Barrios, Gerardo (1813–1865)

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Barrios, Gerardo (1813–1865)

Gerardo Barrios (b. 3 October 1813; d. 29 August 1865), general and president of El Salvador (1859–1863). Born to a wealthy, well-connected family in the department of San Miguel, Barrios remains a popular figure in the history of modern El Salvador. He was the first president in Central America to introduce reforms based on liberalism-positivism, and set the course for the modernization of Salvadoran society.

Barrios's family had extensive landholdings, on which they grew indigo. Young Gerardo felt a vocation for the military and joined the militia at a young age. By 1840 he had already participated in the overthrow of one president, José María Cornejo, and fought in battles at Mixco, San Miguelito, Espíritu Santo, Perulapía, and in Guatemala. He joined other Central American leaders in the struggle against the American filibuster William Walker in Nicaragua in the 1850s. In this campaign Barrios earned a reputation as a skillful leader and formed a close relationship with the Guatemalan president Rafael Carrera. In July 1858, Carrera decorated Barrios with the Cross of Honor. This friendly association was not destined to last long, however, for Barrios was more of an ideologue than Carrera, and friction developed after Barrios succeeded to the presidency of El Salvador when President Miguel de Santín de Castillo's health failed in 1858.

Barrios then embarked on a remarkable new course that revealed his deep admiration for the United States and Europe. In fact, Barrios often spoke of the perfection of the British and French political institutions. He undertook the modernization of the Salvadoran government: an expansion and centralization of the bureaucracy, the restoration of San Salvador as the national capital, and the transfer of the Supreme Court back to San Salvador. Barrios next overhauled the legal system by drafting new civil and penal codes and altering the process of justice. The right to collect taxes was removed from local jurisdiction and decreed a national responsibility. He repatriated the remains of the great Liberal leader of independence Francisco Morazán, who was actually Honduran, and buried them in San Salvador with much ceremony. Barrios extended the term of the presidency from two to six years, increased the role of the executive branch at the expense of the legislative, and upheld the democratic transfer of office. He returned office to Santín upon the latter's recovery late in 1859, but arranged to have himself elected the following year.

In 1860, Barrios began to promote the production of coffee on a large scale, by lowering production taxes on the new crop, exempting the coffee labor force from military service, and distributing land to those promising to grow coffee on two-thirds or more of the area. Barrios's government took an unprecedented, active role in the economy of the nation when it purchased a boat and attempted to export coffee to California itself. Furthermore, Barrios followed the French model and transformed the old-style Salvadoran militias into a modern national army; he also created a military academy with a Colombian as its head.

By 1862, Barrios's liberalism had begun to encroach on the privileged position of the Roman Catholic church. Although he was not an enemy of the church, as president Barrios stressed the ultimate authority of secular over religious authorities. He required all priests to declare obedience to the state, thereby provoking conflict with the Vatican and stirring up fears among other Central American leaders. In 1862, Barrios reached a concordat with the Holy See in which priests agreed to swear loyalty to the Constitution but not to the actual government. Barrios's main efforts were concentrated in education and the expansion of transportation and communication. By 1863, he had many enemies both within El Salvador and across Central America. He repelled a Guatemalan invasion in early 1863, but before the end of the year Carrera returned and conquered El Salvador. Barrios was caught in Nicaragua while trying to escape. He languished in jail and was executed in 1865. Thus ended the first liberal-positivist experiment in Central America.

See alsoEl Salvador .


Government of El Salvador, Gerardo Barrios: Héroe nacional de El Salvador (n.d.).

Emiliano Cortés, Biografía del capitán general Gerardo Barrios (1965).

José Dolores Gámez, Gerardo Barrios ante la posteridad (1965).

Ítalo López Vallecillos, Gerardo Barrios y su tiempo, 2 vols. (1967).

                                             Karen Racine

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Barrios, Gerardo (1813–1865)

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