Central America, United Provinces of

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Central America, United Provinces of

United Provinces of Central America, a loose confederation of former Spanish colonies that had comprised most of the captaincy general of Guatemala from the middle of the sixteenth century until their independence from Spain in 1821. This captaincy or "kingdom," as it was popularly known, included present-day Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, as well as other jurisdictions, such as Chiapas, no longer considered part of Central America. As the United Provinces, they clung together with varying degrees of unity until their complete separation and the disintegration of any semblance of a central government in 1838.

Three centuries of colonial experience provided scant evidence that these provinces might ever become a single nation-state. The Central American region had been conquered by expeditions launched from Panama, Santo Domingo, and Mexico, creating a variety of interests, loyalties, and responsibilities. Poor communications meant that these feelings extended most strongly to the village or town around which settlers tended to cluster. The larger communities, generally greater distances apart, were usually governed by a council or ayuntamiento in something of the manner of a city-state. While higher-ranking colonial officials almost always were Spanish-born and Spanish-oriented, the members of the ayuntamientos tended to be creoles, American-born persons of Spanish ancestry. With the passage of time, council members in the larger towns often formed a small, tight aristocracy, not democratic but strongly representing local interests of the elite against Spain and forming the nucleus of a growing Americanism.

Such developments were, of course, not Spain's intent. The Hapsburgs created an elaborate centralism for America, and their Bourbon successors in the eighteenth century attempted to tighten the system even more. Central Americans fell under the jurisdiction of the vast viceroyalty of New Spain with its capital in faraway Mexico City; one division of the viceroyalty was the audiencia of Guatemala, whose presiding officer was generally a captain-general. Time, distance, and travel conditions meant that in most administrative matters Mexico City was bypassed by the Central Americans.

By the eighteenth century the capital at Guatemala had become a city of some stature, as effective as a viceroyalty; its aristocratic families carried out their roles in commensurate fashion. But even this kingdom could not reach authoritatively to most of Central America; the provincials ran their own affairs as much as possible, and viewed Guatemala as something of an expensive nuisance. Worse, the large city of San Salvador yearned to run more of its own political and religious affairs.

Lacking the mineral wealth of Peru or Mexico, the kingdom of Guatemala never equaled their importance in the Spanish scheme of things. Most of the folk in the kingdom were peasants or small farmers living out their lives in obscure labor; a few others were into the export business and made good profits by working with Europeans. So the decades passed slowly, sometimes peacefully, sometimes in turbulence, but gradually strengthening local feelings.

Although in the backwash of Spanish intellectualism, the Central Americans were not ignorant of the ideas of freedom the Enlightenment brought to Europe. Napoleon I's invasion of Spain and his overthrow of the monarchy disconnected the metropolitan power from its colonies and forced some rethinking by colonial ayuntamientos about their future status. Dreams of a brighter place in the empire's sun died with the return of King Ferdinand VII and his reactionary regime.

Barring a few minor skirmishes, no Central American war of independence took place. But the issue of freedom was argued in every ayuntamiento, some colonials favoring a return to the empire and others seeking improved status within the Mexican orbit. Still others demanded "independence from Spain, Mexico, and every other power." In the end, the last group won out, and following a brief annexation to the Mexican Empire of Agustín de Iturbide (1822–1823), Central American provinces—and towns—made individual decisions about their sovereignty. The majority agreed upon a consolidated government for Central America, free from Spain and Mexico.

The United Provinces of Central America drew up a constitution in 1824, the same five states of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica now calling themselves the Federal Republic of Central America. Partially copying several constitutions, including that of the United States and that of Spain (1812), the framers called for a federal type of government with certain powers retained by the states and others granted to the national government. Given time, a nation might have evolved. But there was no time. The rulers of the old kingdom wanted a strong governmental presence in Guatemala; the provinces wanted greater rights for the states; the old tax structure had been destroyed and poorly replaced; San Salvador wanted its own bishop; there was electoral fraud, village rivalries, and suspicions—these matters and many others surfaced on the withdrawal of Spain's restraining hands.

A Salvadoran Liberal, Manuel José Arce, was elected president in 1825, governing from the temporary capital in Guatemala City. Needing support against the demands—and accusations—of Liberals outside the capital, Arce linked himself with the elite families, frightening his original backers. Salvadorans brought up the bishop question. In each state personalist and ideological issues surfaced. Most states faced local civil war; Costa Rica tried to ignore all the others. A series of battles between 1826 and 1829 resulted in victory for the Liberals, now led by Francisco Morazán, a Honduran who forced the Arce government into exile and assumed the presidency of the federation.

Morazán, reelected in 1835, has since been recognized by most Central Americans as the soul of the federation movement. But his liberal reforms were too broad and too sudden for many of his people, and they caused fear. Secession movements, a cholera epidemic, and a revolt of peasants led by an able caudillo, José Rafael Carrera, led to Morazán's overthrow. Government reverted to localism, and the federation came to an end. The five states went their own ways.

On twenty-five or more occasions since 1838, groups of Central American states have attempted to reunite in some fashion. Failure followed every effort, even when all five states participated in the attempt. In spite of all the obvious advantages that a greater Central America might bring, the five states still cling tenaciously to their sovereignty.

See alsoArce, Manuel José; Central America; Central America, Independence of; Costa Rica; El Salvador; Ferdinand VII of Spain; Guatemala; Guatemala City; Honduras; Napoleon I; Nicaragua.


Hubert H. Bancroft, History of Central America, vol. 3 (1887).

Salvador Mendieta, Alrededor del problema unionista de Centro-América (1926).

Rodrigo Facio, Trayectorio y crisis de la Federación Centroamericana (1949).

Robert S. Chamberlain, Francisco Morazán: Champion of Central American Federation (1950).

Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal, Historia de la Federación de la América Central (1951).

Alberto Herrarte, La unión de Centro América (1955).

Andrés Townsend Ezcurra, Las provincias unidas de Centroamérica (1958).

Thomas L. Karnes, The Failure of Union: Central America, 1824–1975, rev. ed. (1976).

Ralph Lee Woodward, Jr., Central America: A Nation Divided (1976).

Additional Bibliography

Gudmundson, Lowell, and Héctor Lindo-Fuentes. Central America, 1821–1871: Liberalism Before Liberal Reform. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995.

Leiva Vivas, Rafael. La unión centroamericana: Utopía, lirismo y desafío. Tegucigalpa, Honduras: ENAG, Empresa Nacional Artes Gráficas, 2004.

                                            Thomas L. Karnes

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