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.
The Central American Coffee Commodity Chain
Mario Samper Kutschbach
Digital Resources: Rubén Darío Papers 1882–1945 in the Arizona State University Digital Repository
The Nicaraguan poet, journalist, and diplomat Rubén Darío was one of the foremost writers of the modernist movement in Latin America at the turn of the 20th century. In his writing, Darío struggled with the historicity of Spanish and the weight of colonialism. Throughout his career, his work explored the changes in language, religion, love, and sexuality in the postcolonial era. A collection of Darío’s manuscripts and transcripts of Darío’s poetry and correspondence with other journalists, diplomats, poets, and romantic partners is available at the Arizona State University Library. This collection contains unique correspondence with important persons who were modernists and politicians, such as Emilio de Arriaga, Pedro Balmaceda Toro, Ernesto Bermúdez, Luis Bonafoux, Francisco Castro, Benigno Díez Salcedo, Rodolfo Espinosa, Fermín Estrella, Vicente Gasset, Crisanto Medina, and Amado Nervo. The archive was collected by Darío’s secretary, Alejandro Bermúdez. These papers may be seen online or in person at the Hayden Library.
Digital Resources: The Sandino Rebellion Digital Historical Archive, Nicaragua, 1927–1934
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.
Augusto C. Sandino and the Mexican Revolution
Augusto C. Sandino (1895–1934) led a peasant rebellion against the armed forces of the United States which occupied Nicaragua between 1926 and 1932. While much has been written about Sandino’s military prowess in this 20th-century guerrilla warfare, less is known about the development of his political thought and intellectual formation. That issue necessarily takes historians to the Mexican Revolution, and specifically to the period between 1923 and 1926 when Sandino was an immigrant worker in the oil fields of the larger Tampico area. Radical labor unionism and anarcho-syndicalism were the principal currents that Sandino encountered, and that helped shape his outlook and subsequent political manifestos. Because Sandino did not directly refer in any detail to this period of his life in subsequent interviews and statements, an examination is made of the cultural and social roots of working-class formations in which he immersed himself. Fortunately, historians have explored the social aspect, labor union activity, economics, and politics of the oil fields in depth (Adleson, Alafita-Mendez, Alcayaga Sasso); Dospital and Hodges were among the first to point to Sandino’s early experience in Mexico including his encounters with the metaphysical schools and mentors who shaped the idealism underpinning his anti-imperialism economic, political, military, and cultural thinking. During a military campaign and at the peak of his fame, Sandino returned to Mexico (1929–1930) expecting that the “revolutionary” government, on the one side, and the Communist Party of Mexico, on the other side, as representative of the international communist movement (Comintern) would lend political, financial, and military support for the war in Nicaragua. Cerdas Cruz told that story well, although without the benefit of primary sources. But Sandino was mistaken and eventually felt betrayed by both sides that laid claim to the revolution. He returned to Nicaragua where he fought successfully until the US Marines’ withdrawal at the end of 1932. Months after signing a peace treaty, Sandino was assassinated (February 1934) in Managua by the leaders of the proxy military constabulary or Guardia Nacional left behind by the United States in Nicaragua. At that time, he was establishing communes in northern Nicaragua according to the teachings of his first intellectual and spiritual mentors.
Catholics, Evangelicals, and US Policy in Central America
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.
Religion and Politics in 20th-Century Central America
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.