21st-Century Geopolitics Of Central America: Geographic And Historical Review


The first chapter described the grand strategic contours at play between the US and China in Central America, while this one will provide a regional overview which covers its geographic framing, history, prevailing characteristics, and regional integration organizations. This broad-based overview of Central America will help individuals make sense of how each particular country fits into the larger regional equation. 

Framing The Region

The term “Central America” generally refers to the thin isthmus of land linking North and South America, although there are differing interpretations of what exactly constitutes it. Nobody disputes that Honduras and Nicaragua are part of this territory, but some question whether Panama has historically been so in the political – not geographic -- sense owing to its former inclusion in Colombia. Additionally, while Belize geographically fits the mark for inclusion into Central America, it’s more of a socio-historically Caribbean country due to the legacy of British imperialism despite being claimed by Guatemala as part an outgrowth of its Mayan heritage. There’s also the example of Mexico’s southern states along the Yucatan Peninsula and east of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which could arguably be grouped as socially, historically, but not so much politically as part of Central America (with the possible exception of Chiapas).

The author is familiar with each of the points for and against the inclusion of various territories into the Central American grouping, but for the sake of the research, “Central America” will refer in this context to the states of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama which occupy the mountainous, valley-strewn, and agriculturally rich jungled expanse between Mexico and Colombia. Belize is largely excluded from the study except when examining Guatemala’s claims over it and talking about its participation in regional integration organizations more broadly at the end of the work. As for Chiapas, it’s also touched upon in this historical review, too, but only briefly. This decision was made in order to focus chiefly on the countries which make up most people’s general conception of Central America, which includes Panama ever since its independence and subsequent membership in several key integrational initiatives.

Having delineated the Central American domain as extending from Guatemala to Panama, an interesting observation can be made – the population of each state decreases as one travels from north to south. In fact, if listed from the most populous state to the least populous one, the order would go: Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, with the first one having nearly four times as many people at 16 million than the last one’s total populace of roughly 4 million. This particular population distribution is relevant for several reasons. The first is that the much more populated countries which occupy the region designed by the US as the “Northern Triangle” are so plagued by crime, drugs, and violence that many people have fled from there for the US as illegal immigrants, geographically facilitated as they were by their states’ close location to Mexico.

Much smaller Costa Rica and Panama don’t experience these society-wide dangers to the extent that Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador do, so they constitute a smaller proportion of the US’ illegal immigrant population and are therefore less dependent on US-based remittances for their economy. Although this hasn’t necessarily diminished Washington’s influence over them, it does mean that these “Southern Isthmus” countries are more economically competitive and stable than their “Northern Triangle” Central American peers. Nicaragua, for its part, is the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere but isn’t as wracked by the societal ills of its northern neighbors following the resolution of its civil/”contra” war and thus doesn’t form a considerable amount of the illegal immigrants swarming into the US nowadays, with its compatriots choosing instead to migrant more within the region than outside of it.

From this initial geo-demographic understanding of Central America, it can be concluded that the northern part of the region is less stable than the southern one, while the central pivot state of Nicaragua – which is where China plans to build its canal – straddles both ends of the divide and simultaneously has positive and negative factors affecting it. This state of affairs is crucial to keep in mind when analyzing the region, as it explains why the US has taken such an active interest in the “Northern Triangle” while the Pacific Alliance has chosen to focus on the “Southern Isthmus”. Correspondingly, it also places China’s grand strategic plans in Nicaragua in a new light, drawing attention to their challenges but also to the geopolitical achievement that’s awaiting it if it’s ultimately successful in its plans to use the country as its base for balancing the region.

Historical Highlights

With the geographic scope of Central America being established, it’s now time to very briefly review a few of the most important historical highlights which took place in the isthmus over the centuries. This list is far from complete and comprehensive, but it doesn’t aspire to be either in the context of this research. Rather, the intention behind it is to simply provide the reader with an introductory background understanding into some of the most pivotal events which shaped the modern-day region. From the 1800s until the present, they are:

The Captaincy General of Guatemala

This Spanish imperial entity went from Chiapas and Belize in the north down to Costa Rica in the south, and it essentially encompassed all of what is referred to by the reader as Central America with the exception of Panama, which was part of the Viceroyalty of New Grenada in the run-up to continental Latin America’s independence from Madrid. The Captaincy General of Guatemala was instrumental in collecting most of the Central American territories together in a unified organizational-administrative manner, thereby furnishing a foundation for subsequent integrational initiatives in the period afterwards. It also gave the associated territories a sense of shared identity and destiny, though this isn’t as emotionally powerful of an historical factor for the modern-day polities of Belize, Chiapas, and Costa Rica as it is for Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, which might have something to do with the former being the geographic periphery of this arrangement whereas the latter represented its heartland.

The First Mexican Empire

All the Captaincy General of Guatemala joined the First Mexican Empire shortly after the 1821 Acts of Independence of Central America, but this was short-lived because the First Mexican Republic was declared in late-1823. Although a very brief historical episode for Central America, it nevertheless created a pretext for Mexico to one day establish a sphere of influence in part of this region, particularly the three countries closest to it in the “Northern Triangle” of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador as forecasted by the author near the end of the last chapter.

The United Provinces/Federal Republic of Central America

The former lands of the Captaincy General of Guatemala banded together to form the United Provinces of Central America following the dissolution of the First Mexican Empire. It was soon thereafter rechristened as the Federal Republic of Central America, but its initial name deserves some further commentary because of the similarity that it evokes to the United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata which later became Argentina. This entity’s name doesn’t appear to have been incidental, as the flags of the two polities are similar as well. However, this pair of United Provinces experienced decisively different fates, as the United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata (Argentina) remained geographically united after a series of civil wars between federalists and centralizers, while the United Provinces of Central America fell apart after the federation dissolved in a ruinous civil war.

The Federation of Central America was formed through the union of five states – Guatemala (which formally presided over the territory of modern-day Belize at the time), Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica – but came to include a sixth one in the last few twilight years of its existence after the highlands of Los Altos separated from Guatemala. Right after the federation collapsed, though, the coastal territory of Los Altos known as Soconusco was controversially annexed by Mexico to Chiapas in the chaotic aftermath, which remained a long-contested issue hampering relations between the two neighboring countries until Guatemala agreed to begrudgingly accept this state of affairs at the end of the 19th century. It might be partially because of the loss of Soconusco that Guatemala still has a hard time accepting the British colonization of most of its Caribbean coast as “British Honduras” (modern-day Belize).

All in all, the Federal Republic of Central America (formerly known for a year as the United Provinces of Central America) remains the ultimate end goal of regional integrationalists, though it’s much more difficult in the present era of nation-state patriotism to consolidate these six now-independent countries than it was for them to remain united immediately following their centuries of rule under the Captaincy General of Guatemala. There were several attempts in the past to regroup some of the Central American states into a unified policy, but these eventually failed after just a couple of years at most. Still, there are definitely ongoing efforts nowadays to achieve closer integration between all six of the region’s most important members in a post-modern framework reminiscent of the EU to a large extent, and this will be explored soon enough in the final chapter of the research.

Reintegration Experiments

Interspersed between a handful of civil and international wars were a couple attempts to recreate all or part of the Central American Federation. These were:

* The Confederation of Central America (1842) among all of the erstwhile entity’s former members;

* The Federation of Central America (1852) between Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua;

* and The Greater Republic of Central America (1896-1898) among the aforementioned three states.

What’s important to note is that Honduras played a key role in the Central American Federation and the three subsequent attempts to recreate it, which has thus shaped its national identity. In fact, the five stars on the Honduran flag symbolize the five original states of the regional federation. Honduras took on the role of integrational catalyst for reasons owing both to its leadership but also more importantly to its geography in bordering Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Its unique position in the middle of these three states was exploited by the US during the Cold War-era “Central American Crisis” to assist in the fight against communist rebels in Guatemala and El Salvador and to dispatch aid to the Nicaraguan “contras”.

It’s also because of Honduras’ irreplaceable integrational role in potentially recreating most of the former Central American Federation that the US couldn’t allow socialist leader Manuel Zelaya to remain in office and – as Washington’s “zero-sum” decision makers and strategists feared –consolidate a multipolar transnational entity on Mexico’s doorstep, which would inordinately impact on the grand hegemonic interests of the US in its own hemisphere if it resulted in the “Pink Tide” spilling over into Chiapas and eventually sweeping all of the US’ southern neighbor under its influence. Such fears are likely overblown, but given the historical precedent of Honduras playing a key role in any reintegrational attempts in Central America, it’s reasonable that at least a few neoconservatives were anxious about this “domino theory” scenario.

William Walker

This American soldier of fortune was a “filibuster” who attempted to seize foreign land on his country’s behalf without its permission, hoping that it would be legitimized ex post facto. He was a supporter of slavery and sought to conquer various Latin American territory, most pertinently in this case, Nicaragua. He briefly ruled over the Central American nation for a couple of years after intervening in an ongoing civil war there per the invitation of one of its feuding sides. His conquest of Nicaragua and reimposition of slavery there scared the rest of the region which feared that he had expansionist plans, so they quickly banded together to oust him in a rare instance of Central American solidarity.

The Walker period didn’t last long, but it was instrumental in demonstrating the potential for regional cooperation between the now-independent states of the erstwhile Central American Federation. Although they previously had tense disagreements with one another and various grudges, they put aside their more relatively myopic concerns in the interest of pursuing the shared grand objective of freeing their region from direct foreign occupation and potential re-enslavement. It’s curious, then, that the Central American countries didn’t react this way to the US’ multiple state-led interventions in the decades afterwards, but this is probably due to Washington being seen by their national leaders as a protector of their oligarchic systems, hence why the military wasn’t dispatched to stop them.

The Spanish-American War

The relatively short conflict between the US and Spain in 1898 resulted in Washington obtaining direct control over Cuba and Puerto Rico, which conversely ejected Madrid from the Caribbean. The grand strategic effect of this was that the sea became an “American lake”, thereby allowing the US unhindered access to its western basin and facilitating the series of “banana war” interventions that were to follow. Had it not been for Spain’s removal from the Caribbean through its defeat in the 1898 war with the US, there are considerably less chances that the US would have been able to exert its neo-imperial hegemony over Central America owing to the geopolitical impediment of Spanish-controlled Cuba.

With the European Power ousted from the island, however, the US didn’t have to worry about its ships being interdicted in the Yucatan Strait, Windward Passage, or Mona Passage between Cuba and Puerto Rico as they made their way for the Caribbean Coast of Central America. This opened up countless military and economic opportunities, both of which often worked hand-in-hand with one another like will soon be discussed in a subsequent sub-section, but the point to focus on is that none of this would have been possible to the same degree had the Spanish remained in the Caribbean. Therefore, the Spanish-American War should be seen in hindsight as the key geopolitical event allowing the US to become a real hemispheric (neo-imperial) power and the most important external player in Central American affairs from that time onwards.

Panama’s Secession and its Namesake Canal

The formerly Colombian-controlled province/region of Panama had a history of anti-government insurgency and separatist inclinations, but this reached a head in the last years of the 19th century. Washington was previously on cordial terms with Bogota but grew increasingly frustrated when Colombian lawmakers refused to ratify the US’ requested Hay–Herrán canal treaty, which therefore led to American decision makers pivoting their approach towards Panama and actively supporting its secessionist movement. After a very short conflict in late-1903, Panama became independent of Colombia and swiftly gave the US its desired permission to build its long-sought canal on overly advantageous and neo-imperialist terms per the Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty.  

When it was finally completed in 1914, the Panama Canal made the US the unquestioned hegemon of the Western Hemisphere due to its simultaneous control of the two American continents’ Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Prior to the canal’s debut, the US utilized overland trade routes across Nicaragua and Panama to transport goods and people between the two oceans, but now it could traverse the isthmus in a much more efficient unimodal fashion and thereby exponentially increase its influence over Central America. It’s not coincidental, then, that the US’ “banana wars” which will be elaborated on below, also broke out in full swing during this time, since the US had many more logistical options for planning its occupations by more easily coordinating the activities of its Atlantic and Pacific fleets.

For all the resultant strategic benefit that the US reaped from the Panama Canal, it also bred a lot of resentment among patriotic Panamanians who were justifiably enraged at how the US treated their country like a colonial protectorate, especially regarding the humiliating and unfair terms of the canal treaty that was forced upon them in the immediate aftermath of their American-backed independence from Colombia. This will remain an enduring theme throughout Panama’s history and will be touched upon in brief near the end of this chapter, but it’s worthwhile for the reader to recognize the political undercurrents which made leaders like Arnulfo Arias, Omar Trujillo, and Manuel Noriega possible, even though only the first could be comfortably described as a relatively uncompromised “nationalist-patriot”.

The United Fruit Company (UFC) and “Banana Wars”

The UFC is notorious for the infamous footprint that it left on Central America during its decades of activity there. This agricultural conglomerate monopolized a wide range of industries along the Caribbean coasts of Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, and the protection of its assets was tacitly deemed a high enough priority for the US government that it regularly dispatched occupation forces to these countries in order to safeguard the company’s private investments. These interventions were popularly referred to as “banana wars” and usually took place either in the context of seemingly never-ending civil wars such as those in Nicaragua or the formal invitation of the host territory’s nominal national government (oftentimes much weaker than the state-within-a-state that the UFC created there).

The UFC was resented by most of the Central American locals because of its laissez-faire attitude towards working conditions and corporate responsibility to the host nation, and many people rightly saw it as a neo-imperial arm of the US government, especially considering that the many “banana wars” that the US waged during that time were launched in order to protect its holdings. Even after the decades-long period of American occupation ended following Washington’s formal military withdrawal from Nicaragua in the early 1930s, the UFC remained in Central America but was instead this time protected by their American-trained national militaries as opposed to the US’ direct forces. The legacy of problems associated with the company and its gross overreaches into the sovereignty of the Central American states would contribute to the growth of communist-socialist groups there and catalyze national liberation movements during the Cold War.

The roughly three-decade UFC and “banana wars” period of 1900-1930s and the subsequent neo-imperial proxy control that the US exerted over Central America, played a key role in teaching Washington the ins and outs of hegemony that it would later export worldwide following World War II and the end of the Cold War. The American military was directly involved in Central America for a long enough time to learn about insurgencies such as the one launched by Nicaraguan patriot Sandino and experiment with tactics for effectively countering them. This experience was invaluable to American military-strategic planners who had hitherto lacked the colonial combat experience of their European Great Power peers (aside from putting down all Native American resistance) and complemented the concurrent occupation of the Philippines in providing its troops with hard-taught skills and know-how.

Keynote American Policies

No review of Central American history is complete without touching upon several of the most influential American policies towards the region from the time of its independence until today:

Monroe Doctrine:

Most people are aware of this policy, and it decreed that the US will not tolerate further European colonial encroachment in the Western Hemisphere. It was overly ambitious and ideologically motivated, therefore making it impossible to ever fully apply as intended, and it was violated in several instances such as through the French Occupation of Mexico and the decreeing of modern-day Belize as “British Honduras”, both of which, however, occurred during the US Civil War. There were also other less dramatic instances as well, but the point is that the Monroe Doctrine wasn’t ever enforced to a tee, but that it served as the bedrock of the US’ intentions in becoming in one day becoming the hemispheric hegemon.

Big Stick Policy:

Unveiled by President Theodore Roosevelt in the opening years of the 20th century when he advised in a letter to “walk softly and carry a big stick”, the name of this policy has since become a world-renowned buzzword symbolizing American bullying masked by sweet-spoken and high-sounding words about “democracy” or whatever else. The Big Stick Policy formed the basis for the US’ aggressive engagement in Central America after its victory in the 1898 Spanish-American War opened up the gates to its neo-imperial expansion in this region, and it would thereafter be spiritually referenced in ‘justifying’ everything else that the US would do. 

Roosevelt Corollary:

The same US President who gave his country the Big Stick Policy also added a corollary to the long-standing Monroe Doctrine one year later by stating that it will thenceforth be American policy to intervene in debt-collection and other economic issues between the European Great Powers and Latin American states, seemingly with the idea to preempt any unilateral or multilateral action by the formal imperialists which would violate the Monroe Doctrine. This amended understanding of the US’ desired hegemonic role was promulgated because of the threat that the European Powers had just given to Venezuela a few years prior, and it would expectedly be abused by the US in justifying further neo-colonial and outright military involvement in Central America and the Caribbean.

Dollar Diplomacy:

Building off of the three aforementioned policies, Roosevelt’s successor, President William Taft, unveiled the next logical step in the US’ grand strategy towards Central America, and that’s so-called “dollar diplomacy”. Applied towards all of Latin America more broadly and also parts of East Asia, it aimed to instrumentalize economic and financial means as elements of the US’ foreign policy. In other words, it laid the foundation for what is now commonly known as “neo-imperialism”, and in many Central American cases was even tacitly relied upon to explain the many “banana wars” in support of the UFC’s pecuniary interests. Although no longer formally part of the State Department’s policy toolkit, “dollar diplomacy” still undoubtedly lives on as the vanguard of the US’ unipolar thrusts all across the world.

Good Neighbor Policy:

It wasn’t until 1934 under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and during the Great Depression that the US saw the need to rebrand its Latin American policies away from the open aggressiveness of the Big Stick Policy and towards something more normatively in line with the US’ self-proclaimed international ideals. The global economic crisis had sapped American economic strength, thereby rendering “dollar diplomacy” less powerful of a foreign policy instrument, and it also made the numerous “banana wars” unbearably costly military affairs. Therefore, the US saw the right moment to present an “olive branch” to its Latin American neighbors through the “Good Neighbor Policy” which disingenuously claimed that the US would no longer be applying its old aggressive policies towards the region.

Rather, the US would try to win with “honey” what it couldn’t do with “vinegar”, to paraphrase an old aphorism, in that it strove to woo Latin American “hearts and minds” with “soft words” rather than the “big stick”.

The US may have also correctly gauged the regional zeitgeist and knew that it was high time for it to rebrand its policies in order to counteract any further diminishment of its soft power. Instead of relying on direct and costly military intervention in it “near abroad” which only made Central Americans resent them, the US would “outsource” its regional “leadership” to national elites and their US-trained military forces. While it may have appeared to be an enduringly effective policy at the time, it actually led to the local populations redirecting their resentment from the US to their own national governments, thereby setting the stage for socialist-communist groups and their corresponding national liberation movements to spread like wildfire in the coming decades.

There are several other policies which have influenced American grand strategy towards Central America, but they’ll be incorporated into the analysis of the remaining historical events that have yet to be discussed.

Communist Conflicts and the Central American Crisis

The simmering resentment that the Central American population felt towards the US and their local neo-imperial overlords boiled over into a series of communist-socialist conflicts all throughout the Cold War, reaching the epic proportions of a region-wide crisis during the 1980s. Guatemala was the first to descend into varying intensities of civil war following the CIA’s 1954 coup against President Árbenz , while El Salvador and Nicaragua slipped into this state during the 1970s. The Sandinistas managed to liberate the country from the Somoza family in 1979, the same year of the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet anti-terrorist intervention in Afghanistan (in response to the US’ support of Islamic insurgents which was designed to provoke such a response). All of this took place prior to an election year in the US which handed Ronald Reagan a convincing victory over the incumbent Jimmy Carter, to a large degree due to the perception that the US was rapidly losing its influence abroad.

Partly in response to the strategic setback that the US suffered after the Sandinistas’ victory in Nicaragua, the US unleashed the so-called “Reagan Doctrine” of “rolling back” Soviet/communist/socialist influence wherever it may be. In relation to Central America, this took the form of actively supporting the former pro-Somoza National Guard units which fled the country after 1979 and turning them into a battle-hardened terrorist force through extended training in the bordering nations of Honduras and Costa Rica. About Honduras, though, it was also the epicenter of all of the US’ Central American death squads, including those active in neighboring Guatemala and El Salvador. It’s pertinent at this moment to recall what was written earlier in this chapter about the indispensable geostrategic role of Honduras in integrating the most populous portions of the northern isthmus. Instead of playing a peaceful and constructive role, however, Honduras was used for a militant and destructive one by the US all throughout the Central American Crisis.

The aftermath of this series of US-backed wars, whether in support of besieged allied governments in Guatemala and El Salvador or to overthrow the unfriendly one in Nicaragua, was fundamental in determining the post-Cold War dynamics of Central America. The most immediate consequence was that the US achieved its strategic objectives by ending the wars on its terms, but the unintended and long-term result of this was that the lack of regional attention which accompanied these “victories” led to state failure in the “Northern Triangle” and the eventual re-election of Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. The first inadvertent consequence exacerbated the US’ own Latin American immigrant crisis, especially the one in 2014 with “unaccompanied minors”, while the second created a surprising multipolar opening for China and Russia right in the geopolitical center of the Central American isthmus in the US’ own “backyard”.

Integration and Globalization

The next stage of Central America’s shared history came in the first two decades after the Cold War when the region rapidly entered the globalized world and began to institutionally integrate with itself. It also started to economically integrate with North America, and there’s even a platform where its member states multilaterally cooperate with Mexico and Colombia. All of this will be explored a bit more in the last chapter, but it was still relevant to touch upon at this time in listing the collective experiences that the Central American states have underwent throughout history. In addition, it also casts light on the US’ post-Reagan Doctrine policy towards the region in ceaselessly working to absorb it into the Washington-led international order after the Cold War, though ironically neglecting its local socio-economic concerns to the point where they backfired on the US through the previously mentioned “Northern Triangle” migrant crisis and Ortega’s re-election.

Operation Condor 2.0

This neo-Reagan Doctrine was described earlier in the research and refers to the US’ reprioritization of Latin American affairs in order to “roll back” the “Pink Tide” of socialist-populist governments and reinforce Washington’s hemispheric hegemony. This is pertinently seen through the 2009 Honduran Coup and the ongoing attempts to discredit the democratically reelected Nicaraguan government of Daniel Ortega, the US’ 1980s Cold War-era Sandinista foe. Also, a necessary factor to note is that “Operation Condor 2.0” embodies more than just its predecessor’s military-intelligence aspects and instead seeks to enduringly institutionalize the US’ reacquired control over the hemisphere, most aptly in this case through the Washington-backed “Northern Triangle” concept for integrating the three migrant-originating states of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador under US tutelage. There isn’t any problem in and of itself with sub-regional integration in the northern part of Central America, but it’s just that this process is being operationalized in the present context so as to advance the US’ hegemony. 

DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.