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Middle America. Background troubled region of 7 small countries between Mexico and South America includes Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama limited mineral wealth, few raw materials

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Middle America

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middle america
Middle America
  • Background
    • troubled region of 7 small countries between Mexico and South America
    • includes Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama
    • limited mineral wealth, few raw materials
    • Countries isolated from one another by Mts, poor transportation, little cohesion
    • great land tenure problems, high social stratification, political instability, guerrilla warfare, outside intervention
Historical Factors
    • Middle America settled simultaneously from two directions
    • Part of “New Spain” ruled from Guatemala. Control over countries tenuous.
    • Vasco Nunez de Balboa occupied Panama, then Spanish moved north into lowland lake country of Nicaragua
    • Hernan Cortez defeats Aztec civilization in Mexico, then Spanish settlers push into Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras
    • impact of Spanish rule devastating on indigenous peoples and cultures
Effect of Conquest
    • demographic disaster for indigenous populations
    • indian population declines from 20 million at time of conquest to 2.5 million by 18th C
      • destruction of indian cities like Tenochtitlan
      • environment destruction of forests and grasslands
      • enslavement of population
      • infectious diseases like smallpox, typhoid fever, measles, and influenza
      • livestock and cattle crowd indigenous peoples off the land
      • indigenous irrigation systems destroyed to serve colonial masters
The Latin American Condition
    • continued concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few elites
    • social and political stratification
      • upper stratum (landed elite, owners of large commercial and industrial firms, banks, import-export business) are 5% of the population
      • upper middle stratum (managers in industry and commerce, professionals, commercial farmers, top government bureaucrats, and military officers) are 20% of the population
      • lower middle stratum (unionized laborers, school teachers, low level bureaucrats, small farmers) are 25% of the population
urban and rural poor (landless mestizo tenant farmers, hired workers, rural poor, domestic servants, and native peoples ) are 50% of the population
  • economic condition of the urban and rural poor has not benefited materially from development of these countries
  • up to 20th C these societies dominated by an agro-exporter elite whose position derived from the Spanish conquest
  • conquistadors brought with them values acquired in the reconquista in Spain that drove the Moors out of Iberia (heroic military leaders became leadership model in Latin America)
conquistadors knew if they conquered new territories they would become wealthy and powerful men
  • brought with them patrimonial political values, authoritarian tendencies, no popular participation
  • New World was a fertile ground for transplantation of these values
  • victories over Aztecs, Incas, and others comparatively easy
  • encomienda system allowed large landowners to extract labor and tribute from indians within their control
new nobility created a system of large landed estates called latifundio that enabled them to generate wealth, social prestige and political power
  • today remnants of traditional society still exist along side institutions of a modern state
  • contemporary problem in Latin America is not the complete lack of economic growth and modernization, but the failure to extend the benefits of that growth to the urban and rural masses
Dependency Theory
    • Andre Gunder Frank, Theotonio Dos Santos, Immanuel Wallenstein, ECLA
    • since colonial times, Latin American states were devoted to producing commodities for export, i.e. indigo, sugar, cacao, and other cash crops
    • after independence, Latin American states continued to produce cash crops, now coffee, cotton, sugar, bananas
    • expansion of ports, railroads, roads to benefit the export economy
    • limited industrialization that could create good jobs
politically, regimes led by caudillos or military strongmen who ruled in an authoritarian fashion
  • patron/client politics with peasants dependent on local landlords who in turn supported caudillos that benefited their economic interests
  • little interest in fundamental reform of political and economic system
  • reformers labeled “communist agitators”, opposed by government, landowners, and foreign interests
  • cycle of grinding rural poverty continues
Political Instability
    • Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua ruled by wealth landowners who owned large estates
    • US intervention in Nicaragua in 1912, establishment of National Guard under General Anastasio SomozaGarcia
    • Honduras, banana boat republic dominated by the United Fruit Company
    • 1903 revolution in Panama detaches Panama from Columbia with strong US backing
    • overthrow of reformist Arbenz regime in Guatemala by US backed Guatemala exiles

Central America: Physical Map

Volcanic Highlands

Volcanic Highlands

Coastal Plain

Physical Landscape
    • Volcanic highlands
      • all Middle American states except Belize share a highland belt
      • most of population and large cities located in volcanic highlands, i.e. Guatemala City in Guatemala, Tegucigalpa in Honduras, San Jose in Costa Rica, San Salvador in El Salvador
      • coffee growing region
      • substantial deforestation problems and erosion problems
      • majestic volcanoes and scenic lakes
Caribbean lowlands
    • coastal strip of rainforest with large wooded areas
    • economic activity confined to subsistence hunting, fishing, gathering, shifting cultivation
    • importation of Africans to work in the plantations
    • development of United Fruit (now United Brands) in the 19th C in this region to grow bananas for export
    • expanding settlers in region today aided by governmental subsidies to open up new lands
  • Pacific lowlands
    • tropical savanna areas where cattle ranching prevalent
    • irrigated cotton destined for Japanese markets
    • fishing and shrimp industry
Economic Activities
    • coffee
      • first commercial crop in Middle America
      • first coffee plants imported from Cuba to Costa Rica in late 18th C
      • ideal growing conditions in central plateaus of Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guatemala with rich volcanic well-drained soil, cool evening temperatures
    • bananas
      • introduced to Spanish from Dominican Republic and Haiti
      • crop needs hot, moist climate and well-drained soils
commercial production of bananas made possible by refrigerated ships and boxcars in 19th C
  • rapid expansion from 1880’s to 1920’s using West Indian laborers in Caribbean lowlands
  • boom slowed in 1920’s as soil was exhausted and plant diseases hurt production
  • shift of production to Pacific lowlands in 1960’s
  • new disease resistant varieties have improved production
  • some shift of production from large commercial plantations to small cultivators
new commercial agriculture
    • development of scientific animal husbandry growing beef for commercial export
    • growing cool weather vegetables such as broccoli, potatoes and onions for local and foreign markets
    • commercial flower industry
    • commercial fishing of shrimp in Gulf of Fonseca
  • tourism
    • limited tourism in Central America except for Costa Rica due to political instability
    • largest country in Middle America
    • northern half of country called Peten is sparsely populated
    • most people live in highlands
    • indian population in western uplands are landless and desperately poor
    • uprising in 1980’s resulted in harsh governmental repression and destruction of the area. Many indians migrated to Mexico in search of better conditions
El Salvador
    • most densely populated country of region
    • population pressure seen in deforested hillsides and flow of rural migrants to shantytowns in San Salvador and Santa Ana
    • 80% of land owned by wealthiest 10% of population
    • devastation of civil war in 1980’s finally ended in 1992 at cost of 75,000 lives
    • new government pinning hopes on development of light industry for export
problem of youth gangs and high crime rate
  • Death squads and assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and Catholic nuns in 1980’s
  • Improvement in political climate with limited cooperation between leftists and conservatives in the government
    • poorest and most sparsely populated country of the region. 5.6 million people
    • agriculture is predominant occupation, some livestock raising, small-scale mining, commercial coffee
    • highly stratified social system with masses having little opportunity to advance
    • foreign banana plantation contribute to some export earning around San Pedro Sula
shrimp business on coast provides some limited employment in Gulf of Fonseca
  • attempts to promote tourism
  • Devastation of Hurricane Mitch 1998 destroyed infrastructure, school, clinics, homes
    • long history of political instability, US intervention 1912-33; Samosa dictatorship 1936-79; Marxist Sandinistas, and weak democratic governments
    • basically an agricultural country with most production around Managua
    • eastern part of country sparsely populated
    • Mosquito indians inhabit Caribbean lowlands
    • coffee, cotton, bananas, and sugarcane are export crops
    • some new manufacturing industries
    • two major earthquakes in Managua in 20th C
Costa Rica
    • oasis of stability in sea of troubles
    • distant from center of government in Guatemala
    • No precious metals
    • democratic government and thriving middle class and sense of national unity
    • abolished the army in 1949, civil police force only
    • literate population with excellent universities
    • foreign businessmen / retirees attracted to country
    • high productivity of agricultural farms that grow high quality coffee, cut flowers, vegetables, tropical fruits and nuts
    • large-scale cattle ranching and banana plantations
manufacturing industries attracted by high quality labor force, good governmental policy and stability
  • textile production, tire production, cement production, automobile assembly, and pharmaceuticals for export
  • tourism is major source of revenue
  • attracted by good beaches, sunny weather, good shopping, and pleasant environment
  • ecotourism becoming increasing prominent
  • large areas set aside for national parks, many of which are in tropical rainforests
    • existence and viability of the country dependent upon the Panama Canal
    • Panama Canal being turned over to the Panamanians under a 1978 treaty with US; full control in 1999
    • canal divides country into two parts
    • eastern part called Darien characterized by limited population and rainforests
    • western part contains banana plantations on Caribbean coast, beef cattle, rice production and other stable crops
service sector industries in Canal Zone like retailing, shipping, banking, etc.
  • banking accounts for 70% of GDP (some of this connected to the illicit drug trade)
  • Panama City is major Caribbean port catering to tourists, transit passengers, and duty-free shopping
  • US currency freely used everywhere
  • some manufacturing of clothing, toys, bicycles
  • Canal now aging and not large enough to accommodate largest ships
    • formerly British Honduras
    • remote, poor, underdeveloped country
    • independence in 1981
    • source of timber utilizing African slaves
    • now parliamentary democracy with stable government
    • Promotion of ecotourism and development