Central America and the Caribbean


Central America is an isthmus, a narrow strip of land connecting two larger land areas. The larger areas are the continents of North America and South America.In 1914, the Panama Canal opened. It allowed ships to cross the isthmus and travel between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Ships no longer had to travel around the tip of South America. Seven small countries make up Central America (see map). There are three major landforms—mountains, the Caribbean lowlands, and the Pacific coastal plain. Each region has a different climate. The rugged mountains, the core of the region, are difficult to cross and have caused transportation problems. Central America’s population includes Indians, Europeans (mostly Spanish), mestizos, and people of African descent. Most Central Americans are poor farmers with little political power. The wealthiest people, Europeans and mestizos, are mainly plantation owners. They domi- nate government in the region. There is a small but growing middle class. Armed conflicts have been part of Central America’s history. A shortage of farmland is one cause of unrest. Another cause is that governments mainly serve the interests of the wealthy. Peo- ple opposed to those govern- ments have sometimes organized guerrilla movements, armed forces outside the regular army. Guerrillas often fight in small bands against the government- controlled army. Cease-fires in several countries have brought hopes of peace.

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#1 What is the main occupation of most people in Central America?
#2 Map Skills: Which five countries of Central America border both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea?


The Caribbean islands are divided into three groups: the Greater Antilles, the Lesser Antilles, and the Bahamas. Most islands lie in the tropics.
The Bahamas form an archipelago, or group of islands. Most Lesser Antilles islands form another archipelago. The Greater Antilles includes the four largest islands—Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico. Hispaniola is divided into two countries—Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Mountainous islands are the tops of volcanic mountains. Some volcanoes are still active. The flatter islands are coral islands. They were created by the remains of tiny sea animals called coral polyps.
Sea and wind affect the climate. Ocean water keeps temperatures mild and humidity high. Winds affect the amount of rainfall. Islands that face the wind, or windward islands, get a lot of rain. The leeward islands face away from the winds and receive much less rain.
Many Caribbean people are descendants of Africans who were enslaved by European colonists and brought to work on planta- tions. Other people are descendants of immigrants from Asia who came after slav- ery ended. Many people are descended from Europeans or native Indians.
Many Caribbean people depend on farming. They grow sugar, bananas, coconuts, cocoa, rice, and cotton. Others work in industries related to farming, such as packaging rice products. The islands’ beauty attracts tourists, but few islanders benefit from tourism. Many peo- ple leave the islands to find work or escape political unrest.


#3 Which islands get more rain, wind- ward islands or leeward islands?
#4 Map Skills: What bodies of water surround the Caribbean islands?