Within 25 years of the discovery of Central America the Spanish had essentially completed their
along the Pacific coast north and west of Panama in 1522, Gil Gonzalez Davila ventured into
the Captaincy-General of Guatemala, whose authority extended from the province of Chiapas in
southern Mexico eastward to the province of Costa Rica. These borders remained intact until after
1821 when Chiapas and Soconusco were stripped away from Central America and annexed to Mexico.
of New Granada in 1718 and was ruled from Colombia.
As early as the 16th century the Spanish were required to relocate and fortify Caribbean port
established holdings along the Caribbean shoreline between the Yucatan and Nicaragua that initially
were devoted to the cutting of logwood from which dyes were produced, and later to the lumbering
to Caribbean shoreline settlements in 1797, remained a major element of the local population.
The only part of the coast over which the English were to maintain control into the 20th century
was the colony of British Honduras, which is now the independent nation of Belize.
For nearly three centuries Central America was joined under the banner of Spain. The
Captaincy-General of Guatemala was governed from Ciudad Vieja until its destruction by an
resulted in the relocation of the capital to the site of present-day Guatemala City.
Independence from Spain in 1821 was followed by a political union with Mexico under Emperor
Agustin Iturbide. In 1823 Central America declared its independence from Mexico and formed the
United Provinces of Central America. The province of Chiapas remained with Mexico. The final
breakup of the United Provinces of Central America took place in 1838 with the withdrawal of
Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.
During the remainder of the 19th century the history of Central America was dominated by
control of passages across the isthmus and by the British attempt to maintain its influence
along the Caribbean shoreline. The struggle between conservatives and liberals occurred between
the independent nations as well as between cities within the nations. In Guatemala conservative
Quezaltenango was pitted against Guatemala City; in Honduras, Comayagua against Tegucigalpa; and
1873 and 1885 Justo Rufino Barrios, an anticlerical liberal, was president of Guatemala and
successfully exercised his authority in support of liberal allies in other nations of Central
reunification of Central America.
After independence, the idea of establishing an interoceanic passage across Central America drew
proposed canal across Nicaragua, occupied the port of San Juan del Norte between 1848 and 1850,
renaming it Greytown. In 1851 Cornelius Vanderbilt established a highly profitable route across
completed across Panama in 1855.
A number of treaties and concessions were drawn regarding the construction of a transisthmian
canal; however, the only major attempt to build a canal was undertaken by the French after 1880.
a canal across Panama, the United States managed to conclude a treaty for that purpose with
Panama in 1903.
of transisthmian transit. In 1856 he became president of Nicaragua. The opposition of Vanderbilt
The record of internal and external affairs in Central America during the 20th century featured
a number of distinctions from the preceding century. The attempt to unify Central America as a
disputes between Guatemala and Honduras in 1933, between Nicaragua and Costa Rica during the
dominated by military regimes supported by organized armed forces. Long-term dictatorships
included those led by Manuel Estrada Cabrera and Jorge Ubico Castaneda in Guatemala, Maximiliano
Hernandez Martinez in El Salvador, Tiburcio Carias Andino in Honduras, and the Somoza family in
In the 20th century European domination in Central American affairs gave way to North American
interests. The Hay-Pauncefote Treaty of 1901 alerted the British that the United States was no
longer bound by the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850, which required neutral control in the
construction of a transisthmian canal. The signing of the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty in 1903
provided for the establishment of the Panamanian Canal Zone, the building of a canal, and the
presence of the armed forces of the United States and their right to intervene in Panama in the
event of public disturbance.
In an effort to secure the canal, which was opened in 1914, the United States was increasingly
involved as a mediator in maintaining political stability within Central America. Military forces
occupied Nicaragua between 1912 and 1925, and between 1927 and 1933. It was during the latter
period that Augusto Sandino gained prominence as a leader of guerrilla forces opposed to
occupation by United States Marines. Political turmoil in the early 1930s was a by-product of the
contributed to the founding of the dictatorial regimes of Jorge Ubico Castaneda in Guatemala,
Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez in El Salvador, Tiburcio Carias Andino in Honduras, and Anastasio
Somoza Garcia in Nicaragua.
social welfare of the underprivileged in Central America. This led to the overthrow of
conservative military governments in Guatemala and El Salvador in 1944. Jose Figueres led a
liberation army against ultra-leftist forces in Costa Rica in 1948. He also worked toward the
overthrow of the Somoza regime in Nicaragua. Labor agitation and government restrictions in
Honduras in 1954 led to a movement in Central America to force the United Fruit Company, which
area, to make concessions. The company since disposed of many of its holdings in plantations and
review its policy of sovereignty over the Canal Zone. Belize gained independence in 1981.
The dream of reuniting the nations of Central America was partially fulfilled by the
problems since it was established. Panama and Belize chose not to participate. The Soccer War
between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969 brought to an end economic cooperation between the
member nations of the Central American Common Market.
Continued armed conflict between Central American nations contributed to the political
instability of the entire region. Border tensions, except between Costa Rica and Panama, were
common throughout the region. This was particularly true along borders between El Salvador,
Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Guatemala continued to pressure Belize for border
On Dec. 20, 1989, the United States invaded Panama to oust strongman Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega
and install a friendly government. The Organization of American States and the United Nations
passed resolutions deploring the invasion.
The presidents of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua signed an accord in
August 1989 to disband the contra rebels. The Marxist Sandinista regime of Nicaragua fell after
and the government.
of free-market economies in Central America by canceling part of their debt to the United States