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The Federal Republic of Central America (1823-1840)

Five Nations Unify, Then Fall Apart

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The Federal Republic of Central America (1823-1840)

Rafael Carrera

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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.

Carrera

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.

Sources:

Herring, Hubert. A History of Latin America From the Beginnings to the Present. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.

Foster, Lynn V. A Brief History of Central America. New York: Checkmark Books, 2007.

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