Fortune favors the bold. Well, not always. Just ask Francisco Morazán — or look to his example, since he’s been dead for nearly 200 years. Morazán, an average Honduran who became president of the Federal Republic of Central America, did not achieve his remarkable ascent by exercising moderation. His ambition — and fervent belief in a progressive republic — pitted him against powerful opponents and carried him far for years. Until the winds turned against him, and his once formidable empire rolled back into the dust.
But Morazán’s tale is not simply the story of a real-life Icarus. Yes, he may have over-reached, but that is not the lesson he’d have his life stand for. Instead, Morazán reminds us that Central America once formed a real political alliance. It was a dream he helped to realize, even for a brief time, with the Federal Republic of Central America comprising the now wholly independent nations of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, but it was one that perhaps contained the seeds of its own undoing.
“The policies that he stood for that we would call liberal — freedom of religion, freedom of the press, the right to get divorced — were also incredibly destabilizing,” says Skidmore professor of history Jordana Dym, the author of From Sovereign Villages to National States: City, State and Federation in Central America, 1759–1839. “He believed in things that people look back at and say, ‘Wow, how cool that he was that progressive.’ But at the time, there was a large part of society that wasn’t ready for that.” Still, she says, Morazán was and is compared by some Central Americans to George Washington: a great man, a man of vision in a time that required it.
Lacking allies and military muscle, Morazán was forced to flee to Colombia, his liberal fantasy abandoned.
The Federal Republic of Central America was formed in 1823, just two years after the nations had won their independence from Spain. Locating its capital in Guatemala City, the republic abolished slavery but maintained many of the other hallmarks of Spanish society. First, the Catholic Church held a prominent position of influence. Second, there were voting rights, but such rights were designated only to male members of the upper classes. Manuel José Arce, the republic’s first president, was content to preserve these founding tenets. Perhaps the fate of the republic would have been different if Morazán had conformed to tradition too.
Morazán was born in 1792 in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, without wealth and far from Comayagua, which was then the capital and would have been the hotbed of progressive intellectualism in the country. He began a career as a local leader in Honduran politics and was named head of the republic’s liberal party at the age of 35. Frustrated by social stratification and poor economic health, exacerbated by the country’s dependence on exports, the liberal party decided to rebel against the government of the newly formed federal republic and the leadership of the moderately conservative President Arce. The rebellion turned into a two-year struggle until Arce was defeated in Guatemala City in 1829. A year later, Morazán was elected — although “elected” is a relative term, considering how much military might he wielded — as the second president of the Federal Republic of Central America. He was just 38 years old.
Eager to upend the status quo, President Morazán drastically changed the face of the republic, finding inspiration in other democratic governments, including those of France and the United States. Among his first acts was to implement freedoms of the press, of speech and of religion, the last one making him instantly unpopular among leaders of the Catholic Church as well as devout laypeople. Still, he was determined to scale back the Church’s awesome power, a bedrock of the fledgling republic, even going so far as to make marriage a secular rite. But in spite of the conservative backlash, Morazán was re-elected president in 1835, after he moved the alliance’s capital to San Salvador in order to attract broader support.
Two years later, it all came crashing down when Morazán and his progressive ideology were defeated by a conservative leader with indigenous roots. Rafael Carrera was a Guatemalan pig farmer who successfully rallied his fellow indigenous farmers to rise up against Morazán, whom they viewed as an enemy of the Church. Their rebellion sparked rallies by other Central American conservatives until every state was calling on its local government to secede from the republic. By 1839, Morazán’s authority extended only to El Salvador and Costa Rica. Lacking allies and military muscle, he was forced to flee to Colombia, his liberal fantasy abandoned and the Catholic Church once again securely in power. But the exiled politician refused to disappear: In 1842, he left Colombia to try to re-establish his Central American republic in Costa Rica — but that, according to Ralph Lee Woodward’s Rafael Carrera and the Emergence of the Republic of Guatemala, 1821–1871, failed disastrously, with bitter denunciations from all sides of Morazán’s establishment of martial law, while Carrera issued a proclamation encouraging the people to fight against the “ambitious and perverted.” Morazán eventually surrendered, and after a short trial was sentenced to death.
Morazán was executed by firing squad on September 15, the 21st anniversary of the declaration of the Federal Republic of Central America’s independence. Turning to Vicente Villaseñor, a friend and political ally who was also facing a death sentence, the former president said, “Dear friend, posterity will do us justice.” And indeed it has. The 15th of September is still celebrated as independence day in all five former states of the federal republic, even though there were dozens of declarations of independence, and subsequent attempts at Central American unification — in 1852, 1886 and 1921 — all harked back to Morazán’s original dream.
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