The troubled politics of most Central American nations have been poorly understood by many observers and subjected to a range of ideological interpretations. To those of the Left, the upheavals are perfectly described by dependency theory and seen as the result of foreign economic domination--mainly by the U.S. In alliance with local allies, this is seen as attempting to prevent legitimate reforms and the rise of strong national states which could contest its economic control of the region. To the Right, the situation is a textbook case of Marxist intrigue in which the Soviet Union, using its surrogate, Cuba, supports violent revolution and stirs the troubled waters formed of legitimate social grievances and inevitable economic problems. Its attempt is both to create trouble for the United States, and to establish docile satellites in the affected region. What joins these two views is a belief that the most significant causes of instability come from outside the region.

In this paper, I would like to suggest another way of viewing the problems, one in which instability is the result of an internal dynamic of change. In each country this involves a struggle to cope with a changing sense of national identity which requires a redefinition of national purpose and a restructuring of national institutions to serve that purpose. The Central American states are, in effect, undergoing the same type of quest which was undertaken in the United States 200 years ago. Just as its constitution represents a uniquely American ---------------

* The term "Nation-making" used in the title appears inelegant and, perhaps, imprecise; but it was carefully chosen by the author rather than the more common "Nation Building" or "National Formation" because of a truth it conveys. We are delving into a process which has more in common with an artisan craft than a construction project. The hands of the artist mold and change the shape of his creation as he goes along, and no two creations--even made by the same artist--are alike. In contrast, the builder follows a preconceived plan which can be replicated by others ad infinitum. So it is with nations. They are shaped and reshaped by people involved in an ongoing historical process, not constructed according to a preconceived formula or evolving in a steady movement toward a Platonic ideal.

solution to its problems, so too will the Nicaraguan, Guatemalan, Honduranean and Salvadoranean solutions. (It would appear that Costa Rica has already found its own.)


The concept of the Nation-State is a foreign import to Central America. During the pre-Colombian period, the Indian societies in Central America advanced little beyond the tribal or independent village level.1 At various times conquest kingdoms--the Quiche being the most notable of the local variant--developed, but they invariably disintegrated and left relatively untouched the basic loyalties of the people to their tribe, village or clan (calpulli-chinamit). Moreover, although the Indians of Guatemala and Honduras were intimately involved in the trade patterns of Meso-america because of the cacao which could be grown on the Pacific Coast, the result of commerce was not the growth of regional unity, but rather conquest. The Lingua Franca of Central America became Nahuatl, a vestige of the establishment of trading colonies of Teotihuacanos, Toltecs and, ultimately, Aztecs in the region.2

The lack of any large scale regional confederations such as dominated central Mexico, combined with the disunity of Spanish conquest groups, made the Spanish occupation of Central America both difficult and costly. First of all, rather than one conquest, there were several. The defeat of major groups such as the Quiche or the Cakchiquel did not pacify the region because they controlled relatively little territory; consequently, more entradas to deal with lesser tribes were necessary so that warfare extended for a long period of time. Moreover, the character of the Spanish conquest differed dramatically from that of Mexico. Competing groups assaulted Central America from both north and south. Finding no great kingdoms to be controlled or wealth to be distributed, they used the region's human and material resources for further exploits outside the region, particularly in the Peruvian campaigns. The fact that the conquistadores had no particular interest or concern in maintaining and nurturing the Indian groups--as they did, for example, in Mexico and Peru--gave the early conquest period its particularly rapacious character, numerous examples of which would grace the writings of Bartolomé de las Casas.

The ultimate result of the conquest combined with the short-lived boom in Cacao demographically and socially to devastate the region. The wars, enslavement and forced movements of Indians, and disease combined to destroy populations. In less settled regions such as Nicaragua and Honduras, populations fell from the range of 200-400,0003 prior to contact to approximately 20-25,000 in each by 1590. The population of Costa Rica declined from an estimated 80,000 in 1563 to scarcely 1,000 in 1714.4

The much larger and more organized populations of Guatemala and El Salvador suffered as badly and by the beginning of the seventeenth century were also a fraction of their former size. In the Cacao province of Soconusco (in El Salvador), despite heavy forced immigration of Indians to maintain the labor force, the tributary population fell from a pre-conquest estimate of 30,000 to only 2,000 in 1613.5 In the highlands, the village of Santiago Atitlan declined from 12,000 tributaries in 1524 to 1,000 in 1585.6

By 1600, the demographic face of Central America had changed considerably from what it had been in 1500. Guatemala and El Salvador which had enjoyed population densities rivaling those of modern times, had been reduced to a shadow of that condition. Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica were almost totally depopulated creating vast unused grasslands in southern Central America.

The Indians who remained alive in the North as the sixteenth century closed were also in vastly different social and economic circumstances. Much of the pre-Colombian political and social structure had been destroyed. Obviously, the Spanish went about the task of dismantling any political organization which could rival them; consequently, any nobility above that of the village disappeared. The social structure within the villages also changed. Spaniards relied on local nobles--caciques--as intermediaries between the Spanish and the Indian worlds, but economic pressures from both above and below soon reduced this nobility to the level of the macehuales. Consequently, the villages became an undifferentiated economic mass and in governance tribal chiefs were replaced by elders.

The consequence of the century of tragedy was to destroy the pre-Colombian cultures and any basis for reestablishing the pre-conquest unities which had existed. In addition, the new societies which were created by the Spanish presence had only the most ephemeral unity and inter-community contact. While Spaniards searched for the "produit moteur" which would bring them prosperity, great demands were made on the Indian communities--forcing them to relate to the outside world and to engage in a larger market economy. But by the middle of the seventeenth century, the search for valuable commodities had been shown to be a failure and Central America lapsed into a period of somnolence which by and large would last until the late nineteenth century.

During this period of quiet, considerable cultural and political fragmentation developed. The only city of note, Santiago de Guatemala (Antigua), was purely an administrative capital. Lacking any "produit moteur," the region relied almost totally on subsidies from Mexico to maintain a cash economy. With this flimsy basis, Santiago supported only a very small economic hinterland, extending little beyond the Valle de Guatemala itself. Eventually, those who could not flee the region entirely retreated back to the countryside where they maintained themselves in a condition of self-sufficiency. In regions of Guatemala, haciendas were established which continued to place cultural and economic pressures on Indian communities, but the small ranchers who populated Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras were poverty-stricken economic refugees and possessed little contact with each other, much less with the outside world. Nominally Spanish, they nevertheless would have been scarcely recognized as ethnic brothers by the small elite of Santiago and its hinterland. The hispanicized populations were very small; at the end of the seventeenth century, the capital, Santiago, counted scarcely 1,000 vecinos (roughly equivalent to free adult males): Granada in Nicaragua sheltered only 200; Cartago in Costa Rica, 600; San Salvador, 200.7 Compared to Mexico they scarcely qualified as villages.

In much of the Indian heartland, the demands made on the Indian communities effectively ceased--there was no need for Indian labor and no cash to be soaked from them. The result was that the farther one got from Santiago--Western Guatemala is a good example--the more Indian communities went their own way. With few commercial possibilities, villages became increasingly self-sufficient economically and isolated even from each other.

In practice, the formal political unity of Central America was non-existent. Indian communities were self-governed and, except when it was unavoidable, turned only infrequently to any outside political authority. In the ladino regions of Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, political life revolved around the cabildo of the dominant town. With little possibility of appeal to Santiago because of distance and poverty, necessary political and judicial decisions were made at the town level. The politics of the cabildo and corregimiento were also of interest because, in societies which lacked any economic bases for status, possession of office (both civil and ecclesiastical) offered not only a small salary and some economic opportunities, but also prestige. This is reflected in the colonial rivalries which would plague areas such as Nicaragua after independence.

The ultimate situation, to quote Macleod, was a Central America that was:

rural, self-sufficient, poor for the most part, fragmented politically and economically, and culturally introverted. It was during this period that the basis was laid for the modern . . . political and economic divisions of the area, and for the cultural cleavage between `Indian' and `ladino' which hampers Guatemalan nationhood to this day.8

Central America achieved its independence as an afterthought. When Mexico obtained its independence in 1821, Spanish authorities in Guatemala, in effect, simply left. Initially, Central America fell into the Mexican "Empire," but in 1823 declared its independence, forming a Federation. Each of the modern nations was a state of that federation.

The transition was managed by the work of the small intellectual and economic elite of Santiago which represented the only group in the region with some intellectual sense of how one went about constructing a nation.9 For most of the Central American states, little changed as a result of independence and little thought was given to organization and purpose. The dominant town became the state capital and the families who had previously vied for positions on the Cabildo now vied for positions in the state government. With few economic ties and only a weak political attachment, integration into the federation was formal at best.

In the 1840s the Central American Federation formally broke apart and the states became nations.10 Governors were now presidents; but again very little thought was given to political organization and there was no real concept of the "Nation" and its purpose.

The difficulties of modern times stem in part from the attitudes and concerns of the political elites of that time. Thus, in order to consider the failures of "Nation-Making" and how and why elites created systems which excluded the mass of the population, it behooves us to consider the period since 1840 in more detail. However, because an individual consideration of each country is beyond the scope of a short essay of this sort, I would like to select a single country--Guatemala--to illustrate the basic point I am trying to make. Only in Guatemala were ideological labels--liberal and conservative--of any meaning, and only there was there any real struggle concerning the proper structure and purpose of government. Guatemalans tried to create a "nation" at that time, and because it is in so much difficulty at the moment its failures are of more than passing interest.


Interestingly, Guatemalan liberals such as Mariano Galvez perceived that government existed to promote the well-being of the total population and had promoted the economic and social development of the region.11 However, Galvez's concept of development required adoption of European (read British) culture and mores. He considered the Indian majority benighted and colonial institutions, including the Church, responsible. Therefore, he set about encouraging European colonization and exploitation of the lowlands, in addition to modernization of the political institutions of the country. The attack on the Catholic Church, especially, provoked a reaction from the Indian population which played a principal role in ousting the liberals, destroying the federation, and bringing to power a conservative caudillo, Rafael Carrera.

Carrera's power rested on his respect for religion and his pledge to defend Indian "liberties," i.e., their right to continue to live in isolation and independently of the ladino community. Unfortunately, when Carrera died in 1865, the Indian communities were incapable of reuniting to defend those "liberties." Their lack of interest in controlling the central government and participating in national life would be their undoing.12

Liberal caudillos, of which Justo Rufino Barros was the most notable, were able to impose "Progress" and establish ladino domination of national institutions. For several reasons the Indian majority did not effectively oppose harsh and exploitative measures imposed by the national government in pursuit of economic development. First, there was the disunity of Indian culture which made effective alliances, even between neighboring villages, almost impossibile except when confronted with a direct attack on the core traditions, such as happened when the liberals attempted to tamper with religion in the 1830s. Second, the liberals of the Barros era had no wish to destroy Indian culture and traditions. In fact, although they created policies which would send 100,000 Indians a year from the Highlands to the Boca Costa to work as migrants on coffee plantations, the government of Barros did everything it could to see that this migration did not destroy village life.13

The assault from the outside led the Indian community to turn even more strongly inward and to seek as few contacts with the outside world as possible. The defensive Indian community, as Nash describes it,14 was able to protect its membership, but at the cost of isolation from the mainstream of National life, poverty, and inability to defend itself when the ladino community decided that community resources were worth the cost of appropriation. Thus, the two worlds remained psychologically and physically separated and utterly disdained each other.

What kept the ethnic division from erupting into open strife and allowed a relatively "stable" set of governmental institutions to continue was the fact that Guatemala enjoyed economic development only in peripheral regions. Thus, the broader impact of development was slow to appear. It was not until after 1940 that an urban middle sector emerged to question the older institutions. More importantly, it was not until after 1940 that incipient modernization made Indian labor and Indian land sufficiently valuable to merit wholesale assault on Indian communities and their traditions.

Much of the current strife in Guatemala is the result of unrestrained expropriation of Indian resources which began in the 1950s.15 Traditional methods of resistance have failed to throw back these assaults and the Indian communities, increasingly frustrated and frightened concerning the future of their way of life, have joined in the violence of the guerrilla war.


The purpose of this brief analysis of Guatemalan history is to bring into focus the issue of nationhood and its relation to structures. Throughout the history of Guatemala there had been a division between Indian and Ladino. After independence the Ladino elite dominated the institutions of the state and conducted a series of policies in line with their perceptions of the interest of the nation. This provoked no violence from the Indian community, not because they were not capable of violence --their support of Carrera belies that--but because they had no interest in the "Nation" and did not perceive Ladino control and policies as fundamentally dangerous to things they considered important. They were used to exploitation in the form of labor levies and taxes; they had had long centuries of experience with outsiders making demands on them. But they had developed a series of methods for dealing with the demands of outsiders which moderated exploitation and allowed them to maintain the essentials of their world as they saw fit.

Within the Ladino community, political power was exercised by a small elite and usually in an authoritarian manner. The regimes of Barros and Ubico had much in common with those of the colonial governors. Political stability within the Ladino community was the result of essentially satisfied expectations. However, modernization created a middle sector in Guatemala which increasingly desired participation in national institutions. It is these groups--intellectuals, small entrepreneurs, urban workers and bureaucrats--who provided the basic support for the ladino reform movements of Juan Arevalo and Jacobo Arbenz. Thus in the 1940s and 1950s, conflict increasingly emerged not only between Ladinos and Indians, but also within the Ladino community itself. Violence erupted because the old style of politics could neither incorporate the new demands of the Ladino community, nor deal with the protests of the Indians. The contending parties had no traditional way of talking to each other or of resolving peacefully the problems of each group.

The only possible tactic in this situation is intimidation, the lack of success of which has increased the rigidity of the old elite and the polarization of society. Tragically, the United States, by labeling it a struggle of Communists vs. Democrats, exacerbated the problem in 1954 by abetting the overthrow of the last democratically elected government of the country. The government of Castillo Armas, who was so disliked as to be assassinated by his palace guard in 1957, initiated a series of military dictatorships whose only solution to the problems until recently has been suppression.

The approach of the military and the old elites will not work. Short of exterminating the entire Indian population (50 per cent of the total population), and totally alienating the middle sectors, violence is not able to bring peace. Conversely, it is rather doubtful that the guerrillas can succeed in exterminating the dominant Ladino groups. Rather, the contending parties have to find a way of incorporating their interests and cultures into a common political system--one which might not be democratic in character--and a shared sense of nationhood. If there is no other basis for nationhood, one might be found in shared distrust with a recognition that the other is not going to go away. Certainly no one can rewrite Guatemalan history to say that the Indian and Ladino communities share a common past and bond of brotherhood. The violence of the past must be recognized, but so too must the dangers and futility of violence in the future.

I have dwelt upon the Guatemalan situation because the lack of nationhood and the polarization of the communities is so apparent. But, while the dynamic is different in each case, the same constitutional issue and historical process is operative in Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador.

In Nicaragua, for example, the basis for conflict is not ethnic, but rather a traditional political system based on family rivalries.16 Even during the colonial period, elite families of Leon and Granada vied for control of local offices because, in a money-poor environment which lacked any economic basis for prestige, governmental office provided the only employment and the only way in which elites could distinguish themselves. After independence, these elite families would label themselves Liberal and Conservative, but the labels had little ideological content and their feuds little meaning. The vast majority of the Ladino population lived in rustic isolation as subsistence peasants and ignored these petty feuds.

In the latter nineteenth century, however, the United States intervened for its own purposes and the game became more serious as the financial opportunities stemming from office holding increased. Unwittingly, in its pursuit of its own security and believing that it was fostering democracy, the United States gave one of the players--Anastasio Somoza Garcia--a tool to end the competition.

The Guardia Nacional with its monopoly on force stopped the petty warfare, but the political attitudes of the elite remained unchanged. Possession of office brought no concern for the public welfare beyond the welfare of the elites occupying the posts. Despite development, that attitude did not change. As in Guatemala, the emergence of the middle classes during the l950s and 1960s created tensions when peasants, hertofore outside the process, began to lose their lands to outsiders and to be forced into the cities as laborers.

The ultimate consequence of the economic process was that new groups desired a role in the political processes in order to protect their own interests. Instead of being granted entry, however, exploitation increased and became more arbitrary when Anastasio Somoza Debayle took power. He fell because his rapacity alienated even those elites who had supported his father.

The success of that revolution did not resolve the problem of political structures. The parties which combined as anti-somocistas--the FSLN, the traditional elites, and the newly emerged peasants--still have not found a constitutional system or political process which could incorporate all their interests. Thus, the civil war continues.

My point is that this is a uniquely Nicaraguan problem that must be solved by Nicaraguans. The fact that Costa Rica is not involved and is at peace, despite having much the same colonial heritage, ethnic situation and environment, proves this point. Costa Ricans found a system growing out of their own unique tradition.17


Is there any historical precedent for negotiations and compromise between social groups without a shared sense of nationhood and a constitution culturally and politically acceptable to all important groups in the society? In my estimation, the answer is yes: Mexico went through precisely these struggles in the early twentieth century and its constitution of 1917, with subsequent political interpretation from 1917 to 1940, offers an instructive case of how contending groups, while disdainful of each other, can find a constitutional modus vivendi.18

The Mexican case is instructive in several ways. First, prior to 1910 the existing constitutional system as well as its political implementation failed to recognize the legitimate interests of an Indian sub-culture. The elites who wrote the constitutions of the nineteenth century were urban, secular and Creole (white) in origin and considered it irrelevant--or regressive--that the majority of the country was rural, intensely Catholic, and Indo-mestizo. As in Guatemala, political relations were characterized by disdain for the others' traditions, and on the part of the dominant creole class, an attempt to exterminate those traditions. Nevertheless, between 1917 and 1940, this dominant creole elite found a way of coming to terms with traditions it abhorred.

Second, while exploitation and considerable disparities in the distribution of income continue (Mexico has the most mal-distributed income of any country in Latin America), political scientists report that there is wide acceptance of the political system and very little interest in violent revolution.

Third, the process of developing these compromises on which political peace was based was a very violent one, and one which the United States labeled as "Communist"--actually Bolshevik--and tried to stop.19

Finally, Mexico's solution to its problem produced a political system which both functions as a modernizing force and can be seen as compatible with the political traditions of the older communities. Rather than following a North American model totally, or a European ideology such as Socialism or Corporatism, it probably can be described best as an authoritarian democracy. It is an eclectic solution and works precisely because Mexicans ignored foreign entanglements, both ideological and political, and came up with pragmatic solutions to problems which reflected Mexican realities and Mexican traditions.

This final point is my basis for believing that the Central American states can do likewise.

The Catholic University of America

Washington, D.C.


1. This analysis generally follows Murdo MacLeod, Spanish Central America: A Socioeconomic History, 1520-1720 (Berkeley: Univ. of California, 1973).

2. Ibid., p. 28.

3. Ibid., charts, pp. 53, 59.

4. Ibid., p. 332.

5. Ibid., p. 71.

6. Ibid., p. 131.

7. Ibid., p. 218.

8. Ibid., p. 309.

9. The best study of these attitudes is found in William Griffith, Empires in the Wilderness: Foreign Colonization and Development in Guatemala, 1834-1844 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina, 1965).

10. Two good studies of the dynamics of political processes are Thomas L. Karnes, The Failure of Union: Central America 1824-1960 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina, 1961); and Miles-Wortman, Government and Society in Central America, 1680-1840 (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1982).

11. Consult Griffin.

12. E. Bradford Burns, The Poverty of Progress (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1980).

13. Two articles by David McCreery detail the impact of development on Indian populations. "Coffee and Class: The Structure of Development in Liberal Guatemala," HAHR, 56 (1976), 438-460; and "Debt Servitude in Rural Guatemala, 1876-1936," HAHR, 63 (1983), 735-760.

14. Manning Nash, "The Impact of Mid-Nineteenth Century Economic Change Upon the Indians of Middle America," in Magnus Morner, ed., Race and Class in Latin America (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1970).

15. Richard N. Adams, Crucifixion by Power: Essays on the Guatemalan National Social Structure, 1944-1966 (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1970).

16. On this dynamic, consult Thomas Walker, Nicaragua: the Land of Sandino (Boulder: Westview Press, 1981); Richard Millett, Guardians of the Dynasty (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1977); Lester Langley, The United States and the Caribbean in the Twentieth Century (Athens, Georgia: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1980).

17. For an interesting insight into the Costa Rican dynamic, see John Bell, Crisis in Costa Rica: The 1948 Revolution (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1971).

18. Useful overviews include Ramon Ruiz, The Great Rebellion (New York: Norton Press, 1980); Frank Tannenbaum, Mexico: the Struggle for Peace and Bread (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1950); and Pablo Gonzalez Casanova, Democracy in Mexico (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970).

19. See particularly, Robert Freeman Smith, The United States and Revolutionary Nationalism in Mexico, 1916-1932 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1972).