Central America

views updated May 23 2018

Central America

The term "Central America" is often used to designate the region stretching southeastward from the isthmus of Tehuantepec, in Mexico, to the boundary between Panama and Colombia. Historically, however, it has more often been used with reference to the five states that once made up the Central American federation—Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica—but also including Belize, which has long been claimed by Guatemala. The Spanish colonial Kingdom of Guatemala also included the area occupied by the present-day Mexican state of Chiapas; that state is sometimes included in considerations of Central America. And since its independence from Colombia in 1903, Panama has increasingly been thought of politically as well as geographically as a part of Central America.

Before the arrival of the Europeans, Central America, an archaeological bridge between North and South America, was home to a variety of nomadic and sedentary peoples. Mayan civilization occupied much of the isthmus, from Chiapas and Yucatán through Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, and into Nicaragua. Various tribes of Nahuatl origin had moved along the Pacific watershed from central Mexico as far as Nicaragua. Chibcha and other South American Indians occupied lower Central America into Nicaragua. Although the Maya were the most advanced pre-Columbian civilization, they were neither unified nor cohesive. Unlike the Aztecs or Incas, their autonomous city-states remained independent, presaging the political fragmentation that would characterize modern Central America. What unity existed was cultural rather than political.

These Indian peoples suffered greatly under the Spanish military conquest. Efforts to enslave the natives decimated their numbers, but far more destructive were the biological consequences of the conquest. Epidemics of smallpox, plague, syphilis, and other diseases killed millions, perhaps 80 to 90 percent of the population. The population continued to decline until about 1750, then began to grow slightly through the nineteenth century and to rise at a surprising pace in the twentieth century.

Much of the contemporary writing on Central America focuses on individual states, offering rather myopic analyses with little sense of the larger regional issues. Even most of the growing number of works concentrating on the contemporary crises in Central America for the most part deal with the region on a state-by-state basis. This is not, of course, altogether unjustified or unwelcome, for there has been a need for more careful studies of individual states and most of these works contribute to understanding the dynamics of Central American development. At the same time, there is a Central American regional cohesiveness across a broad spectrum of activity. The concept of Central American nationality is deeply ingrained in isthmian history, and although the period since the 1870s has fostered the nationalism of the separate city-states, Central American reunification remains a possibility many Central Americans desire.


Central American history reveals a strong thread of unity. Although political union was not a feature of pre-Columbian Central America, there was considerable cultural similarity among the peoples occupying the present-day states of Central America, with extensive commercial relations among them and some sense of common enemies from without. In the early sixteenth century, however, the Spanish imposed political, economic, social, and cultural unity. As the Kingdom of Guatemala, for three centuries the region evolved as a single political unit, governed from Santiago de Guatemala (present-day Antigua). Moved occasionally because of natural disasters, that city became the home of a patrician creole elite and the peninsular bureaucrats who ruled these provinces. Their progeny extended into the provinces and formed the nucleus of the local aristocracy in each provincial capital.

While varying degrees of allegiance and amounts of colonial tribute were paid to the viceregal capital at Mexico City and to Spain, the immediate and real center of the Central American universe was Santiago de Guatemala. Until the very last years of Spanish rule, it contained the only university in the kingdom (the University of San Carlos, founded in 1681), and was the headquarters for every religious order on the isthmus, the center for overseas trade and finance, and, of course, the administrative capital of the kingdom. The cream of the local creole stock came from the provinces to be educated, to enter commerce, to join the bureaucracy, and to establish closer ties with the families at the center of the kingdom.

To be sure, there were centrifugal forces as well. Inadequate transportation facilities caused much of the region to be remote from the capital and its advantages. The kingdom often represented an intrusion on local subsistence, a burden in the form of taxes and service to crown or cross. There was the conflict between the two great socioeconomic systems that have characterized Central America since 1524: feudalism and capitalism. The conquistadores established a kingdom with feudal concepts, institutions, and customs. The vestiges of that kingdom can still be seen in institutions and attitudes in modern Central America, but there also was a Renaissance capitalism carried to Central America that emphasized mineral exploitation, agroexport production, development of infrastructure, and greater unity among the provinces of the kingdom. This capitalist trend slowed during the seventeenth century and, if anything, feudal institutions became stronger then. But as Spain declined economically, her rivals gained strength and the industrial revolution caused them to probe the isthmus for trade and plunder, which contributed ultimately to greater overseas trade. The eighteenth-century Bourbons especially promoted increased agricultural export production in the backwater regions of the Spanish Empire that had been predominantly subsistence-oriented.

In Central America this produced some very substantial changes. Provinces formerly subservient to Guatemala began to gain importance in their own right. Honduras exploited silver mines and, as in Nicaragua, a flourishing ranching community emerged that drove large herds to markets in El Salvador and Guatemala. Costa Rica exported cacao and tobacco. And, most of all, El Salvador's indigo became the major export of the isthmus. This greater economic importance of the provinces contributed to their resentment against the persistent economic and political dominance of Guatemala City, but it also caused some severe economic dislocations. During the final half-century of Hispanic rule, strong divisions began to emerge among the colonial elite regarding economic development, the role of the Roman Catholic Church, provincial representation, and, ultimately, the question of independence from Spain.


All the various issues crystallized the educated creole class into two factions that emerged after independence as the conservative and liberal parties. The liberals advocated a continuation of Bourbon policies that promoted liberal capitalism, while the conservatives looked back to the perceived harmony of Hapsburg times, with strong feudal overtones. This would have major consequences for the future of Central American nationalism.

Conservatives looked toward maintenance of the two-class society that had so long characterized Spain and Central America. They favored policies that would preserve the landholding elites in their traditional, dominant roles but also, in noblesse oblige fashion, they assured the peasants of some protection against exploitation by the liberal modernizers. Overcoming initial liberal gains at the outset of independence, these conservatives and their caudillos controlled most of Central America in the mid-nineteenth century. They preserved traditional Hispanic values and institutions, especially the Roman Catholic Church, and they rewarded loyal Indian and mestizo peasants with paternalism and respect for their communal lands. They made real, if limited, demands on the peasants, for most of whom subsistence agriculture continued to be the principal activity. In feudal style, they relied on the clergy and local caudillos and landowners for social control, peace, and security. They thus defended states' rights against national unity and were xenophobic toward foreigners who threatened their traditional society with Protestantism, democracy, and modernization.

While the conservatives welcomed expansion of agroexports, they were sensitive to the danger of upsetting native labor and land tenure patterns, and they were forcefully opposed to granting the nation's land and resources to foreigners who generally did not share their religion, language, or social and cultural values, and who might threaten the preeminent place that the conservatives held in the social structure of the provinces. Peasant insurgency against liberal innovators in the 1830s, sometimes instigated by small landlords, was instrumental in the conservative accession to power.

Liberals, by contrast, represented the segment of the Creole elite and an incipient bourgeoisie that wished to modernize Central America by imitating the economic and political success of western Europe and the United States. These "modernizers" rejected traditional Hispanic values and institutions, especially the church. They espoused classical economic liberalism, opposing monopolies while encouraging private foreign trade, immigration, and investment. They emphasized exports and treated the rural masses and their land as the principal resources to be exploited in this effort. Although republican and democratic in political theory, they became much influenced first by utilitarianism and later by positivist materialism, and were contemptuous of, even embarrassed by, the indigenous heritage of their countries. Once in power they often resorted to dictatorship to accomplish their economic goals and to defend their gains.

Thus the professionalization of the military, which became their power base, was an important trend in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The absence of stronger middle sectors in the traditional two-class Central American society and the persistence of elitist attitudes toward the masses meant, however, that in practice the liberals proceeded very differently than did the industrialized nations. Instead, there emerged elite oligarchies of planters and capitalists who cynically, and without the noblesse oblige of their conservative predecessors, continued to live off the labor of an oppressed rural population that shared little if any of the benefits of the expanded export production. On the contrary, they found their subsistence threatened by encroachment on their lands for production of export commodities.

Few Central Americans at the beginning of the nineteenth century envisioned or favored independence for the separate city-states of the Kingdom of Guatemala. But the peculiar circumstances, which Mario Rodríguez has described brilliantly in his Cádiz Experiment (1978), brought together both provincial resentment toward Guatemala City and greater local autonomy through the reforms of the Cádiz government in 1810 to 1814. Independence from Spain came through endorsement of Agustín Iturbide's "Plan of Iguala" on 15 September 1821, by a council of notables in Guatemala City. Following the brief continuation of the Kingdom of Guatemala within Iturbide's Mexican Empire (1822–1823), an elected assembly dominated by liberals met in Guatemala City and on 1 July 1823 declared independence from Mexico and organized the United Provinces of the Center of America (Provincias Unidas del Centro de América). In 1824 it adopted a republican constitution providing for a loose federation of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Chiapas had elected to stay with Mexico in 1823, and Panama had become part of Gran Colombia in 1821.

From the outset, the failure of federal leaders to enforce the constitutional provisions led to fragmentation of the union. Provincial jealousies and ideological differences that had emerged in the late colonial period had already sown the seeds of disunion. In the first presidential election (1825) Manuel José Arce, a liberal Salvadoran army officer, won a disputed election over a moderate Honduran attorney and prominent intellectual, José Cecilio del Valle. The intrigue connected with the electoral process alienated not only conservatives supporting Valle but also extreme liberals, who accused Arce of selling out to conservatives in the congress. Arce did, in fact, ally himself with conservative interests in Guatemala City, and when the liberal Guatemalan state government became hostile toward him, he deposed Governor Juan Barrundia and replaced him with the staunchly conservative Mariano Aycinena. This act prompted the Salvadoran state government to rebel, touching off a civil war in 1826 that produced animosities throughout the federation that would last beyond the brief life of the United Provinces.

Liberal victory in 1829, under the leadership of Honduran general Francisco Morazán, resulted in a sweeping reform program that included strong anti-clericalism, promotion of infrastructure and agroexports, integration of the Indian population, and approval of new judicial and penal codes, notably including trial by jury and, in Guatemala, the illadvised adoption of the Livingston Codes. Under Morazán's presidency (1831–1839), the liberals exiled prominent conservatives, including the archbishop and other clergy. Morazán also moved the federal capital from Guatemala City to San Salvador in 1834.

This disintegration of the old kingdom is of crucial importance to Central America's subsequent history. Struggles emerged between conservative and liberal creole elites in every province, as well as between provinces. Fighting was especially bitter between Guatemala City and San Salvador and between the Nicaraguan cities of Granada and León. But nearly as serious were conflicts between Comayagua and Tegucigalpa in Honduras and among the four towns of the Costa Rican central valley, where liberal San José ultimately emerged victorious over traditional Cartago. Quetzaltenango and other towns of western Guatemala also harbored separatist sentiments that surfaced in unsuccessful secession movements in 1839 and in 1848.

Resistance to the liberal reforms arose among the rural masses in El Salvador in the rebellion of the Indian leader Anastasio Aquino, beginning in 1833, but Morazán suppressed this insurrection. Disenchantment with the liberal reforms was also evident in the presidential election at the end of 1833, when opposition candidate José Cecilio del Valle defeated Morazán, but died before taking office. Morazán, as the runner-up, remained constitutionally in office, confirmed by a new election in February 1835. In Guatemala, opposition to the liberal policies of Governor Mariano Gálvez—including anticlericalism, land grants to foreigners, judicial reform, and imposition of a general head tax—combined with panic caused by a serious cholera epidemic ignited a peasant revolt beginning in 1837. Encouraged by the rural clergy and led by the charismatic Rafael Carrera, the peasants toppled Gálvez and sharply divided the liberals in Guatemala, allowing the conservatives to gain control.

Meanwhile, western Guatemala, under liberal leadership, seceded and formed a sixth state, called Los Altos. Carrera quickly reconquered these departments in January 1840, however, and when Morazán brought federal troops into the conflict, Carrera defeated him decisively at Guatemala City in March 1840. The federation was already in disarray, as Nicaragua, Honduras, and Costa Rica had seceded in 1838. Morazán fled to Chiriquí in Colombian Panama. He returned two years later and briefly took over the government of Costa Rica, but in this action he not only failed to reunite the states but also inspired a Costa Rican reaction that ended in his own execution before a firing squad on 15 September 1842.

Even at that, conservatives as well as liberals were reluctant to abandon national union. The states formed a conservative alliance in 1842, which served to prevent the liberals from regaining control. Despite their declared preference for reunion, however, the conservative caudillos of the mid-nineteenth century laid the foundations for the modern city-state republics of Central America. Guatemala in 1847 and Costa Rica in 1848, in their fervor to prevent a return of the Morazanistas, declared their states to be republics, and the other states followed their lead within a decade.

1850 TO 1945

Even in the symbolic declarations of independence from the defunct federation, the countries reiterated their hopes for reunion at "a more propitious time." Carrera's stunning defeat of a liberal National Army at Arada, Guatemala, in February 1851 destroyed whatever chances a reunification effort organized by José Francisco Barrundia and other liberals might have had, and a conservative "National Campaign" under the leadership of Costa Rica's Juan Rafael Mora defeated William Walker's unionist aspirations in 1857. Walker had come to the aid of Nicaraguan liberals and then established himself as president of that state. A strong Costa Rican—Guatemalan axis throughout the mid-nineteenth century, both before and after the Walker episode, prevented the middle states from returning to liberalism.

That "more propitious time" has come and gone frequently, with more than a hundred attempts at reunification between 1824 and 1965. The liberal resurgence that recovered control of all the states before 1900 appeared propitious to some, especially to liberal caudillos Justo Rufino Barrios (1873–1885) of Guatemala and José Santos Zelaya of Nicaragua (1893–1909), who sought to reunite the isthmus under their respective military leadership.

In reality, the liberal caudillos brought a different kind of unity to the isthmus in their common policies of welcoming foreign, especially United States, capital to the region. In a very real sense, the United States provided the kind of external unity over the region in the twentieth century that Spain had lost at the beginning of the nineteenth century and that Great Britain had only partially achieved in the mid-nineteenth century.

Estimates of Central American population (1500–2025)
Source: R.L. Woodward, Jr., Central America, a Nation Divided, 2nd ed. (1985); U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division, International Database (IDB), http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/idb/. Panama is not included in these figures.
Table 1

In the early twentieth century, Nicaraguan writer Salvador Mendieta spearheaded another unionist movement that, although it failed, helped to generate interstate cooperative agencies and laid a foundation for the later integration movement. A Mendieta-inspired Unionist Party won the Guatemalan presidency briefly in 1920, but traditional liberals displaced it a year later.

Central Americans have often charged that foreign nations—Britain in the nineteenth century, the United States in the twentieth—have sabotaged unity, following a divide-and-conquer policy. Certainly there is some truth to the charge with regard to the activities of nationals and diplomats of both English-speaking countries. It was, for example, easier for the giant fruit companies to deal with small, weak states than with a larger, united republic. Yet had there not been substantial internal causes of disunity for foreigners to exploit, Central Americans might still have achieved union.

After World War II foreign aid programs, particularly from the United States but also from international organizations, focused on the need for Central American unity and engendered a spirit of cooperation. Working with the United States Agency for International Development (formerly International Cooperation Administration) and United Nations organizations, the Central American states launched multilateral programs that promoted a spirit of unity at least among the technocrats and politicians associated with them. Cultural and ideological unity came more gradually with programs to eliminate unnecessary duplication in Central American universities and vocational schools.

These foreign assistance programs imposed a kind of unity over the region. Studies made by private corporations and foundations, by national and international governmental agencies, and by academicians in several disciplines encouraged the five states to collaborate in facing common problems. Movement toward economic integration and its accompanying interstate organizations promoted cooperation and unity on the isthmus, as did a rise in interstate investment and the advent of better transportation and communication among the states. Symbolically, the printing of "Centro-América" on the automobile license tags in all five states reflected the new spirit of unity.

Unfortunately, aide programs were often ill conceived and not applicable to the particular problems of Central America. The failure of the United States to support the socioeconomic reforms of Juan José Arévalo, the Sandinistas, and other progressive forces attached an aura of reaction to United States programs that made them suspect to many Central Americans. At the same time, the military grew and often became the principal beneficiary of aid programs. The refusal of most U.S. aid programs to recognize the need for basic restructuring of the society and economy of the region was at the heart of the failure of the programs to achieve greater change. Many Central Americans saw the programs simply as devices to maintain the region in economic dependence on the capitalists.

FROM 1945 TO 1994

With more progressive governments in Guatemala, Costa Rica, and El Salvador following World War II—and even some spirit of the benefits of cooperation evidence in Honduras and Nicaragua—the movement for unity picked up. Guatemalan and Salvadoran initiatives led to a general meeting of Central American foreign ministers in October 1951, from which came plans for the formation of the Organization of Central American States (ODECA), formally founded in 1955. In 1952 economic ministers of the five states met in Tegucigalpa with the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America, leading eventually to a 1958 treaty for Central American economic integration that included the Central American Common Market (CACM), a series of trade agreements, and planned industries, which expanded through the 1960s. Costa Rica, the most prosperous state, was reluctant to cooperate fully, fearing competition from countries with cheap labor and especially distrustful of Nicaragua. Thus, a full common market was never achieved, but substantial advances were made, particularly in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, where new industrial establishments blossomed. Panama also was a limited member of the CACM. Other results of the cooperation included an acceleration in road building and completion of the Pan-American Highway to Panama in 1964. These improvements promoted interstate trade, industry, and tourism, although political instability limited these advances.

The two-week Football War between El Salvador and Honduras in the summer of 1969 brought a halt to the growth of the CACM and emphasized that without stronger political cooperation, economic union was precarious. The Central American states had settled most disputes amicably since World War II, but the outbreak of this war brought back memories of the frequent civil wars and the meddling in each other's affairs so common earlier. It abruptly interrupted a decade of growth and economic diversification. Although interstate trade soon reached pre-1969 levels and there was modest commercial growth throughout most of the 1970s, in the aftermath of that clash careful analysis revealed not only that economic union could go only so far without closer political confederation but also that the CACM had not been uniformly beneficial for all five states. The Permanent Secretariat for Economic Integration of Central America (SIECA) concluded that if it was truly to benefit the entire region, there would have to be provision for redistribution of the generated wealth that flowed from one region to another as a result of trade patterns.

The worsening economic and social conditions stimulated by rampant inflation and the worldwide oil crisis led to the formation of the High-Level Committee, which drafted a treaty in 1976 that, if adopted, would have extended the integration movement to total trade liberalization, standardization of foreign investment rules, tax harmonization, free movement of labor and capital, a common agricultural policy, a coordinated system of basic industries, and a unified social policy that promoted health, nutrition, housing, support of labor unions, and harmonization of social security and minimum wages. This progressive proposal, however, was rejected by all five states, and the integration movement lost its earlier momentum. The failure of the Central American elites to seize this opportunity was far more damaging than the Football War, reflecting selfish concerns to protect privileged positions within their respective city-states.

The economic problems and political turmoil of the late 1970s fragmented the isthmus and made integration seem remote. The rise of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the guerrilla warfare in El Salvador and Guatemala curtailed traffic on the Pan-American Highway, meanwhile the real value of exports fell for all of the states. Yet hope did not die, and the violence and economic decline of the 1980s once again emphasized the desirability of unity. Encouraged especially by Presidents Vinicio Cerezo of Guatemala, Oscar Arias Sánchez of Costa Rica, and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, this new interest in unity resulted by 1990 in renewed plans for integration and a Central American parliament modeled on that of the European community. Although Costa Rica's legislature kept that state aloof from this initiative, the other four states proceeded to hold elections and organize the Central American Parliament with guarded optimism.

By 1980 political and economic crisis in Central America had made it the focus of an East-West confrontation that brought new manifestations of U.S. hegemony over the region. The pattern of military dictatorship in all of the states except Costa Rica had intensified in reaction to the rise of Fidel Castro after 1959. A military phase of the Central American integration movement was the formation, beginning in 1963, by Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua of the Central American Defense Council (CONDECA) with strong U.S. support. The 1969 war weakened this organization when Honduras pulled out, and in the 1970s it faded into near obscurity, with greater emphasis being placed on economic and social development. After the 1968 Medellín Episcopal Conference, the Roman Catholic church began to promote, with some success, greater attention to the plight of the poor and oppressed, contributing to a new international awareness of the problem of human rights violations and social injustice in Central America. International organizations began to focus on Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, and they often scored the United States for its support of repressive regimes in those countries. When Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited Costa Rica and Guatemala in February 1976, he was greeted with riots and outcries against U.S. support of reactionary regimes in Latin America.

President Jimmy Carter (1977–1981) sought to establish a more humanitarian United States policy, but his pro-human rights policy brought stiff opposition from elites in Guatemala and El Salvador, especially after the 1979 overthrow of Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua. Carter also pushed through treaties under which the United States agreed to turn over the Panama Canal to Panama by the year 2000, ending severely strained relations between the United States and Panama, and helping the government of strongman Omar Torrijos to reverse the unfavorable economic trends in his country. Although the Carter government opposed the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, it accepted their victory gracefully, and in late September 1979 the U.S. Congress approved a Nicaraguan aid package.

The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, however, brought a sharp reversal of these policies. Reagan had opposed transfer of the Canal Zone, and his administration obstructed implementation of the 1977 treaties, risking deteriorating relations with Panama in a period when that state was undergoing political adjustments following the 1981 death of Torrijos in a plane crash. Reagan cultivated better relations with the Central American armies, however. Soon after taking office he resumed sales of military items to Guatemala, sent military advisers to El Salvador, and suspended aid to Nicaragua. By November 1981 Reagan had begun support of covert operations against the Nicaraguan government, and soon afterward the Nicaraguan Contras emerged to launch a civil war aimed at overthrowing the Sandinistas. He also increased U.S. support against guerrilla opposition forces in El Salvador.

From the outset of his administration, it was clear that Reagan intended to roll back the revolutionary tide in Central America and to make the isthmus a theater in the escalating confrontation with Soviet power. The U.S. presence was most obvious in Honduras, where a massive U.S. military and naval buildup supported the militarization of Honduras and aid to the Nicaraguan contras in an effort to intimidate both the Sandinistas and the Salvadoran guerrillas. In 1983, with the strong backing of the Reagan administration, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Panama resurrected CONDECA, with Nicaragua excluded and Costa Rica, emphasizing its neutrality, declining participation. But the Reagan administration played on traditional Costa Rican fear of Nicaragua to encourage a military buildup in that country as well.

As debate over U.S. policy heightened, Reagan named Henry Kissinger in 1983 to head a bipartisan commission to study Central America. The committee's report, although providing considerable evidence that the basic problems on the isthmus were socioeconomic, concluded with an endorsement of the military policies of the Reagan government. It also called, however, for a massive economic and social aid program, which the Reagan government began to implement. A rapidly deteriorating economic crisis in Nicaragua accompanied continued United States support of the contras after 1985. After much negotiation a peace initiative by Costa Rican president Oscar Arias Sánchez finally succeeded in 1989. The United States agreed to disband the contras and the Sandinistas agreed to hold free elections, which in 1990 brought to power an anti-Sandinista coalition strongly linked to the old Conservative Party and United States interests under the presidency of Violeta Barrios De Chamorro, widow of the slain La Prensa editor who had opposed the Somoza dynasty.

Reagan's successor, George Bush (1989–1993), continued the military approach to Central American problems, however. In Panama, General Manuel Noriega challenged American interests there after having collaborated with the CIA for years. President Bush cited Noriega's role in drug trafficking as justification for a U.S. invasion of Panama in December 1989 but was obviously concerned about Noriega's ties to Cuba. Noriega was captured and brought to the United States, where he was convicted of violating U.S. drug laws. A successor government under Guillermo Endara, widely regarded as a U.S. puppet government, however, appeared to allow continuation of the drug trafficking at an even higher level than under Noriega. Meanwhile, the collapse of the Eastern bloc, beginning in 1989, ended the perceived Soviet threat in Central America, and U.S. direct interest in the region dropped sharply.

As the twentieth century closed, the middle and working classes were continuing to challenge the power of creole oligarchies that had inherited power at independence. Yet while the Reagan-Bush Central American policy had verbalized a great deal about its support of the democratization of Central America, much of the progress was superficial and limited to the supervision of free elections. A 1991 poll of Latin American academic specialists in the United States (the 1991 Fitzgibbon-Johnson Image-Index on Latin American Democracy, conducted by Phil Kelly of Emporia State University) rated Costa Rica as the most democratic of the twenty Latin American republics; Nicaragua placed tenth, and Honduras (seventeenth), Guatemala (eighteenth), and El Salvador (nineteenth) ranked above only Haiti in the poll. While some of the more visible manifestations of military rule in those states have been camouflaged, the serious social and economic obstacles to democracy remain strong.

Chances of Central American reunion as of 2007 seem more unlikely than at any time since 1839, but the appeal of union remains irresistible. If governments representing a broader segment of the population gain power and can check the self-serving policies of the elites, then the hopes of Francisco Morazán and Salvador Mendieta for a single Central American republic may yet come to fruition. Steve Ropp has written an article entitled "Central America in Search of a Cavour," which notes striking similarities between nineteenth-century Italy and contemporary Central America. Once initiated, a progress toward a rejuvenated Central American republic could come rapidly, and the new Central American Parliament may well be a step in that direction. But for the early twenty-first century, while cooperation at many levels will probably resume, it is just as likely that Central America will remain divided into five sovereign states with strong nationalistic elements that emphasize their unique differences rather than their common problems.

See alsoCentral America, Independence of; Indigenous Peoples; Organization of Central American States (ODECA); United States-Latin American Relations.


There are useful bibliographical volumes on each Central American country in Clio Press's World Bibliographical Series. Ralph Lee Woodward, Jr., Central America, a Nation Divided, 3d ed. (1993), is a general history of Central America in English; for the post-Independence period James Dunkerley, Power in the Isthmus: A Political History of Modern Central America (1988), is much more detailed. Héctor Pérez Brignoli, A Brief History of Central America, translated by Ricardo B. Sawrey and Susana Stettri de Sawrey, 2d ed. (1989), and Rodolfo Pastor, Historia de Centroamérica (1988), offer Central American interpretations. Leslie Bethell, ed., Central America Since Independence (1991), conveniently provides the pertinent chapters from The Cambridge History of Latin America, 10 vols. (1984–1994). Although over a century old, Hubert Howe Bancroft, History of Central America, 3 vols. (1883–1887), still has much utility, especially in its presentation of the liberal interpretation. Mary W. Helms, Middle America: A Culture History of Heartlands and Frontiers (1975), surveys isthmian history from an anthropological perspective from pre-Columbian to modern times. For the colonial period, see Murdo J. Macleod, Spanish Central America: A Socioeconomic History, 1520–1720 (1973), and Miles Wortman, Government and Society in Central America, 1680–1840 (1982). Severo Martínez Peláez, La patria del criollo (1971), is an extended interpretive essay by a leading Guatemalan historian that offers a detailed description of the colonial social structure and the formation of the creole mentality. Mario Rodríguez, The Cádiz Experiment in Central America, 1808 to 1826 (1978), is a superb study on the independence period and the influence of the Spanish Constitution of 1812 in Central America; Thomas L. Karnes, The Failure of Union: Central America, 1824–1975, rev. ed. (1976), describes the failure of the Central American federation and surveys attempts to revive it throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Ralph Lee Woodward, Jr., Rafael Carrera and the Emergence of the Republic of Guatemala, 1821–1871 (1993), deals with the first half-century of independence, with particular attention to Guatemala.

Lowell Gudmundson, Costa Rica Before Coffee: Society and Economy on the Eve of the Export Boom (1986), provides an excellent reevaluation of the early development of Costa Rica, including considerable discussion of the myths of Costa Rican history and its historiography. David Browing, El Salvador, Landscape and Society (1971), is an excellent description of land use and tenure in El Salvador, with relevance for understanding the relation between land and history throughout the region. E. Bradford Burns, The Poverty of Progress: Latin America in the Nineteenth Century (1980), pays considerable attention to Central America and calls attention to the damage done to folk culture by the liberal economic policies of the nineteenth century. E. Bradford Burns, Patriarch and Folk: The Emergence of Nicaragua, 1798–1858 (1991), interprets nineteenth-century Nicaragua within that framework. The early-twentieth-century problems of Central America are described in excruciating detail in Salvador Mendieta, Alrededor del problema unionista de Centro-América, 2 vols. (1934), and La enfermedad de Centro-América, 3 vols. (1910–1934).

Victor Bulmer-Thomas, The Political Economy of Central America Since 1920 (1987), stresses the difficulties created by Central American emphasis on export-led economic development. Robert G. Williams, Export Agriculture and the Crisis in Central America (1986), focuses on the cotton and beef industries since World War II, explaining their impact on the social and political crises of the 1980s. William Durham, Scarcity and Survival in Central America: Ecological Origins of the Soccer War (1979), is a superb study that pursues the underlying causes of the 1969 war between El Salvador and Honduras and exposes many of the socioeconomic problems of Central America and their long-term historical consequences. A number of anthologies focus on the crises of the 1980s, but from a historical perspective the most useful include Steve C. Ropp and James A. Morris, eds., Central America: Crisis and Adaptation (1984), and Ralph Lee Woodward, Jr., ed., Central America: Historical Perspectives on the Contemporary Crises (1988). See also Steve C. Ropp, "Waiting for Cavour: The Current Central America Crisis and Unification," in Proceedings of the Pacific Coast Council on Latin American Studies 12 (1985–1986): 109-118.

Additional Bibliography

Dym, Irene, and Christophe Belaubre, eds. Politics, Economy, and Society in Bourbon Central America, 1759–1821. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2007.

Gambone, Michael D. Capturing the Revolution: The United States, Central America, and Nicaragua, 1961–1972. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001.

Leiva Vivas, Rafael. La unión centroamericana: Utopía, lirismo y desafío. Tegucigalpa, Honduras: ENAG, Empresa Nacional Artes Gráficas, 2004.

                                Ralph Lee Woodward Jr.

Central America

views updated May 08 2018


CENTRAL AMERICA. Central America is an isthmus, or land bridge, that unites the two continents of North and South America. It consists of seven countries: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. Except for Belize, all of these countries were first settled by the Spanish in the early 1500s and remained part of the Spanish colonial empire until they revolted for independence in 1821. The culinary history of the three-hundred-year colonial period has not been studied as thoroughly as it has in Mexico or in South America, in part because many documents relating to the area are housed in Spain rather than in local archives. Furthermore, while Central America attempted to unite politically following independence, that effort eventually failed. This political fragmentation has left a distinctive imprint on the culinary profile of the region. In spite of this, however, there are certain unifying features.

Common Features

Geographically, the countries have a great abundance of volcanoes. This has had an important influence on the cuisine because the volcanoes have fertilized the soil with mineral nutrients that have made this one of the richest areas of biodiversity in the world. The gold the Spanish conquistadors had hoped to find was made up for by an exquisite natural beauty and an abundance of unusual food plants, both cultivated and wild. Due to this rich soil, the region has become a center of coffee production.

Another unifying feature is the composition of the people themselves. The population of Central America consists mainly of four groups: mestizos, a mixture of Spanish and native peoples and the largest group; small pockets of indigenous populations; Africans; and people of unmixed European descent sometimes referred to as Creoles. Throughout much of the region, African populations are concentrated along the Atlantic coastline, while mestizos populate the Pacific side. The central area of the isthmus is home to a lush rainforest sparsely populated by small groups of indigenous tribes.

The African population descends mainly from runaway slaves who escaped from Jamaica and neighboring Caribbean islands. They have preserved a dialect of English infused with African vocabulary. This group has made Central America more diverse in language as well as in cookery, since its cooks have blended together African and indigenous food preferences. One of the typical ingredients is coconut: shredded coconut, coconut milk, or coconut oil. Except for smaller indigenous tribes like the Miskitos of central Nicaragua, coconut is not widely favored by the other ethnic groups.

In terms of cookery, the mestizos have mixed traditional indigenous dishes, mainly preparations of Mayan origin, with old Spanish prototypes, but in some instances the two cooking traditions have been kept separate. The smaller indigenous tribes still remaining in Central America rely mainly on hunting and gathering and have not influenced the cookery as much as larger groups, such as the Mayans.

One of the characteristics of all Central American cooking is the use of fresh ingredients, from fresh meats and vegetables, to tortillas and breads made to order, even dairy products prepared the same day. The markets abound with the sweet aromas of tropical fruits and vegetables displayed in an endless sea of colors. The market is especially important as a stage for lively social exchange, and since the cooking traditions of Central America are mostly oral rather than based on cookbooks, recipe discussions in the marketplace serve as a major conduit for ideas and the comparison of family cooking preferences.

Oral tradition is a key to understanding Central American cookery: most recipes are handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. In middle-or upper-class families, it is customary to have an in-house cook, but someone in the family is assigned the task of teaching the cook the way a dish should be prepared. Special instruction and attention are required for dishes that have been handed down within the family and are usually prepared only on special occasions. Although the choice of recipe ingredients may vary within each country and family, there are still quite a few standard national dishes that have been maintained over a long period of time and have not undergone much variation. Outside the region, little is known about the cookery of Central America because many of the key recipes are not written down, except perhaps in a small number of local cookbooks of very recent date.

Beef is an important meat in Central American cooking because of the large number of cattle ranches, which provide beef both for local consumption and for export. The flavor of Central American beef is very different from that of the beef of North and South America, in part because the animals are grass-fed and thus leaner, but also because the Criollo breed of cattle is itself quite distinctive. The flavor and texture of its meat more closely resemble veal than beef.

It was customary for a middle-or upper-class family to have beef at least once a day, especially in Nicaragua. New dietary trends have changed a few old traditions so that now people mindful of their health are eating less red meat, yet beef is still a luxury for the poor. For those who prefer to eat less red meat, beans are a common substitute. Beans are said to be one of the staple foods of the poor, but they are very popular among all social classes. Once boiled, the beans may be sautéed with onions, sweet peppers, garlic, salt and pepper, and some of the cooking broth may be added. The result is a simple yet tasty dish. A common preparation consisting of beans, boiled plantains, and cheese forms a one-pot vegetarian meal that is nutritionally balanced as well as pleasing to the palate. Many of the most popular dishes of the region are studies in simplicity, since light food is a welcome reprieve in the hot climate.

Contrary to popular belief, Central American cookery is not spicy, except in Guatemala where the chili pepper plays an important role as a spice. Elsewhere, chili pepper is an optional ingredient, except in some dishes where it is considered critical, but one is always given the option to choose between something spicy or not. At most meals, a bowl of hot sauce or a salsa consisting of a mixture of tomatoes, garlic, onions, and sweet and hot peppers marinated in lime juice provides added spice and flavor for many dishes. There are many other variations of salsas containing chili peppers, such as encurtido, a mixture of chopped vegetables pickled in vinegar with hot peppers. In this case, the spicy vinegar brings out a variety of subtle flavors in the dishes eaten with it. Most meat preparations are marinated in a mixture of black pepper and sour orange or lime juice, giving them a cleaner and more complex taste. The sour juice is important in tenderizing, flavoring, and sterilizing the meat.

The annatto is another important ingredient in the cookery of this region. Annatto is the seed of an indigenous tree (Bixa orellana ), better known in other parts of the world for coloring cheese; it is this ingredient that dyes the cheese orange or yellow. The cultural importance of annatto dates back to pre-Columbian times when it was used for special rituals. The Mayas and other indigenous populations employed it as body paint during religious ceremonies, and also for coloring pottery, for monetary purposes, and for flavoring certain foods. Known as achiote in Central America, the seeds are ground and mixed together into a paste of black pepper, salt, and vinegar that is then diluted in either sour orange juice or lime juice and used to marinate or preserve meat. Historically, achiote was used to preserve meats from spoiling in the tropical heat. Today, achiote creates a delicious marinade for grilled meats. It seems to have little taste as a raw paste, but when heated, it undergoes a chemical change that releases a complex array of flavors. While achiote lengthens cooking times, it also prevents meats from scorching or drying out while they are being grilled.

Rice is a key element in every Central American meal and is one of the important culinary contributions from Spanish cookery. After careful rinsing, rice is usually sautéed in oil with onions until toasted; water is then added, with a little salt to taste. Toasting causes the grains to remain fluffy, and the onions impart a subtle aroma and flavor that complements many entrees. In fact, Central Americans commonly judge the abilities of cooks based on the fluffiness of their rice, for it is said that if one masters the art of cooking rice, one has mastered the art of cooking.

There are numerous rice dishes in the region that are similar to Spanish paellas, such as arroz a la Valenciana in Nicaragua. This consists of a mixture of chicken, pork, shrimp, and sausage cooked together with rice and vegetables. Arroz con pollo is another popular dish served throughout the region from Guatemala to Panama. Although the recipe varies, the essential mixture and texture is common, consisting of chicken and vegetables cooked together in a stew; rice is then added. This recipe has much more broth than the Nicaraguan arroz a la Valenciana, and achiote is added as the substitute for saffron.

Throughout Central America, maize is doubtless the single most important culinary element in all of the regional cookeries. Maize was so important to the indigenous peoples before the arrival of Columbus that in Mayan mythology man and woman were created from two maize kernels. It was seen as a life-giving element and it has greatly influenced the cookery of Central America. The tortilla, made from maize flour and water, is usually present in at least one daily meal. It is traditionally eaten while still warm and accompanied by several types of salty cheese. There are people who specialize in making tortillas and can shape the dough between their hands in a matter of seconds, until it reaches a circumference of approximately 10 inches (25 centimeters). The tortillas are then placed on a hot griddle, lightly scorched, and rushed to the table while still steaming.

Maize is also the ingredient for many refreshing drinks and is fermented to create an alcoholic drink known as chicha, which can also be consumed before full fermentation takes place. This old indigenous beverage has changed very little over time, except that now sugar is used as a sweetener rather than honey. Chicha is a generic term used by the early conquistadors to describe any alcoholic beverage in the New World, but there are actually many variations of chicha throughout Latin America.

Atole is another drink made from maize that is mainly a feature of Guatemalan cuisine, but is present throughout Central America under many local variations. It is a filling, high-energy drink that can be either sweet or salty. Atole, typically served hot or warm, has a thick consistency and can be made from a wide variety of ingredients, the most common being milk, sugar, ground maize kernels, cinnamon, and cloves. In Nicaragua, atole vendors always seem to show up after a heavy afternoon rainstorm, making sure everyone warms up by drinking plenty of the beverage. It is especially popular in the cool mountainous areas of the region.

Tamales made from maize are popular throughout the isthmus and are prepared in a variety of ways, depending on the local cultures. Each country has a special variation of tamales, but aside from the different ingredients, they are always wrapped in either cornhusks or plantain leaves and steamed or boiled. Tamales can be eaten on any occasion, but in some countries, such as El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Panama, they are generally prepared for holidays. Traditionally, they are consumed during the Christmas season or at Easter. They can also range in size from dainty handheld appetizers to large main-course dishes. The most common forms consist of ground dried maize or the raw mashed kernels shaped into a thick, rectangular dough that is filled with different vegetables or meats, or simply sweetened with sugar. They are then wrapped in leaves and boiled or steamed.

Just as there are variations in ingredients, there are also variations in nomenclature. For example, in El Salvador, tamales rellenos are similar to the Honduran and Nicaraguan nacatamales. In both Honduras and Nicaragua, there are tamales (boiled in corn husks) and nacatamales (boiled in plantain leaves), which vary from one another in their fillings. Nacatamales are difficult to prepare not only because of the complexity of the ingredients, but also because of the length of time they take to cook. In Nicaragua, there are people who specialize in making them since they are always in demand for parties or for traditional Sunday brunch.

Another way of using ground maize is as a thickener for stews or for giving a distinctive flavoring to certain dishes. Ground maize can also be toasted and used to flour meats or fish for deep frying. Water and sugar can be added to toasted maize to make pinolillo, a chocolate-like drink that is filling yet refreshing. In Honduras, pinolillo is also prepared with a touch of ground chocolate, thus giving it a more complex taste.

Central America is a paradise for natural fruit drinks, since it has a seemingly endless variety of fruits that can be mixed together to produce deliciously healthy and refreshing beverages. One can find a natural fruit juice stand on almost every street corner on hot, sunny days. Many Central Americans take a break before lunch and sit for a few minutes under the shade of a tree to cool off and relax with a tall glass of refresco, literally "refreshing," with plenty of ice. The best drinks are made with ripe fruits, so that there is no need for sugar. These fruits can also be used for creating an enormous variety of sorbets, which are popular on hot, humid afternoons.

The plantain plays a much more important role in Central American cuisine than the potato. It is more or less a staple vegetable, and green or ripe plantains can be prepared in a number of ways. Although the plant is not native to the continent, it adapted very quickly to the climate and soil of this tropical region. Its leaves are used in wrapping foods, such as tamales and nacatamales, for grilling, and sometimes as eating utensils. The plantain leaves give the food a subtle yet rich flavor, and, when grilling fish, keep it from scorching and impart flavor to the meat. It is said that Nicaraguan vigorón is not authentic unless it is served on the plantain leaf, which functions as a plate. When the leaf is folded, some of the juice is released into the food, perhaps giving it its "authentic" flavor. The old colonial Nicaraguan city of Granada is well known for its vigorón, consisting of boiled yuca (cassava), a sour and spicy shredded cabbage salad, and crunchy pork rinds.

Another way of cooking the unripe plantain is to cut the fruit into paper-thin strips and fry them at a high temperature, thus making them crunchy yet not oily. This is a popular way of preparing plantains throughout Central America. They can also be grilled or boiled in water and accompanied by a salty cheese. The ripe plantains can also be boiled and baked with cinnamon, cloves, and cheese, resulting in a tasty dessert sweetened by the vegetable's own natural sugars.

As a general rule, the indigenous peoples of Central America were originally vegetarian, eating meat only on special occasions and cooking with little or no oils or fats. The European method of frying and cooking with animal fat quickly changed the native cuisine, but it also made room for a new and inventive style of cooking. Besides the better-known meats such as pork, beef, chicken, and fish, other animal meats are also part of Central American cookery. The gibnut or paca, a large rodent that feeds mainly on wild nuts, is consumed in Belize. The cusuco (Dasypus novemcinctus ), a species of armadillo, is eaten in several countries, but it is most popular in El Salvador, where it is mainly a feature of rural cookery. This meat is marinated in lime juice, then grilled, following the same method used for cooking iguana.

Iguana is eaten throughout the region, but, again, it is mainly consumed by country people. The iguana is known to have a rich flavor because it feeds on fruits, and it is especially fond of papaya, which gives the meat a tender texture and sweet flavor. Many people consider the meat an aphrodisiac, and it can also be boiled in soup, an old home remedy for strengthening those who are sick. Furthermore, iguana was an important meat substitute during the colonial period, since the Catholic Church declared it a type of fish for consumption on meatless days. There are numerous methods of cooking iguana, but those who eat it generally prefer it grilled.


Guatemala was once part of the heartland of Mayan civilization. The Mayan imprint on modern Guatemala's culinary riches is present in its numerous traditional dishes, especially those with corn as the predominant ingredient. The country is well-known for the great variety of its atoles. One of these is atole de arroz, a sweet beverage with corn, rice, cinnamon, sugar, and chocolate as ingredients. In the cool and mountainous area of Totonicapán, there is an unusual (and probably very old) atole made with beans, salt, and ground chili pepper.

Recados, pastelike mixtures, are important in Guatemala and are used for marinating meats or as condiments to bring out complex flavors in cooked dishes. The most common of these is recado colorado, which uses ground annatto as a base mixed with garlic, black pepper, cumin, and other ingredients depending on the local recipe. Of all Central American countries, Guatemala is the only one that uses the chili pepper almost as an essential part of its cuisine. Peppers are used as a condiment, or as a main dish such as chiles rellenos (stuffed peppers). The chilies are first fire-roasted, next filled with a traditional mixture of pork and beef, onions, tomatoes, cabbage, and herbs. They are then dipped in a batter, covered with breadcrumbs and fried, blending indigenous and European methods of food preparation.


Located to the east of Guatemala, Belize is a country with a large native-born population of African descent. Formerly a British colony, it attracted immigrants from other parts of the Caribbean due to an extensive lumbering industry. It is also the only Central American country where English is the official language. In the western part of the country, the food is similar to that of Guatemala because of the border they share. This cuisine is a blend of Spanish and Mayan influences, yet the coconut is an important ingredient because of the predominating African influence.

One of the local delicacies is conch soup in which the meat from the giant conch, a mollusk, is cooked with okra, green plantains, onions, lime juice, chili peppers, and coconut until it acquires a thick consistency. Belizeans are as proud of their conch soup as they are of their popular stewed beans with pork or beef. Stew beans are prepared by boiling meat with the beans, onions, coconut milk, herbs, and spices (depending on personal tastes); they are served with rice. Garnaches and salbutes are common dishes and can be served either as a main meal or as appetizers. These are thin, crispy deep-fried tortillas served with beans, cheese, and cabbage on top and may also be accompanied with chicken. In May, the cashew festival, which evolved out of the English May Day celebration, takes place. This festivity includes plenty of food and live music, as well as locally made cashew wine.


Honduras has a diverse cuisine that shares many similarities with that of Nicaragua, its neighbor to the south, including the influence of African-Caribbean culture. An outstanding Honduran dish is the popular sopa de caracol, or conch soup. In this recipe, fresh carrots, chayote, chickpeas, celery, onions, plantains, and baby corn are sauteéd in butter and added to a clear broth flavored with culantro, a native herb similar in flavor to cilantro, but stronger-tasting. Coconut is then added to the broth along with some milk, the conch meat, achiote, and parsley as the garnish. The result is a flavorful soup with an African-Caribbean touch.

Capirotadas, commonly eaten during Lent, are small dumplings made from maize flour and water, filled with cheese, and then lightly fried until brown. The dumplings are subsequently added to a vegetable broth and enjoyed as a main meal. Another variation is to add syrup cooked with cinnamon and cloves, which is then served on the dumplings, creating a tasty yet simple dessert. Pinole, a slightly coarse, ground maize, is used as a thickener in dishes such as gallina en pinol and iguana en pinol. In both recipesthe first made with chicken or (preferably) hen and the second with iguanatoasted maize gives the meat a light nutty taste that complements the mixture of meat, herbs, broth, and vegetables.

El Salvador

El Salvador is the smallest Central American country and the only one without an Atlantic coastline. The cuisine of El Salvador is popular throughout the isthmus because of its famous pupusas. Although there are similar variations of these tortillas in most Latin American countries, El Salvador has gained recognition for having what are generally considered the best recipes. Pupusas are basically tortilla dumplings filled with either cheese, small pieces of chicharrón (pork rinds), a mixture of both, or beans. The dumplings are then covered with curtidos, a combination of cabbage, shredded carrots, and chilies infused in vinegar.


Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America, and until the 1970s it was also the wealthiest. Its cuisine varies greatly from region to region, from old Spanish dishes such as relleno, salpicón, or indio viejo, to more indigenous preparations like nacatamales. Relleno literally means "stuffing" and in its original Old World form was probably used for stuffed fowl or empanadas. Like many Spanish dishes of medieval origin, it uses ingredients now associated with desserts: dried fruit, milk, nutmeg, sugar, and shredded bread as a thickener. Along with these ingredients, pork, olives, finely diced carrots, onions, mustard, capers, and vinegar or wine are blended into the mix. The result is a sweet and sour dish in which the diverse ingredients seem to come together harmoniously. Due to long, slow cooking and hours of constant stirring, this dish is so time-consuming to make that it is only eaten once a year, during the Christmas holidays. The large outlay of expensive ingredients, many of which must be imported, once set this dish apart as a class symbol of the old ruling families of the country during the colonial period, but today relleno has assumed the character of a national icon, especially to expatriate Nicaraguans.

Another dish of Spanish origin is salpicón, which is thought to have come to Nicaragua during the 1500s. The basic concept involves making a complete meal out of the basics for soup. It begins with beef boiled with an assortment of vegetables, most importantly ripe plantains. The meat is then taken out of its broth and finely chopped with onions, sweet peppers, bitter orange juice, salt, and pepper. The boiled plantain is mashed, having already given the soup a subtle sweet flavor, and is then used as the dough for making empanadas. The empanadas are filled with the chopped beef and cooked rice that is to accompany the meal. A complete dinner is thus created by using as many ingredients as possible with little waste.

Indio viejo is similar to salpicón in that beef is boiled to create soup, but different in that the meat is then shredded and cooked again in its own broth with maize flour, spearmint, tomatoes, and, depending on family, recipes, achiote. The result is a complementary blend of Old World and indigenous flavors. Nacatamales also blend the Old World with the New, but the basic recipe has indigenous roots. Best described as fairly large dumplings made from maize flour, they are filled with capers, potatoes, onions, prunes, meat (pork, chicken, or turkey) marinated in achiote, tomatoes, and chilies. The dumplings are then wrapped in plantain leaves and boiled in water for several hours until all the ingredients are fully cooked. Nacatamales are usually enjoyed as Sunday brunch with strong black coffee.

Costa Rica

Costa Rica is well-known worldwide for its natural beauty and perhaps also for its excellent coffee. Ecotourism has helped the country's economy, but it has also greatly changed the local food culture. Aside from the more popular Americanized fast-food restaurants that are now common, the true cuisine of the Costa Rican people is the one prepared at home. Without a doubt, most Costa Ricans crave the popular gallo pinto, a mixture of white rice and beans cooked with a variety of fresh herbs and vegetables, creating a tasty meal of its own. This dish is eaten in most parts of the country at least once a day.

Olla de carne is another popular recipe that blends together a variety of vegetables and beef. This one-pot dish consists of squash, corn, yuca, ayote, and potatoes cooked together with beef in its broth, creating a very hearty stew. Round pieces of lightly mashed green plantains, known as patacones, are served during most meals and act as a substitute for the now ubiquitous french fries. During the Christmas holidays, Costa Ricans enjoy elaborate tamales, very similar to the Nicaraguan nacatamales in the variety of ingredients used as well as in the manner of preparation.


Panama is a country defined largely by the Panama Canal, which has created a trading link between the Atlantic and the Pacific. During pre-Columbian times, the country was a center of older civilizations that specialized in gold craftsmanship, using native animals as models for their works of art. Panama's culinary connection to this indigenous past was largely severed during the colonial period, when the region was part of what is now Colombia.

Created by the United States during the early 1900s, Panama and its canal attracted many immigrants seeking employment and new opportunities. This migration shaped modern Panamanian culture because of the large numbers of black laborers arriving from English-speaking islands in the Caribbean. The result was a blending of the local mestizo cuisine with that of the newly arrived immigrants. Panamanians keep their traditional cuisine alive at home, but they assimilated many African elements, especially the use of coconut as a main ingredient.

One example of the strong African influence is the popularity of fufu, particularly along the northern Atlantic coast of the country. Elsewhere in Latin America, fufu is a dumpling made of plantains or yams, but in Panama the term is applied to the entire stew. It is composed of a coconut milk base, boiled plantains, chilies, yuca, yams, and fried fish added at the end. Saos is yet another African-influenced dish adapted from the Jamaican kitchen. It consists of boiled calf 's or pig's feet marinated in plenty of lime juice, onions, chilies, salt, and pepper.

In spite of the prevalence of these African influences, most Panamanians identify their national cookery with indigenous and Spanish preparations, especially sancocho, which is treated as a national culinary symbol. This dish consists of chicken cooked with vegetables, including yuca, corn, plantains, chayote, and potatoes, served with rice on the side. Panamanians seek relief from the midmorning heat by enjoying the popular and refreshing beverage known as chicheme, which resembles atole because it is a maize-based beverage blended with sugar and cinnamon. Before lunch time, Panamanians like to enjoy a drink of chicheme with the tasty carimoñolas. These lightly fried dumplings consisting of boiled mashed yuca filled with ground beef, sweet peppers, tomatoes, and herbs can be eaten either as appetizers or as a main course.

See also Banana and Plantain; Caribbean; Iberian Peninsula; Inca Empire; Maize; Mexico; Mexico and Central America, Pre-Columbian; South America .


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Enrique Balladares-Castellón

Central America

views updated May 18 2018

Central America Geographical term for the narrow strip of land that connects North America to South America and divides the Caribbean Sea from the Pacific Ocean; it consists of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Belize and Panama. Highly developed by the Mayas, the region (excluding Panama) was conquered and ruled by the Spanish from the 16th century until 1821. In 1823 the Central American Federation was formed, but broke up in 1838, the individual states (except Belize) declaring themselves independent. The terrain is mostly mountainous; the climate tropical. It enjoys an economic, ethnic and geological unity. Spanish is the main language. Area: 715,876sq km (276,400 sq mi).

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