The Invention of the Caribbean Coast of Central America: Environment, Culture and Power

The Invention of the Caribbean Coast of Central America: Environment, Culture and Power

The Caribbean: Aesthetics, Ecology, Politics

University of Warwick 23rd-25th September, 2011

Biography of the author

Dr Camille LE MASNE12 rue du Coq -13001

Born on 12/31/1980 in Saint Michel (France)Marseille - FRANCE

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph. D.) in Geography06 99 93 86 52

Research Assistant in SEDET – University Paris 7

The author obtained his Ph. D. in Geography at the University Paris Diderot – Paris 7 in 2010. Entitled “Spatial Dynamics on the Caribbean Coast of Central America: Powers and Territories in a Marginal Area”, the thesis analyses the spatial dynamics which have taken place on the Caribbean coast of Central America since the Spanish conquest to the present. Teacher in the INALCO (Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales – Paris) and scholar linked with the laboratory SEDET (University Paris Diderot – Paris 7) , the author also made publications and conferences on several thematics, such as Amerindian world, tourism and development.

Abstract for presentation

This proposition deals with the invention of the Caribbean coast of Central America since the conquest by the Spanish. Indeed, this area does not seem to exist before its construction by several concurrent phenomenons which appeared at this period and still structure it today. In reference to ancient Greek science, the tropical wet climate of this part of the isthmus is considered by Spanish as unhealthy and as a peripherical area for colonisation. Conquistadors were more interested in the Pacific and Central highlands, discovered on the 1520th. These environments were seen as healthy, because their landscapes are not far away from Mediterranean ones, whereas the specific climate of the Caribbean tropical lands, known as tierras calientes, still has bad reputation today. This neglect is not only based on physical but also on cultural considerations, and the Caribbean coast appeared since the Conquest like an unproductive land caracterized by indigenous shifting agriculture. Furthermore, during all the colonial period, the Spanish administration did not manage to control Indians living in these “regions of refuge”. Sometimes mixed with populations from Africa, these “savages” were also threatening colonial towns, as through Miskitos raids. Powers are a complementary way for understanding this invention of the Central American Caribbean coast. This paradigm shows how this main area in the globalization process, located in the heart of the transatlantic colonial trade which operates through the axis of Panama, could have as long remained as a margin. On the Caribbean coast, piracy, and later British hegemony and U.S. imperialism, reveal the strategical importance of the area, by several cultural, economical and political processes, such as protestantism, banana plantations, and the independence of Belize. This dichotomy on the isthmus still exists today through more or less recent structures, as the Nation-State, globalization processes, and phenomenons linked to them (infrastructures, tourism, new administrative areas…). Finally, both human and natural local specificities are threatened by their location on an intermediate area of environnment, culture and powers.

Title of presentation

“The Invention of the Caribbean Coast of Central America: Environment, Culture and Power”

When we speak about the Caribbean, we usually mean the Caribbean Islands, adding sometimes the Guyanas. Indeeed, this area is usually thought as an addition of islands, as an archipelago, whose borders are necessarly seas– or huge forests for the three Guyanas.This physical aspect is one of the main explanation of the phenomenon, quite rare, of a little geographical region, the Caribbean, defined as distinct fromNorth and South America.Another differenciation, less physical than human, is between a Latin America and an Anglo-Saxon one. In this case, the Caribbean is still a complete world, because of the ethnic and cultural mix this region have been going through since five centuries.

However, in this two cases, the definition of the Caribbean exludes the surround of the Caribbean basin. These borders not clearly belong to a precise world, in Venezuela, Central America, but also New Orleans by the past. With the geopolitical approach, studies allow to introduce relationships between States to understand the process ; and since few decades, the phenomenon of power permit to reintegrate other parts of the Caribbean, or at least to point the twin belonging of some places, as the Caribbean Coast of Central America.

The main issue of this article is to explain how these dualism, and, to be more precise, the triple belonging of this fragmented area which is the Carribean Coast of Central America(it was moretriple than double in this case, because of the presence of important indigenous minorities,who disappeared in the Caribbean islands), by the methodological approach by territories, is a way to understand space not as continuity, but as a network with several connections. In the case of the eastern coast of Central America, it’s impossible to think this area as out of the Caribbean, not only for physical, but also for cultural and for “power” reasons.

Map 1. Prehispanic Worlds and relief in Central America

Spanish Conquest and «Green Hell»

There is no Caribbean before the Spanish : the region was named after one of the peoples living in the archipelago. As we know, before the Conquest, Mayas didn’t do the difference between the two parts of their territories : highlands in the West of the Centramerican isthmus, and lowlands in the eastern part.Anthropological studies show that before Columbus, if the perception is different about these two parts, it’s more a difference between the high and the low, between mountain and plains, whose name are the same in Maya(nawaj means valley and mam means hill or mountain). The signification of these two words are more linked to the own mayan history, where plains, earlier occupied, are referenced to the past and highlands to the present. Studies about other indigenous peoples, like Chibchas in the south of the isthmus, show similar results, which could appear paradoxical : the distinctions between the two main climates of Central Americaare not important in prehispanic period, although environnment is not thought through anthropocentrism but by geocentrism. The Spanish anthropocentrism will give us some indications.

Map 2. Tropical Climates in America

The invention of the Caribbean coast as a distinct territory occured with the Spanish conquest, and first by Christopher Columbus. Columbus had a perception of the future America based on the exemple of the Mediterranée, and in his memoirshe just notes few differences between the Caribbean islands and what he called the Tierra Firme –the actual Panama. During more than 20 years, America was considered as an unic world belonging to the “Zona Torrida”, as called by Ptolemy to describe this “Whole Warm Zone”.This expression means that it was a tropical climate, hot and wet, and underlines that it isunhealthy. But these considerations about the American climate were just a constraint for the colonization of the new territories, althoughas we know, the phenomenon of colonization was increasing between 1500 and 1520.

Map 3. The Conquest of Central America

A deep change occurred in the 1520s, when new conquistadors built cities on the Pacific coast, like Panama City. Since this time, the climate of this side of the isthmus, more dry and cold, will be considered as better for colonization. Another reason of the colonization of this part of Central America was that the most powerfull, rich, and densely populated state was on this side. Indian minorities were harder to beat and impossible to control on the Caribbean lowlands.

Map 4. The Control of Central America between Piracy and Colonial Administration (16th – 18th century)

Moreover, another important threatappeared at this time coming from Europe, as piracy on the Caribbean Basin. During the modern period, Spanish were unable to control the Caribbean coast, except maybe on one point, Portobelo harbour, in Panama, which however was taken several times. Spanish, in these case, used Greek science as an alibi for their military inability against other europeans powers, but also against indigenous minorities of the Caribbean coast.

During three centuries, the Hippocrate’s climatological thought is growing, and the Caribbean Coast, for the Spanish, is more and more considered as the “Green Hell”. This representation, still strong today, is directly linked with these natural, cultural and geopolitical dialectic.

Imperialism, Positivism and Bananas…

The British domination turned during the 19th century, when Gringos, were more and more investing in Central America. It was not only an economic domination but also a political and a cultural one. For the populations of the ex protectorates of British Honduras (now Belize) or Mosquitia (eastern Nicaragua and Honduras), Gringos, who were also protestants, were usually well-received. They appeared as protectors against the new nationalist States growing in Central America.

Map 5. Protestantism in Central America (late 20th century)

By their capital and their technology, North American were the only ones able to do the modernization of these little Centramerican countries. As other scholars, we think that the Centramerican elite knowingly accorded huge bananas concessions to American companies just to secure the acces to the Caribbean coast.The risk to see the Gringos installing themselves was important, and elites were also afraid by the migrations of people from the Caribbean, who reminded them the modern period and their inability to control the caribbean coast.

The specific environnment of the Caribbean Coast and their representations, for the “hispanic” peoples and new states of the highlands, took a great place in this phenomenon of huge American enclaves in the coast. Except for “Gringos”, by their technology, and “Negros”, by their “savage” character, in a centramerican point of view, these places are still unhealthy, dangerous and at least avoidable.

So, the phenomenon of banana’s enclavewas far from linking the two parts of the isthmus, and maintained the opposition between lowlands and highlands. But with the large presence of Gringos and technology, the dualism between nature (the Caribbean) and culture (the mestizo-spanish highlands) was reducing.

While the enclave became official, the U.S. economical and political domination was stronger than the British one before. The United Fruit Company, controlling all the banana exportations of Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama in 1930, is a symbol of this imperialism.

Map 6. The United Fruit Company in the First Half of the 20th Century

But the enclave created the condition of a kind of unification between the two parts, or maybe of an incorporation of the Caribbean coast by the other side.Indeed, with the crisis of the 1930th and the second world war, the domination of companies as the UFCO was reducing, although it was still an important political actor in the isthmus. For exemple, the role of the UFCO on the Guatemalan takeover of 1954 is pointed.

The New Millenary : Conservation and Destruction on the Caribbean Coast

Another phenomenon was the constant development of oneCaribbean harbour in each centamerican country. There was no interisthmic railway in Nicaragua neither in Honduras, where the companies didn’t achieve the rail. But in Panama, Costa Rica and Guatemala, the Caribbean ports were after the war the second cities of their country, after the capital city.

Map 7. Isthmian Infrastructure in the Early 21th Century

After the rail at the beginning of the 20th century, the road is since 50 years the main way to conquest the lowlands ; it needs less invests and is more flexible.The road network is quite simple in Central America, with the inter-american highway on the highlands, a main road between each capital and each caribbean port, and after, secondary roads and lot of bad tracks.

The Caribbean Coast of Central America also takes an important place with exchanges on the Caribbean Basin, particularly on the Panama’canal waterway. But shipping routes are not only crossing Central America, and container ports as San Pedro Sula (in Honduras) and Puerto Limon (in Costa Rica) show that the former enclave are still playing a main role in exportation of agricol or industrial goods.

Map 8. Population Densities

These new importance of the Caribbean Coast for the centramerican states is also link with the huge demographic growth happening since the nineteen sixties.

Before that, the Caribbean Coast was a demographic desert, with less than 10 inhabitants by square meter. Although there is still big differences within departments or provincia, the human pression is gradually increasing in the whole region, and some departments, as in Honduras, are now very densily inhabited.

But one of the most important effect of the changes whobegan fifty years ago, is the destruction of the forest border of central America.Until 1960, these two worlds were not connected, but with the demografical growth, lowlands and the jungle appeared as the last agricole zone remaining.

Map 9. Deforestation and Indigenous Communities

As a consequence, the “ladinisation” (hispanisation) of Indian and Black peoples was very strong during the seventies dictatures, and continues tothese days. Now, the high majority of the population of the Caribbean coast is mestizo or ladino, and catholic.

This process should have changed the dualism between the two sides, but it remains strong. Although the forest border is continually disappearing, the Caribbean coast is more seen as a “Far East”, a dangerous country, than an “Eldorado”.

For the majority of mixed people of the highlands, on the west side, other process, as indigenous autonomy or natural reserve policies, mean that these tropical lowlands are not their countries, but still a place they don’t know and don’t want to know, except if poverty forces them to migrate…

But in fact, both phenomenons (I mean autonomy and conservation) have little reality ; moreover, they are sometimes considered as neo-colonialism, because it makes centramerican States weaker than they were.

Map 10. Tourism Sites and Tours on the Caribbean Coast

In these days, the Caribbean Coast is still belonging to the Caribbean, as in economic activities like tourism, maquilas, drug trafic or mines and forestry concessions ; the situaton is very similar to what happens in the Caribbean archipelago. Same thing abour power : the american imperialism is still strong in these little and fragile territories, often used for destabilization.

The specific environnments and their position are also explaining these situations of jump-ball or buffer-region ; but environnmentsare resources, they are always exploited in an unsustainable way, and can be abandoned very quickly. It was the case for bananas, it would be the same for tourism…

These aspects underlines the fragility of these territories, and of the societies living there.It reminds us that the Caribbean is a very little region compared to Latin or North America, and that networks, as a way of organization, are maybe the only solution for these specifical territories and human societies to not disappear.

As a conclusion, the Caribbean is an invention, because environments can change and their representations depends on how we use it.Same thing for the cultural mix who create the Caribbean, and could disappear in the case of the Caribbean Coast. It’s why powers – as politic and economy – is as important as culture and environnment in the construction and maybe the destruction of this intermediate area.


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