Central America, the southernmost part of the North American continent. It lies south of Mexico and forms the land connection with South America. Central America is commonly defined as including Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. Its area is roughly 200,000 square miles (518,000 km2), about three-fourths that of Texas.
Central America is long and narrow, tapering to a width of barely 30 miles (48 km) in parts of Panama. On the east is the Caribbean Sea, on the west, the Pacific Ocean. Both coasts are deeply indented in places, and offshore islands are numerous, especially in the Caribbean. The land is mostly mountainous, with scattered active volcanoes. Except for the coastal plains, there is little flat land.
The region has a tropical climate, and temperatures vary only slightly during the year. Conditions range from hot and humid near the coast to cool and pleasant in the mountains. Rainfall is generally seasonal, with the greatest amounts falling between May and November. The heaviest rains occur along parts of the Caribbean coast.
Agriculture, both commercial and on small family plots, is the economic base in Central America. Large estates grow bananas, coffee, cotton, and other commercial crops for export. Most rural dwellers produce their own food and other necessities. Only the large cities have modern manufacturing industries, and since even these cannot supply local needs fully, many goods must be imported.
Some 31,000,000 people live in Central America. Guatemala is the most populous country, El Salvador the most densely settled. Many of the people are mestizos—of mixed Indian and Spanish culture—and speak Spanish or an Indian language. Roman Catholicism is the main religion.
Most scholars believe that prehistoric peoples first settled in Central America some 11,000 years ago; other scholars, however, think they may have come earlier. The first identifiable people to live in Central America were the Maya Indians; they settled in parts of Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, as well as on the Yucatan Peninsula. The Mayas had a highly developed civilization that reached its peak in the seventh and eighth centuries. The Spanish conquered the Mayas in the early 16th century and ruled most of their territory for about 300 years.
In 1821 revolts led by colonists ended Spanish rule, and in 1823 Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua formed the United Provinces of Central America. Fighting among its leaders led to its collapse during 1838-39, and its members became separate countries. Belize was declared a British colony in 1862, and was renamed British Honduras. (The colony readopted its earlier name in 1973; it won independence in 1981.) In 1903 Panama became independent and granted the Panama Canal Zone to the United States. (It was returned to Panama in 1979.)
In the early 1900's, there was unrest in several Central American countries. The United States intervened militarily in the region several times to restore order and protect its interests. After World War II, most Central American countries had dictatorial governments.
In 1951 the Organization of Central American States was formed to promote economic and cultural cooperation among the countries. One of its achievements was the creation of the Central American Common Market in 1960. Cooperation began to break down, however, when national antagonisms started to resurface in the late 1960's. Many of the countries experienced violence between left- and right-wing political factions, as well as guerrilla insurgencies, inflation, and foreign debt.
During the 1980's, civil rights violations, illicit drug traffic, and left-wing guerrilla terrorism permeated the region. All of the nations suffered from economic problems, and only Costa Rica and Belize were free of civil strife. The Sandinistas, a leftist group, were in control of the government of Nicaragua during the entire decade. (They were replaced by a democratically elected government in 1990.) The Sandinista regime restricted the political freedom of Nicaraguan citizens and supported a Communist insurgency in El Salvador.
Following a United States military invasion of Panama in 1989, dictator General Manuel Antonio Noriega was deposed and extradited to the United States to stand trial on drug charges.