The Facts

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CENTRAL AMERICA[image, unknown] The Facts

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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.


Manufacturing growing -
but cash crops still vital

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*largely meat, sugar, forest products and light manufacturing
Sources: FAO Trade Yearbook

Map of Guatemala



Over 60% of the population is Indian. Under military rule since 1954 when the reform government of Jacobo Arbenz was ousted in a CIA-assisted coup. US aid was suspended by President Carter on human rights grounds but the ice appears to be thawing with the new Reagan administration. Concerted effort to terrorize any opposition has not stopped recent growth of four guerrilla movements. After El Salvador, the most fertile ground for revolutionary change.

Population 7.2 million
GNP per capita 5900
Income distribution Top 5% gets 34% national income. Bottom 25% gets 6.7% national income
Land ownership 88% owns 14.3% arable land 2% owns 72% of arable land
Literacy 47%
Infant mortality 77 per 1000

Map of El Salvador

El Salvador


Smallest, most densely-populated and heavily-industrialised country. Under military rule since 1932. Controlled by a small and violently anti-communist, conservative clique of wealthy families, known as 'los catorce' - the 'fourteen'. Current junta maintains power through American-supplied firepower, despite a well-organised and united opposition.

Population 4.8 million
GNP per capita $750
Income distribution Top 2% gets 34% national income. Bottom 67% gets 34% national income.
Land ownership Top 2% owns 60% land. Bottom 90% owns 22% land.
Literacy 62%
Infant mortality 60 per 1000

Map of Belize



A British enclave since the 1640s, tiny Belize (formerly British Honduras) is more Caribbean than Central American. The official language is English, although Creole and Indian dialects are widely spoken. Over 70% of the population is black or mulatto - descendents of slaves from Barbados and other islands. The country's name is a corruption of Wallace, after Peter Wallace one of many buccaneers that used the area as a base in the 17th century. A boundary dispute with Guatemala was recently resolved and the country is now scheduled for full independence.

Population 130,000
GNP per capita $870
Income distribution N/A
Land ownership 60% government owned 16% owned by 2 individuals
Literacy N/A
Infant mortality 45 per 1000

Map of Honduras



The poorest, most underdeveloped and sparsely populated country in the region - 84 per cent of those who farm earn less than $250 a year. Three-quarters of rural children suffer from malnutrition. Two US multinationals - United Brands and Standard Fruit-own or control one-fifth of the country's arable land for bananas. Ruled by hard-line military which keeps close tabs on peasant and trade union opposition.

Population 3.5 million
GNP per capita $480
Income distribution Top 10% get 50% national income. Bottom 60% get 15% national income
Land ownership Top 4% owns 65% cultivable land. Bottom N/A
Literacy 57%
Infant mortality 118 per 1000

Map of Nicaragua



The 45-year Somoza dynasty was overthrown in a popular revolution led by the Sandinista Liberation Front in July, 1979. New government has taken cautious steps to nationalise banks and a quarter of the country's farmland. The private sector still controls 70% of the economy although processing and marketing of export crops is in government hands. Rents have been slashed and great emphasis placed on literacy and health care.

Population 2.5 million
GNP per capita $840
Income distribution Top 5% gets 28% national income. Bottom 50% gets 15% national income
Land ownership State now controls 35% cultivable land.
Literacy 88% (from 46% pre-revolution)
Infant mortality 37 per 1000

Map of Costa Rica

Costa Rica


Costa Rica has peacefully elected governments since 1948. There has been no standing army since 1949. The population is overwhelmingly European in origin. Indians make up less than one per cent. A larger number of middleclass landowners has permitted a wider distribution of income than elsewhere in the region, although a powerful coffee growing elite has considerable clout. Recent 30 per cent inflation and high unemployment have increased popular discontent.

Population 2.1 million
GNP per capita $1,540
Income distribution Top 20% gets 55% national income. Bottom 20% gets 3.3% national income.
Land ownership
Literacy 90%
Infant mortality 28 per 1000

Map of Panama


The 'bridge of the Americas' has been dominated by US control over the strategic Panama Canal Zone since 1900. Nominally democratic, the real power behind the throne is Gen. Omar Torrijos, former President and strong nationalist. American investment in the region is close to $3 billion, the third highest in all of Latin America. The Canal Zone is a base for 20,000 US troops and a major training centre for the region's military dictatorships.

Population 1.8 million
GNP per capita $1,290
Income distribution Top 30% get 73% national income. Bottom 30% get 3.8% national income.
Land ownership N/A
Literacy 78%
Infant mortality 47 per 1000


Map of Central America

Sources: Latin America Newsletters; World Development Report 1980; Central America - A Nation Divided.

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