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.
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.
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.
Saint Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez (b. Ciudad Barrios, San Miguel, El Salvador, August 15, 1915; d. San Salvador, El Salvador, March 24, 1980) was the seventh Archbishop of San Salvador. During his episcopate (February 22, 1977–March 24, 1980), Romero gained international renown for his human rights activism, advocacy for the poor, and denunciation of El Salvador’s political repression and violence. Romero was one of Latin America’s most influential political and social voices and routinely drew thousands of people to San Salvador’s Metropolitan Cathedral, while his homilies were broadcast across Central America on shortwave radio. In 1978, members of Britain’s Parliament, the United States Congress, and the US press supported Romero’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his efforts to halt the economic, political, and social violence that plagued El Salvador and, more broadly, Central America, during the late 1970s. In his final homily, delivered on March 23, 1980, Romero directly addressed members of the Salvadoran military and police forces, “in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.” The following day, Romero was murdered by Salvadoran government forces while he celebrated Mass at the Church of Divine Providence in San Salvador. His assassination sent shockwaves through Central America, and over one hundred thousand people attended his funeral. In May 2015, Pope Francis beatified Romero and elevated him to sainthood on October 14, 2018.
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.
Natalia Sobrevilla Perea
The wars of Spanish-American independence were a series of military campaigns that took place in the Americas between 1809 and 1825, which resulted in the creation of more than a dozen republics in the territories that had previously been part of the Hispanic monarchy. Triggered in the short term by the Napoleonic invasion of the Spanish peninsula in 1808, there were more deep-seated reasons, however, that led to the collapse of an empire that had existed for three hundred years. Classic historiography has stressed the importance of the Bourbon Reforms that brought to the fore the contradictions within the Hispanic monarchy and gave rise to a sense of proto-nationalism. These interpretations have given much importance to the role of the Enlightenment and the fear brought by possible social revolution. Some authors consider that these wars were the result of the Americans’ long-held contempt for Europeans. These views consider that struggle for liberation had begun much earlier, possibly as far back as the 1780s, inspired by the American and French Revolutions. More recent historiography has highlighted the war that engulfed Spain itself between 1808 and 1814 as the crucial event that led to fighting in the Americas. This event is seen as not just the trigger for the events to unfold, unleashing conflicts that had been simmering for much longer, but what shook to the ground the archaic but surprisingly durable composite Hispanic monarchy.
This article will discuss the main events that caused the wars, the moments each national historiography has identified as the ones linked to the independence of their particular region, as well as the events themselves. It begins by looking at the historical antecedents, including the Bourbon Reforms, the American, French, and Haitian revolutions, and at the Napoleonic invasion of the Spanish peninsula. It then discusses the creation of juntas in the Americas and how the confrontation between different jurisdictions resulted in war. The article discusses who were the people involved in the wars and the main events that took place.