Cover: Demographic Diversity and Change in the Central American Isthmus

Demographic Diversity and Change in the Central American Isthmus

Published 1997

Edited by Anne R. Pebley, Luis Rosero-Bixby

Contributors: Elena Hurtado


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Anne R. Pebley

Many North Americans would be surprised to learn that neither Panama nor Belize are considered Central American countries, in the traditional sense, despite their obvious geographic location in the region (see Figure 1). The reasons provide tantalizing clues to the complex social and political history of the region, in its many incarnations. Since the Federation of Central America declared its independence from Mexico (itself newly independent from Spain) "Central America" has referred exclusively to Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. The Federation lasted only until 1839, but the desire for some form of economic and political integration among these five nations has remained strong. The territories which now comprise these countries (plus Belize) share an even longer collective history as part of the Audiencia of Guatemala during the three hundred years of Spanish colonial rule, and in the case of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, many hundreds of years of settlement by the Maya and related societies in the preconquest period.

Figure 1. Map of Central American Isthmus

Despite their location, Panama and Belize have separate histories from other countries in the region and have only recently begun to be integrated economically and socially. At the time of independence in 1821, Panama chose union with Colombia and subsequently became independent from Colombia in only 1903, under the protection of the U.S. Navy (Pérez-Brignoli, 1989). Belize remained a British colony until 1981 and only in the past few years has Guatemala given up its claims to Belizean territory.

In this volume, we refer collectively to all seven countries located in the Isthmus as Central America, although the title of the book is more precise to avoid confusion.

For the most part, North Americans' views of Central America are refracted through the restrictive lens of recent U.S. foreign policy: the controversial Panama Canal Treaty, the Sandinista triumph in Nicaragua, guerrilla movements in Guatemala, the El Salvadorian civil war, the Iran-Contra Scandal associated with the U.S. support for Contras in Nicaragua, the capture and trial of Manuel Noriega, and revelations about U.S. support for violent Guatemala military regimes. There is no doubt that the U.S. and U.S. citizens have played a disproportionately large (and often malign) role in Central American history. Historical examples include the take-over of Nicaragua by the Tennessee adventurer William Walker in 1855, the building of the Panama Canal, the political activity of the United Fruit Company in several countries, the CIA-organized overthrow of the liberal Arbenz regime in Guatemala in 1954, and many, many others. Excellent accounts of this history are provided by Pérez-Brignoli (1989) and LeFeber (1993).

As the papers in this volume make clear, however, the Central American experience is important for North Americans and others to understand, for reasons unrelated to classic U.S. foreign policy interests. From a demographic perspective, Central American countries have experienced the decimation of indigenous populations and civilizations during and after the Spanish conquest, high fertility rates and dramatic fertility declines, rapid mortality declines and stubbornly high mortality rates, large intra-regional and international migration streams, and major refugee movements. Contrasts between neighboring countries in the region are often large and provide important lessons about the macrolevel as well as microlevel determinants of demographic behavior. For example, in the early 1960s, Costa Rica and Nicaragua both had very high fertility rates (an average of about 7 children per woman) but by the early 1990s, the Costa Rican fertility rate had fallen to 3, a level close to many industrialized countries. Nicaragua experienced a substantially less precipitous fertility decline; by the early 1990s, its total fertility rate was about 5 children per woman. Chapters by Guzmán, Hermalin et al., CELADE, and others in this volume show that the reasons behind these significant differences in demographic experience are complex and reward careful study.

Central Americans' experience with ethnic and cultural identity also provides considerable food for thought for scholars and others concerned with the meaning of ethnicity and the process of cultural change. Despite the ravages of the conquest and post-conquest eras, the indigenous population of Central America, and particularly in Guatemala and on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua, has survived the past 400 years. In fact, high indigenous fertility rates in Guatemala combined with gradual improvements in health status and a reduction in political violence means the substantial majority of Guatemalans in the 21st century are likely to be indigenous (instead of the current 50% of the population). Yet with reduced repression and majority rather than minority status, the indigenous population may face a new set of problems related to maintaining its own distinct ethnicity (Rohter, 1997). There are also several other major ethnic groups in Central America including mestizos, creoles, garifuna, and those of European origin. Because of the unique history of each group, the choice between integration or retention of cultural distinctiveness is an important issue for each group. Several chapters in this volume provide a broad view of the history and current circumstances of different ethnic groups.

Cultural identity is also under threat in Central America because of the growing import of cultural influences from abroad, particularly from the United States. While U.S. citizens frequently fret about changes in U.S. society due to immigrants from Latin America, cultural exchange is a two way street. In fact, to this observer, the influence of the North American culture appears far more pervasive in Central America than the influence of Latin American culture in the U.S. The availability of cable television (including CNN, the Cartoon Network, and local U.S. channels), the ease of air travel, and the size of migrants streams between Central America and the U.S. have dramatically increased the adoption of North American ideas and values. The growing Protestant evangelical movement and the Mormon Church which have both made major inroads in traditionally Catholic Central American countries, have only accelerated the process of cultural change.

During the past several decades, Central American countries have also grappled with the complex issues of promoting economic growth and reducing poverty while avoiding environmental destruction. A history of extreme social stratification in many Central American countries has created large gaps in living standards between the majority of the population and the wealthy elites. However, rapid social and economic change is underway in all countries in the region. Changes include rapidly increasing ties to global markets, growth in industrial and formal sector employment, declining reliance on subsistence and plantation agriculture, and the development of a commercial capitalist class which is not closely tied to traditional landed elites.

High population densities, poor cultivation methods, poverty, and large inequalities in land distribution have led to overexploitation in agricultural land in many Central American countries. Like Brazil, Central America also contains some of the last remaining major tropical rainforest areas in the Western Hemisphere. Yet these forests are, in almost all cases, under siege from loggers, agribusiness concerns, and poor farmers trying to make a living. On the other hand, Costa Rica has set aside large areas as national parks and reserves and pioneered eco-tourism and other novel environmental strategies, in an attempt to preserve at least a part of it's natural environment. Other countries in the region have followed this example, although to date on a smaller scale. The Central American region will provide an important test case for whether appropriate solutions can be found and successfully implemented to restore depleted tropical soils and to preserve tropical forests and other fragile eco-systems, while improving the economic well-being of the population.

The chapters in this volume provide important and often novel insights into these and many other issues. My co-editor, Luis Rosero-Bixby, and I hope that this volume will stimulate readers to think about the complexities of the Central American region in new ways and will encourage future research by scholars both from the region and from other countries.

Finally, on a personal note, I want to express my admiration for and appreciation of the enormous efforts that Luis Rosero-Bixby and his colleagues put into organizing and hosting this conference, recruiting participants, selecting papers both for the conference and the volume, cajoling authors to finish their revisions, and providing continual support for the production of this English edition.


  • LaFeber, Walter (1993) Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America. New York: W.W. Norton and Co.
  • Pérez-Brignoli, Hector (1989) A Brief History of Central America. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Rohter, Larry (1997) "Maya Dress Tells a New Story, and It's Not Pretty" New York Times, June 13, 1997.

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