The Federal Republic of Central America: A Dream Soon Ended
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 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.