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Central America Under Liberal Rule, 1870–1929  

Carlos Gregorio López Bernal

In 1871, a wave of “liberal revolutions” began in Central America. Important changes were made to strengthen national states, promote the growth of the economy, and secularize society. The speed and intensity of the reforms varied across the region, as did the results. However, in every case, there were significant advances shown through exports, public works, and architecture in major cities. The benefits of the reforms were also unevenly distributed. Coffee growers, businessmen, and bureaucrats saw their incomes and living standards improve while peasants, indigenous people, and workers received little, and in some cases saw their living conditions deteriorate significantly. The global crisis of capitalism in 1929 demonstrated the vulnerability of the liberal model, producing an authoritarian turn in the region.

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Economic Integration in 19th- and 20th-Century Central America  

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.

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Communist Parties of Central America  

Iván Molina

Throughout the 20th century, Central America experienced two key waves of communist-party formation. The first wave lasted from 1923 to 1931 and the second from 1949 to 1954. The first-wave parties actively participated in four fundamental historical processes: in El Salvador, in the rebellion of 1932; and in Costa Rica, in the banana strike of 1934, in the reforms of 1940 to 1943, and in the civil war of 1948. The second-wave parties participated decisively in the radicalization of the Guatemalan social reforms (1951–1954) and in the 1954 Honduran banana strike. These parties had a differentiated impact on Central American societies. In Costa Rica and Panama, the communists promoted social changes whose success worked against the communists themselves. In Belize, an active Labor party prevented a communist party from developing there. In Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, repression neutralized the role that communist parties could play as institutional modernizers. In the mid-1940s, the military assumed this modernizing role: in Guatemala, with the collaboration of the communists; and in El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, against the communists. The most radical of these reformist experiences was the Guatemalan, which ended in 1954 due to a US-backed coup. In the other countries, the military endorsed socially limited reforms without political democratization. In this context, the communist parties began to be displaced by guerrilla movements from 1959 to 1963. In Honduras, the military managed to stop this displacement in the early 1960s through broader reformist policies, but the guerrillas in the other countries led a successful revolution in Nicaragua (1979), fought lengthy civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, and turned Central America into one of the main battlefields of the Cold War in the 1980s. Beginning in the 1990s, these guerrilla movements became political parties, electorally strong in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and marginal in Guatemala, but different from the communist parties that preceded them. At the beginning of the 21st century, the communist parties that still exist in Central America barely maintain a presence on Facebook.

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Nineteenth-Century Foreign Travelers to Central America  

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.

Article

Digital Resources: Colonial Nahuatl in Central America  

Sergio Romero

Nahuatl is the Latin American indigenous language having the largest number of colonial documents. As with other colonial documents, the study of these manuscripts requires mastery of the language as well as the relevant historical and philological sources. The emergence of digital repositories in Mexico, the United States, France, and other countries has made hundreds of digital images available to scholars who would not have had access to these sources otherwise. Digital repositories also contain additional tools such as morphological parsers and dictionaries. These allow users to upload new images, transcriptions, and translations, turning digital archives into veritable platforms for scholarly exchange. The irruption of digital repositories promises to effect substantial changes in the field of Nahuatl studies.

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The Federal Republic of Central America, 1824–1840  

Luis Pedro Taracena Arriola

The Federal Republic of Central America existed for a brief but critical period in Central American history. Tension in the region between its colonial legacy and liberal aspiration and conflict between Guatemalan prevalence and state independence led to the eventual dissolution of the Federal Republic. The result was a confederate rather than a federal approach to government in which each state was sovereign in its own territory. The period convulsed with interspersed colonial and republican regimes, which reflected the politics of the heterogeneous society of the time. The imaginary unity failed and the new republics emerged, doomed to their own sovereignty.

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Environmental History of Commodities in Central America  

Anthony Goebel and Andrea Montero

One way of approaching the environmental history of Central America is through the analysis of the evolution of the main agricultural commodities. Until the present day, the economy of the isthmus still depends on agri-exports, while agriculture (whether extensive or intensive) continues to transform landscapes, fragment territories, and alter ecosystems. Agriculture has been an important agent of change in the Central American space from the time of pre-Columbian societies to the present. However, the way human societies have appropriated natural resources and services allows explanation of the socio-historic transitions that the different agri-ecosystems in the region have gone through, ranging from organic production systems to semi-industrial or industrialized production systems. This transition responds to a series of institutional factors linked to the international dynamic of tropical commodities and agricultural decisions taken in the region. Commercial agriculture has had an environmental impact in the area through distinct productive activities such as the production of coffee, banana, sugar cane, and cotton, and extractive activities such as forestry and cattle ranching.

Article

Digital Resources: Dark Tourism in Latin America  

Ulices Piña

Participation in tourism has dramatically increased since the mid-20th century. Yet travel to destinations associated with death, disaster, and destruction have long fascinated people. This subgroup of tourism, known as dark tourism, however, has only received popular and scholarly attention from travel enthusiasts, media, and academics since the turn of the century. The website Dark Tourism is a digital resource that introduces the concept and practice of dark tourism to a wider audience. The digital resource delivers well-curated and researched information on dark tourism and boasts excellent coverage of a range of categories, news, and topics with a primary focus on destinations across the globe (including almost 900 places in 112 countries). In particular, the site curates significant content on Latin America (Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America) and is home to numerous entries on sites including sensationalized tragedies and crimes, natural disasters, and politically tinged sites of genocide and state terrorism. The digital resource is a good reference point to begin critical, historical, and ethical conversations about how to visit sites of death, destruction, and disaster in the region.

Article

Digital Resources: Latin America in Gallica  

Nathalie Dessens

Gallica, the digital library of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, was launched in 1997. The library contains almost five million documents (manuscripts, books, journals, newspapers, maps, iconographic documents, and recordings), many of which are connected to Latin America, offering rich perspectives on the relationships between France and Latin American countries across the centuries. The many travel narratives, testimonies, essays, photographs, and maps available provide rich insight into French perception of Latin America from the early 16th century to the mid-20th century. Although Gallica’s collection of manuscripts on Latin America is not plentiful, one of its main goals is to provide easy access to rare French books printed centuries ago, of which not many copies are available today and which are rarely present in other digital libraries. The richest collection is probably on Brazil, since Gallica has organized a special collection titled “France-Brésil” which provides access to the rich personal collection of books and manuscripts of the first French historian of Brazil, Ferdinand Denis (1798–1890), among other treasures. Gallica has undeniable value for researchers specialized in Latin American history, although working on its collections requires at least reading proficiency in French as the vast majority of the accessible resources are in French.

Article

Gaceta de Guatemala in the Colonial Period  

Catherine Poupeney Hart

Gaceta de Guatemala is the name of a newspaper spanning four series and published in Central America before the region’s independence from Spain. As one of the first newspapers to appear in Spanish America on a periodical basis, the initial series (1729–1731) was inspired by its Mexican counterpart (Gaceta de México) and thus it adopted a strong local and chronological focus. The title resurfaced at the end of the 18th century thanks to the printer and bookseller Ignacio Beteta who would assure its continuity until 1816. The paper appeared as a mainly news-oriented publication (1793–1796), only to be reshaped and energized by a small group of enlightened men close to the university and the local government (1797–1807). In an effort to galvanize society along the lines of the reforms promoted by the Bourbon regime, and to engage in a dialogue with readers beyond the borders of the capital city of Guatemala, they relied on a vast array of sources (authorized and censored) and on a journalistic model associated with the British Spectator: it allowed them to explore different genres and a wide variety of topics, while also allowing the paper to fulfill its role as an official and practical news channel. The closure of the Economic Society which had been the initial motor for the third series, and the failure to attract or retain strong contributors led slowly to the journal’s social irrelevance. It was resurrected a year after ceasing publication, to address the political turmoil caused by the Napoleonic invasion of the Peninsula and to curb this event’s repercussions overseas. These circumstances warranted a mainly news-oriented format, which prevailed in the following years. The official character of the paper was confirmed in 1812 when it appeared as the Gaceta del Gobierno de Guatemala, a name with which it finally ended publication (1808–1816).

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Severo Martínez Peláez and Latin American Historiography  

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.

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The Politics and Culture of Medicine and Disease 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.

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Political Economy, Race, and National Identity in Central America, 1500–2000  

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.

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The African Presence in Central American History  

Robinson Herrera

Far from monolithic, the seven Central American countries—Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama—each have unique cultural traditions and historical trajectories. Their different geographies, while not deterministic in any facile manner, influenced their development in ways that continue to shape their national characteristics. The cataclysmic 16th-century Spanish Conquest introduced new peoples and cultural traditions to the region. African slaves, primarily from the sub-Saharan region, accompanied the first Spanish ventures, and, later, as the colonies consolidated and grew, peoples of African descent, both enslaved and free, became a part of the area’s economic and cultural landscape. Starting in the late 18th century, African peoples from the Caribbean—whether forcefully exiled or as a result of searching for economic opportunities—traveled to Central America. Despite a contemporary collective historical amnesia that imagines Africans isolated in specific regions, namely the Caribbean coast, peoples of African descent can be found throughout the Central American nations. Rather than addressing each country, a thematic approach that focuses on the Spanish Conquest, slavery, emancipation, the ethnogenesis of African connected cultures, the historical erasure of Africans, and the contributions of peoples of African descent helps to understand the complex ways that peoples of African descent have impacted the history of modern Central America. For far from isolated to small populations along the Caribbean, the African presence can be discerned throughout the region, even in places often perceived as entirely devoid of its influence.

Article

Banana Industry in Central America  

Kevin Coleman

From the earliest days of Spanish and Portuguese colonial rule up until the late 19th century, banana cultivation in the Americas was carried out mostly by smallholders. That changed around 1880, when schooner captains based in Boston and New Orleans began to buy bananas in the Caribbean and sell them in the United States. In the geographically small countries of Central America, a couple of US-based banana companies have wielded enormous influence. The United Fruit Company (now known as Chiquita) acquired so much power in Guatemala and Honduras that it came to function as a state within a state, giving rise to the notion of “banana republics.” The company consolidated its power through various means: it installed authoritarian civilian and military governments that gave concessions to land, railroads, and ports; it divided its labor force along ethnic and racial lines; it built hospitals, schools, workers’ barracks, and houses for its management; and it used massive amounts of pesticides and herbicides in a capital intensive effort to cultivate varieties of the fruit that North American consumers came to expect but which were susceptible to Panama disease and Black Sigatoka. Bananas and plantains are a dietary staple throughout the tropics, and the diseases that beset the Gros Michel and Cavendish varieties that are grown on monocrop plantations threaten a vital source of healthy and relatively cheap calories that much of the world has come to rely upon. In recent years, consumers and civil society groups have organized to demand more socially and environmentally responsible bananas, creating organic and “fair trade” alternatives to conventional “free trade” bananas.

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The Central American Coffee Commodity Chain  

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.

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Saint Óscar Romero, Liberation Theology, and Human Rights in El Salvador  

Michael Cangemi

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.

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Digital Resources: Online Finding Aid for the Archivo General de Centro América  

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.

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“Estos gringos no entienden nada”: Anastasio Somoza and the Regional Dimension of the 1954 Coup d’etat in Guatemala  

Roberto García

Between 1944 and 1954, Guatemala had a radical democratic experience that significantly impacted its closest neighbors. During that time, two revolutionary governments, one led by Juan José Arévalo and the other by Jacobo Árbenz, promoted a set of political, economic, and social reforms unprecedented in Central America. These reforms did not follow a linear process but were made possible within a framework of broad freedoms. Surrounded by dictatorships and authoritarian rulers, Guatemala was gradually becoming a kind of democratic refuge for many exiled and persecuted people from different locations, though most came from Central American and Caribbean countries. The reform cycle accelerated remarkably after the approval of agrarian reforms in mid-1952, which radicalized the conservative stance of Guatemala’s neighbors and angered the United Fruit Company, the country’s major agriculture company. After numerous attempts to overthrow both leaders, local forces, in convergence with their regional counterparts, managed to convince the new US administration, headed by Dwight Eisenhower, of the danger of Guatemala’s role. The success of the covert coup in Iran (1953) also acted as a catalyst and facilitated the execution of a similar, secret plan to finally cause the collapse of the Árbenz government. The coup, which ultimately achieved its objective in June 1954, constitutes one of the most explored and emblematic themes of international relations in Latin America during the Cold War. Its consequences have endured into the 21st century.

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Catholics, Evangelicals, and US Policy in Central America  

Michael Cangemi

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.