Central America stretches from the steamy jungles of Guatemala down the long volcanic spine that divides the isthmus to the narrow neck of Panama.
Of the area's 21 million people perhaps half are Indians. The remainder are 'ladinos', or mixed bloods and 'creoles', white descendents of the original Spanish colonizers. There are also small numbers of blacks and more recent European immigrants,
The region is notable for its almost feudal class system, passed down from the Spanish 'conquistadores'.
At first, Indians were used as slave labour on large plantations. Later they were tied into the 'economienda' system - a kind of debt peonage that obligated them to work a portion of each month for one of the large estate owners.
Whites and ladinos exploited the Indian peasantry mercilessly, believing them servile and content in their misery. Hundreds of thousands of Indians died from harsh working conditions and from the ravages of European diseases.
With Independence from Spain in 1821 the area soon fragmented into the six countries that remain today. Agricultural exports quickly grew in importance - first coffee, then bananas and by the 1940s cotton, sugar and beef. Those five crops make up more than half the region's exports. The best arable land is still controlled by a tiny minority and literacy and nutrition are the lowest in the Americas.
A wealthy elite, mostly white, condones heavy-handed repression in most countries in order to keep the lid on a potential social explosion.
Despite this, campesino, church and trade union opposition to military rule is increasing. The 1979 defeat of the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua is seen optimistically in neighbouring countries as a sign that successful change is possible.