A Few Reasons for the Collapse of the United States of Central America

On November 5, 1838, Nicaragua seceded from the United States of Central America (also known as the Federal Republic or United Provinces of Central America).

While Nicaragua’s secession was the official beginning of the end for the attempt at a united Central American state, the union was doomed from the beginning because of the region’s legacy of colonial rule under Spain and strong religious, economic, and political divisions.

In 1821, the Spanish Captaincy General of Guatemala, comprised of the colonies of Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Costa Rica, declared its independence from Spain. The colonies briefly united as part of Mexico under Agustin de Iturbide and then broke of to form the United States of Central America in 1823.

The problems that led to the dissolution of the state in were similar to those still faced by the region today. One problem was that Central America had no experience in self-governance, at least not in the modern sense. Since the early 1500s, Central America had been under the rule of Spain, and before that, much of the region was under the control of the Aztecs or their puppets. Even earlier, the Maya Empire ruled much of the region. The only self-rule prior to the attempt of it by the USCA was by small tribes ruling small geographical areas.

Because of Central America’s legacy of being part of one empire or another for many centuries, there was a strong sentiment of mistrust among the citizenry of centralized rule. In addition, the area was made up of many cultural groups that spoke many different languages. Even today, only 60% of the people in Guatemala speak Spanish, and there are 23 officially recognized languages spoken by the remaining populace (CIA World Factbook).

The main political factions fighting for political control in the USCA were the Liberals and Conservatives. The Liberals were typically those individuals with revolutionary ideals such as free trade, religious freedom, and the redistribution of land to the people. The Conservatives were those that favored allowing the wealthy landowners to keep their holdings and some conservative factions were also in favor of continued enforcement of a Catholic only religious policy.

Control of the Central American state continually passed between the Liberals and Conservatives. While we might consider this to be a best case scenario today, it made the consolidation of power and any real sense of unity impossible in the USCA. Even though reforms were enacted during times of Liberal rule, it was difficult to implement them effectively partly due to the rugged geography of the region.

As seen in the satellite image above (NASA), Central America is covered with mountains. Thick jungles also made travel, and therefore communication, particularly difficult in the first half of the 19th Century.

Reforms by the Liberals typically led to increased opposition, even war, by the Conservative factions. The end result was the final dissolution of the United States of Central America in 1841 when El Salvador, the last remaining member of the 1823 union declared itself as an independent nation. Since that time, the region has seen much more conflict and disunion. In fact, two new states are now part of the region we know today as Central America – Belize and Panama.

Resources (in addition to those already mentioned):

Global Perspectives: Central America (Check this site out, it has lessons on Central America, the Balkans, South Asia, and the Middle East.)

Wikipedia – Federal Republic of Central America