A Tale of Two Generals

Rafael Carrera and Francisco Morazán

Rafael Carrera and Francisco Morazán

As Guatemala was positioning for its independence, these two general-politicians and antagonists might be called the cofounders of modern Central America.

Mix equal parts Washington, Bolivar and Garibaldi, add some Jefferson, a dash of Montesquieu, and a sprinkling of Zapata. Knead well and bake the mixture under the torrid skies of Central America. What do you get? Francisco Morazán.

Today this list of ingredients can be read throughout the isthmus as the legacy of the man who midwifed, and nearly preserved, a great union. Had the United Federation of Central America survived, it would rival Colombia or Argentina in size and influence.

From the doorstep of Chiapas to the Panamanian frontier, boulevards, ports, schools, bridges and even pharmacies all bear Morazán’s name. But who was he, really?
That question is as interesting as the list of enemies who ultimately sank the dream of Central American unity. One of these, Rafael Carrera, fathered the nation-state of Guatemala. Both Morazán and Carrera were gifted generals and self-made men, but they were otherwise opposites.

Carrera, born in Guatemala in 1814 (22 years after Morazán was born in Honduras), never learned to read, nor had to. During his adolescence, he wearied of herding pigs and became a bandit. His unwed mother was said to have been a servant of the aristocratic Aycinena family, among whom Rafael was begotten by a scion. This is unlikely; he was Mayan in appearance and origin, and a coin minted with his true likeness suggests some African ancestry.

The union that Morazán united and that Carrera dissolved was coextensive with the Kingdom of Guatemala, so-called, part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. This kingdom never saw its kings, the Spanish monarchs; not one ever visited. The five extant republics of Central America, plus Chiapas, comprised it. In the early 1820s, all six briefly belonged to newly independent Imperial Mexico, which collapsed in 1822.

These republics did not have to fight either Spain or Mexico for their independence. But they did fight each other during the Federation period (1824-1839). Each of the five “states” had its own president, and there was also a federal president. The separation of powers between federal and state presidents would never be resolved.

These republics did not have to fight either Spain or Mexico for their independence. But they did fight each other during the Federation period (1824-1839).

During this period, Morazán was federal president three times, and at other times served as state presidents of El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica. Carrera, as a warlord, emerged as de facto ruler of Guatemala, and, for periods, of Honduras and Nicaragua.

To the extent that the union lasted anytime at all was a testament to the military and diplomatic prowess of Morazán, who consistently put his vision of unity ahead of personal ambition. This was evident in 1831 when he willingly yielded the federal presidency after an electoral defeat. True, he had ruled largely by decree during this first term, and in defeat he received as a consolation prize the Honduras presidency. But his policies were enlightened: He enacted freedom of worship, press and speech, created election tribunals, and built schools for the lower classes.

Morazán’s greatest reform, ironically, militated against the union he sought. This was the emancipation, decades before the United States did so, of the vast slave class. The states now lost much of the glue that bonded them as provinces during the colonial period: an infrastructure of roads and bridges that depended on slaves levied from the latifundios, or great plantations. With the resultant crumbling of trade and communication links, the five states began going their own way, or forming unwieldy daughter federations. At one point, El Salvador and Honduras were joined, while Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica formed another ephemeral union.

Two political parties emerged from the cauldron. Men like Morazán and his friend Mariano Gálvez (a Guatemalan state president whose image adorns the Q20 note) led the Jeffersonian “liberal” faction. Men like Carrera and the criollo general Manuel Arce, the reactionary first president of the Federation, led the “clerical” faction. This latter was an alliance of bishops and wealthy latifundio owners, plus some people of humbler origins who were blood kin to the slaves but suspicious of pluralism and Protestantism.

Carrera was one of these. We do not know if his opposition to union and democracy were driven more by outlook or opportunism, but we do know that he vowed to destroy the union, and, with his charisma and leadership acumen, he would prevail.

At the age of 31, Morazán, a lawyer by training, was named a captain in the federal army. Though he lacked military training, he quickly distinguished himself in the first of many civil wars that would plague the Federation. Soon, he was a general. His serial victories in war opened his doorway to politics, and during the short, unhappy life of the Federation, he plied both; on several occasions he was simultaneously a head of state and a field commander.

At the height of Carrera’s power during the Federation era, he controlled, while still in his early 20s, not only Guatemala as an extra-constitutional strongman, but Nicaragua and most of Honduras. But these latter two states and Costa Rica, balked at both Carrera’s tyranny and unionism, and seceded. Guatemala, governed by the clericals even when liberals held titular power, was perpetually in rebellion. Only El Salvador, the seat of the federal capital, remained faithful to the union.

In effect, Guatemala now had to achieve independence from El Salvador; but unlike the peaceful separations from Spain and Mexico, this phase would be bloody.

Carrera’s mission, to wrest the biggest chunk of the Federation for himself, was now easier than Morazán’s mission, to preserve the union. In effect, Guatemala now had to achieve independence from El Salvador; but unlike the peaceful separations from Spain and Mexico, this phase would be bloody.

One engagement took place in San Andrés Semetabaj, overlooking Lake Atitlán. Morazán was favored, but Carrera outfoxed him by scoping the battlefield terrain beforehand and memorizing it. He routed Morazán, who fled to Guatemala City and regrouped. But even there, Carrera had a trap set for him; the decisive battle took place where the San Juan de Dios Hospital now stands. The tactical genius of the erudite and progressive Morazán had been trumped by that of a former highwayman who could not read.

But Carrera could dictate, and he ordered his scribe to make known that Morazán now carried a price on his head. Morazán fled to Peru, where he was offered, but declined, a generalship in the doomed struggle of Peru and Bolivia against Chile in the Pacific War.

While in exile, and bitter over the secession of Honduras, Morazán began identifying himself as Salvadoran rather than Honduran. El Salvador returned the honor by later recovering Morazán’s remains and erecting a monument to him. Yet both countries would pay him the supreme honor of naming a province in his honor.

In 1842, long after the dissolution of the union, Morazán returned from exile, this time to Costa Rica where he led a coup against Braulio Carillo, the only true dictator in Costa Rica’s history. He was rewarded with the presidency, which he used to lay democratic foundations that remain in place to this day. But within months an old friend betrayed him to a clerical insurrection. Soon he faced a firing squad, which he was given the honor of commanding himself. Morazán was not quite 50.

Carrera lived past 50, but barely. His “Presidency for Life,” stained with despotism and corruption, lasted until 1864, when he was assassinated.

Around 1890, Cuban poet José Martí lionized Morazán as “a powerful genius, a strategist, a speaker, a true statesman, perhaps the only one Central America has ever produced.” Morazán may well have been Central America’s top achiever. But Carrera may qualify as the top overachiever, rivaled only by filibusterers William Walker and Lee Christmas. Like Hitler or Stalin, he was a man of small stature and towering complexes, but one with the spunk to seize the levers of power and strike down all opponents, real and imaginary.

These two general-politicians might be called the cofounders of modern Central America. Antagonists in life, they are united in legacy as a parable of democracy and despotism that defined the region—perhaps even to the present.

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