Today, September 15, marks 193 years since the end of Spanish colonial rule in Central America. Traditionally celebrated as Independence Day across the five countries that share it, Central America’s autonomy has in reality been in question for much of the time since 1821. To begin with, the five countries remained attached to distant Mexico, which having escaped the Spanish throne itself reverted to being a monarchy in 1822. Even when the United Provinces of Central America gained more independence, conflict between Liberals and Conservatives was to dog them over much of the ensuing century. Honduran hero Francisco Morazán, who became president of the UPCA in 1830, introduced a series of reforms to education, the judiciary and land ownership, all at the cost of continuing battles with Conservatives. He was shot in 1842.
Central America briefly unified in the 1850s, when William Walker invaded Nicaragua and declared himself president in Granada. He was famously defeated by Nicaraguans at the battle of San Jacinto in 1856 and executed by firing squad on a beach in Honduras in 1857.
Recognised as Nicaragua’s most independent president during the nineteenth century, Jose Santos Zelaya challenged the power of the church and began Nicaragua’s modernisation, building new roads and the Pacific railway. His promotion of Nicaragua as a route for the inter-oceanic canal was a step too far for the United States, however, which invaded Nicaragua in 1909, helping to overthrow Zelaya. US marines were posted in the country for the next 24 years, until they were replaced by the home-grown but US-trained National Guard.
By then the US presence had been successfully challenged by General Augusto Cesar Sandino, eponymous hero of the revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. But his triumph at the head of his ‘crazy little army’ was brief: he was double-crossed by the new head of the National Guard, Anastasio Somoza, and executed on February 21st 1934. Within two years Somoza had become president through a fraudulent election that was nonetheless recognised by the United States. He instituted the dictatorial dynasty that ruled until the revolution finally toppled his son, the even more corrupt ‘Tachito’ Somoza, in 1979.
In some ways Nicaragua’s independence struggle only then began, since having defeated Somoza the Sandinistas then had to fight Reagan’s Contra forces, which attacked from Honduras and Costa Rica. The renewed war and the associated economic embargo were major factors in the Sandinistas’ electoral defeat in 1990. Strong US influence was then restored during 16 years of right-wing governments.
Arguably, true independence in Latin America has only emerged in the last two decades or so, beginning with Hugo Chávez gaining the presidency of Venezuela and growing as other countries, including Nicaragua in 2006, elected left-of-centre governments that openly challenge US hegemony and have formed much regional stronger alliances. One small but powerful and symbolic change has been the withdrawal of most of these countries from the notorious School of the Americas, which trained (and continues to train) past and potential future dictators and torturers. A recent reminder of its potency was the 2009 coup in Honduras, led by SoA graduate General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez. In Nicaragua, as in the rest of Latin America, independence is an ongoing project.
Central America’s Independence Day has been celebrated by a ‘torch of liberty’ being carried across the five countries. In the photo, school children carry a replica torch, running between rural communities in Masaya, Nicaragua.