El Salvador Table of Contents

The colonies comprising the Captaincy General of Guatemala declared their independence from Spain on September 15, 1821. It was not long before the new states, particularly El Salvador, had to contend with attempted annexation by another large power in the form of an independent Mexico under self-proclaimed Emperor Agustin de Iturbide. A Mexican force dispatched by Iturbide succeeded in bringing to heel the uncooperative Salvadorans, but only briefly. When the emperor himself fell from power in 1823, his dream of a Central American empire died with him. The five states of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica went on to establish themselves as the United Provinces of Central America on July 1, 1823.

The United Provinces, unworkable though they proved to be, constituted the only successful political union of the Central American states in the postcolonial era. Many optimistic residents of the region no doubt held high hopes for this new nation at its inception. Their sentiments were expressed elegantly, though ironically--given the subsequent course of events--by the liberator of South America, Simon Bolivar, who expounded in 1815 on the prospects for such a federation:

This magnificent location between the two great oceans could in time become the emporium of the world. Its canals will shorten the distances throughout the world, strengthen commercial ties with Europe, America, and Asia, and bring that happy region tribute from the four quarters of the globe. Perhaps some day the capital of the world may be located there, just as Constantine claimed Byzantium was the capital of the ancient world.

Unfortunately for those of Bolivar's idealistic inclinations, the Central American Federation was not immune to the conflict between liberals and conservatives that afflicted nineteenthcentury Latin America as a whole. Generally speaking, the liberals were more open to foreign ideas (particularly from the United States, France, and Britain); they welcomed foreign investment and participation in a laissez-faire process of economic development; and they sought to limit the influence of the Roman Catholic Church over the lives of the people. The conservatives' inclinations were almost diametrically opposed to those of the liberals. Conservatives were generally more xenophobic; they advocated more protectionist economic policies; and they championed the traditional role of the church as the predominant moral arbiter and preserver of the social and political status quo.

Split by the dichotomy between liberals and conservatives, the United Provinces never functioned as the unified national unit envisioned by its founders. Control of the federal government passed from liberal to conservative hands in 1826, only to be restored to the liberal faction under the leadership of the Honduran Francisco Morazan in 1829. Neither faction, however, was able to assert federal control over all five Central American states. Therefore, although the liberal governments enacted political, economic, and social reforms, they were never able to implement them effectively. The period of the United Provinces was thus one of Central American polarization impelled by deep divisions among the populace, not the unification originally anticipated by idealists.

El Salvador was a stronghold of liberal sentiment. Most Salvadorans, therefore, supported the rule of Morazan, who served as president of the federation from 1829 to 1840 when he was not leading forces in the field against the conservative followers of Rafael Carrera of Guatemala. In the waning days of liberal rule, San Salvador served as Morazan's last bastion. Unable to stem the tide of conservative backlash, the liberal forces fell to those of Carrera in March 1840. Morazan died before a firing squad in September 1842.

The almost unceasing violence that attended the effort to unite Central America into one federated nation led the leaders of the five states to abandon that effort and declare their independence as separate political entities. El Salvador did so in January 1841. Although their destinies would remain intertwined and they would intervene in each other's affairs routinely in the years to come, the countries of Central America would from that time function as fragmented and competitive ministates readily exploitable by foreign powers.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress