Project Costa Rica: Costa Rica's Journey to a Peaceful Society

Central American countries share bloody political past

by April Stanley

(Photo courtesy of the Arias Foundation)
Before the peace process, most Central American
countries experienced guerrila warfare or military rule.

One must consider the bloody political histories of Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador from the 1930s to 1980s. Most of Central America had been a scene of bitter warfare, when Costa Rican president Dr. Oscar Arias drafted the Arias Peace Plan in 1986.

He later received the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for his attempt to bring cease-fire, negotiations, and democracy to the region.

Nicaragua — U.S. Marines in Nicaragua participated in an ongoing battle with rebel forces from 1927 to 1933. After U.S. departed, Anastasio Somoza took over the presidency in 1936, and until 1979, the Somoza family maintained authoritarian control over Nicaragua. Beginning in the 1960s, Sandinista National Liberation Front started a guerrilla war against Somoza until it took control in 1979. The FSLN regime confiscated private property and supported guerrilla movements in neighboring countries. In the 1980s, Nicaragua became a stage for the Cold War with the Soviet-backed Sandinistas regime battling the U.S. supported Contra rebel forces.

Countless bloody attacks were launched throughout a decade. The Sandinistas lost power in 1990 but remained a force in Nicaraguan politics.

Honduras — Since 1838, Honduras has faced almost 300 domestic rebellions, civil wars, and changes of government. In the 1930s, authoritarian General Andino ruled Honduras while maintaining ties with dictators in neighboring countries.

In 1955, a coup led to elections in 1957, which gave power to the Liberal party candidate, Dr. Ramon Villeda Morales. However, in 1963, military officers deposed Villeda in a bloody coup. They controlled the national police, exiled Liberal party members, and governed until 1970 under General Lopez. A civilian president ruled briefly in 1970, but was overthrown by a coup initiated by Lopez, who ruled until scandals brought his regime down.

Guatemala — From 1930-1944, General Ubico held repressive, authoritarian control. In 1944, he was overthrown, and civilian-president Juan José Arevalo ruled from 1945 to 1951. The CIA supported an invasion by Colonel Armas in 1954, after which he assumed presidency. He was assassinated in 1957, and General Fuentes took power. In 1960, a group of officers revolted, went into hiding, and then later emerged with other guerrilla groups in armed insurrection lasting three decades. With U.S. support, the army attempted to break up guerrilla movements using napalm and death squads. This resulted in 30,000 deaths, mostly civilians. Between 1978 and 1983, the death toll averaged 1,000 per month.

El Salvador — El Salvador's history is full of repression, revolutions, and authoritarian governments. The economic elite and military ruled the country until a 1932 coup. All but one president between 1932 and 1980 was an army officer. An election fraud in 1972 the opposition that armed insurrection was the only way to achieve change.

In the late 1970s, guerrilla warfare turned into a 12-year civil war which was characterized by death squads, repression and indiscriminate killings. A revolutionary junta formed in the late 1970s, which initiated many reforms. A republican government was established, and power was peacefully transferred.

However, in 1983 many guerrilla groups were not satisfied by government reforms, so they united under Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. Negotiations between the government and guerrillas started in 1989, but ended when guerrillas launched a bloody nationwide attack. The civil war was responsible for the deaths of 70,000 people.