21st-Century Geopolitics Of Central America: Local Characteristics And Integration Models


The research has now progressed to outlining the prevailing characteristics of Central America and listing the relevant regional integration organizations that its constituent countries are a part of. The first part of this chapter is divided among the four categories of economic, socio-political, military-security, and geopolitical commonalities which bind together Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, and is presented in a concise bullet-point format for easy reading, while the second half enumerates the pertinent multilateral organizations that that these six states have joined and elaborates a bit about each one. The point here is to emphasize the factors of convergence, some of which are historical and were already introduced in the previous chapter, which allow for one to speak about Central America as a distinct geopolitical landmass separate from its Northern and Southern neighbors.

As organized by sphere, here’s what the Central American states share in common, followed by a few germane geopolitical observations which will help reinforce the reader’s understanding of this region’s 21st-century geopolitical dynamics:


* Cash Crops

Bananas, coffee, and indigo have long dominated the economies of the Central American states.

* Large/Powerful and Domestic/International Landholders

As could be expected from cash crop-dependent countries, the six states of Central America have the legacy of a small number of large & powerful domestic & international landholders controlling their affairs, with all of the attendant socio-political consequences.

* United Fruit Company (UFC)

The US-based agricultural conglomerate eventually became a ‘state within a state’ – especially along the Caribbean coasts of Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua – and left an indelible mark on Central America’s historical-political and socio-economic development. 

* Systemic Transitions

The end of the Cold War saw the entire region rapidly transition to the neoliberal globalist model and attempt to shift from its prior cash crop agricultural dependency to a more diversified economy consisting of manufacturing, commerce, finance, and tourism.

* Free Trade Agreements With The West

Central America’s countries have clinched region-wide free trade agreements with the US and Mexico, while several countries have similar deals with Canada and the EU, which collectively indicates that their economies are integrating with those of the West.

* Migrant-Spewing And Remittance-Dependent

The three countries of the “Northern Triangle” have experienced a surge in outmigration to the US, while Nicaraguans (and previously before them, Salvadorians) are becoming increasingly common low-wage laborers in the region.

This makes 2/3 of the Central American states remittance-dependent to a large degree.

The “Southern Isthmus” countries of Costa Rica and Panama, however, have lower migration rates than their counterparts and this is probably because their relatively stable economies sufficiently provide for their smaller populations.


* Large Indigenous Populations

Central America has a much larger proportion of indigenous people than South America does, and they’re comparatively much more active in civil society as well, though some have experienced rampant discrimination over the centuries.

Guatemala has a sizeable Mayan minority which approximates to roughly 40% of the population, while Honduras and Nicaragua have much smaller numbers of native peoples living along their Caribbean coasts.

In both instances, native people played important roles in their home countries’ conflicts, with the Mayans being key combatants in the decades-long Guatemalan Civil War, whereas the Moskito people of Nicaragua were exploited by the US to act as Hybrid War vanguards in the “contra” conflict.

* Youth Bulge

Although nowhere near the level of Africa, parts of the Mideast, or South Asia, Central America does indeed have a youth bulge which is exacerbating state-level woes in the “Northern Triangle” and contributing to societal destabilization and consequent outward migration.

* Disparities In Population Density

For the most part, the vast majority of Central America’s population resides on the Pacific side of the isthmus, while the sparsely populated Caribbean coast is the homeland of its many indigenous peoples (except the Maya).

* Liberal-Conservative Divide

Just like South America, Central America also has a fierce legacy of liberal-conservative divisions which have driven many civil wars throughout the region’s history, proving that this factor is a mainstay of Latin American continental politics.

* Catholicism vs. Secularism/Church vs. State

An outgrowth of the liberal-conservative divide in Central America is the enduring struggle between Catholicism and Secularism, or in other words, the role that the church should play in the state, and whether it’s too powerful for the people’s own good or needs to be protected from social neoliberalism.

* Protestantism Rising

An under-examined development all across the region has been the fast-rising growth of the Protestant sect, which now closely competes with Catholics in Guatemala and Honduras, Central America’s two most populous states.

* Folk Hero Legacy

Central America has a rich legacy of holding folk heroes in high esteem, so much so that three of them formed the inspiration for national liberation movements in three separate areas.

Although not geopolitically included in the author’s conception of Central America, the Zapatista movement in Mexico’s southernmost state of Chiapas was influenced by the ideals of revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata.

In El Salvador, communist peasant leader Agustín Farabundo Martí Rodríguez was gunned down by the government after a failed revolt in 1932, but the memory of his struggle continued on into the Cold War and inspired the country’s civil war-era Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in the 1980s.

Finally, patriotic guerrilla leader Augusto César Sandino fought against American occupation troops in Nicaragua for years before being killed by the Somoza government in a sneaky trap, and the subsequent anti-Somoza movement that broke out took on his name and rebranded themselves as Sandinistas.


* US Interventions

The US military was directly involved in the region’s many “banana wars”, Panama’s secession, and the 1989 invasion of Panama, and played  a clandestine but crucial role in the multiple conflicts of the Central America crisis through its base of operations in Honduras.

* Largely Demobilized/Demilitarized Armed Forces

It might come as a surprise for some people to hear, but there are scarcely any formal military forces active in Central America following the end of the Cold War.

Costa Rica had already dismantled its armed forces following its very short 1948 civil war, and Panama was forced to follow suit in the aftermath of the 1989 invasion. Guatemala and El Salvador still have national militaries, but severe restrictions were placed onto them as part of the peace agreements that ended their civil wars.

Only Nicaragua and Honduras still haven’t curtailed the size or scope of their armed forces, though the latter is now experiencing a lot of blowback from its previous role in hosting US troops and destabilizing its two neighbors in the “Northern Triangle” during the Cold War just like Pakistan had happen to it for its support of American operations in Afghanistan during that time as well.

Due to a combination of the US’ post-Cold War regional neglect and the peace agreements to demobilize/demilitarize much of the Guatemalan and Salvadorian armed forces, the “Northern Triangle” became awash in weapons and highly trained fighters which coalesced to form the core of the non-state destabilization of Central America.

* Drug Cartels/Gangs

Most outsiders even remotely familiar with Central America are aware of its dire problem in dealing with drug cartels and gangs, a threat so severe that it’s given the region the ignominious title of having the world’s highest rates of violent crime and murder. The revolting violence that plagues these countries and the revolving door of corruption between the cartels/gangs, political figures, and the military serve as powerful impetuses compelling people to flee their homelands and escape to the US as illegal migrants.

This represents a classic case of blowback for the US because it was through the US-driven destabilization of Central America during the Cold War and subsequent strategic neglect that the “Northern Triangle” became the gangland warzone that it is today. Interestingly, though, the US seems poised to exploit this to its advantage by using it as the pretext for justifying the “Lead From Behind” intervention-integration initiatives that it’s planning as part of its expanded “Operation Condor 2.0” to strengthen its hegemony over the region.


The following are several relevant geopolitical musings about Central America which can help the reader better understand its present dynamics:

* Border Disputes

Guatemala has a long-running dispute with Belize whereby it doesn’t recognize the latter’s occupation of over half of its southern territory, believing that it was illegally colonized by the British and should therefore rightfully be returned to Guatemala.

Nicaragua has two disputes which, while resolved, could re-erupt anytime. These deal with its riparian land border with Costa Rica and its maritime exclusive economic zone one in the Caribbean with Colombia, which controls a few islands near the Nicaraguan coast.

* Ground Zero: Honduras

Honduras, due to its geography and history, is the US’ primary base of operations for Central America, ergo why the CIA took such swift action to depose of former President Zelaya when he attempted to change the constitution in order to remove its one-term limit on the presidency. 

* Dueling Canals

The post-independence history of Central America had been dominated up until the early 20th century by the dueling ambitions in building Nicaraguan and Panamanian canals, with the former reemerging from its slumber to once more become the subject of intense geopolitical focus because of China.

* Taiwanese Stronghold

Some of the last countries in the world which recognize Taipei over Beijing as the “legitimate” government of China are in Central America, though Costa Rica’s mid-2000s pivot and Panama’s in 2017 raise the possibility of the rest of the region reconsidering its loyalties for the right amount of yuan.

* Reintegration Attempts

There have been several previous and ongoing reintegration attempts within the region and beyond which will be explored at length in the second part of this chapter, but it’s useful in this context to recognize that they represent one of the prevailing geopolitical factors of Central America.

* British Imperial Influence In The Caribbean

Although nowhere near as important as it once was, it’s relevant to know that the British once wielded significant political-cultural influence in Belize (previously known as “British Honduras”), the Bahia/Bay Islands off the northern coast of Honduras, and the Mosquito Coast in eastern Nicaragua.

Regional Integration Organizations

There are a multitude of organizations working for the integration of Central America and other parts of the hemisphere, but the following review will only touch upon the most relevant in the context of the region’s 21st-century geopolitics:

* Organization of American States (OAS)

This entity is known as the US’ premier vehicle for exerting its hemispheric hegemony, and all of the Central American states are a part of it. Only Cuba isn’t a member, while Venezuela has begun the proceedings to withdraw from the organization after its expected bias against the country. For the most part, the OAS functions as the US’ supervisory institution keeping an eye on the region and marshalling multilateral support among its allies/subordinates anytime that a given country steps too out of line in pursuing an independent policy.  Because of its near-inclusive hemispheric membership, the OAS evokes a sense of “legitimacy” among the casual observer since it’s inferred that the organization’s target state at any moment must have done something to “deserve” being ostracized by almost all of the countries in this part of the world, so it serves the role of powerfully setting into motion large-scale information warfare operations and conditioning the global masses for expecting destabilization there.

* Rio Pact

Formally called the “Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance”, this 1947 pact was signed in Rio de Janeiro (hence its more popular name) and committed its members to mutual defense obligations. Aside from Canada, Belize, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guyana, it at one time included almost the entirety of the North and South American landmasses (not counting most of the Caribbean island states), but Mexico decided to break from the organization in 2004 and was followed by the ALBA states eight years later in 2012. The reason why the Rio Treaty is relevant to speak about today is because all of the examined Central American region other than Nicaragua is still party to its obligations, meaning that they’re essentially in a mutual defense treaty with the US to this day. In other words, the US is the official military patron of 5/6 of this region’s countries, thereby making it much easier for Washington to drive integrational processes in its desired direction, such as what it’s doing with the “Northern Triangle” initiative between Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

* Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC)

This nearly hemispheric-wide grouping is a lot more geopolitically progressive than the OAS despite the large overlap of territory involved. Unlike the OAS, CELAC proudly includes Cuba and Venezuela has no desire to leave the organization, both of which are due to the US and Canada being excluded and this being a solely Latin American platform. Right now its full potential has yet to be harnessed, and it’s very likely that some of the US’ regional allies/subordinates/vassals could behave as Trojan Horses to impede its working efficiency, but at any rate, the very fact that all of Latin America decided to come together outside of the US’ tutelage in 2010 is a symbolic milestone for the hemisphere and suggests that there’s a desire among most of its populace to see their countries prosper independently of the US’ control or oversight. It also indicates that the Latin American states want to more closely integrate and coordinate with one another, and this naturally includes the Central American countries as well.

* Association of Caribbean States (ACS)

The ACS, as its name implies, brings together the Caribbean countries, and not just the insular ones which are most commonly associated with this part of the world, but also the continental states that abut this body of water. Therefore, it pertinently involves not just the Central American countries (including Pacific-only El Salvador), but also the “bookend” states of Mexico and Colombia between them. One of the strategic themes of the research has been that these two possible Great Powers and fellow Pacific Alliance members will interface with one another through the shared isthmus between them, though whether it’s ultimately more about competition or cooperation has yet to be determined. In any case, it’s important for Mexico City and Bogota to make positive integrational-organizational inroads with Central America so as to better their respective positions, and it’s here where the ACS gains its strategic currency when forecasting the 21st-century geopolitics of that region.

* The Mesoamerica Integration and Development Project (MIDP, or simply Mesoamerican Project, PM)

The PM is a 2008 initiative linking together the Central American Integration System (SICA), which will be discussed soon afterwards, with Mexico and Colombia. It narrows the scope of the ACS and could reasonably serve as the platform through which the two “bookend” Great Power aspirants interact with one another in Central America. As could be inferred from its name, it aims to integrate and develop Central America (and the Dominican Republic, which is also a member of the PM and SICA) through the assistance of Mexico and Colombia, therefore underlining the reason why the author believes that this organization will become one of the most geopolitically relevant if the forecast about these two states’ strategic expansion into the isthmus comes to pass. Apart from the competitive scenario that could transpire, both countries might work together as the local lynchpins of the Pacific Alliance in order to integrate the whole of Central America into this trade grouping one day.

* Pacific Alliance and ALBA

These two blocs are ideologically contradictory in many respects, but not necessarily hostile to one another. The Pacific Alliance is a neoliberal trading group which counts Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and Chile as its members, and it’s hoping to incorporate Costa Rica and perhaps one day even Panama too as well, while the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) is formed from Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia, and a few small Caribbean island states. There was a time when ALBA seemed to be on the upswing during the high point of the “Pink Tide”, but “Operation Condor 2.0” has since crushed those dreams and brought the US’ asymmetrical Hybrid Wars right to the capital of the bloc’s Venezuelan leader. The Pacific Alliance, on the other hand, is as stable as ever and increasing the institutional integration between its members.

These two organizations are pertinent to bring up in the Central American context because Nicaragua is part of ALBA, while Costa Rica and possibly in the future Panama will be part of the Pacific Alliance, meaning that it’s only the “Northern Triangle” which isn’t formally associated with either. There was a point during the end of former Honduran President Zelaya’s term prior to the pro-American “constitutional”-military coup against him that he was moving very close to ALBA, but that’s actually one of the reasons why he was deposed and prevented from running for a second consecutive term. Given that Venezuela and ALBA are fundamentally weaker nowadays than ever before while Mexico and its Pacific Alliance are constantly gaining strength, it’s foreseeable that Mexico City might try to find a way to bring its “Northern Triangle” border region into the organization.

For the moment, ALBA is a non-factor in Central American affairs despite Nicaragua’s loyalty to Venezuela and the bloc as a whole, so there aren’t any reasonable grounds for arguing that this group will affect any element of significant regional influence in the future. What it does do, though, is provide a multipolar gateway for China to interface with the region, which represents yet another layer of advantageous strategic overlap to its plans for Nicaragua. China isn’t at all opposed to the Pacific Alliance and in fact wants to cooperate even closer with it, but the point being expressed here is that ALBA has a socialist-multipolar outlook which corresponds with China’s official viewpoint on matters and thus makes Nicaragua an ideologically ideal partner for the People’s Republic, further explaining its attractiveness to Beijing aside from its obvious future canal role.

* Central American Integration System (SICA)

SICA is the closest to an EU-like organization that Central America has, and it was formed after the end of the Cold War and the conclusion (or in the case of Guatemala, closing days) of the region’s civil wars in 1993. It builds upon the 1951 Organization of Central American States, which itself was formed from the previously failed experiment in the early 20th century at creating the Central American Court of Justice. SICA started out with the six Central American states which form the focus of this research – Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama – but eventually broadened to include Belize and the Dominican Republic. There’s also an entity called the Central American Parliament which is formally part of SICA but doesn’t include Belize, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic out of their reticence to participate.

While there are lofty aims for the group to one day share a common currency and accordingly coordinate their member’s financial strategies, that seems to be a far-off goal which is beyond the medium-term horizon, though it might be in the region’s interests and those of outside players. On the one hand, the case can be made that the SICA states are much too small to negotiate as equals with the world’s Great Powers, or even the “bookend” aspiring ones of Mexico and Colombia, and that it could be to their collective benefit to join forces in dealing with the “outside world” as a single force. From the other side, though, there are serious questions about national sovereignty and non-state security issues (drug cartels/gangs) which must first be addressed, and the faltering EU experience might have dissuaded some from moving in this direction as quickly as they otherwise would have.

Nevertheless, a subsect of states in the northern part of mainland SICA signed the “Central America-4 Border Control Agreement” (CA-4) to implement visa-free travel between Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. What’s interesting about this is that Costa Rica and Panama chose not to join, though that’s somewhat expected because these two states – especially Costa Rica – have always been somewhat hesitant to move forward with regional integration proposals, possibly due to the fear that they’ll be overwhelmed by their larger and more populous neighbors if they did. Therefore, even within SICA, it’s clear to see that the author’s previously expostulated sub-regional divisions between the “Northern Triangle”, Nicaragua (as the geopolitically central balancing pivot),and the “Southern Isthmus” (of Costa Rica and Panama) hold true, and that it’s this proposed model which best describes some of the 21st-century geopolitics of Central America.

* Extra-Regional Free Trade Agreements

There are four relevant dimensions to Central America’s free trade agreements which prove that the region is more or less already economically integrated with the West.

The Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) of 2005 brought together Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic – or put another way, most of SICA – in a multilateral free trade arrangement with the US. Surprisingly, Costa Rica, for all of its historical reticence to integration, joined this proposal, while Panama held out until a separate free trade agreement was signed between it and the US in 2012. Altogether, with the exception of Belize, all of SICA enjoys free trade with the US.

Mexico is the next primary player which has made large moves to economically integrate with Central America. It signed its own agreement with the four continental SICA members in 2011 and then clinched another one just with Panama in 2014, which thereby brought all of Central America (excluding of course Belize, which is not associated with the region in the context of this research) into a free trade area with Mexico, complementing the one that the US already has with them and strengthening the NAFTA-CAFTA nexus.

The EU is the next Western actor to have institutional economic links with the entire region through the 2012 Association Agreement with Central America, while Canada only has free trade agreements with Honduras, Costa Rica, and Panama. Canada’s focus on the latter two states, plus their comparatively better performing, more diversified, and more stable economies, indicates that the “Southern Isthmus” countries are championing the way in becoming the region’s globalization leaders, and that they’re resultantly more attractive for reaching deals with than their other isthmus counterparts.

* “The Alliance For Prosperity”/”Northern Triangle”

The US’ 2015 “Strategy for Engagement in Central America” envisions an “Alliance of Prosperity” between the North American/NAFTA states of the US, Canada, and Mexico and their “Northern Triangle” counterparts of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. It in effect institutionalized the concept of the “Northern Triangle” on the basis that these interlinked neighboring countries share very similar development and socio-economic challenges which necessitate a comprehensive solution from the destination states that their citizens have migrated to en masse. This strategy document was written up largely in response to the 2014 “unaccompanied minor” migrant crisis that hit the US at the time, which demonstrates how the US has attempted to mitigate the blowback from its 1980s Cold War-era destabilization of the region into an opportunity to advance its desired regional integration solutions.

Out of these three states, the Guatemalan-Honduran relationship is the strongest and most promising, and this is represented by the customs union between the two which entered into force in summer 2017. The Honduran President even suggested at the SICA Summit shortly thereafter that its successful implementation could be broadened to include the other Central American states as well, which could likely see El Salvador become the third member due to its existing “Northern Triangle” integration with those two states. Nicaragua, of course, might even be a realistic candidate as well given its membership in the CA-4 and the free travel that its citizens already enjoy with the other three countries, but that’s probably not on the horizon anytime soon.

As for the “Southern Isthmus” states, they’d likely be the least interested out of all the SICA states in entering into a customs union with Central America’s two largest and most domestically unstable countries, but that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t integrate with one another in forming a sub-regional counterpart to the processes taking place in the northern part of the isthmus. If Nicaragua doesn’t join either, then this could reinforce its role as the regional balancer and therefore elevate China’s own if it’s successful in expanding its influence in the country to the point where it can use the centrally located state as its strategic springboard. To wrap everything all up, the Guatemalan-Honduran customs union represents the core of regional integration in Central America, but this centripetal process in the “Northern Triangle” might set off a counter response in the “Southern Isthmus”.

Assuming that Nicaragua stays “neutral”, then it and its Chinese partner could then balance between the two integrational blocs, which could in turn bestow Beijing with unique institutional influence – especially following the successful completion of the Nicaraguan Canal – in managing regional affairs, thereby making the People’s Republic a pivotal player in the larger Mexican-Colombian rivalry for Central America which is slated to kick off in the coming future. To put everything into a cartographic perspective and make it all easier to visibly understand, here’s what the 21st-century geopolitics of Central America are shaping up to look like: