Central America: Historical Perspectives on Revolution and Reaction


The Lawrence F. Brewster Lecture in History series was established in 1981, and bears the name of an esteemed professor in the Department of History. It has four goals: to provide students, faculty, and members of the larger community with an opportunity to hear distinguished historians share their knowledge and mastery of the discipline; to stimulate an exchange of ideas and a continuing dialogue about issues of fundamental importance to mankind; to illuminate the present state of human affairs through the reflective prism of the past; and to support a critical requirement of modern times, the continuing process of education.

The first Brewster Lecture was presented in 1982, as part of East Carolina University's seventy-fifth anniversary celebration. On that occasion Professor Arthur S. Link, of Princeton University, lectured on "Woodrow Wilson and a Revolutionary World." The next year, "Fantasy and Reality in the West's Response to Asia" was presented by professor Donald F. Lach of the University of Chicago. The third lecture in the series, and the first to be published, was "The First Year of the Nazi Era: A Schoolboy's Perspective," presented in 1984 by Professor Hans Schmitt of the University of Virginia. Professor David B. Quinn's "Theory and Practice: Roanoke and Jamestown" followed in 1985.

The East Carolina University Department of History is proud to publish the 1986 Brewster Lecture, "Central America: Historical Perspectives on Revolution and Reaction," by Professor Ralph Lee Woodward of Tulane University.

J. Hugh Wease, Chairman Department of History

Introduction of Professor Ralph Lee Woodward

Ralph Lee Woodward, Jr. received his A.B. degree, cum laude, from Central Methodist College, Fayette, Missouri, in 1955; he was awarded that institution's distinguished alumni award in 1978. His three years' service in the US Marine Corps evidently prepared him for academic combat, as he received his M.A. degree in 1959 and Ph.D. degree in 1962 from Tulane University.

After teaching at several institutions in Guatemala and the United States Dr. Woodward joined the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he remained until 1970. In that year he became Professor of History at Tulane University. He presently is chairman of the Department of History at Tulane.

Professor Woodward has been extremely active in professional organizations, in which he has participated in programs and has served on and chaired important committees. He was appointed President of the Southeastern Conference on Latin American Studies in 1975. Furthermore, he has advised trade missions to Central America and was a member of the Committee of Americans for the Canal Treaties, 1977-78.

In addition to being the recipient of two Fulbright-Hays Lectureships, he has been awarded numerous grants and fellowships from such foundations and institutions as the Henry L. and Grace Doherty Foundation, the American Philosophical Society, the Andrew Mellon Foundation, the University of North Carolina, and Tulane University. These have enabled him to do extensive teaching, travel, and research in Central America, as well as in other parts of Latin America and in Spain.

Utilizing these opportunities, Dr. Woodward has contributed fifty-nine articles to professional journals. One of his articles in the Hispanic American Historical Review received special recognition. I might interpolate that having even one article published in that journal is special in itself. Also, he wrote the section on "Central America, 1821-1870" in The Cambridge History of Latin America.

In addition, he has written ten books, one of which received special acknowledgment from the Conference on Latin American History. Dr. Woodward's acclaimed Central America: A Nation Divided reveals his expertise in that area.

The Department of History of East Carolina University is delighted to have this distinguished scholar participate in the Brewster Lecture series.

Wilkins B. Winn, Professor Department of History

Central America: Historical Perspectives on Revolution and Reaction

Ralph Lee Woodward, Jr.

The title of my remarks this evening reflects an effort to focus on two recurrent themes in Central American history and to relate them to the current crises in those states. The present conflicts in Central America are often described as struggles between conservative, right-wing oligarchies defending established economic interests and Marxist radicals bent on restructuring society along socialist lines. While, in fact, the political spectrum in Central America is considerably more complex than that, the persistence of conservative elites has been one of the major themes in the region's history and represents an important key toward understanding the dynamics of Central American politics. This essay examines the conservative tradition in the Central American states, suggesting that the roots of conservatism in Central America run very deep and have provided greater continuity in the politics and societies of the region than is commonly recognized. It is also apparent that the terms "conservative" and "liberal" have rather different meanings in Central America than in the United States.

The conquest of Central American was a phase of the Italian and Spanish Renaissance. Beginning in 1524 conquistadors from Mexico, Panama, and Santo Domingo planted colonies that the Spanish Crown soon unified into the Kingdom, or Audiencia, of Guatemala. The Europeanization of this region a century prior to the English establishment of Virginia and New England meant that significantly different concepts of society developed in Central America than in North America. The conquistadors brought with them both the mentality of Spanish feudalism and their monarchs' intention to develop incipient capitalist institutions. Indeed, much of the history of Latin America can be seen as a struggle between these two socioeconomic systems. Subsistence-oriented, feudal-style haciendas, controlling Indian and mestizo serfs represented the feudal tradition continued by the conquistadors and their creole descendants, while agro-export plantations, dependent on European and North American markets reflected the efforts to promote capitalist development. Directly related to the political structure of modern Central America, the three centuries of Spanish patrimonial rule denied self government except at the municipal level. A class system more rigid than that in Spain, and based as much on racism as labor patterns, reserved advanced education and participation in leadership to Spanish bureaucrats and a small class of creole landholders and merchants. 1

This small class of prominent creole families, centered in Guatemala City but with branches in the provincial capitals as well, were the descendants of the conquistadors, but a steady trickle of European immigrants, who married into their families, provided both new blood and innovative economic ideas. Indeed, these immigrants often provided an uncommonly large share of the economic and political leadership to the Creole class. This network of families dominated the economy and society of the colony, and shared political control with the bureaucrats appointed by the Spanish Crown. These families were by nature conservative, seeking to protect and extend their class privileges and inherited wealth. They represent the most powerful political tradition in Central America.2

Except for a few enclaves of capitalist development, the Kingdom of Guatemala produced little for export, and for the most part it followed neo-feudal, subsistence economic patterns well into the eighteenth century. Spain's rivals, however, stimulated by the industrial revolution, probed the isthmus with trade. The Spanish government in the eighteenth century responded with a series of measures, known collectively as the Bourbon Reforms, designed to promote greater commercial activity as a means of rejuvenating the Spanish Empire as an economic and military power. These reforms, reflecting the classical liberalism of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, sought to convert subsistence-oriented colonies such as Guatemala into agricultural or mineral exporters. They provided tax incentives, subsidies, and other more negative pressures to encourage this transition to capitalism. This, along with administrative, ecclesiastical, and military reforms by Spain's French-oriented Bourbon kings, sharply divided members of the creole elites in Latin America, laying the foundations for the Liberal and Conservative parties that would dominate the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Those members of the creole elite who were attracted to the more modern development ideas formed the core of Liberal Party, while those who felt secure in the traditional economic patterns constituted the Conservative faction. The issues were not purely economic, however. Those who rejected the liberal modernization schemes also tended to reject the course which Spain was taking generally in the Napoleonic period, and looked back nostalgically to sixteenth-century Spanish civilization, many Creoles regarding themselves as defenders of the heritage of the conquistador generation. More than anything else, Conservatives and Liberals differed over the proper role of the Roman Catholic Church in society. Conservatives defended the active role of the clergy in the economic, political, and educational life of the country. Indeed, many of the leading Conservatives were clergy, led by the Archbishop of Guatemala. Medieval Christian philosophy remained important to the Conservatives, and concepts of chivalry, aristocracy, and rule by an elite with a sense of responsibility for the less fortunate dominated their political thought.3

Independence from Spain (1821) left the Creole landholding and merchant elites free to dominate the five provinces. Their political parties--Conservative and Liberal--reflected their fundamentally different perceptions of how best to develop the country. Conservatives looked toward maintenance of the two-class society that had long characterized the Spanish world. They defended the prerogatives of the landholding elite in their traditionally dominant roles, but also, in noblesse oblige fashion, assured the peasants of a degree of protection, especially against exploitation by the Liberal modernizers. They emphasized Hispanic values and institutions, especially the Roman Catholic Church, and they rewarded loyal Indian and mestizo peasants with paternalism and respect for communal lands. Their demands on the peasants were real but limited, and subsistence agriculture was at the heart of their economic philosophy. The Conservatives relied on the Church, local chieftains, and landlords--in feudal style--for social control and to guarantee peace and security. Thus they defended states' rights against national unity and were xenophobic toward foreigners who threatened the traditional society with Protestantism, democracy, and modernization. Sensitive to the dangers of upsetting native labor and land tenure patterns, they were essentially opposed to granting the nation's land and resources to foreign capitalists who did not share their religion, language, or social and cultural values. Their revolutions against the Liberal governments that had taken power after independence had enjoyed strong peasant support. They succeeded in breaking apart the Central American federation (1823-40) into the independent but weak republics of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.4

Liberals, on the other hand, represented that segment of the elite that wished to modernize Central America through emulation of the economic and political success of western Europe and the United States. These "modernizers" rejected Hispanic values and institutions, especially the Church, and espoused classical economic liberalism opposing monopolies while encouraging private foreign trade immigration, and investment. They emphasized exports and treated the rural masses and their lands as the principal resources for exploitation. Although republican and democratic in political theory, they became much influenced by positivist materialism later in the century, and were contemptuous, even embarrassed, by the Indian heritage of their countries. Once in power they resorted to dictatorship to accomplish their economic goals and to defend their gains. Thus, the professionalization of the military, which became their power base, was an important trend in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The absence of stronger middle sectors in the traditional two-class Central American societies and the persistence of elitist attitudes toward the masses meant that in practice this development proceeded very differently than in the industrialized nations. What emerged were elite oligarchies of planters and capitalists who cynically, and without the noblesse oblige of their Conservative predecessors, continued to live off the labor of an oppressed rural population which shared little if any of the benefits of the expanded export production. On the contrary, the peasants found their subsistence threatened by encroachment on their lands for the production of export commodities.5

The struggle culminated in every Central American state between 1870 and 1893 with the victory of the Liberals, whose revolutions launched bold programs of modernization, with emphasis on infrastructure and agro-exports. A few prominent families dominated this economic growth and the political dictatorships that accrued to it.

A close relationship developed between the Central American Liberals and the United States in business, government, and academia, as Central Americans sought to imitate the North American development model. It was a model that achieved considerable modernization, but failed to bring the prosperity and general welfare that its promoters expected. Instead, new levels of poverty and misery came to be associated with the development process. Instead of "developing nations," these states became dependent poor relations of an industrialized core of North Atlantic mother countries. Although coffee was a more important export for most, the banana industry, developed with US capital, shipping, and technology, came to typify the relationship, as the giant United Fruit Company in the early twentieth century controlled Central American rail, steamship, and radio communications as well as banana production.

Later, after World War II, although coffee cultivation expanded greatly, the most notable growth was in cotton and beef exports. Cotton cultivation on the Central American Pacific plains benefited planters, landlords, bankers, ginners, exporters, suppliers of pesticides and fertilizers, textile manufacturers, and vegetable-oil producers. Some of this contributed to the growing urban middle class, but the greatest concentration of wealth went to several dozen families who were already wealthy before the cotton boom and were in a position to benefit from cotton because they owned large estates on the coastal plains. For the common people, successive years of cotton cultivation has meant soil depletion and the poisoning of the coastal ecology. Moreover, it has taken more and more land away from subsistence farming, leaving peasants uprooted and homeless.

The beef industry developed under government stimulation and encouragement from private interests in the United States, supported by US government policy. Multinational corporations responded to the profit incentives and developed cheap beef exports to US fast food outlets as a major Central American economic activity. More than cotton, the beef business came to be dominated by ownership and directorship shared between wealthy, politically connected Central Americans and wealthy, politically connected multinational corporations. For those with privileged access to land and bank credit, the beef-export boom meant a quick way to expand family fortunes. For the millions of Central Americans who plant food crops for survival, it meant disaster as cattle grazing took more and more of even the marginal land out of cultivation and provided few jobs. Rural unrest in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras resulted. 6

The elites began to send the children to school in the United States, rather than to Europe as formerly. They often returned with spouses who brought North American values directly into the social structure of the isthmus, blending more modern attitudes with traditional Hispanic values. These elites were part of an international capitalist upper class, and had less and less in common with the working masses of their own countries. The Liberals imitated US political forms, if not realities, and the terminology of North American democracy filled the Liberal rhetoric. They rewrote the Central American constitutions to conform more closely to the US Constitution of 1787, although in practice Central American chief executives retained more authority than their US counterparts. US embassies became inordinately large for such tiny countries, and basic economic and political decisions for these states were often made within US embassy walls. Military missions provided significant assistance toward the maintenance of the Liberal dictatorships through the training of national internal security forces.

The rural masses gained little from the modernization, and in most cases actually suffered a decline in standard of living, especially as the eradication of epidemic diseases resulted in rapid population growth among these peoples without corresponding increases in real wages. But the growth of exports and accompanying modernization of the cities, development of transportation, and other industries related to the international trade contributed to the growth of small, but significant, middle classes in the cities.7

The oligarchies jealously guarded their economic and political power, refusing to share it with the emerging middle classes. Denied access to power through constitutional means, for elections were almost always rigged in favor of the oligarchies or their military surrogates, new political factions representing the middle and working classes turned to revolution to bring about reform.

The old Conservative parties largely disappeared. Their former members and their descendants went into exile, joined the Liberals, or stayed out of politics as the only way they could continue to participate profitably in the economy. The Liberals dominated Central America for about a century, but in their failure to accept the sort or social democratic modifications to capitalism that occurred in western Europe and North America, especially following the Great Depression, they became known as "conservatives" or "right wingers," by most of the rest of the world.8

The details of what happened to the old Conservative parties varied from one state to another, and were responsible for the variations in political tradition that occurred in each country. In Guatemala and El Salvador, the old Conservative Party succumbed under the repressive Liberal dictatorships between about 1870 and 1944. It fared little better in Honduras, but early in the twentieth century many Conservatives joined with Tiburcio Cariás and other Liberals disenchanted with domination of the Liberal Party by US banana interests in forming the National Party. The National Party essentially combined Liberal and Conservative political tradition to form a powerful elite party that dominated Honduras through most of the mid twentieth century. The Liberal Party, meanwhile, out of office, split into conservative (rodista) and liberal (ALIPO) wings, the former finally gaining power in the last two Honduran elections.

In Costa Rica the more egalitarian socioeconomic situation and more democratic political forms that the Liberals promoted allowed the Conservative Party to survive well in to the twentieth century. It won the presidency on several occasions in the early twentieth century and was part of a general transition to democratic government which has characterized tiny Costa Rica in this century. Eventually, both the Liberal and Conservative parties gave way to social democratic parties that have characterized the latter part of the century. Older Conservative families found their way into these parties, including José Figueres, founder of the National Liberation Party (PLN), dominant in Costa Rica since 1948.9

Only in Nicaragua did the Conservative Party survive to the present, although often splintered and modified over the years. The reasons for the survival of the Nicaraguan Conservative Party lie in the unique development of that country in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Liberal-Conservative struggle was especially violent in Nicaragua. Organization of the Conservative Party developed under the leadership of an immigrant from Guatemala, Fruto Chamorro, in the middle of the nineteenth century. Chamorro was the founder of the most important Conservative family in the country, even to the present. His army gained the upper hand in the struggle and as foreign interest in an interoceanic canal heightened after 1850 Chamorro appeared to be bringing Nicaragua the stability that such an enterprise needed. His government contracted with Cornelius Vanderbilt to provide transit across the isthmus and ultimately to construct a canal. It was at this point that the beleaguered Liberals turned to outsiders for assistance. From California came soldiers-of-fortune led by William Walker, the grey-eyed Tennessee prodigy who had gone to California after a tragic love affair in New Orleans. Although Walker's initial force was small, its superior rifles and marksmen combined with exhaustion on the part of the Nicaraguans, abetted by a cholera epidemic, to allow it to play a major role. Walker soon was commander-in-chief of the Liberal Army and after taking the Conservative capital at Granada, he formed a coalition government. Chamorro had died, but his forces refused to join the coalition and continued the war. When Walker's puppet President, Conservative Patricio Rivas, defected. Walker abandoned the coalition and had himself elected President of Nicaragua, beginning a program of "Americanizing" the Central American state. He attracted thousands of southern US veterans of the Mexican War with promises of liberal land and commercial concessions. Meanwhile, the Conservative governments of the other four Central American States, with support from several South American states and Great Britain, now allied in a "National Campaign" to oust the interloper. Their success in 1857 restored Conservative government to Nicaragua, and for a few years the Conservatives ruled throughout Central America. Liberal Revolutions soon gained power in the other states, but the Walker episode had thoroughly discredited Nicaraguan Liberals and allowed the Conservatives to consolidate their power for more than thirty years longer there.

Nineteenth-century accounts of Nicaragua document the slower pace of capitalist transformation of Nicaragua's economy. Under Conservative rule there was less emphasis on foreign capital development or rapid economic growth. Yet the Conservatives were not completely adverse to expansion of exports or foreign investment and, as elsewhere in Latin America, Conservatives were accepting classical Liberal economic ideology. While Nicaragua had the least foreign economic development during these years, it was not absent altogether. A number of English and North American investors operated on the remote Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. The area, long under British protection in alliance with the Miskito Indians, had successfully resisted Spanish and Nicaraguan rule for centuries. British cession of the region to Nicaragua, under US pressure in 1860, had stipulated that the Miskitos would continue to enjoy autonomy. The Conservatives had honored this accord and virtually ignored the region. The British and American banana exporting and other economic development had thus been carried on under very generous concession agreements with the Miskitos. 10

The Liberal Reform finally came to Nicaragua with José Santos Zelaya beginning in 1893. Like other Liberal dictators, Zelaya encouraged foreign investment and North Americans responded. Some British and American economic interests on the Caribbean coast, however, collaborated with the Conservatives to overthrow Zelaya in 1909. 11 In the turmoil that followed, the US economic interests were important in persuading President William H. Taft to establish a customs receivership in 1911. Continued civil war led him to send the Marines in 1912. They helped to restore order and to maintain the Conservative governments backed by General Emiliano Chamorro. A Marine guard remained to guarantee peace and deter revolution. 12

US support of the Conservative Party was relatively unique, for in most of Central America it was the Liberal Party that had traditionally identified with the US. Eventually that would be the case in Nicaragua, too, but the Walker episode and the peculiar circumstances surrounding the overthrow of Zelaya contributed to a delay in that pattern and, consequently, to the survival of the Nicaraguan Conservative Party. In 1925 the Marines departed, but violence flared immediately and they returned the following year. In 1927 US diplomat Henry Stimson and Liberal General José Moncada (who had taken control of the government) reached an agreement to restore peace and to hold elections under US supervision. 13

In the ensuing election (1928), the Liberals retained power, but one Liberal, Augusta César Sandino, refused to lay down his arms, launching a guerrilla struggle against the continued US military presence that gained admiration throughout the hemisphere. This bloody chapter in US-Nicaraguan relations consumed an increasingly large number of Marines and became unpopular in the United States, a forewarning of the Vietnam debacle a half-century later. American textbooks often describe the withdrawal of US forces in 1933 as a magnanimous gesture under Franklin Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy but Nicaraguans emphasize that it was a victory for Sandino's struggle.14

Although Sandino had won his objective of removing US forces' the victory was hollow, for soon after reaching agreements with the Nicaraguan government to lay down his arms, he was treacherously assassinated by members of the Guardia Nacional, the tough US-trained internal security force that was Nicaragua's legacy of the American intervention. The head of the Guard, Anastasio Somoza Garciá, by 1935 was master of the country and became President in 1937. He and his sons would rule Nicaragua until July 1979. The Somozas intensified a close relationship with the United States, similar to that which had been developing with Liberal dictatorships elsewhere on the isthmus. The Conservative Party survived as the only important legal opposition party, but divided over the question of collaboration with the Somozas. Eventually, many Liberals broke with the Somozas, as the regime became simply a selfish family dynasty of economic and political power. Nevertheless, the old Conservative and Liberal families continued to represent a privileged elite in a country which now proceeded on a path of modernization along nineteenth-century Liberal lines. This meant great expansion of export agriculture, a little industrialization, a growth of financial institutions, and emergence of a middle class in Managua. The Somozas promoted development of that city to the detriment of the traditional elite centers of Granada and León. Managua, destroyed in 1931 by earth quake and fire, was almost an entirely new city, and its growth provided employment and opportunity for at least some of those who migrated from the country to escape the exploitation there. After a second destruction of the city by the earthquake of 1972, however, mismanagement of reconstruction funds by Anastasio Somoza Debayle contributed to widespread disenchantment with the regime even among its former supporters.15

The most discouraging reality for the Liberal modernization model of the last hundred years in Central America is the apparent decline in standard of living for most Central Americans. By the 1970s there was widespread poverty and many of the undesirable benefits of the Liberal-capitalist development had fastened themselves on both rural and urban Nicaragua. It was in this environment that opposition to the Somoza dictatorship mounted following the 1972 earthquake. A militant group of leftists (the Sandinista Front for National Liberation) had begun to organize as early as 1960, gaining strength especially at the National University in León. Always dedicated to a socialist-oriented revolution, but naming their movement after the popular Sandino, this movement would eventually succeed in taking advantage of the growing distaste for the Somoza dynasty in the 1970s, and in leading the country into a massive uprising that triumphed in 1979 and allowed the Sandinistas to take over the country.

A number of Conservative Party leaders were active in the movement to overthrow Somoza. The Conservative Party recognized the need for social welfare programs to alleviate the suffering of the poor and, by US standards, became more "liberal" than the Somozas' Liberal Party. Conservatives Party business leaders sought to shut down the economy, but these efforts alone failed to unseat Somoza. Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, the popular editor of the leading newspaper in the country, the Conservative La Prensa, however, played an increasingly important role in rallying popular opposition to the dynasty and in organizing opposition groups, often in collaboration with the Sandinistas. It was the assassination of Chamorro, on 10 January 1978, that brought a dramatic upsurge in support for the Sandinistas.16

Although several wings of the Conservative Party maintained a legal existence and were important in the early stages of the new government, the militant Sandinistas soon succeeded in dominating the state and its political structure. Thus the Conservatives once more found themselves relegated to being the leading opposition, a role parallel to that which they had held under the Somoza dynasty.

Curiously then, in Nicaragua, by US standards the Liberal Party had become the more conservative of the two parties, whereas the Conservative Party represented a more progressive, twentieth- century position. The Nicaraguan Conservative Party, in effect, took the place of Christian Democratic Party in other Central American countries. A small Christian Democratic Party had existed in Somoza's Nicaragua, 17 but it was overshadowed by the Conservatives as the principal opposition party that offered a paternalistic sympathy for the poor, friendship toward the Roman Catholic Church, and a socioeconomic outlook that favored social welfare while at the same time emphasizing private economic development.

Elsewhere, the emergence of Christian Democracy as a potential successor to the Liberal oligarchies on the isthmus has become apparent. The Christian Democratic movement in Central America can actually be traced to nineteenth-century Conservative roots. Added to Napoleón Duarte's strong Christian Democratic government in El Salvador, the recent victory of Vinicio Cerezo's Christian Democrats in Guatemala has brought at least the hope of movement away from the strong military and neo-Liberal dictatorship that has dominated Guatemala since 1954. While it is clear that the Guatemalan Christian Democrats, as in El Salvador, must make accommodation to the reality of the military's strength, their victory is based on strong popular support and a more modern political outlook. Although Rafael Angel Calderón Jr.'s Social Christian Unity Party lost to the ruling social democratic PLN in the 2 February 1986 election in Costa Rica, largely because of his hawkish anti-Sandinista campaign, that party nevertheless reflects the growth of a Christian Democratic party there. In Panama, too, the Christian Democratic Party has enjoyed notable growth. In all of these places it is a party that has appealed especially to youth. Its leaders, for the most part, are relatively young, but perceive the future not in terms of a complete break with the past, as do the Marxists, but rather in terms of modifying the capitalist structure established by the Liberals to provide a better distribution of wealth and more progressive development. Central American Christian democracy then, is essentially a center right force, and both in terms of its leadership and philosophy, reaches back to nineteenth-century Conservatism, with its connections to the Church, its paternalistic concern for the welfare of the poor, and its concept of corporate organization of society and politics. It combines strong government with private economic initiative, and offers an essentially conservative economic and social program. Within the context of Central American history, it represents a continuation of the Conservative-Liberal struggle.

While details from one Central American state to another vary, there is remarkable continuity in what I have called the Conservative tradition here. Rooted in the privileged conquistador and Creole ruling elite of the colonial period, this tradition took political form in the nineteenth century in opposition to modernization based on eighteenth-century Liberalism. Although Liberalism eventually triumphed everywhere, strong conservative elitist characteristics continued even within the Liberal Party, which remained essentially representative only of a planter- merchant-military elite.

The challenge to Liberalism in the twentieth century has included political forces that reflect the continued popularity of traditional conservative elements, and is best represented in the Christian Democratic parties, as well as in Nicaragua's Conservative Party. As with their nineteenth-century predecessors, they seek to protect the basic structure of the society, while offering middle and lower sectors opportunities for greater economic gain and political participation. They embrace the Catholic tradition of participation in politics and of concern for the welfare of the masses, and recognize the need for socioeconomic reform within the context of a capitalist economic system. They reject, as did their nineteenth-century Conservative predecessors, the concept of unrestrained capitalist development, but at the same time are ardently anti-communist, and are considerably to the right of Social Democratic parties on the isthmus.

In much of Latin America the traditional Liberal and Conservative parties eventually blended into a single political faction defending the privileges and prerogatives of a social and economic elite. To some degree this happened in Central America as well, but eventually, the challenge to Liberal domination brought forth new political forces that have revived much of nineteenth- century Conservatism. What is clear is that in modern terms, both the Liberals and Conservatives represent "conservative" traditions in Central America. Both, in the final analysis, although they differed on development concepts represented the same privileged elite class. Moreover, in addition to this conservative tradition among the elites a large part of the peasant majority in Central America also shares the conservative tradition through long term association with the Roman Catholic establishment, their paternalistic relationship with Conservative landlords, and the almost universal resistance of peasant societies to change.

The challenge to the,Liberals has also, of course, brought forth strong leftist political activity, ranging from Democrats to Marxist-Leninists. As the political spectrum of the twenty-first century begins to unfold we can expect Christian Democracy to become increasingly the bastion of conservatives against the social democrats and Marxists. While rejection of Marxist-Leninist parties is by no means assured it is suggested by Central American preference combined with continued North American influence in the region. On the other side of spectrum, the old Liberal oligarchies can not likely survive without alliance with more modern political parties, among which the Christian democrats offer the most attractive alternative ideologically. If orderly political and economic progress and stability is to occur on the isthmus, it will most certainly have to come in an environment of diminished influence from the rightist and leftist extremes. Christian democracy versus social democracy as the principal political scenario in Central America would certainly allow a more optimistic assessment of the region's future development.


1.    Murdo J. MacLeod, Spanish Central America: A Socioeconomic History 1520-1720 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), and William Sherman, Forced Native Labor in Sixteenth-Century Central America (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979), offer excellent accounts of Habsburg Central America and the effects of the Spanish conquest. Also useful for understanding the feudal heritage in New Spain is Luis Weckman, La herencia medieval de Mexico, 2 vols. (México Colegio de México, 1983).

2.    See the influential extended essay on this subject by Severo Martinez Peláez, La patria del criollo (Guatemala: Editorial Universitaria, 1971). See also Diana Balmori, Stuart F. Voss, and Miles L. Wortman, Notable Family Networks in Latin America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), pp. 52-78. An interesting study of family links in Costa Rican history is Samuel Stone, La dinastia de los conquistadores; la crisis del poder en la Costa Rica contemporanea (San Jose: Editorial Universitaria Centroamericana, 1975).

3.    On the emergence of political elites in the late colonial period see the author's "Economic and Social Origins of the Guatemalan Political Parties (1773-1823)," Hispanic American Historical Review 45 (1965):544-66, and "The Economy of Central America at the Close of the Colonial Period," in Estudios del Reino de Guatemala , edited by Duncan Kinkead (Sevilla: Duke University and Escuela de Estudios Hispanoamericanos, 1985), pp. 117-34. On the foundations of Liberalism in Central America, Mario Rodriguez, The Cádiz Experiment in Central America, 1808-1826, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), is superb. See also Miles L. Wortman, Government and Society in Central America, 1680-1840 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982).

4.    The official gazettes of the nineteenth-century Central American Conservative governments, notably the Gaceta de Guatemala, 1849-1865 contain many editorials that reflect the Conservative philosophy and policy.

5.    For a fuller discussion of the development of politics in nineteenth-century Central America see the author's Central America, a Nation Divided (2d ed., New York & London: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 92-202.

6.    An excellent work on the role of cotton and beef in Central America since World War II is Robert G. Williams, Export Agriculture and the Crisis in Central America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986).

7.    There is no single volume that adequately describes the Liberal period in Central America, but there is a large literature that deals with various aspects of it. Some of this literature is discussed in the author's "The Rise and Decline of Liberalism in Central America: Historical Perspectives on the Contemporary Crisis," Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 26 (August 1984):291-312. The Liberal approach has been frequently described, for Central American historiography was dominated by Liberals from 1870 through the mid-twentieth century. See Lorenzo Montúfar, Reseña histórica de Centra América, 7 vols. (Guatemala: El Progreso, 1878-87), upon which many other pro-Liberal accounts of the nineteenth century were based. This literature is discussed in William J. Griffith, "The Historiography of Central America since 1830," Hispanic American Historical Review 40 (I960): 548-569. Among the more important recent work on this topic is Ciro F. S. Cardoso and Héctor Pérez Brignoli, Historia económica y la economía occidental (1520-1930) (San Jose: Editorial Universidad de Costa Rica, 1977); C.F.S. Cardoso, "Historia económica del café en Centroamérica (siglo XIX)," Estudios Sociales Centroamericanos (Costa Rica) 4(10) (1975): 9-55; David J. McCreery, "Coffee and Class: The Structure and Development in Liberal Guatemala," Hispanic American Historical Review 56 (1976): 438-460, and Development and the State in Reforma Guatemala (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1983); David Browning, El Salvador, Landscape and Society (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971). A descriptive catalogue of Liberal economic legislation in Guatemala is Roberto Díaz Castillo, Legislación económica de Guatemala durante la Reforma Liberal (Guatemala: Editorial Universitaria de Guatemala and Editorial Universitaria Centroamericana, 1973). 8.    An excellent analysis of this process is found in Enrique Baloyra, "Reactionary Despotism in Central America," Journal of Latin American Studies 15 (1983): 295-319.

9.    For a useful analysis of Costa Rican politics from 1953 through 1982, see Wilburg Jiménez Castro, "Análisis electoral de una democracia (Los resultados electorates de 7 de febrero de 1982)," Tiempo Actual(Costa Rica) 7(25) (Aug. 1982): 1940.

10.    For a fuller analysis of the nineteenth-century Nicaraguan political transition, see the author's "Roots of Revolution: Socioeconomic Perspectives on Nicaraguan History," Athenaeum Society Review 1 (Fall 1984): 7-20. On the Moskitos, see Craig L. Dozier, Nicaragua's Mosquito Shore: The Years of British and American Presence (Montgomery: University of Alabama Press, 1985).

11.    Charles Stansifer, "José Santos Zelaya: A New Look at Nicaragua's Liberal Dictator," Revista Internacional (Puerto Rico) 7 (Fall 1977): 468-85.

12.    Dana Munro, The Five Republics of Central America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1918), pp. 227-64; and, idem., Intervention and Dollar Diplomacy in the Caribbean, 1900-1921 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964), pp. 160-216.

13.    See William Kamman, A Search for Stability, United States Diplomacy Toward Nicaragua, 1925-33 (South Bend, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968) for a scholarly treatment of this period and the US role there.

14.    The best treatment of the Sandino period is Neill Macaulay, The Sandino Affair (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1967).

15.    Richard Millett, Guardians of the Dynasty (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1977), is one of the most informative works on the Somoza years, but there are a number of other useful volumes representing several points of view. For a survey of this literature see R.L. Woodward, Jr., Nicaragua (Oxford: Clio Press, 1983).

16.    R.L. Woodward, Jr., "Dr. Pedro Joaquin Chamorro (1924-1978), the Conservative Party, and the Struggle for Democratic Government in Nicaragua," Annals of the Southeastern Conference on Latin American Studies 10 (March 1978): 38-46.

17.    See Thomas W. Walker, The Christian Democratic Party in Nicaragua (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1970).