See R. C. West and J. P. Augelli, Middle America (2d ed. 1976); J. L. Flora and E. Torres-Rivas, Central America (1989); H. P. Brignoli, A Brief History of Central America (1989).
Central America (Spanish: Centroamérica or América Central) is a central geographic region of the Americas. It is technically the narrow and extreme most southern portion of the North American continent, which connects with South America on the southeast; but it is largely defined as a region of the Americas in its own right. Most of Central America is considered to be part of the Mesoamerican biodiversity hotspot.
Most of Central America rests atop the Caribbean Plate. The region is geologically active, with volcanic eruptions and earthquakes occurring from time to time. Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, was devastated by earthquakes in 1931 and 1972, and three earthquakes devastated El Salvador, one in 1986 and two in 2001. Fertile soils from weathered volcanic lavas have made it possible to sustain dense populations in the agriculturally productive highland areas..
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Many modern definitions of Central America include Belize and Panama, neither of which existed upon the formation of the Federal Republic of Central America, a short-lived union created after most of the region gained independence from Spain in the 19th century. The territory now occupied by Belize was originally contested by the United Kingdom and the Spanish Empire and, later, Guatemala (which has considered it, wholly or partially, an eastern department); it became a British colony (British Honduras) in 1871 and gained independence in 1981.
Panama, situated on the Isthmus of Panama, is sometimes regarded as a transcontinental territory. Because of the Panama Canal, it is considered part of both North America and South America. For much of its post-Columbian history, Panama has been connected to South America. Panama was a possession of the Viceroyalty of New Granada, and then, following independence, became a part of la Gran Colombia (Greater Colombia). Only after independence from Colombia in 1903 did some begin to regard Panama as a North or Central American entity.
In pre-Columbian times, the north-western areas of modern Central America were part of the Mesoamerican civilization. The Native American societies of Mesoamerica occupied the land ranging from central Mexico in the north to Costa Rica in the south. Most notable among these were the Maya, who had built numerous cities throughout the region, and the Aztecs, who created a vast empire. The pre-Columbian cultures of Panama traded with both Mesoamerica and South America, and can be considered transitional between those two cultural areas.
Following Christopher Columbus's discovery of the Americas for Spain, the Spanish sent numerous expeditions to the region, and they began their conquest of Maya lands in the 1520s. In 1540, Spain established the Captaincy General of Guatemala, which extended from southern Mexico to Costa Rica, and thus encompassed most of what is currently known as Central America, with the exception of British Honduras (present-day Belize). This lasted nearly three centuries, until a rebellion (which followed closely on the heels of the Mexican War of Independence) in 1821.
After the dissolution of Spanish authority, the former Captaincy General remained intact as part of the short-lived First Mexican Empire, then turned into the Federal Republic of Central America, which was a representative democracy with its capital at Guatemala City. This union consisted of the present day nations of Guatemala (which included the former state of Los Altos), Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica (which included a region which is now part of Panama, and the Guanacaste Province which was once part of Nicaragua), and Soconusco, a portion of the modern Mexican state of Chiapas. The Republic lasted from 1823 to 1838, when it began to disintegrate due to civil wars.
Central America is going through a process of political, economic and cultural transformation that started in 1907 with the creation of the Central American Court of Justice. In 1951 the integration process continued with the signature of the San Salvador Treaty that created the ODECA, the Organization of Central American States. Unfortunately, the ODECA was not completely successful due to internal conflicts between several states of the region.
It was until 1991 that the integration agenda was completed with the creation of the SICA, Sistema para la Integración Centroamericana or System for the Central American Integration. The SICA provided a clear legal base to avoid discrepancies between the member states. The SICA membership includes the 7 nations of Central America plus the Dominican Republic, a state that is part of the Caribbean.
"Central America" may mean different things to different people in the world according to the context: