Liberal Party (Central America)

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Liberal Party (Central America)

Central American liberalism arose during the movement toward independence—achieved in 1821—in the heart of the Captaincy General of the Realm of Guatemala. Those who opposed the continuance of the system of privileges authorized by the crown and defended by the conservatives, who were considered crooked and reactionary, founded a group to advance the ideas of the French Enlightenment. They referred to the conservatives as "fevers" or "cowards." They were self-declared defenders of the ideology of the French Revolution and placed hope in the Spanish liberalism of the period.

In the beginning, both liberals and conservatives were criollos. The former desired federalism as a system of government for the United Provinces of Central America, while the latter sought centralism. The tension between these two factions would cause hate and bloodshed lasting into the twentieth century. After Central American independence, the liberals held power for several decades. In the 1830s Francisco Morazán headed a government that confronted the disinterest of the provinces, which failed to provide enough funds for its very existence. The conservatives capitalized on this situation, and the United Provinces were divided into the several states currently found on the isthmus. The conservatives dominated the political scene through the first half of the nineteenth century, the only exception being Costa Rica, where a patriarchal democracy predominated until 1948.

In Guatemala, the 1871 triumph of the so-called Liberal Revolution had a determining influence on the diffusion of liberalism in the other countries, especially in Honduras and El Salvador. Two decades earlier, the president of El Salvador, Gerardo Barrios, promoted both liberal principles and coffee production. In so doing, he followed the lead of Costa Rica's coffee industry under that country's liberal President Braulio Carrillo. In Guatemala, Justo Rufino Barrios increased coffee production and put an end to the conflicts between liberals and conservatives by imposing liberal absolutism. This was more forceful in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras than in Nicaragua. A good number of new, land-owning mestizos were incorporated into the ranks of the liberals.

Liberal ideology spread by intellectuals such as Guatemala's Lorenzo Montúfar adopted the principles of French positivism and became rooted in the liberal, anticlerical, Latin American world of the time. Those who called themselves liberals defended freedom of expression, secular education, abolition of the death penalty, and limited terms of office for those in power. But they were far from actually realizing these ideals. In essence—excepting Costa Rica once again—the expanding coffee industry revitalized the feudal system. Democratic principles such as freedom of work and movement were impossible with the state finding it necessary to use its power to forcibly recruit laborers. Also, in an attempt to avoid the disorder caused by conflicts with the conservatives, freedom of thought and expression were also restricted. And although the liberals considered themselves anticlerical due to the relationship that existed between the church and the conservatives, liberal governments permitted the functioning of the church, and their members attended Mass, even, as in Guatemala, at churches whose possessions had been confiscated. All the Central American countries except Costa Rica distanced themselves from predominant liberal ideologies in the decades surrounding 1900.

The contradiction between what was preached and what was practiced was evident. The Liberal Party produced such memorable dictators as Justo Rufino Barrios, Manuel Estrada Cabrera, and Jorge Ubico in Guatemala, Terencio Sierra in Honduras, and José Santos Zelaya and Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua. In their time, just as the conservatives did, the liberals resorted to foreign intervention for partisan rather than national reasons, inhibiting the march of progress. A mark in favor of liberal governments is that they established infrastructural bases that would aid free trade and production in archaic societies: the railroad, the telegraph, and electricity. This brought about the rise of a small, urban middle class. Nevertheless, social development was scarce. The economic growth that did occur was at the expense of peasants, who only grew poorer.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Central American isthmus became a colony for ever-increasing foreign interests: bananas for North America, coffee for Germany, and sugar for Great Britain. These interests surpassed the power of the state and brought about liberal dictatorships. Rather than being driving forces behind democracy, these foreign interests maintained the liberal status quo. The conservatives of course took every advantage to criticize the liberals, whose governments began to fall. In turn-of-the-century El Salvador, differences with conservatives dissolved when the oligarchy agreed to a power-sharing arrangement. Guatemala saw the fall of the dictator Jorge Ubico in 1944 and Nicaragua that of the Somoza dynasty in 1979. The survival of liberalism in Honduras is due to its articulating relatively democratic principles, as was the case in Costa Rica with its Revolution of 1948. Despite the fact that liberalism was no longer an important ideological tendency in the mid-1990s, the Liberal International had various Central American political parties as members.

See alsoLiberalism .


Mario Rodríguez, The Cádiz Experiment in Central America, 1808 to 1826 (1978).

R. L. Woodward, Jr., "The Rise and Decline of Liberalism in Central America: Historical Perspectives on the Contemporary Crises," in Journal of Inter-American Studies and World Affairs, 26 (1984): 291-312, and Central America: A Nation Divided (1985).

Additional Bibliography

Argueta, Mario. La primera generación liberal: Fallas y aciertos (1829–1842). Tegucigalpa: Banco Central de Honduras, 1999.

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

Mahoney, James. The Legacies of Liberalism: Path Dependence and Political Regimes in Central America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

                                        Fernando GonzÁlez Davison

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Liberal Party (Central America)

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