The Plight of Central Americans From Colonial Times to Present

Updated on August 13, 2019
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JC Scull lived in China for four years and taught International Business Relations and Strategies at a Chinese University.

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Spanish Colonial Period

Since the arrival of the Spanish in the New World, the area we commonly call Central America has been poor, underdeveloped, and exploited. This exploitation began with the establishment of the first Spanish settlement in what we now call Panama, in 1509.

Spanish conquistador Pedro Arias de Avila began to conquer northwardly in 1519, eventually ending at the door of the Aztec empire three years later. Throughout the 1520s, Spanish forces toppled a number of Mayan city-states, until Spain had successfully colonized all of Central America and Mexico.

As the Spanish Empire expanded throughout the Americas, it is estimated that 1.86 million Spaniards migrated to this region, while simultaneously 80% of the indigenous population plummeted. Viruses, germs, and other diseases brought by the new arrivals, along with their greed for gold and riches, compelling them to enslave and overwork a large number of the native people, is largely to blame for what can only be described as a genocide.

While much of the brutality and abuses committed upon the aboriginal population of this region occurred during the initial colonization by Spain, the peoples of Central America continued to suffer under the brutal regimes of the Spanish kings that followed. Ferdinand VII, Charles IV, and Joseph I viewed Latin America in general and Central America specifically as merely a moneymaker that would keep their coffers full and their armies and armadas funded.

This was a period when a mestizo population began to emerge and a clear division between rich and poor, white and non-white began to form. The institutions developed by those Spaniards who came to the Americas for the sole purpose of self-enrichment and who ultimately held allegiance only to their motherland were, for the most part, ephemeral and vacuous. They were not meant to endure or to create an environment that would uphold the rule of law and civil justice, but rather to fill the immediate need for social controls.

The government endeavored to create laws, rules, and regulations that assured cheap labor, the exploitation of the land, and the acquisition of wealth to remain within the peninsulares, or Iberian-born Spaniards, and the criollos, who were their immediate descendants. This form of Spanish colonial and post-colonial caste system has endured in various shades and gradations until today.

American Interventionism

As the Spanish Colonial era came to an end in 1821, U.S. President James Monroe, the eponymous creator of the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, warned the European powers against further colonization of Latin America. While the Monroe Doctrine's stated mission was to maintain order and stability, the underlying reason was to ensure access to resources and markets.

As the U.S. expanded its influence throughout the continent, in 1895, U.S. President Grover Cleveland laid out a more assertive vision of the Monroe Doctrine in which he declared that the U.S. was “practically sovereign” on the continent. As the Spanish-American War of 1898 came to an end, resulting in the expulsion of Spain from their last vestige of colonies in the Caribbean, this interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine ushered the creation of a U.S. economic empire that extended from the islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico to most countries of Central America.

During this time forward, the U.S. used its military might to impose its will throughout this region and install a series of dictators willing to accommodate the will of the U.S in countries like Guatemala, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and El Salvador. This interventionist approach to maintaining U.S. economic and political hegemony continued well into the latter part of the 20th century.

The Banana Wars

The instances in which the U.S. intervened militarily or clandestinely in the affairs of Central America in order to impose its economic or political will are plentiful. One well-documented occurrence known as the Banana Wars (1898–1934) is a poignant example of the U.S. military being used to topple governments and massacre thousands in order to keep American business interests flourishing.

The obvious beneficiaries of these actions were American commercial interests such as United Fruit Company, American bankers, and Wall Street whose only concern was to maximize their profits and protect their financial interest. This approach of using the U.S. military as the private army of American corporations in order to impose their wills, have access to cheap labor and protect their plantations was widely employed in countries such as Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Honduras.

In 1954, the U.S. put in place Operation PBSUCESS in which a coup d’état carried out by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on the democratically elected President Jacobo Árbenz took place. Dictatorial powers were quickly passed to Castillo Armas, who immediately passed decrees banning opposition parties, authorizing the imprisonment and torture of political opponents, and reversing social reforms and democracy.

The CIA’s rationalization for this extraordinary action was the purported ties between the Árbenz government and communists. Although no such ties were ever proven, this action was successful in unleashing a civil war that persisted for more than four decades. As leftist guerrillas fought a string of US-backed authoritarian regimes, hundreds of thousands of lives were lost, including the genocide of the Mayan peoples by the Guatemalan government.

The instances where U.S. intervention in this region yielded catastrophic results are well known and copious. Communist Russia looked for every opportunity to finance guerrillas to overthrow dictators propped up by the U.S. In essence, American political and economic hegemonic audacity, played directly in the Kremlin’s hand.

From the revolution that toppled dictator Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, to the civil war in El Salvador that ended in 1992, American intervention and economic dominance have created disruption and upheaval, which we see today in the form of countless of migrants coming to the U.S. in order to escape crime, and dire economic conditions.

The U.S. Policy Toward Central America Needs Rethinking

Understanding the history of Central America is crucial in creating the types of policies that will yield long-term solutions and positive outcomes. Problems are best solved by going directly to the source. Taking away foreign aid from countries suffering from unemployment, high crime, and no opportunities is not the way to stop their citizens from trying to flee and eventually end up at the doorsteps of the U.S. Neither is a wall going to stop undocumented people from seeking asylum.

It is time for a clear-headed and pragmatic approach to the human crisis that is taking place at the U.S. border. A type of Marshall Plan is needed to address the problems the people of this region face. Funds are needed to help the countries from where the vast majority of the migrants originate, in order to fight crime, eliminate gang violence, and create economic opportunities.

After decades of abuse and neglect by our own government, we owe it to the people of this region to treat them fairly and humanely. Using migrants as political pawns in order to garner support from a minority group that views the human tragedy unfolding at the border from a strictly visceral perspective is not the way to solve the problem in any long-term fashion. Let’s hope and demand for clear heads to prevail.

For those readers wishing to read more regarding this region, please visit the following websites:

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