The Association of Communitarian Health Services (ASECSA) and the Role of Religion and Health in Central America
The Association of Communitarian Health Services (ASECSA) is a transnational, religiously influenced health program in Central America created during the Cold War. ASECSA was founded in 1978 by a small group of international health professionals with ties to programs started by Catholic and Protestant clergy and laity in Guatemala’s western highlands in the 1960s. It introduced a model of healthcare in which Maya health promoters and midwives became partners in healing rather than objects to be cured. Support for the health programs and ASECSA came from secular and religious international agencies, including the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), German Misereor, Catholic Relief Services, and the World Council of Churches. ASECSA was founded to disseminate knowledge of popular health education strategies used by health promoters and midwives to provide preventive and curative medical services to their communities. The education methods grew from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and its use by religious agents influenced by liberation theology. Although it was founded in Guatemala, ASECSA’s publications and meetings attracted participation by health professionals and paraprofessionals from Mexico, Central America, and even the Caribbean. Ecumenical religious centers affiliated with liberation theology in the 1960s and 1970s facilitated the development of popular health programs that played a defining role in the region.
What can we learn about the documents we work with if we incorporate a study of document creation, travel, and storage into the consideration of document content? Some well-known documents, such as the Popol Vuh, have backstories that reveal as much as their content. But even obscure documents, such as a dispute over a road detour in 18th-century Guatemala, can be read productively as objects with life trajectories. Understanding the “life” of this document—the world in which it was made, the tools and knowledge of its making, its travel while being written, its storage in colonial and national archives—sheds new light on its meaning. Similarly, all colonial documents can be interpreted in new ways if their lives are treated as part of the interpretation.
Jorge González Alzate
The Kingdom of Guatemala, a neglected backwater of the Spanish Empire under the Habsburgs, figured prominently in the long-term strategic planning of the Bourbon state. Royal preoccupation with this impoverished colony was reflected in the wide-ranging program of reform that the crown sought to put into practice in the isthmus over the course of the 18th century. For Philip V and his successors, the most pressing concern was the crown’s lack of control over the colony’s Caribbean coast (also known as the Mosquito Shore), a swampy and insalubrious region that for decades had been under the effective control of British interlopers and their native allies, the indomitable Sambo-Mosquitos. The main thrust of the reform project was therefore directed at addressing that serious security gap, a situation which, at the same time, severely limited Spain’s capacity to reap the benefits of Central America’s economy and trade. In its initial stages, the effort to implement the reforms proved to be a protracted and frustrating process, hampered by resistance from vested interests, lack of funds and personnel, natural disasters, and above all by recurring military conflict. It was not until the aftermath of the Seven Years War (1756–1763) that Charles III, facing the prospect of an even more damaging British attack, resolved to take decisive action and commanded his ministers to expedite the pace of reform. Royal orders were then issued that called for the de-Americanization and overhauling of the civil administration, direct state intervention to stimulate economic productivity and expand maritime trade, the establishment of a modern, efficient, crown-administered fiscal structure, the strengthening of the defense system, and the assertion of royal authority over the ecclesiastical establishment. Initially, the uncompromising manner utilized by the crown in introducing the changes, particularly the reforms to the fiscal system, provoked much unrest and resistance among wide segments of the population. But in the end, the reforms survived and, by the closing years of the century, most of the measures had largely met the crown’s objectives. The fiscal surplus generated by the economic and commercial expansion of the second half of the 18th century enabled the Bourbons to attain their principal strategic objective in Central America, namely dislodging the British enemy from much of the Atlantic coast. Unfortunately, not long after this climatic point, the decades-long effort quickly unraveled as the monarchy began to collapse in 1808. In the end, the reform project proved insufficient; the dream of attaining modernization and preeminent status among European powers remained elusive. As conditions in the mother country deteriorated, so did the economic and political stability of Central America. The kingdom’s provinces were engulfed by increasing political volatility and economic depression. Following the example of neighboring New Spain, Central Americans declared their independence in 1821. Thus, in the end, the Bourbons had “gained a revenue and lost an empire.”
During the Cold War’s earliest years, right-wing governments and oligarchic elites in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua fostered closer relationships with the Catholic Church. Dictatorial leaders like Guatemala’s Carlos Castillo Armas and dynastic regimes like Nicaragua’s Somoza family regarded the Church as an ally against supposed Marxist influence in the region. Those ties began to fray in the late 1960s, as the Second Vatican Council’s foundational reforms moved Catholicism farther to the political and social left around the globe. This shift was especially prominent in Central America, where Catholics like El Salvador’s Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero and Guatemala’s Father Stanley Rother were among Central America’s most visible critics and reformers as political violence increased across the region during the 1970s. Relatedly, evangelical Protestants, particularly Pentecostal groups based in the United States, flooded Central America throughout that decade. Their staunch anticommunism and established ties to influential policymakers and political lobbyists in the United States, among other factors, gave evangelical Protestants greater influence in US-Central American relations. Their influence was strongest during the early 1980s, when José Efraín Ríos Montt, an ordained Pentecostal minister with Eureka, California’s Verbo Ministries, seized Guatemala’s presidency via a coup in March 1982. Notable US evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson praised Ríos Montt’s regime for its rabid anticommunist ideology, while President Ronald Reagan claimed that the dictator had received a “bum rap” in the global press. Concurrently, some US evangelical missioners and pastors also foregrounded the Sandinista government’s anti-Protestant activities as additional justification for US support for Nicaragua’s Contra forces. Religious actors were also instrumental to Central America’s peace processes after the Cold War, as Catholic and Protestant leaders alike worked closely with regional governments and the United States to end decades of political violence and enact meaningful socioeconomic reforms for the region’s citizens.
Mario Samper Kutschbach
Coffee production has been a significant economic activity in Central America since the 19th century, and it has played an important role in shaping social relations, politics, and culture in various ways over time, both within coffee-producing areas and in each country. Coffee continues to be a major export crop, although the region’s economy has diversified, and the prospects of coffee as a commodity and a way of life will influence the fortunes of many in the highland areas of the isthmus. The Central American coffee commodity chain, from planting, care of the coffee groves, and harvesting through transportation, processing, and storage to shipping, roasting, and distribution abroad and within each country, has evolved in response both to internal dynamics and to changes in the world market for coffee and consumer demand, international trading systems, capital flows, and marketing systems. The supply of credit and the exchange of knowledge and information on the market as well as technical expertise and the provision of inputs, genetic material, and equipment have helped shape and reshape this value chain. Farmers’ strategies and cooperative endeavors, as well as local processing, gathering, and storage facilities and financing and regulations, have adapted to changing trends and to market downturns, recoveries, and segmentation. Vertical and horizontal integration of the various links in this chain have also evolved, in ways that differ from one country to another. While historically there has been a trend toward concentration especially in processing and export, there has also been fragmentation and greater involvement of small- or medium-scale producers in cultivation and in primary processing in specific countries or areas. Certain pests and diseases, whose geographical distribution and severity have been related to agro-ecological conditions and practices, have also contributed to modifications in productive systems. Climate change has had increasingly severe short-term impacts on the frequency of extreme events and variability of rainfall and temperature, while warmer average temperatures have begun to affect the altitudinal range of coffee cultivation. There is definitely a future for specific types of Central American coffee, but not necessarily for all current areas, farms, and firms specializing in this tropical product.
From the period of imperial conquest and competition, the Caribbean coast of Central America has served as an interstitial space: between British and Spanish rule; between foreign corporate control and national inclusion; mestizo, black, and indigenous. Running from Guatemala in the north through Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama in the south, “la Costa” has functioned as a contested terrain imbued with economic import, ethnic difference, and symbolic power. The coastal zones were transformed in the 20th century through the construction of railroads and later highways, large-scale foreign immigration, the spread of states’ bureaucratic agents, and internal migrants, as well as transnational projects such as the Panama Canal and the United Fruit Company’s integrated banana plantation empire.
The coastal region’s inaccessible terrain, large communities of lowland indigenous people, and vast numbers of Afro-Caribbean migrants from islands such as Jamaica markedly differentiated these lowlands from the wider Central American republics. From indigenous groups such as the Rama, Mayangna-Sumu, Kuna, Guaymí, and Bribri, to the Afro-indigenous Garifuna and Miskitu, and the English-speaking black Creoles and Afro-Antilleans, the region has enjoyed great ethnic diversity compared to the nominally mestizo republics of which it has formed part. Finally, ladino (non-indigenous) or mestizo (mixed-race) campesino migrants from the Pacific or Central regions of the isthmus arrived in large numbers throughout the 20th century. Racism, ethnic exclusion, and marginalization were often the response of national states toward these coastal populations. In some contexts, tensions between and among ethnic groups over land and natural resources, as well as between national states and local autonomy, flared into violent conflict. Elsewhere in Central America, the Caribbean coast’s position in national political development permitted a gradual meshing of national and regional cultures during the second half of the 20th century.
Regarded as an ethnohistorical treasure, the Popol Wuj narrative has been read exclusively as a freestanding, self-contained text used to inquire into a history far removed from when it was actually created. Consequently, the colonial context of the text itself has been minimized, including the central role of Dominican friar Francisco Ximénez as transcriber and translator of the only copy in existence. The present study delineates a historical trajectory of the Popol Wuj, reframing the narrative within its colonial ecclesiastic context. It explores the physical structure of Friar Ximénez’s 18th-century manuscript, preserved as MS 1515 by the Newberry Library in Chicago, to demonstrate that his work was first and foremost a series of religious treatises intended to carry out the conversion of the K’iche’ to Christianity. As a cautionary word, rather than revisiting the old, biased approach of questioning the authenticity and authorship of this Popol Wuj narrative, the current study suggests a broader reading, addressing the complexities intrinsic in this text, particularly the fact that the narrative was the result of the cultural contact between mendicant friars, whose main objective was to evangelize, and indigenous groups, who strived to maintain their cultural continuity by recording their oral history in the face of such a threat. Finally, this study invites scholars to ponder on the implications that the present structure of Ximénez’s manuscript (MS 1515) presents for future Popol Wuj studies as the narrative enters the age of electronic information and digital imaging.
Rosemary A. Joyce and Russell N. Sheptak
The Online Finding Aid for the Archivo General de Centro América will provide increased ways for researchers to identify documents of interest in a widely distributed microfilm copy of this primary resource for the history of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Chiapas (Mexico). The original archive, located in Guatemala, houses approximately 147,000 registered document collections from the colonial period, ranging in date from the 16th century to independence from Spain in 1821. The microfilm copy, composed of almost 4,000 reels of microfilm, is organized according to basic keywords designating the original province in colonial Guatemala, a year, and a subject-matter keyword. Also associated in the basic records of the finding aid (which are already available online) are the reference number assigned each document in the original archive, and the specific reel(s) on which it is found. With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, enhanced records are being created for documents dating between 1700 and 1821 identified as associated with Guatemala, the administrative heart of the colony, for which there are no published indices. Enhanced records add names of people and places not recorded in the original record, opening up the microfilm collection, and through it, the original archive, to broader social history including studies of the roles of women, indigenous people, and African-descendant people.
Michael J. Schroeder
From May 1927 to December 1932, the Nicaraguan nationalist Augusto C. Sandino waged guerrilla war against the U.S. Marines and Guardia Nacional de Nicaragua to expel the “Yankee invaders” and achieve genuine national sovereignty. The war was centered in Las Segovias, the mountainous, sparsely populated northcentral region of Nicaragua bordering Honduras. The website is envisioned as a comprehensive, interpretive, open-access digital archive on this much-discussed but still dimly understood “small war” of the interwar years. Rigorous accuracy, judicious interpretation, and the democratization of knowledge rank among the website’s most important guiding principles.
Before mid-1927 there is very little documentation on Las Segovias. Then, starting with the June 1927 Marine invasion and occupation, our documentary base explodes. For nearly six years, the US imperial spotlight—expressed in a dazzling variety of texts—illuminated the hidden corners of a society and history hitherto almost totally obscured. Alongside this explosion of imperial texts was the proliferation of texts and artifacts created by the Sandinista rebels. In January 1933 the spotlight vanished, and a month later Sandino's rebellion ended in a provisional peace treaty with the newly elected Sacasa government. The Marines went home, carting hundreds of boxes of records with them. What the U.S. imperial gaze spotlighted for those six or so years constitutes the bulk of this website’s focus. Smaller in scale but often punchier in impact are the textual fragments and social memories produced in Las Segovias that survived the brutal repression that followed Sandino’s assassination in 1934.
Inspired by social and cultural history “from the bottom up,” this project conceives of the Sandino revolt as a social and cultural process, as a local response to foreign invasion and occupation. The documents presented here reflect this focus, selected because they speak in some fashion to the agency of Nicaraguans and Segovianos in shaping their own history—including campesinos and Indians, tenants and sharecroppers, smallholders and squatters, miners and migrant workers, seasonal and day laborers, as well as townsfolk and artisans, smugglers and bootleggers, peddlers and traders, boat-drivers and mule-drivers, ranchers and coffee growers, merchants and professionals, politicians and military leaders—individuals, families, and communities caught up in a whirlwind of foreign invasion and insurgency as complex and multifaceted as any in history. What manner of revolutionary movement was this? What were its origins, characteristics, and legacies? All the documents presented here speak to these broader questions and themes.
A work in progress, the website currently houses nearly 5,000 primary documents from U.S., Nicaraguan, and other archives, including patrol and combat reports, intelligence reports, photographs, letters, diaries, maps, oral histories, propaganda fliers, and more. Comprised of 20 expansive, interlinked digital file cabinets organized by archival repository and theme, this noncommercial, easy-to-navigate website contains a goldmine of readily accessible information for students, teachers, and scholars on the period of the Sandino rebellion.
The magnitude and brutality of the internal armed conflict of Guatemala led to its becoming infamous worldwide. Although the militarized state became a monster that brutalized many different groups, indigenous communities suffered at a rate far greater than the Ladino or non-indigenous population. It is pertinent to note that the term “Ladino” in Guatemala has a long and complex history that stems from the colonial period. Its meaning has morphed through time, from being used by colonial authorities to define indigenous peoples fluent in the conqueror’s language—Spanish—to its current meaning that defines all peoples, from white to mestizo, who are not part of the elite class and do not identify as indigenous. It is important to note that while not a formal social scientific term, “Ladino” was included in the latest Guatemalan census (2018) and, as posited by social scientists, is a contested term the meaning of which might continue to change. Nevertheless, the dichotomy of Ladino and indigenous has underscored issues of power and wealth in Guatemalan society since the early colonial period and continues to do so.
During the bloodiest years of the conflict, the military stepped up its repression and violence, leading to a series of massacres and displacements of tens of thousands of highland villagers and the razing of hundreds of communities. The focus on indigenous ethnicities as a factor of war allowed the massacres to be categorized as a genocide. What often gets lost in the recount is the historical foundations that made such atrocities possible. The cost of the war in Guatemala is ongoing and immeasurable. However, partial approximations can be made in both human and economic costs. What remains clear is that the war came at a great cost to future Guatemalan generations, as its repercussions continue to impact Guatemalan society.
Dora María Téllez
Throughout their history, the countries of Central America have attempted several forms of political and economic integration. After declaring independence in the 19th century, the region lacked its earlier cohesion vis-à-vis Spanish colonial governance. The former provinces aligned themselves in favor of either centralizing regional power in a federal republic or establishing complete political autonomy through the formation of new nation-states. Forces in favor of the latter eventually prevailed.
An attempt at economic integration began in the mid-20th century. It was actively backed by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and eventually led to the creation of the Central American Common Market (CACM). Despite favorable economic conditions in the Post-World War II period, a number of complications undermined integration efforts: war, political crises, and interests that ran contrary to those of the United States. Integration was postponed until the end of the 1980s, after the Esquipulas II Accord reestablished peace in the region.
After the countries of Central America signed the Guatemala Protocol in 1993, economic integration was promoted under the banner of free trade. This was done by regional economic groups with the goal of reconnecting the region to global commerce under the most advantageous circumstances possible.
Xiomara Avendaño Rojas
Unlike the French and North American revolutions, which fought against a monarchical power, the Hispanic political revolution began by evoking the memory of the beloved Ferdinand VII of Spain. The French invasion of Spain in 1808 had unimaginable repercussions; the government was reestablished in the name of the King, and the territories of the Americas that were convened in the Cortes participated in the development of a charter in 1812 that created a constitutional monarchy. In the Kingdom of Guatemala, the application of constitutionalism gave rise to tensions between elected officials and former royal appointees. By way of indirect elections, the isthmus took its first steps in the construction of a representative system, and worked its way up to local, provincial, and legislative power.
The Declaration of Independence, which took place on September 15, 1821, along with the Plan of Iguala inadvertently brought about a type of “examination” in which the provinces, empowered by their sovereignty and autonomy, broke away from the metropolis but produced a dilemma: Mexico or Guatemala. Independent from the choice, they assumed full ownership of the government that originated from the 1812 Constitution of Cádiz. Few people called for a congress, and the traditional referent in the political community, the cabildos, chose the Imperio del Septentrión (the Northern Empire). After the fall of the monarch Agustín de Iturbide, in March 1823, a constituency was organized to decide on their future government as the Provincinas Unidas del Centro de América (United Provinces of Central America). The new republican project was issued in a second Declaration of Independence or absolute independence, signed on July 1, 1823.
Arturo Taracena Arriola
Foreign travelers, mainly from Europe and the United States, did not come to Central America until the founding of the Federal Republic of Central America in 1823 after independence from Spain. They had been previously unknown in the Central American isthmus despite the impression that Alexandre von Humboldt’s achievement made on Latin Americans at the beginning of the 19th century. From 1823 to 1870, the foreign travelers in three characteristic cycles: the first, from 1823 to 1838, during the federal administration, attracted consular agents, merchants, and foreign adventurers, especially former soldiers from the Napoleonic Wars; the second, from 1839 to 1850, brought publicists, canal and timber entrepreneurs, and promoters of diverse kinds of colonization; and the third, which ran from 1851 to 1870, saw the arrival of naturalists, archeologists, entrepreneurs, and diplomats. All of them contributed to the integration of the short-lived Federal Republic of Central America and the division into five nations into the world market and concert of western nations. In fact, the victory of the liberal reforms beginning in 1871 would mean a new cycle of travelers, not discussed here, characterized by the positivist goal of progress, secularity of the state, freedom of religion, the banner of Central American reunification, and the gamble on mono-exportation centered on coffee and banana cultivation.
Throughout the 1980s, Central America was wracked by conflict. El Salvador faced a guerrilla insurgency, Guatemala’s long conflict festered, and Nicaragua faced a continually escalating U.S.-led proxy war that used fighters, loosely referred to as the Contras, to wage war on the Nicaraguan government through cross-border raids that implicated Costa Rica and Honduras in persistent violations of sovereignty. The Treaty of Esquipulas, spearheaded by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez, ended these conflicts and brought stability to the region.
The Treaty of Esquipulas stands as one of the most significant and understudied peace agreements of the late Cold War. These accords ran counter to the will of the more powerful United States, which throughout the 1980s had sought to use military force as the key to achieving regime change in Nicaragua. The United States policy of supporting guerrillas that waged a war of regime change in Nicaragua fanned the flames of conflict and destabilized the region. Esquipulas undermined this destructive policy. For the first time, the small nations of Central America, so long considered the imperial servants of the United States, thwarted an aggressive U.S. military policy. Through intense diplomatic meetings, and in the wake of the controversy that developed from the Iran–Contra scandal, President Arias of Costa Rica succeeded in creating a peace agreement for Central Americans and authored by Central Americans. The Esquipulas accords were a blanket repudiation of the near decade-long Contra war policy of the United States. Central America created diplomatic unity and facilitated a successful opposition to the military policy of its more powerful neighbor. This agreement was a great triumph of peace and diplomacy created in the face of what seemed like overwhelming odds.
Dario A. Euraque
The relationship between historically specific ideas of race and national identity in Central America between the onset of Spanish colonialism in the region, in about 1500, and the end of the 20th century is very complicated. The relationship is rooted not only in the political economy of the region and subregions that were under Spanish colonialism, but also in Spain’s resistance to incursions of British colonialism in the area, particularly on the North Coast, well into the late 18th century, and in some areas of Central America into the 1850s. The nexus between the political economy of nation-state formation in the postcolonial setting deepened after break of the Federation of Central America in the late 1830s, especially after the rise of coffee and bananas as major regional exports. Independent governments in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica tried to impose “imagined political communities” over these exports that would be different from the colonial identities designed by the Spanish imperialism of the past. In this 20th century context, mestizaje, or ladinizaje, became state sanctioned; it promoted racialized national identities in each of these countries, mostly the idea of ethnicity, albeit with critical regional and subregional differences, particularly between Guatemala and Costa Rica. Historiographies that have been influenced by postmodern sensibilities, particularly critical race theory, the new cultural history, and subaltern studies, have influenced recent understanding of the political economy of race and nationality in Central America.
David Carey Jr.
With its diverse ecological zones and varied public health threats that ranged from lowland epidemic to highland endemic diseases, Central America is a challenging place to practice healthcare. In addition to topography and geography, social relations have also influenced the dynamic, contested, and negotiated process of healthcare in developing countries. Adversarial relations among indigenous people, African immigrants and slaves, and the state marked the region’s pasts. After the Spanish conquest established racist structures that favored Hispanic citizens by instituting forced labor mechanisms and limiting access to political, economic, and social power, colonists extracted land and labor from indigenous communities. Although most countries assumed that adopting Hispanic customs would improve the lives of indigenous and Afro-Central Americans, many elites felt such workers’ health was important only insofar as it did not impede their ability to labor.
Characterized by holistic approaches to health that took into account psychological, emotional, and physical well-being, indigenous and other traditional healing practices flourished even after states embraced the fields of bacteriology and parasitology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Primarily served by curanderos, midwives, bonesetters, and other traditional healers for generations, some remote rural communities were isolated from schooled medicine and its practitioners. In other rural communities and cities, hybrid healthcare offered patients palatable and efficacious healing options.
As doctors became politicians and states embraced science to modernize their nations, politics and public health became inextricably linked. Often with the assistance of multinational companies and nongovernmental organizations, governments deployed scientific medicine and public health campaigns to undergird assimilationist projects. Based on assumptions that traditional medicine was impotent and indigenous people and African descendants were vectors of disease, public health campaigns often discounted, rejected, or persecuted the healing practices of such peoples. When authorities embraced rather than problematized the confluences of race and health, they enjoyed some success. Yet neither authoritarian nor democratic governments could establish a medical monopoly.
Pulque, the alcoholic beverage of pre-Columbian highland Mesoamerica is the fermented derivative of aguamiel, the juice or sap of the agave known as agave pulquero—principally Agave salmiana. Aguamiel is a sweet, somewhat heavy juice that collects in a scraped out basin in the heart of the agave pulquero and, unless refrigerated, rapidly ferments into the alcoholic pulque. The agents of fermentation are ambient and plant-colonizing bacteria and yeasts. Fresh pulque is a frothy, cloudy brew with a slightly sour taste, usually containing around 2 percent alcohol or somewhat higher, meaning it can be drunk in large quantities without intoxicating the imbiber. Although it is a nutritious drink, consumption was condemned by Spaniards in varying degrees during the Colonial Period. Its popularity in contemporary southern Mexico is increasing after more than a century of persecution and public disparagement. Pulque figures prominently in pre- and post-Columbian Mesoamerican history.
Production of tequila and mezcal is completely different from production of pulque. The former are distilled from the pressed juice (tepache) of macerated and roasted hearts of certain agaves. The juice is fermented in vats for several days, then heated in a still, evaporated, and condensed. Tequila, by law is made from A. tequilana, and mezcal by custom is made primarily from A. angustifolia. Both these distillates contain about 40 percent alcohol. Pulque is a naturally occurring product consumed by native peoples for at least two millennia. Tequila and mezcal are industrial products derived from processes introduced into the Americas by Europeans.
The role of religion shifted dramatically in Central American politics during the 20th century, as the Catholic Church moved from a position as conservator of the status quo to a powerful force for reform and human rights. The century also witnessed the rise, then the “boom,” of Protestant—specifically Pentecostal—religion. By the century’s end, Central America had become among the most Protestant regions of Latin America, with every country except Costa Rica and Belize measuring a large and rising evangélico minority. These changes unfolded alongside, and deeply affected, one of the most traumatic and violent periods in the region’s history, the so-called Central American crisis of the late 1970s and 1980s, when Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala became the battlegrounds for one of the last large proxy wars of the larger Cold War, between Marxist insurgencies and authoritarian governments.
Coralia Gutiérrez Álvarez
Severo Martínez Peláez is the most important figure in the founding of contemporary Guatemalan historiography. His work, in particular La patria del criollo (The Homeland of the Criollo), has been viewed by historians as a starting point for advancing the reconstruction of Central American history. Additionally, his work continues to have a broad readership, who consider it a factor in understanding the present. His contributions are essential to the understanding of the colonial period in Latin America, including debates that inspired his theses concerning the character of society in that period and his historical views on indigenous peoples. Like other thinkers of the 1960s and 1970s, his focus was primarily on economic and social history, in particular class struggles. Therefore, it is necessary to understand the intellectual, political, social, and even personal conditions relevant at the time he was writing in order to thoroughly understand and appreciate his work.
The formation of El Salvador’s oligarchy was a long and complex process. Its beginning can be traced to 1848, when the first export of Salvadoran coffee took place. The first stage in its formation may be seen as ending in 1931, just before the army’s great “slaughter” of the rural population after the crisis of 1929. This long period is divided into two parts, with the year 1890 marking a change. Before that date, although El Salvador was beginning to feel the effects of the Industrial Revolution and the reorganization of the world markets, the country’s international politics were focused primarily on Central America. However, from 1890 on, the business sector expanded and penetrated deeply into the country based on the capital accumulated from the coffee industry. To that was added certain foreign participation, especially from the United States. This is why the period of 1848–1890 is considered the origin of the oligarchy, and 1890–1931 is seen as the formation of this social sector that has marked the history of the country up to the 21st century.
A plausible definition of the term oligarchy is provided by Waldo Ansaldi: the combination of a social class defined by its function in the economic structure and the particular form of government it developed and practiced. The Salvadoran oligarchy was initially made up of the large landowners and traders whose economic power was based on their access to land and labor, acquired to a large degree at a very low price and often through non-commercial relationships. This minority experienced a transition toward a profile with increasingly capitalistic characteristics—that is, a more complex managing class with more and more wage labor, although in poor working conditions. In spite of this, it retained purely oligarchic features in the way it controlled political power and in its use of abundant, though not always wage-earning, labor, so that it can hardly be considered bourgeoisie. Coffee, including its cultivation, processing and export, was the principal (although not the only) basis of the enrichment of the oligarchy and of their political power. The development and consolidation of the oligarchical class was based on their control of the state and, as a result, also of their monetary, credit, and above all, fiscal policies. Representatives of the oligarchy came to control the government through electoral as well as military means, enabling them to reproduce and expand their power.