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Ten score years ago a new nation, conceived in liberty, was brought forth on this continent. Its leaders were deeply divided. Their debate turned violent. The states flew apart and the nation collapsed. That was the end of the once-promising United Provinces of Central America.

Instead of a good-sized and lavishly endowed nation that might have won a place in the world, it split into five little countries: Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. All but Costa Rica are in terrible shape today.

Few celebrated this month’s 200th anniversary. For Central Americans, it marks a lost historical opportunity. For the wider world, it is an object lesson in the danger that awaits many countries if their leaders cannot unite behind a common national project.

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On September 15, 1821, several dozen prominent Central Americans met in Guatemala. They were inspired in part by the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia, held 34 years before, and hoped to forge a union as strong as the United States. Debate over whether to take the radical step of declaring independence from Spain was intense. When the delegates finally voted in favor, crowds outside erupted in jubilation.

The joy didn’t last long. Liberals and Conservatives both wanted to preserve the union but only if their side could be in charge. Civil wars broke out. Within 20 years the United Provinces of Central America, known for a time as the Federal Republic of Central America, collapsed. The region has never recovered.

For most of their 200 years of independence from Spain, the five countries of Central America have been dominated by autocrats. Four are under oppressive rule to this day.

Guatemala has expelled or silenced investigators who amassed evidence that criminal gangs have penetrated the top levels of government. American prosecutors named the president of Honduras and his brother, who in 2019 was sentenced to life in prison for being a “violent, multi-ton drug trafficker,” as accomplices in a conspiracy “to leverage drug trafficking to maintain and enhance their political power.” The president of El Salvador has just reshuffled his Supreme Court, and this month it dutifully issued a ruling allowing him to seek re-election even though the constitution forbids it. Most of the leading anti-government campaigners in Nicaragua, including several who hoped to run for president this year, have been arrested and are being held in harsh confinement.

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Today’s Central American leaders are not only vengeful and corrupt but show no interest in addressing the deep and persistent poverty that afflicts their countries. Repressive rule might be excusable if it brought real-life benefits like clean water, better health care, or more economic opportunity. In Central America, it doesn’t.

Painfully little has changed since the British naturalist Thomas Belt sojourned there in the 1870s, a quarter-century after the United Provinces spun apart. “Of patriotism I never saw any symptom in Central America, nothing but selfish partisanship,” Belt wrote. “The states of Central America are republics in name only; in reality, they are tyrannical oligarchies. They have excellent constitutions and laws on paper, but both their statesmen and their judges are corrupt.”

Generations of poor leadership have crippled Central America. Another root of its underdevelopment lies further back, in 300 years of Spanish colonialism. Conquistadors and colonial rulers were cruel, racist, and in many cases downright genocidal. Shaped by the bloody intolerance of the Spanish Inquisition, they felt free to pillage and slaughter in God’s name. Kings of Spain awarded adventurers vast plots of land with the right to kill or enslave all natives they found. This produced a rich landholding elite and a mass of deprived peasants. These legacies of Spanish colonialism — brutish rule and gross social inequality — continue to haunt the region.

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Spanish brutality and the long misrule that followed independence, however, aren’t the whole explanation for Central America’s failure. A third factor has also decisively shaped its history: foreign intervention. The United States has been crashing into Central America for more than a century. Most of these interventions have been launched to protect American economic interests, crush political movements that we deem unfriendly, or both. From our overthrow of a Nicaraguan president in 1909 to our approval of a Honduran coup in 2009, these interventions have profoundly disfigured Central America.

Visitors at the opening of the Jose Figueres Ferrer Museum in Cartago, Costa Rica, last December. The museum is devoted to the president who abolished the army.
Visitors at the opening of the Jose Figueres Ferrer Museum in Cartago, Costa Rica, last December. The museum is devoted to the president who abolished the army.EZEQUIEL BECERRA/AFP via Getty Images

In this grim picture, Costa Rica shines as the grand exception. It has a large middle class, free elections, and strong environmental consciousness. Various factors explain its success, but much of it can be traced back to President Jose Figueres, who dominated Costa Rica for a decade beginning in 1948. He consolidated democracy, introduced sweeping social reforms, and abolished the army, making him arguably the most successful statesman in the region’s history.

All five of the states that made up the United Provinces of Central America might have thrived if they had stuck together. Collectively they are about the size of New England and larger than Germany, Japan, or Italy. The region’s climate and geography pose challenges but hardly insurmountable ones. Yet it has suffered under generations of authoritarian rule. Rather than exalt public virtue and empower civil society, today’s Guatemalan, Honduran, Salvadoran, and Nicaraguan leaders gobble up national wealth for themselves, concentrate power in small elites, and treat critics as enemies. We cannot know what a united Central America might have become, but its fate after collapse stands as a sobering warning to deeply divided societies.

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Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.