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History of Central America


Before European Contact

In pre-Columbian times, most of modern Central America was part of the Mesoamerican civilization. The Native American societies of Mesoamerica occupied the land ranging from central Mexico in the north to Costa Rica in the south. The pre-Columbian cultures of Panama traded with both Mesoamerica and South America, and can be considered transitional between those two cultural areas.

Spanish Colonial Era

After the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, most of the inhabitants of Central America shared a common history. The exceptions were the two nations at the north and south ends of Central America: Belize was the British colony of British Honduras until 1973, while Panama was part of Spanish New Granada, and then of the nation of Colombia until 1903.

From the 16th century to the early 19th century, Central America formed the Captaincy General of Guatemala, sometimes known also as the Kingdom of Guatemala, composed by the states of Chiapas, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Officially, the Captaincy was part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain and therefore under the rule of the Spanish viceroy in Mexico City. It was, however, administered not by the viceroy or his deputies but by an independently appointed Captain General headquartered first in Antigua Guatemala and later in Guatemala City.


In 1821 a congress of Central American Creoles declared their independence from Spain, effective on 15 September of that year. That date is still marked as the independence day by most Central American nations. The Spanish Captain General, Gabino Gaínza, sympathized with the rebels and it was decided that he should stay on as interim leader until a new government could be formed. Independence was short-lived, for the conservative leaders in Guatemala welcomed annexation by the Mexican Empire of Agustín de Iturbide on 5 January, 1822. Central American liberals objected to this, but an army from Mexico under General Vicente Filisola occupied Guatemala City and quelled dissent.

When Mexico became a republic the following year, it acknowledged Central America's right to determine its own destiny. On 1 July, 1823, the congress of Central America declared absolute independence from Spain, Mexico, and any other foreign nation, and a Republican system of government was established.

Map of Central America (1860s).
Map of Central America (1860s).

The United States of Central America

Main article: United States of Central America

In 1823 the nation of Central America was formed. It was intended to be a federal republic modeled after the United States of America, and it was known alternately as "The United States of Central America" or "The United Provinces of Central America." The Central American nation consisted of the states of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. In the 1830s an additional state was added, Los Altos, with its capital in Quetzaltenango, occupying parts of what is now the western highlands of Guatemala and Chiapas (now part of Mexico).

Central American liberals had high hopes for the federal republic, which they believed would evolve into a modern, democratic nation, enriched by trade crossing through it between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. These aspirations are reflected in the emblems of the federal republic: The flag shows a white band between two blue stripes, representing the land between two oceans. The coat of arms shows five mountains (one for each state) between two oceans, surmounted by a Phrygian cap, the emblem of the French Revolution.

The Union dissolved in civil war between 1838 and 1840. Its disintegration began when Honduras separated from the federation on November 5, 1838.

Republic of Central America

Main article: Republic of Central America

Various attempts were made to reunite Central America in the 19th century, but none succeeded for any length of time. The first attempt was in 1842 by former President Morazán, who was quickly captured and executed. Guatemalan President Justo Rufino Barrios attempted to reunite the nation by force of arms in the 1880s and was also killed in the process. A union of Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador as the Republic of Central America lasted from 1896 to 1898.

20th century

Despite the failure of a lasting political union, the sense of shared history and the hope for eventual reunification persist in the nations formerly in the union. In 1856-1857 the region successfully established a military coalition to repel an invasion by U.S. adventurer William Walker. Today, all five nation fly flags that retain the old federal motif of two outer blue bands bounding an inner white stripe. (Costa Rica, traditionally the least committed of the five to regional integration, modified its flag significantly in 1848 by darkening the blue and adding a double-wide inner red band, in honor of the French tricolor).

In 1907 a Central American Court of Justice was created. On December 13, 1960, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua established the Central American Common Market ("CACM") in the hope that greater political unification would follow, but little progress has yet been made in that direction.

A Central American Parliament has operated, as a purely advisory body, since 1991. Costa Rica has repeatedly declined invitations to join the regional parliament, which seats deputies from the four other former members of the Union, as well as from Panama and the Dominican Republic.

See also

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45