The United Provinces of Central America (also known as the Federal Republic of Central America, or República Federal de Centroamérica) was a short-lived nation comprised of the present-day countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The nation, which was founded in 1823, was led by Honduran liberal Francisco Morazán. The republic was doomed from the start, as infighting between liberals and conservatives was constant and proved insurmountable. In 1840, Morazán was defeated and the Republic broke into the nations that form Central America today.
Central America in the Spanish Colonial Era
In Spain's mighty New World Empire, Central America was but a remote outpost, largely ignored by the colonial authorities. It was part of the Kingdom of New Spain (Mexico) and later controlled by the Captaincy-General of Guatemala. It did not have mineral wealth like Peru or Mexico, and the natives (mostly descendants of the Maya) proved to be fierce warriors, difficult to conquer, enslave and control. When the independence movement broke out all through the Americas, Central America only had a population of about one million, mostly in Guatemala.
In the years between 1810 and 1825, different sections of the Spanish Empire in the Americas declared their independence, and leaders like Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín fought many battles against Spanish loyalist and royal forces. Spain, struggling at home, could not afford to send armies to put down every rebellion and focused on Peru and Mexico, the most valuable colonies. Thus, when Central America declared itself independent on September 15, 1821, Spain did not send troops and loyalist leaders in the colony simply made the best deals they could with the revolutionaries.
Mexico's War of Independence had begun in 1810 and by 1821 the rebels had signed a treaty with Spain which ended hostilities and forced Spain to recognize it as a sovereign nation. Agustín de Iturbide, a Spanish military leader who had switched sides to fight for the creoles, set himself up in Mexico City as Emperor. Central America declared independence shortly after the end of the Mexican War of Independence and accepted an offer to join Mexico. Many Central Americans chafed at Mexican rule, and there were several battles between Mexican forces and Central American patriots. In 1823, Iturbide's Empire dissolved and he left for exile in Italy and England. The chaotic situation that followed in Mexico led Central America to strike out on its own.
Establishment of the Republic
In July 1823, a Congress was called in Guatemala City which formally declared the establishment of the United Provinces of Central America. The founders were idealistic creoles, who believed that Central America had a great future because it was an important trade route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. A federal president would govern from Guatemala City (the largest in the new republic) and local governors would rule in each of the five states. Voting rights were extended to rich European creoles; the Catholic Church was established in a position of power. Slaves were emancipated and slavery outlawed, although in reality little changed for the millions of impoverished Indians who still lived lives of virtual slavery.
Liberals Versus Conservatives
From the beginning, the Republic was plagued by bitter fighting between liberals and conservatives. Conservatives wanted limited voting rights, a prominent role for the Catholic Church and a powerful central government. The liberals wanted church and state separate and a weaker central government with more freedom for the states. The conflict repeatedly led to violence as whichever faction not in power tried to seize control. The new republic was ruled for two years by a series of triumvirates, with various military and political leaders taking turns in an ever-changing game of executive musical chairs.
Reign of José Manuel Arce
In 1825, José Manuel Arce, a young military leader born in El Salvador, was elected President. He had come to fame during the brief time that Central America had been ruled by the Iturbide's Mexico, leading an ill-fated rebellion against the Mexican ruler. His patriotism thus established beyond a doubt, he was a logical choice as the first president. Nominally a liberal, he nevertheless managed to offend both factions and Civil War broke out in 1826.
Rival bands were fighting each other in the highlands and jungles during the years 1826 to 1829 while the ever-weakening Arce tried to re-establish control. In 1829 the liberals (who had by then disowned Arce) were victorious and occupied Guatemala City. Arce fled to Mexico. The liberals elected Francisco Morazán, a dignified Honduran General still in his thirties. He had led the liberal armies against Arce and had a wide base of support. Liberals were optimistic about their new leader.
Liberal Rule in Central America
The jubilant liberals, led by Morazán, quickly enacted their agenda. The Catholic Church was unceremoniously removed from any influence or role in government, including education and marriage, which became a secular contract. He also abolished government-aided tithing for the Church, forcing them to collect their own money. The conservatives, mostly wealthy landowners, were scandalized. The clergy incited revolts among the indigenous groups and the rural poor and mini-rebellions broke out all over Central America. Still, Morazán was firmly in control and proved himself repeatedly as a skilled general.
A Battle of Attrition
The conservatives began wearing the liberals down, however. Repeated flare-ups all over Central America forced Morazán to move the capital from Guatemala City to the more centrally located San Salvador in 1834. In 1837, there was a fierce outbreak of cholera: the clergy managed to convince many of the uneducated poor that it was divine retaliation against the liberals. Even the provinces were the scene of bitter rivalries: in Nicaragua, the two largest cities were liberal León and conservative Granada, and the two occasionally took up arms against one another. Morazán saw his position weaken as the 1830's wore on.
In late 1837 there appeared a new player on the scene: Guatemalan Rafael Carrera. Although he was a brutish, illiterate pig farmer, he was nevertheless a charismatic leader, dedicated conservative and devout Catholic. He quickly rallied the Catholic peasants to his side and was one of the first to gain strong support among the indigenous population. He became a serious challenger to Morazán almost immediately as his horde of peasants, armed with flintlocks, machetes and clubs, advanced on Guatemala City.
A Losing Battle
Morazán was a skilled soldier, but his army was small and he had little long-term chance against Carrera's peasant hordes, untrained and poorly armed as they were. Morazán's conservative enemies seized the opportunity presented by Carrera's uprising to start their own, and soon Morazán was fighting several outbreaks at once, the most serious of which was Carrera's continued march to Guatemala City. Morazán skillfully defeated a larger force at the Battle of San Pedro Perulapán in 1839, but by then he only effectively ruled El Salvador, Costa Rica and isolated pockets of loyalists.
End of the Republic
Beset on all sides, the Republic of Central America fell apart. The first to officially secede was Nicaragua, on November 5, 1838. Honduras and Costa Rica followed shortly thereafter. In Guatemala, Carrera set himself up as dictator and ruled until his death in 1865. Morazán fled to exile in Colombia in 1840 and the collapse of the republic was complete.
Attempts to Rebuild the Republic
Morazán never gave up on his vision and returned to Costa Rica in 1842 to re-unify Central America. He was quickly captured and executed, however, effectively ending any realistic chance anyone had of bringing the nations together again. His final words, addressed to his friend General Villaseñor (who was also to be executed) were: “Dear friend, posterity will do us justice.”
Morazán was right: posterity has been kind to him. Over the years, many have tried and failed to revive Morazán's dream. Much like Simón Bolívar, his name is invoked any time someone proposes a new union: it's a little ironic, considering how poorly his fellow Central Americans treated him during his lifetime. No one has ever had any success in uniting the nations, however.
Legacy of the Central American Republic
It is unfortunate for the people of Central America that Morazán and his dream were so soundly defeated by smaller thinkers such as Carrera. Since the republic fractured, the five nations have been repeatedly victimized by foreign powers such as the United States and England who have used force to advance their own economic interests in the region. Weak and isolated, the nations of Central America have had little choice but to allow these larger, more powerful nations to bully them around: one example is Great Britain's meddling in British Honduras (now Belize) and the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua.
Although much of the blame must rest with these imperialistic foreign powers, we must not forget that Central America has traditionally been its own worst enemy. The small nations have a long and bloody history of bickering, warring, skirmishing and interfering in one another's business, occasionally even in the name of “reunification.”
The history of the region has been marked by violence, repression, injustice, racism and terror. Granted, larger nations such as Colombia have also suffered from the same ills, but they have been particularly acute in Central America. Of the five, only Costa Rica has managed to distance itself somewhat from the “Banana Republic” image of a violent backwater.
Herring, Hubert. A History of Latin America From the Beginnings to the Present. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.
Foster, Lynn V. New York: Checkmark Books, 2007.