Between 1770 and 1880, Central America experienced three political projects that each redefined the relation of individual to state and nation. From 1770 to 1821,
Depiction of the Battle of Rivas in 1856, where Costa Rican president Juan Rafael Mora gathered a Central American coalition army and defeated American Confederate William Walker, pushing him back into Nicaraguan territory. (Library of Congress)
As part of the Captaincy General of Guatemala, residents were called upon first to be loyal to the Spanish king as individuals and as members of a broader political community that might be municipal or provincial in size. In addition, Spanish America’s caste system provided separate legal codes, and in theory separate towns, for Spaniards and their American-born descendants (Creoles) and the colony’s people of Indian, African, and mixed origin, dividing the colony’s population by race and ethnicity. Under the Spanish constitution of 1812 and after independence in 1821, as members first of the Mexican empire and then of the Central American Federation and its successor republics, individuals were recast from subjects to citizens, who as individuals were equal before the law and owed political allegiance to their state of residence and the federation regardless of race, ethnicity, or class. What bound individuals together was no longer loyalty to a monarch but loyalty to a system of governance whose motto was “God, Union, and Liberty.’’
Hus, the nation in early to mid-19th-century Central America was not based on race, ethnicity, or language—for the population was heterogeneous, descending from Spaniards, indigenous peoples, and Africans—but rather was based on a supposed sharing of common ideals, from the belief in a central government that would govern through democratically elected executive, legal, and judicial
Authorities to a shared Catholic identity. his national ideal, meant to bury remnants of a colonial system that had depended on loyalty to corporate entities such as guilds or family and patronage networks, was promulgated principally by the isthmus’s elite residents, such as Jose Cecilio del Valle (Honduras) and Pedro Molina (Guatemala). Although the populations of Central America quickly adapted to electoral politics, voting in many elections for local, regional, and national authorities in the first unstable decades following independence, they did not necessarily adopt these ideals. While Indian villagers and their scribes wrote petitions in the language of republican liberty, they behaved in traditional fashion, joining factions or insurrections based on local grievances and allegiances rather than in the name of unity among peoples of similar ethnic or state origin.
Establishing federal and national capitals undermined rather than fostered identities, stability, and unity. Colonial capital Guatemala City was a controversial choice for the federal capital, as other states wanted to decrease the political and economic inluence of the merchants who lived there and who had controlled much of the colonial export trade. hus, the federal capital eventually moved to Sonsonate, San Vicente, and eventually San Salvador in El Salvador. Serving as federal capital meant that Guatemala and El Salvador had temporary state capitals in Antigua (1825-1826) and San Vicente (1834-1839), limiting the stability of state governments until Guatemala City and San Salvador resumed their traditional political roles in the 1840s. Equally disruptive were capital-rotating provisions in Costa Rica and Honduras, established to prevent civil war between competing cities, which is what happened when Nicaragua’s Leon and Granada became so competitive that, after unsuccessfully splitting government functions, the state eventually named Managua as state capital in 1857.
After the federation failed, conservative presidents including Rafael Carrera (Guatemala), Santos Guardiola (Honduras), and Juan Rafael Mora (Costa Rica) kept constitutional order but favored more traditional and centralized relations among state, church, and society. hey achieved the stability necessary for national roots to begin to develop. In the 1840s through 1860s, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador began to export coffee, Guatemala’s cochineal and El Salvador’s indigo dye markets grew slowly, Honduran silver mines lured in foreign speculators, regional cattle markets continued, and Nicaragua and Panama hosted North Americans headed toward the California gold rush. As the region’s economy recovered, institutions in the five Central American republics began to deliver a national education program, collect taxes with some regularity, establish national police and military forces, and enforce the provisions of whatever constitutions and legal codes endured more than a few months or years. By the 1870s and 1880s, as railroads and telegraphs connected isthmian plantations with Atlantic and Pacific ports and facilitated communication for governments and individual Central Americans traveling and working throughout the region, a sense of Central America as apdtriagrande, a place of shared opportunities for individuals, had reemerged. Liberal governments returned, encouraging
Positivist goals of “order and progress,” specifically foreign investment, exports, agricultural reform, reduced church influence, and railway and telegraph construction. Re-creating a Central American national polity, however, was the dream of only a few elites, whose efforts in 1852, 1896-1898, and 1921-1922 produced only ephemeral three-state federations. Since the early 20th century, such Central American connections continue with a Central American Court of Justice (1907) and, with the exception of Costa Rica, a Central American Common Market (1960) and Parliament (Parlacen, 1991). Parlacen serves as a forum for debate and for harmonizing policies for Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, and, since 2004, the Dominican Republic.