From the period of imperial conquest and competition, the Caribbean coast of Central America has served as an interstitial space: between British and Spanish rule; between foreign corporate control and national inclusion; mestizo, black, and indigenous. Running from Guatemala in the north through Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama in the south, “la Costa” has functioned as a contested terrain imbued with economic import, ethnic difference, and symbolic power. The coastal zones were transformed in the 20th century through the construction of railroads and later highways, large-scale foreign immigration, the spread of states’ bureaucratic agents, and internal migrants, as well as transnational projects such as the Panama Canal and the United Fruit Company’s integrated banana plantation empire.
The coastal region’s inaccessible terrain, large communities of lowland indigenous people, and vast numbers of Afro-Caribbean migrants from islands such as Jamaica markedly differentiated these lowlands from the wider Central American republics. From indigenous groups such as the Rama, Mayangna-Sumu, Kuna, Guaymí, and Bribri, to the Afro-indigenous Garifuna and Miskitu, and the English-speaking black Creoles and Afro-Antilleans, the region has enjoyed great ethnic diversity compared to the nominally mestizo republics of which it has formed part. Finally, ladino (non-indigenous) or mestizo (mixed-race) campesino migrants from the Pacific or Central regions of the isthmus arrived in large numbers throughout the 20th century. Racism, ethnic exclusion, and marginalization were often the response of national states toward these coastal populations. In some contexts, tensions between and among ethnic groups over land and natural resources, as well as between national states and local autonomy, flared into violent conflict. Elsewhere in Central America, the Caribbean coast’s position in national political development permitted a gradual meshing of national and regional cultures during the second half of the 20th century.