Guatemala – The Republic of Central America 1821-1840

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Back side of 20 quetzals banknote from Guatemala, featuring “The Signing of The Declaration of Independence”.
Front of 20 quetzals banknote of Guatemala, featuring Mariano Galvez, chief of state for the State of Guatemala.

The images on the front and back of this Guatemalan banknote constitute “bookends” for the short-lived, two decade, Republic of Central America, 1821 to 1840.  The images also symbolize the elements of its early demise.  Numerous attempts to reconstitute the union have been attempted ever since, but none have succeeded since that first, promising, optimistic moment….

 

Detail from back of 20 quetzals banknote of Guatemala.

The signing of “The Act of Independence of Central America” is memorialized in the painting to the left.  With this document, independence was proclaimed for the Captaincy General of Guatemala, as it was called under the Spanish Empire for three centuries.  The date was September 15, 1821.  The constituting States were Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

For two years they aligned with newly independent Mexico, and then on July 1, 1823 the Congress of Central America declared absolute independence from Spain, Mexico, and any other foreign nation, and established a republican system of government.

The next fifteen years were marked by strife between competing conservative and liberal elements within the union, including civil war.  The union dissolved when Nicaragua first seceded in 1838, followed by Honduras and Costa Rica, and finally El Salvador in 1841.

 

Enlarged detail from back of 20 quetzals banknote of Guatemala.

Mariano de Aycinena y Piñol, seated in the image on the left, was a conservative politician.  He served as Governor of Guatemala during the first decade of Central American unity.  As an influential Guatemalan merchant, Mariano was a leader of the Guatemalan independence movement from Spain, and one of the signers of The Act.  The meeting was chaired by Gabino Gaínza.  The text of the Act itself was written by Honduran intellectual and politician José Cecilio del Valle and signed by representatives of the various Central American provinces. The meeting was held at the National Palace in Guatemala City, the site of which is now Centennial Park.

Mariano’s family held a commercial monopoly in Central American during the Spanish colonial era; and Mariano had lobbied heavily for the annexation of Central America to the Mexican Empire, an arrangement which would preserve the family’s economic position and privileges following independence. Allied with the conservative movement, he served as governor of the State of Guatemala within the Central American Federation from 1 March 1827 to 12 April 1829. He was expelled in 1829 after being defeated by Francisco Morazán, a liberal politician and a long-time champion of the Federating movement.  Following exile in the United States, and then Mexico, he returned to Guatemala after the conservatives had returned to power under general Rafael Carrera, but then he retired from public life.

 

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Detail from front of 20 quetzals banknote of Guatemala, featuring “Doctor Mariano Galvez”, chief of state for the State of Guatemala.

Mariano Galvez, picture to the left, was a liberal politician.  He served as the chief of state of Guatemala, during the final decade of the Republic of Central America, having been appointed by Francisco Morazán when Morazán became president of the Republic.

Born in the 1790s, Gálvez was left as an infant in a basket on a doorstep, and subsequently adopted by the wealthy Galvez family. He was well educated, and received a doctor of law at the Royal and Pontifical University of San Carlos Borromeo on December 16, 1819.

In the civil war of 1826, Gálvez joined the Federalists and led a revolutionary movement against the Unitarian government, which hastened the invasion of Guatemala by federalist Francisco Morazán. Gálvez joined Morazán’s forces in Ahuachapán.

After independence from Spain, he sought further liberation of Guatemala from the remaining heavy influences of the catholic church and the aristocracy. In 1829, he was appointed, by Francisco Morazán, as Governor of Guatemala in 1831. He promulgated major innovations in all aspects of the administration.  He promoted public education independent of the church, and established civil marriages and divorce.  He fostered the sciences and the arts, and founded the national library and the national museum.  He promoted citizens rights and the rule of law, guaranteeing freedom of the press, freedom of thought and freedom of assembly.

In February 1835 Galvez was reelected far a second term, during which the Asiatic cholera afflicted the country. The secular clergy persuaded the uneducated people of the interior, many of whom were becoming anxious by the rapidity of reforms under Galvez, that the disease was caused by the poisoning of the springs, by order of the government, and turned the complaints against Galvez into a religious war. Peasant revolts began in 1837, and under chants of “Hurray for the true religion!” and “Down with the heretics!” started growing and spreading. One time friends, including Colonel Manuel Montúfar and Juan de Dios Mayorga. José Francisco Barrundia and Pedro Molina, came to oppose him in the later years of his government after he violently tried to repress the peasant revolt using a scorched earth approach against rural communities.

In February 1838, revolutionary forces, under the conservative Rafael Carrera, entered Guatemala City asking for the Cathedral to be opened to restore order in the catholic communities.  Mariano Gálvez was forced to relinquish power. By 1840, the Republic of Central America was gone.

Gálvez died on March 29, 1862 in Mexico and was buried in the Cemetery of San Fernando. In 1925 his remains were repatriated and today they rest in the old School of Law in Guatemala City.
Universidad Mariano Gálvez de Guatemala, founded in 1966 in Guatemala City, is named after him.

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The following is from an article by Christopher Minster:

“Beset on all sides, the Republic of Central America fell apart. The first to officially secede was Nicaragua, on November 5, 1838. Honduras and Costa Rica followed shortly thereafter. In Guatemala, Carrera set himself up as dictator and ruled until his death in 1865. Morazán fled to exile in Colombia in 1840 and the collapse of the republic was complete.

“It is unfortunate for the people of Central America that Morazán and his dream were so soundly defeated by smaller thinkers such as Carrera. Since the republic fractured, the five nations have been repeatedly victimized by foreign powers such as the United States and England who have used force to advance their own economic interests in the region.
“Weak and isolated, the nations of Central America have had little choice but to allow these larger, more powerful nations to bully them around: one example is Great Britain’s meddling in British Honduras (now Belize) and the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua.
“Although much of the blame must rest with these imperialistic foreign powers, we must not forget that Central America has traditionally been its own worst enemy. The small nations have a long and bloody history of bickering, warring, skirmishing and interfering in one another’s business, occasionally even in the name of “reunification.”
“The history of the region has been marked by violence, repression, injustice, racism and terror. Granted, larger nations such as Colombia have also suffered from the same ills, but they have been particularly acute in Central America. Of the five, only Costa Rica has managed to distance itself somewhat from the “Banana Republic” image of a violent backwater.”

Since the demise of the Union, numerous attempts have been made to reunite the various states of Central America.  Enyclopedia Britannica states “about 25 abortive attempts were made to restore the union.” I’ve seen numbers as high as 65 by other authors.

 

“Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?”

Joni Mitchell

For more stories from Central America on this website, click here.

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