United Provinces of Central America (1823-1840)

United Provinces of Central America (1823-1840), federation of states in Central America established after these states had declared their independence from Spain and Mexico. The republic comprised the states that are now Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Each had its own state government under a federal president and constitution. Internal conflicts and civil war divided the federation throughout its existence, and by 1840 it had disintegrated into five separate units. However, efforts to restore a Central American union have continued through the 20th century.


Since the Spanish conquest in the 16th

Since the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, Spain had administered the region as the Kingdom of Guatemala, which included Central America and the Mexican province of Chiapas. The Kingdom of Guatemala, in turn, was part of a larger colonial administrative region, the Viceroyalty of New Spain, based in Mexico City. However, the Kingdom of Guatemala was governed primarily by officials in the capital of Guatemala City. By the early 19th century, the kingdom`s various provinces and cities had grown to resent the power exerted by Guatemala City`s bureaucrats, merchants, and Catholic Church officials.

From 1808 to 1814

From 1808 to 1814, Spain was occupied by French troops. During this time, Spain`s control over the American colonies weakened, and independence movements began in many areas of Latin America. The Spanish governor, or captain general, repressed all such attempts in Central America, but a liberal interim government took power in Spain in 1812 and passed a constitution that allowed theCentral American provinces greater local autonomy. When King Ferdinand VII was restored to the Spanish throne in 1814, he revoked these rights, but a Spanish revolt in 1820 reinstated liberal rule. That year Central America held elections for city and provincial councils that prompted the first widespread, public political debates in the region.

These developments gave the upper class

These developments gave the upper class in Central America a new feeling of autonomy and control over their own destinies. When Mexico declared its independence from Spain in 1821, each Central American city decided on its own whether to join the new Mexican Empire, formed under the leadership of Agustn de Iturbide. In Guatemala, on September 15, 1821, a council declared the kingdom independent of Spain, formed a government, and in January 1822 incorporated the former kingdom into Iturbide`s empire. But some other cities of the kingdom declared their independence from Mexico and from Guatemala. Civil war erupted when San Salvador, in what is now El Salvador, and Granada, in Nicaragua, resisted Guatemala`s attempt to force them to join the Mexican state. But when Iturbide fell from power in 1823 and Mexico became a republic, a Central American congress on July 1, 1823, declared the region independent as the United Provinces of Central America. Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica formed the new republic, while Chiapas chose to remain with Mexico.

The Federation

The United Provinces drew up a constitution

The United Provinces drew up a constitution in 1824 that established a national government under a president and a unicameral congress, but left a great deal of authority to the five individual states. Modeled in part on the liberal Spanish constitution of 1812 and the Constitution of the United States, the document abolished slavery, guaranteed individual liberties, and contained other liberal provisions, but it also recognized Roman Catholicism as the established church of the republic. Only men who owned property could vote.

These provisions reflected deep divisions

These provisions reflected deep divisions among the elite class within the region, divisions that would eventually doom the union. Even before independence from Spain, the upper-class "creoles" (people of Spanish descent born in the Americas) were split between liberal and conservative factions, which fought over political control, economic power, and the role of the Catholic clergy. Conservatives generally favored the traditional structure of Central American society, which was controlled by large landowners and a powerful Catholic clergy. The liberals promoted republican government and free-market capitalism, similar to practices in Europe and the United States. Liberals also sought to limit the role of the church and often supported a strong central government, while conservatives supported the church and wanted individual states to remain powerful.

In Central America

In Central America, conflicts arose between liberal and conservative factions within each state and also among states. These conflicts were deepened by longstanding regional rivalries. Guatemala City, for example, became a center of conservative power, while San Salvador, which had long resented the dominance of the old colonial capital, was a base for liberals. In Nicaragua, the conservative city of Granada and the liberal headquarters of Leon fought bitterly.

In 1825 the United Provinces held its first

In 1825 the United Provinces held its first national election. Salvadoran liberal Manuel Jose Arce defeated the Honduran moderate Jose Cecilio del Valle to become the federation`s first president. The election was disputed, but the Congress finally settled it in Arce`s favor. To strengthen his position, Arce sought to gain support from Guatemalan conservatives over the issue of religious authority. El Salvador wanted to have its own bishop rather than being subject to the bishop of Guatemala, which Salvadorans viewed as a sign of subordinate status to their rival. Arce promised Guatemalan conservatives that he would not support the Salvadoran request, an action that alienated his liberal backers. In April 1826 Arce arrested the liberal Guatemalan state governor, Juan Barrundia, and replaced him with the conservative Guatemalan Mariano Aycinena. Meanwhile, the states failed to turn over adequate revenues to the federal government, and it soon went deeply into debt to British bankers.

Civil war broke out in 1826 between liberals

Civil war broke out in 1826 between liberals and conservatives in the federation, and a frustrated Arce resigned the following year. The war ended in 1829 when liberal forces, led by Honduran General Francisco Morazn, conquered Guatemala City. Elected president of the federation the following year, Morazn introduced radical reforms, restricting the power of Catholic clergy, introducing trial by jury, encouraging foreign investment and immigration, and turning communal, church, and public lands over to private owners. These liberal policies were unpopular among the rural people, who resented attacks on the church, government demands for forced labor, and seizure of their land for private landowners. In El Salvador, Morazn faced a major revolt by Native Americans, led by Anastasio Aquino, from 1833 to 1835. Meanwhile, Nicaragua and Costa Rica were aloof from the federation as they struggled with their own internal political problems.

In 1834 del Valle defeated Morazn`s

In 1834 del Valle defeated Morazn`s bid for reelection as president, but del Valle died of natural causes on his way to the inauguration. Morazn, who had received the second highest number of votes, remained in office and continued his reforms, exiling many conservative opponents and moving the federal capital from Guatemala City to San Salvador. But after suppressing the Aquino revolt, a more serious uprising spread across Guatemala, which would result in the collapse of the federation.

The Guatemalan revolt was led by Rafael

The Guatemalan revolt was led by Rafael Carrera, a conservative former army officer from a poor Guatemalan family. Supported by Native Americans, other rural residents, and clergy, Carrera toppled the liberal governor of Guatemala, Mariano Glvez, and captured Guatemala City in 1838. Morazn sent federal troops to fight Carrera, but the union was beginning to disintegrate. Those who favored states` rights gained control of the federal Congress and declared that the states were free and independent political bodies. Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica seceded from the federation, refusing allegiance to Morazn`s government. However, they still called themselves states and did not proclaim independent republics until many years later. Morazn continued in office, but only a shadow of a federal government remained.

The effective end of the United Provinces

The effective end of the United Provinces came in March 1840, when Carrera routed Morazn in battle at Guatemala City. Morazn fled into exile, ending the national government. Morazn returned in 1842 and took over the Costa Rican government in an attempt to restore the federation, but he was quickly overturned. On September 15, 1842, he was executed by a Costa Rican firing squad.

Reunion Efforts

Efforts to reunite the Central American

Efforts to reunite the Central American federation in the 1840s all failed. But unity was still seen as a desirable goalto give the states more power when dealing with foreign nations and to tie together people with a common heritage. But as conservatives came to power in each of the states, they rejected a restored federation, associating the idea too closely with the hated Morazn and his liberal policies. Carrera`s Guatemala was the first formally to declare itself an independent republic, in March 1847. Costa Rica followed in 1848, Nicaragua in 1854, El Salvador in 1856 and Honduras in 1864. Carrera became dictator of Guatemala, ruling until his death in 1865. He also frequently exerted control over El Salvador and Honduras, using force to depose or install leaders.

The Central American states did take joint

The Central American states did take joint action at times. Perhaps their greatest act of unity occurred in 1856, when a U.S. soldier of fortune, William Walker, made himself president of Nicaragua. Walker, who had brought in U.S. mercenaries to support a Nicaraguan liberal faction, planned to form a Central American union under his own leadership. The conservative governments of all five Central American states, led by Costa Rican President Rafael Mora, formed an army to defeat Walker. But after their victory, those governments showed no interest in union. As liberals returned to power later in the 19th century, they often expressed enthusiasm for restoring the federation. Guatemala`s Justo Rufino Barrios and Nicaragua`s Jose Santos Zelaya both attempted to achieve this by military conquest, but failed.

In the 20th century

In the 20th century, efforts at reunion have at times led to greater cooperation among the states. Among the institutions formed to promote political and economic cooperation were the Organization of Central American States (1951), the Central American Common Market (1960), and the Central American Integration System (1993). Following the civil wars of the 1980s, the Central American Parliament was established to serve as a forum for discussing issues of common concern. Its members are elected by popular vote in each member state. Costa Rica has not yet agreed to join.

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