Francisco Morazan: the Simon Bolivar of Central America

He Was Instrumental in Creating Short-Lived Republic

Francisco Morazan. Public Domain Image

Jose Francisco Morazan Quezada (1792-1842) was a politician and general who ruled parts of Central America at different times during the turbulent period from 1827 to 1842. He was a strong leader and visionary who attempted to unite the different Central American countries into one large nation. His liberal, anti-clerical politics made him some powerful enemies, and his period of rule was marked by bitter infighting between liberals and conservatives.

Early Life

Morazan was born in Tegucigalpa in present-day Honduras in 1792, during the waning years of Spanish colonial rule. The was the son of an upper-class Creole family and entered the military at a young age. He soon distinguished himself for his bravery and charisma. He was tall for his era, about 5  feet 10 inches, and intelligent, and his natural leadership skills easily attracted followers. He became involved in local politics early, enlisting as a volunteer to oppose Mexico’s annexation of Central America in 1821.

A United Central America

Mexico suffered some severe internal upheavals in the first years of independence, and in 1823 Central America was able to break away. The decision was made to unify all of Central America as one nation, with the capital in Guatemala City. It was made up of five states: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. In 1824, liberal Jose Manuel Arce was elected president, but he soon switched sides and supported the conservative ideals of a strong central government with firm ties to the church.

At War

The ideological conflict between liberals and conservatives had long been simmering and finally boiled over when Arce sent troops to rebellious Honduras. Morazan led the defense in Honduras, but he was defeated and captured. He escaped and was put him in charge of a small army in Nicaragua. The army marched on Honduras and captured it at the legendary Battle of La Trinidad on Nov.

11, 1827. Morazan was now the liberal leader with the highest profile in Central America, and in 1830 he was elected to serve as president of the Federal Republic of Central America.

Morazan in Power

Morazan enacted liberal reforms in the new Federal Republic of Central America, including freedom of the press, speech and religion. He limited church power by making marriage secular and abolishing government-aided tithing. Eventually, he was forced to expel many clerics from the country. This liberalism made him the implacable enemy of the conservatives, who preferred to keep the old colonial power structures, including close ties between church and state. He moved the capital to San Salvador, El Salvador, in 1834 and was re-elected in 1835.

At War Again

Conservatives would occasionally take up arms in different parts of the nation, but Morazan’s grip on power was firm until late 1837, when Rafael Carrera led an uprising in eastern Guatemala. An illiterate pig farmer, Carrera was nevertheless a clever, charismatic leader and relentless adversary. Unlike previous conservatives, he was able to rally the generally apathetic Guatemalan Native Americans to his side, and his horde of irregular soldiers armed with machetes, flintlock muskets and clubs proved hard for Morazan to put down.

Defeat and Collapse of the Republic

As news of the successes of Carrera came to them, conservatives all over Central America took heart and decided that the time was right to strike against Morazan. Morazan was a skilled field general, and he defeated a much larger force at the battle of San Pedro Perulapan in 1839. By then, however, the republic had irrevocably fractured, and Morazan only effectively ruled El Salvador, Costa Rica and a few isolated pockets of loyal subjects. Nicaragua was the first to officially secede from the union, on Nov. 5, 1838. Honduras and Costa Rica quickly followed.

Exile in Colombia

Morazan was a skilled soldier, but his army was shrinking while that of the conservatives was growing, and in 1840 came the inevitable result: Carrera’s forces finally defeated Morazan, who was forced to go into exile in Colombia.

While there, he wrote an open letter to the people of Central America in which he explained why the republic was defeated and laments that Carrera and the conservatives never tried to really understand his agenda.

Costa Rica

In 1842 he was lured out of exile by Costa Rican Gen. Vicente Villasenor, who was leading a revolt against conservative Costa Rican dictator Braulio Carrillo and had him on the ropes. Morazan joined Villasenor, and together they finished the job of ousting Carrillo: Morazan was named president. He intended to use Costa Rica as the center of a new Central American republic. But the Costa Ricans turned on him, and he and Villasenor were executed on Sept. 15, 1842. His final words were to his friend Villasenor: “Dear friend, posterity will do us justice.”

Legacy of Francisco Morazan

Morazan was correct: Posterity has been kind to him and his dear friend Villasenor. Morazan is today seen as a visionary, progressive leader and able commander who fought to keep Central America together. In this, he is sort of the Central American version of Simon Bolívar, and there is more than a little in common between the two men.

Since 1840, Central America has been fractured, divided into tiny, weak nations vulnerable to wars, exploitation and dictatorships. The failure of the republic to last was a defining point in Central American history. Had it stayed united, the Republic of Central America might well be a formidable nation, on an economic and political par with, say, Colombia or Ecuador. As it is, however, it is a region of little world importance whose history is most often tragic.

The dream is not dead, however. Attempts were made in 1852, 1886 and 1921 to unite the region, although all of these attempts failed. Morazan's name is invoked anytime there is talk of reunification. Morazan is honored in Honduras and El Salvador, where there are provinces named after him, as well as any number of parks, streets, schools and businesses.