Modern History of Central American People Term Paper

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History of Central America

Central America is a distinctive region comprising of five small countries namely Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Economically speaking, the region is well-known for coffee production but political speaking, the words crisis, conflict and trouble define the region. The five countries have encountered more than their fair share of political chaos and turmoil beginning from the times of colonial occupation. Central American countries like many other regions of the world were unfortunately not an enlightened section and thus became the target of Spanish imperialism in the 16th century. European imperialism that had dominated the entire world including North America originated from deep cultural division and the fact that Europe was the so-called educated and enlightened lot while the rest of the world was still going through Dark Ages. This lack of enlightenment had become an excuse for Europeans to occupy other parts of the world, most prominently the West Indies, the Indian sub-Continent, Africa and Central America.

Surprisingly while they called themselves civilized and educated, the political turmoil that European introduced in these regions continues to plague them even today. For some odd reason, withdrawal of Europeans did not bring in political or social peace as the countries must have anticipated and this says a great deal about the destruction of political infrastructure during colonial occupation. Instead of bringing more stability to the regions they occupies, Europeans completely destroyed the political infrastructure of these countries and never initiated developed of one where none existed. For this reasons, even after they left, these former colonies continued to face deep political trouble mostly from internal uprisings and economic instability. With the exception of North America, most other colonies are still in the grip of political strife.

Central America was one of the economically depressed and socially backwards sections of the world when the Spaniards entered the region. The five countries, which may appear similar to many due to their political crisis, are actually five very distinct places and there differences emerge from the fact that while they encountered similar fate in the past 500 years, it affected them differently and with varying intensity. Central America must therefore not be considered a union or one particular conglomeration of five countries. Despite the fact that for 15 years, these countries had shared a common political identity, Central America is no longer a federation or Union of any sort. The five countries falling in this particular region are five independent nations with almost similar problems.

Before the conquest, these countries were mostly agrarian and agriculture was the main occupation. The chiefs, known as caciques, would allot certain pieces of land to their peasants and common folks made their livelihood growing crops including corn, beans, peppers, and squash. While a certain portion of the earnings had to be given to the chief, these peasants were allowed to keep the remaining portion and use it in any manner they wished. They would then use it for barter trade and this was the only way economy worked in Central America prior to Spanish invasion.

Spaniards entered the region in 1522 and within to decades after this first wave of penetration, they were able to capture Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Costa Rica was the last place to come under their control due to two important reasons. Firstly the country lacked natural resources that could lure the Spaniards and secondly, the Indians in this particular section of the region were highly hostile to imperial rule. They were not willing to concede and it was after the extermination of most Indian slaves that Costa Rica became a formal colony in 1560s. During the colonial period, advanced means of trade were introduced and most of the exploitable resources of the colonies were used for the benefit of the mother country. While the Indians learned a lot about externally oriented trade, they failed to gain much from this as most of the wealth thus produced went to the white Spaniard elite. Apart from economic changes, the colonial period was also marked with swift cultural, social and religious changes. Everything Spaniard began to dominate the Central American culture and society. Spaniards introduced their own cultural values and religious beliefs to this region, which in turn led to massive religious conversion as people were forced to adopt Catholicism. Even though some Indian cultural values remained, Central America largely came under Hispanic influence.

Walker and Booth (1999) write: "The culture and process of dependent underdevelopment were now in full swing. Many aspects of culture were also changed practically overnight as the conquistadores sought to impose their religion, language, and ways on the peoples they had conquered. Of course, nowhere was Indian culture completely obliterated...Yet, by and large, Central America was hispanicized. Spanish became the lingua franca except in rural Guatemala and certain remote regions elsewhere. A mystical, elite-supporting, pre-Reformation version of Catholicism became the nearly universal religion." (p. 21)

The enlightenment that came through Spaniards ironically marked the end of Spanish rule when in 1821 Central America declared its independence, surprisingly without a shred of violence. The people who had gained some cultural advancement and political awareness refused to remain under Spanish control after Mexico announced its independence. The very next year, Central America decided to join Mexican empire but this fusion was short lived as the five countries detached themselves from Mexico in mid-1823. From fifteen years after that till 1838, these five countries shared one political identity and the federation was known as Provinces of Central America. The union which had been enthusiastically created was however not as beneficial to all countries as had been originally perceived. While the strength of the region increased, this sharing of this newly gained strength became a problem. Guatemala was the largest of the five countries and thus enjoyed a significant majority in the Congress. Almost 50% of the Congress seats went to Guatemala, which gave rise to resentment and discord in the region. Secondly, despite the fact that Constitution of 1824 had granted autonomy to each state, some elements wanted centralist control. The third and most important cause of discord was the intensity rivalry between Conservatives and Liberals. These were simply two ruling factions who chose to support different values and economic policies. While Conservatives adhered to traditional values and practices, Liberals were more interested in capitalist ideals. Because of these reasons, the Union disintegrated in 1838 and one after the other, all five nations withdrew from the federation.

The political turmoil and economic instability that was witnessed during the Union times continued to the plague the five countries throughout 19th and 20th centuries. Despite minor developments, the region remained under severe economic and political difficulties for most part of the 20th century. Even after independence, economic and political control was retained by the ruling elite, which further caused serious problems since democracy remained largely a dream. Like the imperial rulers, these elite also used the externally oriented economic system, which benefited them the most. The extreme resentment and discord between the two ruling factions Liberals and Conservatives, gave military more powers and control. Military control led to further disintegration of political and economic institutions. Walker and Booth (1999) further add: "Armies (at first belonging to individual caudillos) fought in the civil wars, subdued peasants who had been forceably deprived of their land, and implemented forced labor laws against these new "vagrants." This heavy military involvement in economic and political life retarded the development of civil political institutions and spawned both military rule and considerable political violence. Except for Costa Rica, Central American nations spent most of the period from 1838 until 1945 under either civilian or military dictatorships. Even Costa Rica showed little democratic promise. Although less turbulent than its neighbors, it experienced elite rule,…

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