History of Central America

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Political Evolution of Central America and the Caribbean from 1700 to present Political Evolution of Central America and the Caribbean 1700 and on.gif
Political Evolution of Central America and the Caribbean from 1700 to present

The history of Central America is the study of the region known as Central America.

Central America central geographic region of the Americas

Central America is located on the southern tip of North America, or is sometimes defined as a subcontinent of the Americas, bordered by Mexico to the north, Colombia to the southeast, the Caribbean Sea to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west and south. Central America consists of seven countries: Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. The combined population of Central America has been estimated to be 41,739,000 and 42,688,190.


Before European contact

In the Pre-Columbian era, the northern areas of the relaxing Central America were inhabited by the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica. Most notable among these were the Maya peoples, who had built numerous cities throughout the region, and the Aztecs, who had created a vast empire. The pre-Columbian cultures of eastern El Salvador, eastern Honduras, Caribbean Nicaragua, most of Costa Rica and Panama were predominantly speakers of the Chibchan languages at the time of European contact and are considered by some [1] culturally different and grouped in the Isthmo-Colombian Area.

The Pre-Columbian era incorporates all period subdivisions in the history and prehistory of the Americas before the appearance of significant European influences on the American continent, spanning the time of the original settlement in the Upper Paleolithic period to European colonization during the Early Modern period.

Indigenous peoples of the Americas Pre-Columbian inhabitants of North, Central and South America and their descendants

The indigenous peoples of the Americas are the Pre-Columbian peoples of North, Central and South America and their descendants.

Mesoamerica Cultural area in the Americas

Mesoamerica is a historical region and cultural area in North America. It extends from approximately central Mexico through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica, and within this region pre-Columbian societies flourished before the Spanish colonization of the Americas. In the 16th century, European diseases like smallpox and measles caused the deaths of upwards of 90% of the indigenous people. It is one of five areas in the world where ancient civilization arose independently, and the second in the Americas along with Norte Chico (Caral-Supe) in present-day Peru, in the northern coastal region.

Spanish Colonial Era

Central America is composed of seven independent nations: Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. After the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, most of the inhabitants of Central America shared a similar history. The exception was the Western Caribbean Zone, which included the Caribbean coast and encompassed both semi-independent indigenous polities, runaway slave communities, and settlers, especially British settlers who would eventually form British Honduras (the modern-day nation of Belize), a sparsely populated area that was inhabited by the British through the Treaty of Madrid from Spain. When Spain failed to regain control over British Honduras, the British continued to inhabit the country and eventually colonized it. When Guatemala gained its independence, they assumed inheritance of British Honduras from Spain. British Honduras had been a British settlement, not a colony (the treaty between Spain and The United Kingdom prohibited British colonies in the territory) for several years. After many years of controversy, a treaty was signed between Guatemala and the United Kingdom in which the Guatemalan President of the time recognized the original territory (granted by the kingdom of Spain to the British Crown) of Belize. Within this treaty, was also an agreement for a cart road to be built from Guatemala City through British Honduras to the Caribbean Sea. Since the cart road was never built, Guatemala declared the treaty null and void. British Honduras, as the British called it, and Belize as the Spaniards and Guatemalans said, gained its independence from Great Britain in 1981 and adopted the name "Belize". Guatemala still disputes the Belizean territory.

The Western Caribbean Zone is a region consisting of the Caribbean coasts of Central America, from Yucatán in Mexico to northern Colombia, and also the islands west of Jamaica. The zone emerged in the late sixteenth century as the Spanish failed to completely conquer many sections of the coast, and northern European powers supported opposition to Spain, sometimes through alliances with local powers.

British Honduras UK possession in Central America between 1862 and 1981

British Honduras was a British Crown colony on the east coast of Central America, south of Mexico, from 1862 to 1964, then a self-governing colony, renamed Belize in June 1973, until September 1981, when it gained full independence as Belize. British Honduras was the last continental possession of the United Kingdom in the Americas.

Belize country in Central America

Belize is an independent and sovereign country located on the north eastern coast of Central America. Belize is bordered on the northwest by Mexico, on the east by the Caribbean Sea, and on the south and west by Guatemala. It has an area of 22,970 square kilometres (8,867 sq mi) and a population of 387,879 (2017). Its mainland is about 180 mi (290 km) long and 68 mi (110 km) wide. It has the lowest population and population density in Central America. The country's population growth rate of 1.87% per year (2015) is the second highest in the region and one of the highest in the Western Hemisphere.

From the 16th century through 1821, Central America formed the [Captaincy General of Guatemala], sometimes known also as the Kingdom of Guatemala, composed by a part of the state of [Chiapas] (nowadays part of Mexico), Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Officially, the Captaincy was part of the Vice royalty of New Spain and therefore under the supervision of the Spanish viceroy in Mexico City. It was, however, administered not by the viceroy or his deputies, but by an independently appointed Captain General headquartered first in Antigua and later in Guatemala City.

Guatemala Republic in Central America

Guatemala, officially the Republic of Guatemala, is a country in Central America bordered by Mexico to the north and west, Belize and the Caribbean to the northeast, Honduras to the east, El Salvador to the southeast and the Pacific Ocean to the south. With an estimated population of around 16.6 million, it is the most populated country in Central America. Guatemala is a representative democracy; its capital and largest city is Nueva Guatemala de la Asunción, also known as Guatemala City.

El Salvador country in Central America

El Salvador, officially the Republic of El Salvador, is the smallest and the most densely populated country in Central America. It is bordered on the northeast by Honduras, on the northwest by Guatemala, and on the south by the Pacific Ocean. El Salvador's capital and largest city is San Salvador. As of 2016, the country had a population of approximately 6.34 million.

Honduras republic in Central America

Honduras, officially the Republic of Honduras, is a country in Central America. In the past, it was sometimes referred to as "Spanish Honduras" to differentiate it from British Honduras, which later became modern-day Belize. The republic of Honduras is bordered to the west by Guatemala, to the southwest by El Salvador, to the southeast by Nicaragua, to the south by the Pacific Ocean at the Gulf of Fonseca, and to the north by the Gulf of Honduras, a large inlet of the Caribbean Sea.


In 1811, independence movements broke out in El Salvador in reaction to events in the Peninsular War, and again in 1814 after the restoration of Ferdinand VII. Both revolts were easily suppressed and the political unrest was subsumed into the general political process in the Spanish world that led to the Spanish Constitution of 1812. Between 1810 and 1814, the Captaincy General elected seven representatives to the Cádiz Cortes, in addition to forming a locally elected Provincial Deputation. [2] In 1821 a congress of Central American Criollos in Guatemala City composed the Act of Independence of Central America to declare the region's independence from Spain, effective on 15 September of that year. [3] That date is still marked as independence day by most Central American nations. The Spanish Captain General, Gabino Gaínza, sympathized with the rebels and it was decided that he should stay on as interim leader until a new government could be formed. Independence was short-lived, for the conservative leaders in Guatemala welcomed annexation by the First Mexican Empire of Agustín de Iturbide on 5 January 1822. Central American liberals objected to this, but an army from Mexico under General Vicente Filisola occupied Guatemala City and quelled dissent.

1811 Independence Movement

The 1811 Independence Movement known in El Salvador as the Primer grito de independencia was the first of a series of revolts in Central America in El Salvador against Spanish colonialism and dependency on the Captaincy General of Guatemala.

Peninsular War War by Spain, Portugal and the United Kingdom against the French Empire (1807–1814)

The Peninsular War (1807–1814) was a military conflict between Napoleon's empire and Bourbon Spain, for control of the Iberian Peninsula during the Napoleonic Wars. The war began when the French and Spanish armies invaded and occupied Portugal in 1807, and escalated in 1808 when France turned on Spain, previously its ally. The war on the peninsula lasted until the Sixth Coalition defeated Napoleon in 1814, and is regarded as one of the first wars of national liberation, significant for the emergence of large-scale guerrilla warfare.

Ferdinand VII of Spain King of Spain

Ferdinand VII was twice King of Spain: in 1808 and again from 1813 to his death. He was known to his supporters as the Desired and to his detractors as the Felon King. After being overthrown by Napoleon in 1808 he linked his monarchy to counter-revolution and reactionary policies that produced a deep rift in Spain between his forces on the right and liberals on the left. Back in power in 1814, he reestablished the absolutist monarchy and rejected the liberal constitution of 1812. A revolt in 1820 led by Rafael de Riego forced him to restore the constitution thus beginning the Liberal Triennium: a three year period of liberal rule. In 1823 the Congress of Verona authorized a successful French intervention restoring him to absolute power for the second time. He suppressed the liberal press from 1814 to 1833 and jailed many of its editors and writers. Under his rule, Spain lost nearly all of its American possessions, and the country entered into civil war on his death.

When Mexico became a republic the following year, it acknowledged Central America's right to determine its own destiny. On 1 July 1823, the congress of Central America declared absolute independence from Spain, Mexico, and any other foreign nation, including North America and a Republican system of government, was established.

A republic is a form of government in which the country is considered a “public matter”, not the private concern or property of the rulers. The primary positions of power within a republic are not inherited, but are attained through democracy, oligarchy or autocracy. It is a form of government under which the head of state is not a hereditary monarch.

Federal Republic of Central America

Flag of Central America Flag of the United Provinces of Central America.svg
Flag of Central America

In 1823, the Federal Republic of Central America was formed. It was intended to be a federal republic modeled after the United States of America. It was provisionally known as "The United Provinces of Central America," while the final name according to the Constitution of 1824 was "The Federal Republic of Central America." It is sometimes incorrectly referred in English as "The United States of Central America." The Central American nation consisted of the states of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. In the 1830s, an additional state was added, Los Altos, with its capital in Quetzaltenango, occupying parts of what is now the western highlands of Guatemala as well as part of Chiapas (now part of Mexico), but this state was reincorporated into Guatemala and Mexico respectively in 1840.

Central American liberals had high hopes for the federal republic, which they believed would evolve into a modern, democratic nation, enriched by trade crossing through it between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. These aspirations are reflected in the emblems of the federal republic: The flag shows a white band between two blue stripes, representing the land between two oceans. The coat of arms shows five mountains (one for each state) between two oceans, surmounted by a Phrygian cap, the emblem of the French Revolution.

The Union dissolved in civil war between 1838 and 1840. Its disintegration began when Nicaragua separated from the federation on November 5, 1838. The United Provinces of Central America (or PUCA- Provincias Unidas De Centro-America in Spanish) is the name given to the different states of Central America in the time after Central America's independence and before becoming their own distinct nations (between 1823-1840 [4] ). It was a political movement that strived to unify the regions of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Guatemala (Panama and Belize at the time were under separate ownership) under a liberal federal government and believed that united they would be a stronger political unit. Unfortunately, due to many strong political disagreements within the different states, the UPCA eventually disbanded and the regions became separate nations with devastating political and economic civil wars that are still felt today.

The kingdom of Guatemala, as Central America was more commonly known as during Spanish and Mexican rule, was annexed into Mexico in 1822 under the rule of emperor Agustín de Iturbide. Shortly after, opposition from Central Americans began against the monarch and they pushed for independence from Mexico. Iturbide's unsuccessful leadership of Central America caused his party to fail against the uprising rebels and on July 1, 1823, Central America gained its independence.

Central America in 1892 CentralAmerica1892.jpg
Central America in 1892

After independence, officials from the different regions gathered in a junta to decide the future of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Guatemala. They decided to unite into a federation of five autonomous states, thus creating the UPCA, a term coined by Brigadier General Vicente Filisola, who was stationed in Guatemala City.

The UPCA's aims were to be a liberal government with political principles modeled after the United States, [5] and also to remain united. They felt that the “provinces alone were too small and weak economically to survive as sovereign states” so they “avert[ed] fragmentation of the isthmus” [6] and pushed for union. However, the UPCA soon noticed that there were many political ideals between the regions and conservative parties on the other end of the political spectrum actively showed their discontent under the new liberal regime. Despite this, the beginning of the federation went relatively smooth and negotiations helped them reform borders, capital cities were moved to accommodate the citizens, and economies of coffee grew high. All the while, tensions between the liberals and conservatives and power struggles within the different economies increasingly grew.

One the most notable key figures of UPCA was Francisco Morazan, a liberal advocate who was chosen president of the UPCA. In the 1820s and through the 1830s Morazan took an active role in liberal movements throughout Central America, especially in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras against conservative parties. These battles between parties increasingly divided the nation causing sour relationships and distance between them. Differences between liberals who wanted free trade, favored a republic and had anti-clerical views contested those of the conservatives who wanted a monarchy, trade under close control and power to the church. These conflicts, along with cholera outbreaks, foreign intervention and distress among those in poverty caused many insurgencies those rose up against liberal movements and vice versa resulted in various civil wars throughout Central America.

Morazan was captured in Costa Rica by the conservative party and they assassinated him on September 15, 1842), [7] which marked the official end of the UPCA. Upon notification of his death, greater turmoil and fights among the opposing liberal and conservative parties increased. It is said that the conservative-liberal struggles that Morazan campaigned for are still in effect today. [8] In addition, lacking a central authority proved to be unproductive and created more disputes and distrust within the different nations. In fact, foreigners who were looking to make economic and/or political negations were told that they had to go to each individual region for consultations and found it inconvenient. [6] The desire for power and their inability to overcome bad relations among each other led to the fall of the UPCA. Nicaragua, Honduras, and Costa Rica seceded from the union in 1838. In 1839 Guatemala seceded, and in 1840 El Salvador did the same.

The provinces shortly after became their own separate republican nations, of which we are more familiar with today and eventually Panama and Belize joined what we know today as “Central America.” Tensions among the different nations, however, continued to grow more aggressive throughout the rest of the 19th century. Despite knowing that being unified would overall work better for Central America, they remained separate. Though many attempts to reunite the nations have been attempted throughout the years it always resulted with unsuccessful results. Civil wars continued to be part of Central America through the 20th and parts of the 21st century as well.

Greater Republic of Central America

Various attempts were made to reunite Central America in the 19th century, but none succeeded for any length of time. The first attempt was in 1842 by former President Francisco Morazán, who was quickly captured and executed. The abortive attempt proposed to restore the union as the Confederation of Central America and planned to include El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. This first attempt lasted until 1844.

A second attempt was made and lasted from October to November 1852, when El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua created a Federation of Central America (Federacion de Centro America). Guatemalan President Justo Rufino Barrios attempted to reunite the nation by force of arms in the 1880s and was killed in the process, like his 1842 predecessor.

The third union of Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador as the Greater Republic of Central America or "Republica Mayor de Centroamerica" lasted from 1896 to 1898. The last attempt occurred between June 1921 and January 1922 when El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica formed a (second) Federation of Central America. The treaty establishing this federation was signed at San José, Costa Rica on January 19, 1921. This second Federation was nearly moribund from the start, having only a provisional Federal Council made up of delegates from each state.

Despite the failure of a lasting political union, the concept of Central American reunification, though lacking enthusiasm from the leaders of the individual countries, arose from time to time. In 1856-1857, the region successfully established a military coalition to repel an invasion by American adventurer William Walker. Today, all five nations fly flags that retain the old federal motif of two outer blue bands bounding an inner white stripe. Costa Rica, traditionally the least committed of the five to regional integration, modified its flag significantly in 1848 by darkening the blue and adding a double-wide inner red band, in honor of the French tricolor.

The liberal reforms period

Even though the dates for this period change from country to country, they approximately correspond to the years between 1870 and 1930. During this time, political elites in the five Central American countries advanced reforms on agriculture, commerce, and redefined the relationship between the state, society and the economy. The most relevant political figures during this period were the presidents Justo Rufino Barrios in Guatemala, Rafael Zaldivar in El Salvador, Braulio Carrillo Colina and Tomas Guardia in Costa Rica, Marco Aurelio Soto in Honduras, and Jose Santos Zelaya in Nicaragua. The key result of this period in all the Central American countries was a transition from communal to private ownership of land. The extent to which liberals targeted common lands for privatization varied from country to country. Likewise, there were important differences in the size of the commercial landholding estate. Another variation among the policies promoted by the liberal governments was the use of coercion and security organizations in to implement reforms to the land ownership policies. [9]

20th century

In 1907, a Central American Court of Justice was created. On December 13, 1960, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua established the Central American Common Market (CACM). Costa Rica chose not to participate in the CACM. The goals for the CACM were to create greater political unification and success of import substitution industrialization policies. The project was an immediate economic success but was abandoned after the 1969 "Football War" between El Salvador and Honduras.

By the 1930s the United Fruit Company owned 3.5 million acres of land in Central America and the Caribbean and was the single largest land owner in Guatemala. Such holdings gave it great power over the governments of small countries. That was one of the factors that led to the coining of the phrase Banana Republic. [10]

A Central American Parliament has operated, as a purely advisory body, since 1991. The regional parliament seat deputies from the four former members of the Union (Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras), as well as from Panama and the Dominican Republic.

Another initiative is known as Free Movement of Persons in the CA-4, which has opened the borders between Nicaragua and Guatemala removing the need to carry a passport to cross borders, just a national ID (cédula de identidad) is enough to cross borders. This initiative is the result of negotiations of the Central American Commission of Directors of Migration (OCAM) with the support of the International Organization for Migration (IOM). This initiative has been in effect since 2007.[ citation needed ]

History of Central American nations

Related Research Articles

Federal Republic of Central America former nation in Central America

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Francisco Morazán Honduras general and politician

Francisco Morazán was a Central American politician who was president of the Federal Republic of Central America from 1830 to 1839. Before he was president of Central America he was the head of state of Honduras. He rose to prominence at the battle of La Trinidad on November 11, 1827. Morazán then dominated the political and military scene of Central America until his execution in 1842.

Choluteca Department Place in Honduras

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Rafael Carrera President of Guatemala

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José Trinidad Cabañas President of Honduras

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Captaincy General of Guatemala Spanish 1609-1821 possession in Central America; administrative division of the Spanish Empire, under the viceroyalty of New Spain

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  1. Hoopes, John W. and Oscar Fonseca Z. (2003). Goldwork and Chibchan Identity:Endogenous Change and Diffuse Unity in the Isthmo-Colombian Area (PDF). Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks. ISBN   978-0-82631-000-2. Archived from the original (Online text reproduction) on 2009-02-25.
  2. Marie Laure Rieu-Millan. Los diputados americanos en las Cortes de Cádiz: Igualdad o independencia. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1990, 43. ISBN   978-84-00-07091-5
  3. "Documentos de la Union Centroamericana" (PDF). Organization of American States - Foreign Trade Information System. Retrieved 12 October 2014.
  4. Editors of Encyclopedia, Britannica. "United Provinces of Central America". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved April 15, 2016.CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link)
  5. Foster, Lyn (April 15, 2016). A Brief History of Central America (2nd ed.). New York: Facts on File. pp. 135–160. ISBN   9780816066711.
  6. 1 2 Foster, Lyn (April 15, 2016). A Brief History of Central America (2nd ed.). New York: Facts on File. p. 136. ISBN   9780816066711.
  7. Pearcy, Thomas (April 15, 2016). The History of Central America. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. pp. 40–60. ISBN   978-0313322938.
  8. Pearcy, Thomas (April 15, 2016). The History of Central America. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. p. 54. ISBN   978-0313322938.
  9. Mahoney, James (2001-03-01). "Path-Dependent Explanations of Regime Change: Central America in Comparative Perspective". Studies in Comparative International Development. 36 (1): 111–141. doi:10.1007/BF02687587. ISSN   0039-3606.
  10. Livingstone, Grace (2013-04-04). America's Backyard: The United States and Latin America from the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror. ISBN   9781848136113.

Further reading

Colonial era

  • Brown, Richmond F. Juan Fermín de Aycinena, Central American Colonial Entrepreneur, 1729-1796. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press 1997.
  • Dym, Jordana and Christophe Belaubre, eds. Politics, Economy, and Society in Bourbon Central America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press 2007.
  • Gerhard, Peter. The Southeast Frontier of New Spain. Princeton: Princeton University Press 1979.
  • Jones, Grant D., The conquest of the last Maya kingdom. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998.
  • Jones, Grant D., Maya resistance to Spanish rule: time and history on a colonial frontier. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, c1989.
  • Kinkead, D.T., ed. Urbanization in Colonial Central America. Seville 1985.
  • Lanning, John Tate, The Eighteenth-Century Enlightenment in the University of San Carlos de Guatemala. Ithaca: Cornell University Press 2001.
  • MacLeod, Murdo J., Spanish Central America: A Socioeconomic History, 1520-1720. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press 1973.
  • Patch, Robert W. Indians and the Political Economy of Colonial Central America, 1670-1810. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press 2013.
  • Sherman, William. Forced Native Labor in Sixteenth Century Central America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press 1979.
  • Wortman, Miles. Government and Society in Colonial Central America. New York 1982.


  • Booth, John A., Christine J. Wade, and Thomas Walker, eds. Understanding Central America: Global Forces, Rebellion, and Change (Westview Press, 2014)
  • Bulmer-Thomas, Victor. Political Economy of Central America Since 1920. New York: Cambridge University Press 1987.
  • Coatsworth, John H. Central America and the United States: the clients and the `colossus (Twayne Pub, 1994)
  • LaFeber, Walter. Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America (2nd edition). New York, Norton & Company, 1993. ISBN   978-0-393-01787-8
  • LeoGrande, William M. Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992 (Univ of North Carolina Press, 1998) Online edition