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Social Conditions of Central America

Updated on April 5, 2014

One root of the socioeconomic and political problems in Central America is the vast gulf that separates the privileged few and the underprivileged many. With the possible exception of Costa Rica, political power and social prestige in the region traditionally have been monopolized by a small elite that makes up less than 5% of the population. The wealth of most of the elite is "old," in the sense that it is based on large landholdings, the titles of which may go back to the Conquest. Newer wealth may be based on success in commerce, industry, and the professions, including the armed forces. Originally the guardians of the established order, the military officer corps has slowly usurped many of the privileges of the old elite, such as land ownership and government. Although a middle class is emerging, it lacks the tradition and the political identity that its counterparts have in Anglo-America and western Europe.

Communication across the gap between the wealthy and the poor constantly breaks down. Political ideologies representing the two factions have frequently been polarized: an extreme Right has sometimes opposed any change in the socioeconomic order and defended its privileges, even with death squads; an extreme Left has sometimes looked to Marxian revolutionary guidelines and adopted guerrilla tactics.


One measure of poverty in Central America is that per capita income for the region is less than 10% that of the United States or Switzerland. The consequences of this poverty are manifold. Annual infant mortality ranges from more than twice the northern European rate in Costa Rica to seven times higher or more in the other countries. Per capita calorie supply as a measure of nutrition is below the Latin American average everywhere except in Costa Rica. Health care for the higher-income groups that can afford private clinics and special medical personnel is adequate; the lower-income groups, however, seldom can afford private health care and must depend on services provided by the government, whose health facilities are generally poor, especially in rural areas. Most health professionals and facilities are concentrated in a country's chief city.


More than 37% of Central America's people are under 15 years of age, and less than 5% are 64 years of age or older. Primary and secondary education is generally available, but quality and attendance may be low—again, in the rural areas particularly. Every country possesses a national university plus other institutions of higher learning. Yet only a small percentage of the student population has the minimal preparation and the economic resources for advanced education. Students from the higher-income groups tend to study at universities abroad, especially in the United States.

The region's population is on the move. Because of rural poverty and often owing to political instability as well, much of the movement has been from the countryside to the cities, usually to a country's main urban center and capital. Political and economic stress also has given rise to international migration. Costa Rica, for example, became a haven for refugees from Nicaragua, and Guatemalan refugees crossed into Mexico. The shining goal of most emigrants, however, remained the United States, which they entered legally and otherwise by the tens of thousands.


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