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Transnational Politics in Central America$

Luis Roniger

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780813036632

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813036632.001.0001

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Balkanization as Formative Experience

Balkanization as Formative Experience

(p.24) 3 Balkanization as Formative Experience
Transnational Politics in Central America

Luis Roniger

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

The short-lived attempt at the political unification of the early nineteenth century, which was followed by balkanization, is analyzed in this chapter, which portrays these as formative experiences that continued to inform the minds and political projects of the isthmus in later times. In this text, it is asserted that as separate states were constructed, they were not able to disengage completely from one another, thus projecting a peculiar trans-state and transnational dynamics through generations. The early nineteenth century witnessed developments of long-lasting effects in the region: i.e. the short-lived attempt of political unification followed by balkanization. These developments would turn into a formative experience, continuing to affect the historical memory and political projects of the region in later times as these societies developed their distinctiveness while at the same time being unable to completely disengage themselves from the sister republics of the isthmus.

Keywords:   political unification, nineteenth century, isthmus, political unification, balkanization

The early nineteenth century witnessed developments of long-lasting effects in the region: the short-lived attempt of political unification followed by balkanization. These developments would turn into a formative experience, continuing to affect the historical memory and political projects of the region in later times as these societies developed their distinctiveness while at the same time were unable to completely disengage themselves from the sister republics of the isthmus.

The roots of these developments can be traced to colonial times. The Spanish colonial cities structured and divided space into territorial units within which justice and municipal jurisdiction regulated economic and social relations, attempting to construct well-defined territorial units, even if in practice there were overlapping domains and conflicting authority prerogatives.1 Research has emphasized that at the colonial stage, cities were the materialization of spatial suzerainty, as they established the physical presence of the conquerors and settlers and created a spatial order that projected domination and was linked with social, religious, and sexual practices.2 The construction of urban communities, epitomized in the urban grid, was geared to a hierarchical model of order that conceived cities as centers of an ever-expanding appropriation of space and control of human and material resources. Moreover, residence and membership in local communities had become a main criterion of being a native (as against a foreigner) and thus the avenue for inclusion into the broader realm, with implications for citizen control over positions of office holding, trade permits, and in general access to resources, rights, and privileges.3

The replication of this model with each new urban foundation and the parallel expectation of corporate supremacy prevailing in different urban centers contained the seeds of competition for recognition and control of human and material resources. Potentially, tensions could lead to open conflict whenever changes in actual supremacy or administrative jurisdictions transformed the balance of power and territorial hierarchies.

(p.25) The reforms of the Spanish Bourbons in the late eighteenth century provided such trigger as they created, or at least reinforced, the centrifugal drive that would fragment Central America after independence.4 These reforms, implemented throughout the Americas between 1759 and 1788, shifted the balance of power in the isthmus, creating new administrative jurisdictions and new criteria of spatial hegemony, which bolstered the will of secondary cities to attain autonomy from major cities and the capital of the kingdom. We should realize, however, that historical contingency and accidents of history were also at work here, as the regional capital had to be moved to a new location—la Nueva Guatemala de la Asunción—in 1775, after the old capital of Santiago de los Caballeros (Antigua) was destroyed by a series of earthquakes in the early 1770s. This transfer of spatial hegemony occurring rather late in colonial times further complicated the transition from colonial to postcolonial patterns of hegemony.

Following these reforms and the relocation of the capital, some cities gained assets and others diminished in power. The principle of urban predominance changed, shifting from a city's contribution to conquest and original status (translated in the size of territorial administrative jurisdiction) to new criteria of territorial primacy, according to which cities were ranked by population, including also non-Spaniards. This created a situation of conflicting old and new claims to urban supremacy. Moreover, only a generation later, Napoleon's invasion provided the cities a new window of opportunity to redefine their role within the administrative-political system. The principle of royal legitimacy was shattered, and authority devolved to the municipal bodies representing the localized political communities or pueblos, a force that had persisted underground and was recognized by Spanish political theory since the sixteenth century. An oath of allegiance to the imprisoned king also implied an opportunity to assert the claims of representation of sovereign communities unwilling to be under the jurisdiction of other urban centers, while facing the attempts by the important cities to prevent territorial fragmentation.5

Independence was initially attained in Central America under apparently propitious circumstances, coinciding with an economic recovery from the crisis that started in the 1790s and with the linguistic affinity of Spanish shared by all elites and without the struggle and bloodshed associated with the dissolution of the empire elsewhere throughout South America. However, the latter conditions, which seemed to be an advantage, turned into an impending factor in the development of national identity. Indeed, the lack of wars of independence from Spain, only punctuated by urban insurrections (p.26) and plots, seems to have retarded a process of self-determination and definition of a common sense of collective destiny.

In the conservative strongholds of Central America and Mexico, the revolt of the Spanish brigadier Rafael del Riego in January 1820, demanding the restoration of the liberal constitution of 1812, triggered the movement to independence. King Ferdinand VII, who had abolished that constitution when he regained full power in the metropolis in 1814, was forced in 1820 to comply and swore to uphold it, ordering that it be sworn to again in all of Spain and the Spanish possessions. In the Americas, the most conservative strongholds that had resisted secession then moved to declare independence from the Spanish crown. In New Spain, Agustín Cosme Damián de Iturbide proclaimed independence in February 1821, followed by Central America's declaration of independence on September 15, 1821, issued jointly by royal representatives and the local authorities of Guatemala City. This started a process of “devolution” of sovereignty to the pueblos throughout the region and subsequent moves toward the reconstitution of administrative hierarchies and perhaps of unity, but in new ways. The contingent and open-ended character of the situation reveals itself in the lack of a “national” drive behind the decisions taken by the elites of the various urban settlements, which soon embarked in a move toward independence, albeit in ways that created an in-built and shifting tension between a de facto fragmentation and hoped-for reconstituted regional unity. As historian Jordana Dym indicates,

Provincial capitals and villages throughout Central America responded in multiple ways to Guatemala City's declaration, which included an invitation to participate in a constituent assembly. Later in the fall, Comayagua (Honduras), Quetzaltenango (Guatemala), and León (Nicaragua) declared independence from both Spain and Guatemala, seeking separately to join Mexico. León also expressed a wish to “wait until the clouds pass” to determine its next steps. Tegucigalpa (Honduras) and Granada (Nicaragua) sought union with Guatemala and independence from Spain. Costa Rica's principal cities issued a joint declaration of independence in late October. Thus, the date recognized by all Central American nation-states as that of their independence reflects the constant tension between unity and division that prevented Central America from remaining a single political territory.6

In January 1822 the isthmus joined the short-lived Mexican empire of Iturbide, crowned as Emperor Agustín I. He was forced to abdicate on June 19, 1823. Five days later, a Constitutional National Assembly convened in the (p.27) city of Guatemala and declared the final and “absolute” independence of the provinces of the Center of America, “recovering their rights, which have been encroached upon (usurpados) by their forceful union to Mexico.”

The assembly decided that Central America should form a federal pact and become one nation composed of various states. For a decade and a half, between 1823 and 1838, most Central American territories constituted parts of a single state—the United Provinces of Central America, which became the Federal Republic of Central America in 1824. Simón Bolívar had envisioned such a development, as he expressed great hopes for the isthmus in his famous “Jamaica letter” (1815), in which he wrote:

The states of the Isthmus from Panama to Guatemala will perhaps form a confederation [una asociación]. This magnificent location between the two great seas [oceans] could in time become the emporium of the world. Its canals will shorten the distances throughout the world, strengthen commercial ties between Europe, America, and Asia, and bring that happy region tribute from the four quarters of the globe. Perhaps someday the capital of the world will be located there, just as Constantine claimed Byzantium as the capital of the ancient world.7

Stretching from Chiapas in contemporary Mexico to Costa Rica, these territories were thus brought together into a single political entity by the region's liberals after a failed attempt by the conservatives to be part of Iturbide's short-lived Mexican empire. Leaders tried to consolidate the state. Yet, the United Provinces failed to construct a sense of nationhood as social and political forces wrangled with one another over the definition of the state. In the federal institutional structure, member states retained a high degree of autonomy, according to which each state would raise its own army and reproduce the union's institutional format, including electoral politics and a division of powers.

The liberals supported a federalist framework of government that would accommodate the various local networks, but they were unable to promote unity. And, once facing opposition from conservatives, they resorted to authoritarian, repressive measures rather than accommodating dissent and promoting consensus as a dynamic process evolving over time. According to Manuel Montúfar y Coronado (1791–1844), an insightful political witness and historian, the problem was the poor institutional framework, a framework built upon “political constitutions [that] have not been founded on customs or traditions, but on general theories accepted without examination and by the force of the prevailing interests of the moment.” Interestingly (p.28) enough, Montúfar adumbrated arguments that would remain valid for a very long time, even projected into discussions over institutional transfer of democracy in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Writing in 1832, Montúfar foresaw that the partisanship and vindictiveness of those in power would generate a dynamic of retaliation that, creating abuse and impoverishment, would threaten the survival of the Central American Federation. His foresight is worth quoting at large:

The results of the manner in which Central America ended its Civil War have not produced any advantage except the temporary suspension of hostilities that sooner or later will be renewed. The victors believed themselves secure with the expulsion and impoverishment of all who could oppose them; but they can't protect themselves from each other; they don't consider the opinion of the people of the State of Guatemala, who, say what you may, find themselves in a violent situation, recognize what they have lost, and do not see the happiness which they have been promised…. The people can eat neither theories nor beautiful principles; they remember other times, they cry for them, and when they see a banner of opposition being raised they run to it hoping it will bring back to them what they have lost.8

Attempting to develop their societies in the spirit of the Enlightenment, the liberals of the 1820s and 1830s enacted a series of reforms that galvanized a broad coalition of countervailing social and political forces that were to destroy the federal state. Opposition to the liberal reforms included small farmers, merchants, weavers, and artisans who suffered economic blows due to the liberal policies of opening their markets to British products, primarily manufactured textiles; Indian peasants who reacted with violence to the liberal policies threatening to change their traditional lifestyles and agreed-upon collective arrangements; village priests opposing the educational initiatives of the federal government, seen as anticlerical; and a myriad of individuals and groups resisting the abolition of the old regime's special judicial rights, or fueros. The enforcement of the liberal policies—with punitive measures ranging from exile to confiscation of property—backfired and led to the rise of political figures such as Rafael Carrera spearheading a conservative backlash throughout the entire isthmus. In their assessment of this process, historians tend to agree that the implementation of liberal reforms in the 1820s–1830s proved too radical a change for societies emerging from three centuries of conservative colonial rule and too intolerant of the indigenous population, providing a strong incentive for the formation (p.29) of a conservative-indigenous coalition in Guatemala that would eventually unravel the union.9

In a context of poor communications, an economic structure of competing commodities, and the relative lack of complementary trading interests, a dynamic of increased disengagement led to the disintegration of the union. It all started in Guatemala, the richest and most densely populated state, which had been the seat of administrative and judicial authorities since colonial times. The rebellion in Guatemala was not stifled initially, as Francisco Morazán, a Honduran-born federal leader, failed to support the Guatemalan governor Mariano Gálvez, who for some time had tried to appease the local conservatives. Once Morazán reacted, it was forcefully, in an escalation of repression supported by troops of El Salvador, the liberal stronghold of the federation.

The federation then broke at one of its weakest points in terms of internal cohesion: Nicaragua seceded in 1838. The defection of Nicaragua was followed by a decision of the federal congress to allow the states to go separate ways. Morazán was forced to return to El Salvador to take the reins of power. Conservatives held power in Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica, and these states also seceded. Morazán controlled only El Salvador, where he had been elected head of state. After a failed invasion of Guatemala City and facing forces opposing him in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, Morazán was forced eventually to escape by sea into exile in Peru and Panama. In 1840 he led a renewed yet failing attempt to land forces by sea and regain power, hopeful that the British taking control of the Caribbean Mosquitia region from Nicaragua would galvanize those willing to unify Central America. When he returned two years later, he attempted once more to regain power—briefly succeeding in Costa Rica in 1842—but following a popular uprising, he was executed by a firing squad the same year.

All over Central America, conservatives with strong provincial loyalties had replaced the liberals. Rafael Carrera, the leading political actor in the region, had no intention of reuniting the countries. The countries signed a defensive pact against the federal spirit of the 1820s, vowing to maintain their individual sovereignty. It would take several decades for liberals to regain power and carry out new attempts at reunification.

The state system of Central America was thus born of dissolution and the recomposition of sociopolitical interests in different parts of the isthmus, with a major rift between El Salvador and Guatemala and secondary divisions between and within republics. Unity was focused around interests in various cities. Chiapas was pulled into the sphere of Mexican power, with (p.30) the exception of a subregion, Soconusco, which remained tied to Guatemala between 1824 and 1842. Costa Rica—then a sparsely populated and poor region—oscillated between its former dependence on Panama (then part of Colombia) and the Central American sister republics. Tensions and wars over regional hegemony ensued, most noticeably in the case of Nicaragua, where León and Granada engaged in a series of protracted civil wars. Historian Jordana Dym sums up the historical process of fragmentation and fracture that led eventually to the balkanization of the region:

[A]fter what many describe as a “peaceable and bloodless” independence, the Central American Federation suffered notable disputes in every province that would suggest fracture of states rather than their construction. The cities of Tegucigalpa and Sonsonate both sought to head independent states in the federation before agreeing to join Honduras and El Salvador. The cities of Granada and León began the first of a series of civil wars that brutalized Nicaragua almost from the moment of the federation's creation. Costa Rica, often portrayed as an exceptionally harmonious province, experienced a civil war between its four district capitals that led to the permanent relocation of the state capital from Cartago, its colonial center, to San José. A decade later, Quetzaltenango, an important city in Guatemala's hinterlands, tried repeatedly to attract neighboring districts into a breakaway state, briefly succeeding in 1838–39. In the meantime, the federal capital moved from Guatemala City to Sonsonate, San Vicente, and finally San Salvador in search of an acceptable home. Overall, the period between 1821 and 1839 was characterized by unstable state and federal governments, peripatetic capitals, and numerous military conflicts. When in 1838 the federal congress decreed that each state could withdraw from the republic should it so desire, the federation was essentially a dead letter.10

Such processes of dismemberment and replication of claims to sovereignty were at work throughout Iberoamerica with its lack of legitimate sovereign rulers, rooted in the restitution of sovereignty to the empowered members of localized communities.11 Thus, for instance, the United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata in the Southern Cone underwent a similar decades-long process of fragmentation and reconfiguration that led to the redrafting of provincial and national borders of Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil on the one hand and Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay on the other.12

There is nothing natural in such processes of dismemberment, as a comparative look at the Brazilian experience indicates. Based on its historical (p.31) background and size, Brazil had a greater risk to disintegrate into regional entities. Regional sentiments and local patriotism had developed since colonial times, especially in the more economically dynamic areas such as São Paulo, Pernambuco, Minas Gerais, and Bahia, which provided fertile ground for insurrections. Many such rebellions occurred as a result of grievances and a desire for greater autonomy, among them the proclamation of Amador Bueno in São Paulo in 1641, the Pernambuco insurrection of 1645–54 and “Revolution” of 1817, the Inconfidência Mineira of 1789, and the Revolta dos Alfaiates in 1798 in Bahia.13 In times of crisis, the centrifugal forces threatened to destroy a sense of common destiny, similarly to what happened in Central America. Unlike Central America, however, Brazil remained united throughout the transition from colonial to postcolonial times.

Such comparative perspective suggests that the decisive factor at work is not the sparse and diverse population or the regional distances and poor communications, even though these are important conditioning factors.14 Instead, the most critical factor is the development or lack of development of a political center capable of overcoming the divisiveness of localized elites and linking them by institutional means, charisma, and coalitional structures, reinforcing the drive of those political forces working to support unity, and abiding by the political system adopted there in early independence. In Central America, it was the failure of the early liberal state to shape such drive among the localized elites that explains why, in sharp contrast with the Brazilian experience, the isthmus fragmented into separate nation-states, a process taking place in a territory more than sixteen times smaller.

In the process of fragmentation and reconstruction of commitments, even regional boundaries changed. Chiapas and later on Soconusco fell under the influence of Mexico, becoming parts of that state and ceasing to be seen and considered as parts of a isthmian identity, while Belize and Panama came to be perceived as part of the isthmus.

Being connected to South America during colonial times and the nineteenth century, Panama developed an isthmian identity as the “southernmost country of Central America” belatedly, following its independence via dissociation from Colombia in November 1903. Panama had experienced a short period of independence before, in 1840–42, and since the 1880s major sectors of the population seemed to support secession from Colombia. These feelings were exacerbated after Panama suffered by being drawn into the Colombian War of a Thousand Days (1899–1902) and after rebels from Nicaragua tried to take over Panama City in 1900.15 Yet, as is well known, the formal independence of 1903 resulted from the U.S. wish to circumvent the (p.32) Colombian parliament's refusal to ratify the U.S. project of a trans-isthmus canal that would provide a passage for ships transiting between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Since then, however, Panama has identified only partially with the rest of Central America and until recently did not join various regional bodies. Its position as an international trading center caused Panamanians to interact more with foreign powers than with most of the other countries of Central America.

The case of Belize is even more complex. The control of Belize was taken by the British from the Spaniards in late colonial times. With the immigration of settlers from the Mosquito Coast after 1787, Belize became a thriving center for Central American trading and smuggling for about three generations. The Spaniards failed to reclaim it in 1798, and their heir, the state of Guatemala, continued to demand its reincorporation into the national territory. In the mid-nineteenth century, Guatemala agreed to recognize British sovereignty over the area in return for the construction of a road from Guatemala City to the Caribbean Sea. Disagreements over where the road would end, as well as shifting British priorities, caused the project to fail. This in turn led to the Guatemalan abrogation of the treaty and to a persisting international dispute settled only in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

With the shift in economic importance from the Caribbean shore to the Pacific coast, following the emergence of trans-isthmus transportation, thinly populated Belize became more a liability for the British than a source of permanent influence in the region. Accordingly, a process of steep decline started that turned Belize City into an undeveloped and rather poor hybrid Caribbean outpost: “Belize City remained an unsavory, tropical village, with unpainted wooden houses, dirty streets, and open sewers.”16 Made a crown colony in 1862 and attaining self-government in 1870, Belize became an independent country in 1981. Even though it had threatened to attack Belize, Guatemala entered negotiations and eventually recognized Belize's autonomy, being aware that the United Kingdom guaranteed its territorial integrity. Guatemala officially recognized Belize's independence in 1991 and—after renewed disputes—finally achieved an agreement on their borders in 2002 through the mediation of the Organization of American States. With only around 300,000 inhabitants, a multicultural society, and English as an official language, this former English colony—known once as British Honduras—has joined SICA, the so-called System of Central American Integration, in addition to its membership in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the British Commonwealth of Nations.

The failed project of political unification left the region balkanized, (p.33) fragmented, and headed toward a process of incipient state formation. Being a very elite-based move and having failed to construct a common sense of nationhood, the project of a Central American nation was relegated to the realm of a discarded yet not completely forgotten collective experience, to be replaced by the logic of construction of distinct state boundaries, institutions, and nation building.


Balkanization as Formative Experience

Photo 1. Tikal—witness of past Mayan grandeur.

Balkanization as Formative Experience

Photo 2. Living traditions and cultural hybridity: a procession in Chichicastenango, Guatemala.

Balkanization as Formative Experience

Photo 3. Colonial memories—Antigua (then known as Santiago de los Caballeros), capital of the kingdom of Goathemala (Central America) for 231 years.

Balkanization as Formative Experience

Photo 4. State logic and nation building.


(1.) Morelli, “Territorial Hierarchies and Collective Identities,” 37–56.

(2.) Angel Rama, The Lettered City (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996); María Elena Martínez, “Space, Order, and Group Identities in a Spanish Colonial Town: Puebla de los Angeles,” in Roniger and Herzog, The Collective and the Public in Latin America, 13–36.

(3.) Tamar Herzog, “Communities Becoming a Nation: Spain and Spanish America in the Wake of Modernity (and Thereafter),” Citizenship Studies 11, 2 (2007): 151–72.

(4.) See Jordana Dym, From Sovereign Villages to National States. City, State, and Federation in Central America, 1759–1839 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006).

(5.) François-Xavier Guerra, “The Spanish-American Tradition of Representation and Its European Roots,” Journal of Latin American Studies 26, 1 (1994): 1–35, and “The Implosion of the Spanish Empire: Emerging Statehood and Collective Identities,” in Roniger and Herzog, The Collective and the Public in Latin America, 71–94.

(6.) Jordana Dym, “Central America,” in Guntram H. Herb and David H. Kaplan, eds., Nations and Nationalism. A Global Historical Overview (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2008), 319.

(8.) Manuel Montúfar y Coronado, Memorias para la historia de la revolución de Centro Américaz (Jalapa, 1832; Guatemala: Tipografía Sánchez & De Guise, 1934), 98–99, 293, quoted in Timothy Hawkins, “A War of Words: Manuel Montufar, Alejandro Marure, and the Politics of History in Guatemala,” Historian 64, 3–4 (2002): 522, 526.

(9.) Carolyn Hall and Héctor Pérez Brignoli, Historical Atlas of Central America (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003), 175.

(10.) Dym, From Sovereign Villages to National States, xx.

(11.) Guerra, “Implosion of the Spanish Empire,” 71–94.

(12.) José Carlos Chiaramonte, Ciudades, provincias, estados. Orígenes de la nación argentina (1800–1846) (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 2006).

(13.) See Manuel Correia de Andrade, As raízes do separatismo no Brasil (São Paulo: Editora UNESP and Editora de Universidade do Sagrado Coração, 1998).

(14.) The importance of such factors may vary cross-regionally. For Africa see Jeffrey I. (p.193) Herbst, States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).

(15.) Tom Barry, Panama: A Country Guide. Inter-Hemispheric Education Resource Center, 1990, 20–22.

(16.) Ralph Lee Woodward Jr., Central America. A Nation Divided (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 256.