Independence Day – Central America

September 15

After 300 years of Spanish rule, the Captaincy General of Guatemala cut ties with the Old World in a declaration of Independence on September 15, 1821. The Spanish colony consisted of what is now Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The proclamation was made in the capital, Guatemala City, in the northwestern corner of the isthmus. But Costa Rica, in the southeast, didn’t learn of its independence until a month later.

Today the five nations celebrate their collective independence. One relatively new tradition is the Torch of Independence relay across hundreds of miles of the Pan-American highway. The relay follows the symbolic path by which word of independence was spread from Guatemala to Costa Rica.  Across Central America, schoolchildren in towns and cities take part in parades and processions, dressed in traditional attire and performing regional dances.

The 5

Guatemala is the Heart of the Mayan Empire. The country’s large indigenous population speaks 23 Mayan-based languages. Guatemala Antigua was once the capital of the entire region, stretching from the southern border of Mexico down to the tip of South America. It was founded in 1542 after a mudflow from the Agua Volcano flooded the previous capital, now called “Ciudad Vieja” (Old City). In 1773, Guatemala Antigua was mostly destroyed by earthquakes, and the current city of Guatemala was built nearby.

El Salvador is the home of the late Archbishop Oscar Romero. Romero was assassinated in 1979 and though not yet a saint, is sometimes called the patron saint of the Americas. The brutal 12-year civil war that erupted following his death took the lives of an estimated 75,000 El Salvadorians.

Honduras is the only volcano-less country of the five and is the only one that is totally self-sufficient in terms of electricity. Though spared the bloodshed and violence of the civil wars that rocked its neighbors, Honduras and El Salvador clashed in the 100-hour “Soccer War” of 1969, and Honduras was used as a base and training ground for U.S.-backed forces against Nicaragua in the 1980s. In 1998 Hurricane Mitch killed 5000 Hondurans and wiped out 70% of the country’s crops.

Of the five, Nicaragua has arguably been most effected by U.S. interests, beginning in 1855—when Tennessee entrepreneur William Walker hired an army of mercenaries, overthrew the Nicaraguan government and set himself up as President—all the way up to the Iran-Contra affair of the 1980s, and the CIA mining of three Nicaraguan ports in 1984. According to the World Bank, as of 1995, Nicaragua’s per capita GDP was the same as in 1945.

Costa Rica is the only country in the Americas not to have a military, and is one of the most eco-friendly countries in the world. Covering only .03% of the earth’s land surface, Costa Rica contains 5% of the world’s biodiversity.

Timeline of U.S. Intervention in Central America

Liberation Day – Nicaragua

July 19

Nicaragua has been the focus of U.S. foreign policy more than most Americans realize.

In the 1850’s, the country was invaded and briefly ruled by a U.S. lawyer-doctor-journalist named William Walker.

At the turn of the 20th century, the country was the proposed site of the canal connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific, until Congress opted for Panama.

During the 1920’s and ’30’s, the U.S. Marines occupied Nicaragua making it “safe for democracy” (i.e., “business interests”).

But the United States’ most enduring impact on Nicaragua (outside of Mickey Mouse and Coca-Cola) may have been the support of the Somoza dynasty which ruled the country either directly or indirectly from the 1930’s through the 1970’s.

The final Somoza was President Anastasio Sonoza Debayle, whose mishandling of Nicaraguan finances in the 1970’s, and particularly after the 1972 earthquake, infuriated the Nicaraguan public. The socialist Sandinista Liberation Front (named for Augusto César Sandino) gained popularity as a militant opposition movement against Somoza’s government.

The revolution killed approximately 50,000 Nicaraguans and climaxed in 1979, by which time Somoza had lost U.S. support and the Sandinistas had gained control of most of the country outside of the capital Managua. Somoza fled to Miami on July 17, which is celebrated in Nicaragua as “Día de la Alegría”.

Two days later the Sandinistas took power.

On July 19, 2009 the country celebrates the 30th anniversary of that takeover, alternately known as Liberation Day and Sandinista Day.

Ironically, the celebrations come as the opposition accuses Sandinista leader Ortega – who lost power in 1990 but returned 17 years later – of promoting “a new family dictatorship” in Nicaragua, currently the second-poorest country in Latin America…

For writer Sergio Ramirez… “[Ortega] wasted the opportunity that history put in his hands, to use his leadership to transform Nicaragua socially and to provide it with better democratic institutions… What there is now is a populist government with a conduct that is confusing in many aspects, that has a demagogic left-wing discourse and a right-wing behaviour in economic policy…”

Sandinistas Celebrate 30th Anniversary of Revolution

As Valdivia, another revolutionary, put it…

“We were idealistic people. We were in love with the revolution… But we don’t see now that it was worth it. … The cost in human life, in destruction of property, was a lot higher than the benefit.”

Quoted by Matt O’Brien, Revolutionaries Live With Pride and Regret

But for the most part, Nicaraguans celebrate Liberation Day with parades, fireworks, and official ceremonies. Many still remember—or were victims themselves—of the violence, censorship and corruption that characterized much of the 20th century.