In the pre-Columbian era, the mighty Maya empire stretched across the Central American isthmus. After this heyday, the region's inhabitants endured conquistadors and colonialism, brutal civil wars and bloody coups. More recently, the seven spirited nations have aimed to overcome this legacy of violence and establish peace and prosperity in their corner of the planet – though with decidedly mixed results.
Empires & Nations
Meet the Maya
The Maya were one of Mesoamerica’s greatest pre-Columbian civilizations and for centuries their territory extended from southern Mexico to Nicaragua, from Honduras to El Salvador. Their most noteworthy achievements include a perfected hieroglyphic writing system, precise astronomy and advanced mathematics, and they designed and built grandiose stone temples and palaces.
The Maya endured for nearly three millennia, reaching their apex between 250 and 900 AD and particularly thriving in the high plains of Guatemala and the lowlands of Belize and the Yúcatan. In the 16th century, European conquistadors invaded from across the ocean, vanquishing the region and transforming Central America.
Meet the Conquistadors
When Columbus explored the verdant Central American isthmus in 1502, he encountered gold-accessorized natives and excitedly believed that he had found a paradise of vast riches. Two decades later, Spanish conquistadors trained their sights on Central America, in search of the fabled El Dorado.
The first permanent Spanish settlement in Central America was erected in Panama (present-day Darién) in 1510. It served as base for the Pizarro brothers, conquistadors from the Extremadura area of Spain, who trooped south to assault the Incas; and for Vasco Núñez de Balboa, who ventured west to gaze on the Pacific. Panama was also the launch site for Gil González Dávila, who sailed north to Nicaragua, where he betrayed the cacique (tribal leader) Nicarao and beheaded his rival conquistador, Francisco Hernández de Córdoba.
Another Extremaduran, Pedro de Alvarado, crossed the Atlantic in 1510, and his ferocity placed him second in command on the legendary march of Hernán Cortés against the Aztecs. Rumors of a jade kingdom to the south led Alvarado on a four-year campaign across Central America, slashing through the jungle and cutting down its native inhabitants. He never found the kingdom, but became military governor of Guatemala, which he tyrannized for 15 years. In his final battle against desperate natives, Alvarado's horse rolled over and killed him.
By the middle of the 16th century, the days of vainglorious conquistadors had passed, and the Spanish Crown now imposed imperial bureaucracy. Alvarado’s fiefdom was reorganized into the Kingdom of Guatemala, under the Viceroy of New Spain. For most of the next 300 years, this included present-day states of Central America and Mexico’s Chiapas. The capital was located in Santiago (now Antigua), in southwest Guatemala. Meanwhile, present-day Panama was also under Spanish rule, but part of the Viceroyalty of Peru, with its capital in Lima.
The Crown’s hold was not complete, however. In northeast Honduras (present-day Belize), upstart British squatters built a haven for pirates, smugglers and poachers, who withstood all of the king’s eviction efforts.
Independence in the Americas
In 1821, the Americas wriggled free of Imperial Spain’s grip. Mexico declared independence for itself, as well as for Central America. The Central American colonies then declared independence from Mexico and, with an empire up for grabs, the region descended into conflict.
The newly liberated colonies considered their fate: stay together in a United States of Central America or go their separate national ways? At first, they came up with something in between – the Central American Federation (CAF) – but it could neither field an army nor collect taxes. Accustomed to being in charge, Guatemala attempted to dominate the CAF, thus hastening the federation's demise. One by one, the constituent parts became independent nation-states.
Gods & Monsters
In the world of the Maya, even the king listened to the high priest. Priests provided counsel, managed the seasonal calendar, kept records of the kingdom, educated noble sons and planned religious feasts. Why were the priests so influential? Because they could talk to the gods – and there were a lot of gods to talk to. More than 250, in fact: gods for life, death, rain, thunder, east, west, fighting, loving, hunting, fishing, mountains, rivers, heroes, demons, medicine, corn and even chocolate. They inhabited the three realms of the Maya: the twinkling heavens above, all things living and earthly, and the ominous multi-level underworld.
High atop El Castillo, the 30m-tall centerpiece temple at Chichén Itzá, Mayan priests paid homage to Kukulkan, the plumed serpent-god protector of the Itzá chiefdom. During the equinox, the late afternoon sun creates an eerie effect in light and shadow of a slithering feathery snake descending the steps of the temple. This was the moment for making sacrificial offerings, perhaps of blood drawn from a nobleman’s tongue or penis, and asking for divine favor.
When the Europeans arrived, they brought their own supernatural conduits. In the ensuing clash of divine powers, the Maya gods were obliterated. Henceforth, there could be only one deity in Central America: the Catholic god. An advance guard of Jesuits, Franciscans and Dominicans penetrated the heathen wilds, established religious outposts and suppressed false idols. Bishop Diego de Landa, converter-in-chief, confiscated all sacred texts – which contained the accumulated knowledge of the Maya culture – and burned them to ash. Local temples and ritual sites were ransacked, abandoned and reclaimed by the dense rainforest. In their place rose new, baroque-style monuments in the lush mountain valleys, proclaiming the victory of the new god.
As with the Maya, Spain’s conquering chiefs and high priests shared a vision of power and reverence while enjoying lives of privilege and status. The Catholic Church long monopolized religious conviction in Central America, serving as a complement to political power.
Today, a new contest for Central American souls is under way, as Evangelical Protestantism woos worshipers away from Catholicism. The region’s first born-again political leader was Guatemala’s General Efraín Ríos Montt (also known for his killing sprees against indigenous peoples). In Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Belize, Protestants now comprise a near-majority of the population. Media-savvy ministers and North American missionaries hasten the conversion rate.
Maya pyramids and Catholic cathedrals have made room for Protestant mega-churches, such as the Friends of Israel Bible Baptist Tabernacle in San Salvador, which draws around 50,000 churchgoers each Sunday. In gang-controlled areas around El Salvador, joining an Evangelical church has become an escape route for countless former members.
Paradise & Plunder
New World Economy
The pre-Columbian economy rested on agriculture and trade. The Maya built terraced fields in the steep mountains, raised platforms in the swampy lowlands, and slashed and burned the thick forests. They grew corn, tubers, beans, squash and peppers. They tamed the wild fruits of the forest: papaya, mango, banana and cacao. They fished the rivers and lakes with nets – and with cormorants on a leash – and they hunted down tasty forest creatures such as peccary, deer and monkey. But the tropical terrain made grand-scale agriculture impractical, and the region was notably lacking in precious metals.
The Spanish were undeterred, and instead harnessed the region’s main economic resource – people. The Crown authorized the creation of feudal-style agricultural estates, the notorious economienda, whereby powerful colonial overlords exploited an indigenous labor force. They produced New World luxuries for Old World aristocrats – indigo from El Salvador, cacao from Guatemala, tobacco from Chiapas. The economienda system, however, did not take hold in Costa Rica, the poorest region of colonial Central America, where private family farms prevailed over corporate feudal estates.
In 1843 the merchant vessel HMS Monarch arrived in London from Puerto Limón carrying bulging sacks of roasted red beans. The riches that Costa Rica had long promised had finally been uncovered, as the volcanic soil and moist climate of the Central Valley highlands proved ideal for coffee cultivation. The drink’s quick fix made it popular with working-class consumers in the industrializing north. Thousands of coffee saplings were quickly planted along shady hillsides in Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras. The Central American coffee boom was on.
Costa Rica went from the most impoverished to the wealthiest country in the region. The aroma of riches lured a wave of enterprising German immigrants to Central America. Across the region, powerful cliques of coffee barons reaped the rewards from the caffeine craze.
In Costa Rica, getting coffee out to world markets required rail links from the central highlands to the coast. Meanwhile, the California gold rush prompted a Panamanian rail link between the Atlantic and Pacific. US companies undertook the railroad construction projects, both of which were disastrous due to malaria and yellow fever. Local recruits gave way to US convicts, to Chinese indentured servants, and to freed Jamaican slaves.
In Costa Rica, bananas were planted along the tracks as a cheap food source for the workers. As an experiment, would-be railroad tycoon Minor Cooper Keith shipped a few bananas to New Orleans, and he struck gold – or rather, yellow. Northern consumers went crazy for the elongated finger fruit.
By the 1900s, bananas had replaced coffee as the region’s most lucrative export. The United Fruit Company converted much of Central America into a corporate fiefdom, controlling transportation, communication, postal service, labor markets and export markets – as well as more than a few politicians.
In the 1980s, following a downturn in world coffee prices, an unusual alliance was formed between economic developers and environmental conservationists. If exports alone could not sustain the economy, then what about imports…of tourists?
Costa Rica led the region in launching a green revolution, establishing some 125 national parks, forest preserves and wildlife reserves. Its neighbors followed the trend, and Indiana Jones enthusiasts were soon clambering around ancient temples in the Yucatán and Guatemala. Birders flocked to Panama to glimpse nearly 1000 species of feathered fauna, and the Belize Barrier Reef was recognized as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
With ecotourism, the rainforest and the reef were essentially paying for themselves, making it financially beneficial to take care of them. Tourism brought hundreds of millions of US dollars to the economy, becoming one of the region's main sources of foreign currency. Moreover, tourism profits stayed in the countries, boosting standards of living.
Dictatorship & Democracy
A Democratic Oasis
After independence, politics in Central America usually featured a few elite families competing for control of state patronage, through shifting alliances of army officers and coffee barons. Presidents were more often removed at gunpoint than by the ballot box. Across the region – and particularly in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala – the polarized left and right fought for power through coups and electoral fraud.
In Costa Rica, the unsustainable situation came to a head in the 1940s, when economic and ethnic tensions spiraled into civil war. Armed workers battled military forces, and Nicaraguan and US forces joined the fray. Peace was restored two months – and 2000 deaths – later. Out of the chaos came a coffee grower and utopian democrat, José Figueres Ferrer, who became the unlikely leader of a temporary junta government. He taxed the wealthy, nationalized the banks and built a modern welfare state. His 1949 constitution granted voting rights to women, as well as full citizenship to black, Indian and Chinese minorities. Most extraordinarily, Figueres abolished the military, calling it a threat to democracy. His transformative regime became the foundation for Costa Rica’s uniquely unarmed democracy.
Cold War in the Hot Tropics
US claims of hegemony over the Western Hemisphere were as old as the Monroe Doctrine. But in the mid-20th century, the US routinely acted to constrain the autonomy of Central America’s nation-states, seeking to influence political choices, economic development and foreign policies. After all, it's a direct drive down the US Army–constructed Pan-American Hwy.
In the 1950s Guatemala’s democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, vowed to nationalize the vast unused landholdings of the United Fruit Company (offering as compensation the property value declared on its tax returns). Democracy be damned, United Fruit appealed to its friends in Washington; in 1954, a CIA-orchestrated coup forced President Arbenz from office. His successor, Colonel Castillo Armas, was hailed as an anti-communist hero, treated to a ticker-tape parade in New York City and honored with a Doctor of Law degree from Columbia University. Three years later, Armas was gunned down in the presidential palace; soon after United Fruit’s confiscated lands were finally returned.
Armas was succeeded by a series of military presidents. More support came from the US government – in the form of money and counterinsurgency training. Violence became a staple of political life, land reforms were reversed, voting was made dependent on literacy (disenfranchising around 75% of the population), the secret police force was revived and military repression was common. In 1960 left-wing guerrilla groups began to form, and the Guatemalan civil war was on.
Gradually, guerrilla warfare spread. By the 1970s, radical socialists had forced military oligarchies around the region onto the defensive. In Nicaragua, the rebellious Sandinistas toppled the American-backed Somoza dictatorship. Alarmed by the Sandinistas’ Soviet and Cuban ties, the US decided it was time to intervene. The organizational details of the counter-revolution were delegated to junior officer Oliver North, who secretly aided and abetted the Contra rebels to incite civil war in Nicaragua.
The conflict polarized the region. When civil war erupted in El Salvador after the assassination of Archbishop Romero, the US pumped huge sums into the moribund military, effectively prolonging that conflict as well. Throughout the 1980s, government-sponsored death squads decimated villages, while guerrilla groups did their best to undermine elections and stifle the economy. Meanwhile, Honduras became a base for the US-sponsored covert war in Nicaragua.
The young president of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias Sánchez, was the driving force in uniting Central America around a peace plan, which finally ended the Nicaraguan war. For his efforts, Arias became the first Central American to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. Within a few years, peace treaties were also signed in El Salvador and Guatemala.
From Colonialism to Neocolonialism
While civil wars raged around the region, two countries remained relatively peaceful, albeit under the control of greater powers.
In Belize, it was not the Spanish, but rather the British who took hold, logging the forests, growing fruit and sugarcane, and dubbing the colony 'British Honduras.' While an independence movement gathered force throughout the second half of the 20th century, full independence was put off until a nagging security matter was resolved: namely, the Guatemalan constitution explicitly included Belize as part of its territorial reach. Only British troops at the border stopped the larger country from following through on that.
It was not until 1981 that Belize was at last declared an independent nation-state within the British Commonwealth. Even Guatemala recognized Belize as a sovereign nation in 1991, although to this day it maintains its territorial claim on 53% of Belize's land. In a 2018 referendum, Guatemalans voted in favor of taking the issue to the International Court of Justice. Belize is set to hold a similar referendum in coming months.
Meanwhile, at the southern end of the isthmus, Panama was still a province of Colombia at the start of the 20th century. When a military junta declared Panama independent, the US government immediately recognized the sovereignty of the new country – backing it up with battleships when Colombia tried to regain control. In return, Panama granted the US concession to the canal, as well as a broad right of intervention into Panamanian affairs.
In the years following the completion of the canal, Panamanians became increasingly disenchanted with US intervention and occupation. As the northern giant gradually ceded its rights, the Panamanian military grew more powerful. When Manuel Noriega came to power in the 1980s, he expanded the military and brutally squashed all dissent; drug trafficking, election rigging and murder all played a role in his regime. The US finally intervened in 1989, invading Panama City and arresting Noriega. A decade later the US rescinded control of the canal and withdrew all troops, finally leaving Panama to negotiate its own uncertain future.
Today, a new era of democratization has unfolded, as both right-wing and left-wing dictatorships have stepped aside to allow contested elections. Here's one auspicious sign of the times: a former Salvadoran guerrilla organization managed to transition to mainstream politics, even fielding a successful presidential candidate.
The systems are not perfect, however. In 2009, democratically elected Honduran president Manuel Zelaya was ousted by the military (on orders from the Supreme Court), and more recently, an unexpected and incredibly narrow electoral victory by President Juan Orlando Hernández sparked allegations of fraud and deadly protests. A contentious 2015 Supreme Court ruling paved the way for Hernández to be elected for a consecutive term, an event Honduras hadn't seen since military rule four decades prior.
In 2014, the Nicaraguan Congress made a similarly controversial decision to abolish term limits – just in time for President Daniel Ortega to run for his third consecutive term. He was reelected in 2016 and, after he announced plans to cut welfare benefits, violent protests erupted across the nation in 2018. Hundreds of people were killed, ostensibly by paramilitary groups. As of late 2018 and with Nicaragua on the brink of civil war, President Ortega was refusing to step down.