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Culture, History & Politics of Central America

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Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has an M.A in instructional education.

Central America, the land connecting North and South America, was subjected to European colonization of the native populations, leaving trends of economic and political instability. Explore the historical, cultural, and political contexts of Central America. Updated: 11/08/2021

Central America

We've all heard the saying, 'To make a long story short…' It's a popular one. Today I'm going to employ it for our lesson on the history, culture, and politics of Central America. Covering so much information in so little time will definitely force us to make a long story short. For this reason, we're going to stick to a quick survey of such a deep well of material.

Before we begin, let's locate Central America on our globe.

Central America is the isthmus that connects North America to South America. An isthmus is a narrow strip of land, surrounded by sea, which connects two larger landmasses.

  • Belize
  • Guatemala
  • Honduras
  • El Salvador
  • Nicaragua
  • Costa Rica
  • Panama

are the countries of Central America.

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  • 0:04 Central America
  • 0:53 History
  • 1:35 Culture
  • 3:42 Politics
  • 5:08 Lesson Summary
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History

Before Europeans descended on the New World, Central America was home to many native people groups. Many of these native groups were descendants of the Mayans, an ancient tribal people of Mexico and Central America. Sadly, the 16th century and European colonization saw many of these people groups either wiped out or made slaves to the conquering Europeans. When discussing Europe's influence, Spain was the main colonizer of Central America.

Although it took some time, the early 19th century saw Central America pushing for freedom from Europe. Although the region eventually gained it, European influence is still stamped all over Central American culture.

Culture

Firmly linked to its history of colonization, Central American culture still speaks of Europe. Yes, each country does have its own flavor, but there are some generalizations we can make. For instance, Spanish is the dominant language of the region. Standing out a bit, Belize actually claims English as its official language, but this too speaks of European influence. After all, before the Europeans made shore, the ancient Mayans weren't greeting each other with hellos or holas! Adding to the evidence of Europe's influence on Central American culture, Catholicism is the dominant religion of Central America.

Moving away from the cultural European influence, let's talk about the economic situation of Central America. In fact, the region is considered part of the developing world. This means it is a region of an industry that is in its growing process, struggling economies, and poor living conditions in some areas. With many of its inhabitants struggling to survive, most of Central America has very low literacy rates and short life spans for its people. Of all the Central American countries, Nicaragua is usually considered the least developed.

As for the most developed, let's briefly talk about Costa Rica and Panama. Costa Rica is an exceptional country in Central America as its priority is the conservation of its natural land with its biodiversity and amazing landscapes, such as volcanoes. For this reason, eco-tourism is the main source of income in Costa Rica. Also, Costa Rica abolished its army back in 1949 as a way to prevent it from over-throwing the government as it had happened before. The consequences have been interesting because the state budget, previously used to support the army, is now destined to enhance educational and health programs, bringing up literacy rates and life expectancy.

Regarding Panama, international commerce is big in this country and its economy has benefited a lot from the trades done through the Panama Canal, which is also a major tourist attraction.

One last interesting fact: many Americans retire in Central American countries to enjoy the weather and the low to moderate cost of living.

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