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Within Guatemala: to1821

Within the Spanish empire the long narrow strip of central America is known as Guatemala. It is among the earliest of colonial conquests on the mainland. Pedro de Alvarado, a leading member of Cortés' small party in the conquest of Mexico (1519-21), is sent south in 1523 to subdue the smaller area now known as Guatemala. In 1524 he pushes on into El Salvador. In the same year Spanish conquistadors enter Costa Rica and Nicaragua from the east, invading from Panama.

Honduras, the buffer region between east and west, is disputed between the rival groups of Spaniards. An advance guard from Panama gets there first. Cortés sends a force from Mexico, which eventually prevails.

These rivalries persuade the Spanish crown to treat central America as a special case. In 1539 it is established as the captaincy general of Guatemala. This is part of the wider viceroyalty of New Spain (administered from Mexico City) but the captain general, operating from his own capital at Antigua, has considerable autonomy in local affairs.

The arrangement survives until the end of the colonial period (except that the capital moves to Guatemala City after Antigua is destroyed by an earthquake in 1773), and it is this larger region of Guatemala which declares independence on 15 September 1821 - just three weeks after neighbouring Mexico, under Agustín de Iturbide, has won freedom from Spain.

Central American Federation: 1823-1838

Recognizing the forceful leadership of Iturbide, the colonists of Guatemala offer to merge their region in 1821 with Mexico - uniting as one nation the previous viceroyalty of New Spain. The link holds when Iturbide makes himself emperor, in 1822. But with his sudden fall and flight from Mexico, in 1823, Guatemala decides to assert its own independence.

The region from the southern border of Mexico to Panama now declares itself to be a new nation. It is to be known as the Central American Federation, with its capital in Guatemala City.

The transition to statehood is far from smooth, for the other constituent provinces of the old captaincy general of Guatemala (El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica) have intentions which are often at odds with the central government in Guatemala City. And even when established, the new nation is soon in political chaos. There is almost permanent civil war between Liberal and conservative factions.

The dominant figure is the Honduran general Francisco Morazán, who is president from 1830. He attempts to introduce liberal reforms, but by 1838 the federation is in such chaos that it has effectively ceased to exist. The five regions carry on as independent nations.

El Salvador: 1838-1999

The most significant event in the early years of El Salvador, after the end of the Central American Federation, is the introduction of coffee in 1840. From the 1870s it is exported in increasing quantities, becoming the country's economic mainstay.

The 19th-century history of the nation, with power kept in the hands of a small oligarchy, is less violent than in many parts of Latin America. But from 1931, after a brief attempt at democracy, this system gives way to a succession of military dictatorships or spells of one-party rule. To add to its troubles, El Salvador is frequently at odds with neighbouring Honduras where large numbers of Salvadoran immigrants are often victimized. This leads in 1969 to a brief war between the two countries.

In 1982 military rule gives way to a right-wing civilian government (actively supported by President Reagan), which becomes notorious for its use of 'death squads' to terrorize the population. The only active opposition to their tyranny is a left-wing guerrilla group, FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front). Civil war continues until a cease-fire which is effective from 1 February 1992. This is followed by a nine-month disarmament period and the emergence of the FMLN as a political party.

A Truth Commission, held under UN auspices to investigate human rights abuses in the 1980-91 period, results in the removal from office in 1993 of fifteen senior army officers.

In elections in 1994 the right-wing National Republican Alliance (ARENA) wins 39 of the 84 seats in the Legislative Assembly and forms a government with other minority right-wing parties. The FMLN wins 21 seats and becomes the opposition. However in mid-term elections, in 1997, the ARENA lead over the FMLN narrows considerably.

In the presidential election of 1994 Armando Calderón Sol, of the ARENA party, wins a five-year term of office.