Guatemala's Catholic Strongman:
José Rafael Carrera y Turcios (1815-1865) was the first President of Guatemala, serving during the turbulent years of 1838 to 1865. Carrera was an illiterate pig farmer and bandit who rose to the presidency, where he proved himself a Catholic zealot and iron-fisted tyrant. He frequently meddled in the politics of neighboring countries, bringing war and misery to most of Central America. He also stabilized the nation and is today considered the founder of the Republic of Guatemala.
The Union Falls Apart:
Central America achieved its independence from Spain on September 15, 1821 without a fight: Spanish forces were more desperately needed elsewhere. Central America briefly joined with Mexico under Agustín Iturbide, but when Iturbide fell in 1823 they abandoned Mexico. Leaders (mostly in Guatemala) then attempted to create and rule a republic they named the United Provinces of Central America (UPCA). Infighting between liberals (who wanted the Catholic Church out of politics) and conservatives (who wanted it to play a role) got the best of the young republic, and by 1837 it was falling apart.
Death of the Republic:
The UPCA (also known as the Federal Republic of Central America
) was ruled from 1830 by Honduran Francisco Morazán
, a liberal. His administration outlawed religious orders and ended state connections with the church: this enraged the conservatives, many of whom were wealthy landowners. The republic was mostly ruled by wealthy creoles: most Central Americans were poor Indians who did not care much for politics. In 1838, however, mixed-blooded Rafael Carrera appeared on the scene, leading a small army of poorly armed Indians in a march on Guatemala City to remove Morazán.
Carrera’s exact date of birth is unknown, but he was in his early to mid-twenties in 1837 when he first appeared on the scene. An illiterate pig farmer and fervent Catholic, he despised the liberal Morazán government. He took up arms and persuaded his neighbors to join him: he would later tell a visiting writer that he had started out with thirteen men who had to use cigars to fire their muskets. In retaliation, government forces burned down his house and (allegedly) raped and killed his wife. Carrera kept fighting, drawing more and more to his side. The Guatemalan Indians supported him, seeing him as a savior.
By 1837 the situation had spiraled out of control. Morazán was fighting two fronts: against Carrera in Guatemala and against a union of conservative governments in Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica elsewhere in Central America. For a while he was able to hold them off, but when his two opponents joined forces he was doomed. By 1838 the Republic had crumbled and by 1840 the last of the forces loyal to Morazán were defeated. The republic sundered, the nations of Central America went down their own paths. Carrera set himself up as president of Guatemala with the support of the Creole landowners.
Carrera was a fervent Catholic and ruled accordingly, much like Ecuador’s Gabriel García Moreno
. He repealed all of Morazán’s anti-clerical legislation, invited the religious orders back, put priests in charge of education and even signed a concordat with the Vatican in 1852, making Guatemala the first breakaway republic in Spanish America to have official diplomatic ties to Rome. The wealthy Creole landowners supported him because he protected their properties, was friendly to the church and controlled the Indian masses.
Guatemala was the most populous of the Central American Republics, and therefore the strongest and wealthiest. Carrera often meddled in the internal politics of his neighbors, especially when they tried to elect liberal leaders. In Honduras, he installed and supported the conservative regimes of General Francisco Ferrara(1839-1847) and Santos Guardiolo (1856-1862), and in El Salvador he was a huge supporter of Francisco Malespín (1840-1846). In 1863 he invaded El Salvador, which had dared to elect liberal General Gerardo Barrios.
Rafael Carrera was the greatest of the republican era caudillos, or strongmen. He was rewarded for his staunch conservatism: the Pope awarded him the Order of St. Gregory in 1854, and in 1866 (a year after his death) his face was put on coins with the title: “Founder of the Republic of Guatemala.”
Carrera had a mixed record as President. His greatest achievement was stabilizing the country for decades at a time when chaos and mayhem were the norm in the nations surrounding his. Education improved under the religious orders, roads were built, the national debt was reduced and corruption was (surprisingly) kept to a minimum. Still, like most republican-era dictators, he was a tyrant and despot, who ruled mainly by decree. Freedoms were unknown. Although it is true that Guatemala was stable under his rule, it is also true that he postponed the inevitable growing pains of a young nation and did not allow Guatemala to learn to rule itself.
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.