Latin America: Central America and the Caribbean

A HUMAN PERSPECTIVE Central America forms an isthmus, a land bridge between North and South America. It also divides two oceans. This geographic fact has made the region attractive to the United States and other major world powers and has helped to keep the area fragmented and politically unstable. For example, in the early 20th century, the United States wanted to build a canal across Panama that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In 1903, Panama was still a province of Colombia, which did not like the idea. The United States encouraged a revolution in Panama, and when it won its independence, Panama granted the United States a ten-mile-wide zone in which to build a canal. Central America had become a crossroads of world trade.

Native and Colonial Central America

Central America is a cultural hearth as well as a crossroads. A cultural hearth is a place from which important ideas spread. Usually, it is the heartland or place of origin of a major culture. The Mayan people built a great civilization in the area that spread throughout the region. The homeland of the Maya stretched from southern Mexico into northern Central America. During the 800s, the Maya began to abandon many of their cities. Why they did so remains a mystery to be solved by archaeologists.

Native Peoples, 1492


The Maya built many cities with temples and palaces in present-day Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Each city was an independent state ruled by a god-king and served as a center for religious ceremony and trade. One of their most spectacular cities was Tikal, located in the dense, steamy jungle of northern Guatemala, considered the center of Mayan civilization.

The pyramids at Tikal were among the tallest structures in the Americas until the 20th century. The influence of the Maya spread over a region from Mexico to El Salvador. The Mayan culture was carried to other regions through military alliances and trade.


The Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in Mexico opened the door to Spanish control of Central America. Spain ruled Central America until the 19th century. Mexico declared its independence from Spain in 1821. Up to that point, Central America had been governed from Mexico. In 1823, however, the whole region declared its independence from Mexico and took the name of the United Provinces of Central America.

By the late 1830s, the United Provinces had split into separate nations. These became El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Honduras. Later, Panama broke off from Colombia and became an independent country in Central America. Belize, a former British colony, broke away from British Honduras.

Native and Colonial Caribbean

Although Central America was ruled by Spain, the Caribbean was settled and claimed by many European powers. In addition, Africans who were brought to the Caribbean as slaves played an important role in the settling of the Caribbean.


When Christopher Columbus reached the Caribbean islands in 1492, he thought he had reached the East Indies in Asia. Therefore, he called the natives “Indians.” The inhabitants of these islands called themselves the Taino. The Spanish settled some of the islands and established sugar plantations, which were well suited to the climate and soil of the islands. They attempted to use the Taino as forced labor, but many of the natives died from disease and mistreatment.

To replace the Taino, European slave traders brought Africans to the Caribbean by force and put them to work on plantations. As a result, Africans have had a lasting influence on Caribbean life and culture.


By the 19th century, the Spanish, French, British, Dutch, and Danish all claimed islands in the Caribbean. Most of the European powers were there to profit from the sugar trade. This trade depended on the forced labor of workers brought in chains from Africa.

Caribbean Colonies


The first independence movement in Latin America began as a slave revolt in the Caribbean on the island of Haiti. In the 18th century, Haiti was a French colony with an important sugar industry. Africans brought to the island by force worked on the sugar plantations and other plantations. In the 1790s, Toussaint L'Ouverture led a slave rebellion in Haiti and took over the government of the island. By 1804, Haiti had achieved independence from France. Cuba achieved independence from Spain in 1898 as a result of the Spanish-American War. After an occupation by United States forces, the island became self-governing in 1902. Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago did not achieve full independence from Great Britain until 1962.

Cultural Blends

Central America and the Caribbean are close to each other geographically, and their cultures show a blending of influences. This mixture affects everything from religion to language.


As you've read, the culture of Central America blends two major elements: Native American influences with those of Spanish settlers. The Spanish were the dominant group of European settlers in Central America—their language remains dominant in the area today. Catholicism is the major religion, although Protestant missionaries are active in the region.

The Spanish took land away from the natives of the region. The conquerors cut down forests, opened up land for grazing livestock, and introduced new crops, such as wheat. They created large farms and ranches, built towns, and moved the native peoples off the land and into the towns. All this altered the way of life in the region.


A greater variety of influences was at work in the Caribbean. The Spanish, French, British, Danish, and Dutch existed side by side with the African and Native American. Residents of the islands are of European, African, or mixed ancestry.

African influences were especially important. Most of the people are descendants of the African slaves brought to the islands to work on the sugar plantations. They left a lasting mark on all aspects of culture in the islands, including village life, markets, and choice of crops.

The religions of the Caribbean include Catholic and Protestant, as well as Santeria, which combines certain African practices and rituals with Catholic elements. Voodoo is practiced on the island of Haiti. Rastafarianism is a religious and political movement based in Jamaica. Spanish is spoken on the most populous islands in the Caribbean: Cuba, with a population of about 11 million, and the Dominican Republic, with a population of about 8.5 million. There are also many French speakers (Haiti alone has a population of more than 6 million). English dominates in Jamaica, with a population of almost 3 million. There is a smattering of Dutch and Danish also spoken in the region.

Economics: Jobs and People

In general, most of the people in the countries of the region are poor. This is, in part, a legacy of colonialism. The early success of the sugar crop benefited colonial planters, not the native or African laborers. Also, the region faced competition in the sugar market, and eventually the sugar trade declined. Further, the fact that natural resources were exported and not used locally left the region economically weakened.


Sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean provde the region's largest export crop. Other important export crops are bananas, citrus fruits, coffee, and spices. All these crops are well adapted to the climate and soil of the region. Many people work on the plantations that grow crops for export. But the pay is poor, and as a result, average per-capita income in the Caribbean is very low.

In Central America, too, the main source of income is the commercial farming practiced on large plantations. These farms produce 10 percent of the world's coffee and 10 percent of the world's bananas. Central America's mines and forests also provide resources for export.

Trade is important because of the Panama Canal, which cuts through the land bridge and connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Ships from both hemispheres use the canal, making Panama a crossroads of world trade. The canal made possible the exchange of both goods and ideas.


Population patterns in Central America and the Caribbean are directly related to their economies. Both Central America and the Caribbean have populations of between 30 and 40 million people. But in Central America, most of the people make their living on farms and, as a result, live in rural areas.

Many of the islands in the Caribbean are densely populated. More than 11 million people live on Cuba, the largest of the islands. Most people live in urban areas, where they hope to find jobs in tourism. The cities attract people who are seeking a better way of life. Unfortunately, many end up living in slums. The region is working to find a way to channel more of the profits from tourism and farming to benefit local communities.

Popular Culture, Tourism, and Jobs

Education and jobs are a major concern to the people of Central America and the Caribbean. Music, heavily influenced and shaped by the African heritage in the region, is an important part of the popular culture of Central America and the Caribbean.


Both reggae and calypso music started in the Caribbean. Calypso music began in Trinidad. Calypso combines musical elements from Africa, Spain, and the Caribbean. Calypso songs are accompanied by steel drums and guitars, and they have improvised lyrics.

Reggae developed in Jamaica in the 1960s. Many reggae songs deal with social problems and religion. African music, Caribbean music, and American music all fed into the roots of reggae. Bob Marley of Jamaica was a pioneer of reggae. The music of the Caribbean is one of the elements that lures tourists to the region, creating jobs for local residents.


Rapid population growth in the Caribbean is contributing to high unemployment, especially among the young. Many people flee rural areas and move to the cities in search of jobs. Too often, however, they lack job skills. There are schools to help prepare students for jobs in agriculture and tourism. Tourism is, in fact, an increasingly important industry. Local residents of the islands are able to find jobs working in the hotels, resorts, and restaurants there. In addition, people can make a living working as guides and assistants on fishing excursions, sailing trips, snorkeling adventures, hiking expeditions, and other activities for tourists.

People also find jobs in the informal economy, which takes place outside official channels, without benefits or protection for workers. These include jobs such as street vending, shining shoes, and a variety of other activities and services that provide people with a small income. In Section 3, you will read about Spanish-speaking South America.