José Francisco Morazán Quezada (1792-1842) was a politician and general who ruled parts of Central America at different times during the turbulent period from 1827 to 1842. He was a strong leader and visionary, who attempted to unite the different Central American countries into one large nation. His liberal, anti-clerical politics made him some powerful enemies, however, and his period of rule was marked by bitter infighting between liberals and conservatives.
Francisco Morazán was born in Tegucugalpa (in present-day Honduras) in 1792, during the waning years of Spanish colonial rule. The son of an upper-class Creole family, he entered the military at a young age and soon distinguished himself for his bravery and charisma. He was tall for his era (about 5’10”) and very intelligent, and his natural leadership skills attracted followers wherever he went. He became involved in local politics early, enlisting as a volunteer to oppose Mexico’s annexation of Central America in 1821.
A United Central America:
Mexico suffered some severe internal upheavals in the first years of independence, and in 1823 Central America was able to break away. The decision was made to unify all of Central America as one nation, with the capital in Guatemala City. It was comprised of five states: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. In 1824, liberal José Manuel Arce was elected president, but he soon switched sides and supported the conservative ideals of a strong central government with firm ties to the church.
The ideological conflict between liberals and conservatives had long been simmering and finally boiled over when Arce sent troops to rebellious Honduras. Morazán led the defense but was defeated and captured. He escaped, and was put him in charge of a small army in Nicaragua. They marched on Honduras and captured it at the legendary Battle of La Trinidad on November 11, 1827. Morazán was now the liberal leader with the highest profile in Central America, and in 1830 he was elected to serve as President of the Federal Republic of Central America.
Morazán in Power:
Morazán enacted liberal reforms in the new Federal Republic of Central America
, including freedom of the press, speech and religion. He limited church power by making marriage secular and abolishing government-aided tithing. Eventually he was forced to expel many clerics from the country. This liberalism made him the implacable enemy of the Conservatives, who preferred to keep the old colonial power structures, including close ties between church and state. He moved the capital to San Salvador in 1834 and was re-elected in 1835.
Conservatives would occasionally take up arms in different parts of the nation, but Morazán’s grip on power was firm until late 1837, when Rafael Carrera
led an uprising in eastern Guatemala. An illiterate pig farmer, Carrera was nevertheless a clever, charismatic leader and relentless adversary. Unlike previous conservatives, he was able to rally the generally apathetic Guatemalan Indians to his side and his horde of irregular soldiers armed with machetes, flintlock muskets and clubs proved very hard for Morazán to put down.
Defeat and Collapse of the Republic:
As news of the successes of Carrera came to them, conservatives all over Central America took heart and decided that the time was right to strike against the hated Morazán. Morazán was a skilled field general, however, and he defeated a much larger force at the battle of San Pedro Perulapán in 1839. By then, however, the republic had irrevocably fractured, and Morazán only effectively ruled El Salvador, Costa Rica and a few isolated pockets of loyal subjects. Nicaragua was the first to officially secede from the union, on November 5, 1838. It was quickly followed by Honduras and Costa Rica.
Exile in Colombia:
Morazán was a skilled soldier, but his army was shrinking while that of the Conservatives was growing, and in 1840 came the inevitable result: Carrera’s forces finally defeated Morazán, who was forced to go into exile in Colombia. While there, he wrote an open letter to the people of Central America in which he explained why the republic was defeated and laments that Carrera and the conservatives never tried to really understand his agenda.
In 1842 he was lured out of exile by Costa Rican General Vicente Villaseñor, who was leading a revolt against conservative dictator Braulio Carrillo and had him on the ropes. Morazán joined with Villaseñor and together they finished the job of ousting Carrillo: Morazán was named President. He intended to use Costa Rica as the center of a new Central American Republic. The Costa Ricans turned on him, however, and he and Villaseñor were executed on September 15, 1842. His final words were to his friend Villaseñor: “Dear friend, posterity will do us justice.”
Morazán was correct: posterity has been very kind to him and his dear friend Villaseñor. Morazán is today seen as a visionary, progressive leader and able commander who fought to keep Central America together. In this, he is sort of Central American version of Simón Bolívar, and there is more than a little in common between the two men.
Since 1840, Central America has been fractured, divided into tiny, weak nations vulnerable to wars, exploitation and dictatorships. The failure of the Republic to last was a defining point in Central American history: had it stayed united, the Republic of Central America might well a formidable nation, on an economic and political par with, say, Colombia or Ecuador. As it is, however, it is a region of little world importance whose history is most often tragic.
The dream is not dead, however. Attempts were made in 1852, 1886 and 1921 to unite the region, although all of these attempts failed. Morazán's name is invoked any time there is talk of reunification, and most Central Americans see it as a pity that his ambitious dream was derailed by smaller men looking out for their own self-interests.
Morazán is honored in Honduras and El Salvador, where there are provinces named after him. There are also any number of parks, streets, schools and businesses named after him.
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.