Central America. New York: Norton.
- Montgomery, Tommie Sue. 1995. Revolution in El Salvador: from civil strife to civil peace. Boulder: Westview Press.
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- (Spanish) Parlamento Centroamericano Central American Parliament Retrieved August 9, 2007.
Originally published by New World Encyclopedia, 04.28.2013, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.