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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.

The republic of Costa Rica: from1838

Costa Rica, probably given its name ('rich coast') by Columbus himself on his fourth voyage in 1502, is subsequently a much neglected part of the Spanish empire. As a result, when it goes its own way as an independent nation in 1838, its inhabitants are mainly poor farmers. Most of them are Creoles or mestizos. Only a very small Indian population survives in this region, meaning that there is not - as in many other parts of Latin America - an easy supply of cheap labour.

The Costa Ricans are therefore independently minded and they lack the social extremes of landed aristocracy and exploited peasants. These accidents of history prove of considerable benefit in developing their nation.

There is one period, from 1870 to 1882, when Costa Rica has a leader, Tomás Guardia, who in his later years rules dictatorially in the tradition of the Latin American caudíllo. But for the most part there is a steady progress towards a liberal and democratic society. Indeed Guardia contributes to this with his constitution of 1871 which provides for religious freedom.

A measure passed in 1886 introduces free compulsory education, and an election in 1890 (bringing to power José Joaquín Rodriguez) is unusually free and democratic for anywhere in Latin America at this period.

Costa Rica's valuable crops are sugar and above all coffee until a third, bananas, is added in the late 19th century. As elsewhere in Latin America, the United Fruit Company plays a major role in the cultivation and export of bananas. It has its origin here in the activities of Minor C. Keith, who buys plantations and builds railways in Costa Rica from 1872. In 1884 the Costa Rica government grants him 800,000 acres of virgin land on a 99-year lease.

Costa Rica's main international difficulties concern its borders with its two neighbours. A long-term dispute with Nicaragua is finally settled in 1896, but disagreement with Colombia (and subsequently Panama) is not resolved until 1941.

Costa Rica's democratic tradition has held firm almost without interruption through the 20th century. At the century's end the two main political parties are the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) and the National Liberation Party (PLN).

In 1998 the PUSC candidate, Miguel Angel Rodríguez, is elected president.