Controversial Presidents of Central America

The tiny nations that make up the narrow strip of land known as Central America have been ruled by statesmen, madmen, generals, politicians and even a North American from Tennessee. How much do you know about these fascinating historical figures?

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Francisco Morazan, President of the Republic of Central America

Francisco Morazan
Francisco Morazan. Artist Unknown

After gaining independence from Spain but before fracturing into the smaller nations we're familiar with today, Central America was, for a time, one united nation known as the Federal Republic of Central America. This nation lasted (roughly) from 1823 to 1840. The leader of this young nation was Honduran Francisco Morazan (1792-1842), a progressive general and landowner. Morazan is considered the "Simon Bolivar of Central America" because of his dream for a strong, united nation. Like Bolivar, Morazan was defeated by his political enemies and his dreams of a united Central America were destroyed.

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Rafael Carrera, First President of Guatemala

Rafael Carrera
Rafael Carrera. Photographer Unknown

After the fall of the Republic of Central America, the nations of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica went their separate ways (Panama and Belize became nations later). In Guatemala, illiterate pig farmer Rafael Carrera (1815-1865) became the first President of the new nation. He would eventually rule with uncontested power for over a quarter-century, becoming the first in a long line of powerful Central American dictators.

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William Walker, Greatest of the Filibusters

William Walker
William Walker. Photographer Unknown

During the mid-nineteenth century, the United States of America was expanding. It won the American west during the Mexican-American War and successfully drew Texas away from Mexico as well. Other men tried to duplicate what had happened in Texas: taking over chaotic parts of the old Spanish Empire and then attempting to bring them into the United States. These men were called "filibusters." The greatest filibuster was William Walker (1824-1860), a lawyer, doctor and adventurer from Tennessee. He brought a small mercenary army to Nicaragua and by cleverly playing off rival factions became President of Nicaragua in 1856-1857.

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Jose Santos Zelaya, Nicaragua's Progressive Dictator

Jose Santos Zelaya
Jose Santos Zelaya. Photographer Unknown

Jose Santos Zelaya was President and Dictator of Nicaragua from 1893 to 1909. He left a mixed legacy of good and bad: he improved communication, commerce and education but ruled with an iron fist, jailing and murdering opponents and stifling free speech. He was also notorious for stirring up rebellion, strife and dissent in neighboring countries.

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Anastasio Somoza Garcia, First of the Somoza Dictators

Anastasio Somoza Garcia
Anastasio Somoza Garcia. Photographer Unknown

In the early 1930's, Nicaragua was a chaotic place. Anastasio Somoza Garcia, a failed businessman and politician, clawed his way to the top of Nicaragua's National Guard, a powerful police force. By 1936 he was able to seize power, which he held until his assassination in 1956. During his time as dictator, Somoza ruled Nicaragua like his own private kingdom, stealing brazenly from state funds and blatantly taking over national industries. He founded the Somoza dynasty, which would last through his two sons until 1979. Despite the flagrant corruption, Somoza was always favored by the United States because of his unflinching anti-communism.

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Jose "Pepe" Figueres, Costa Rica's Visionary

Jose Figueres on Costa Rica's 10,000 Colones note. Costa Rican Currency

Jose "Pepe" Figueres (1906-1990) was President of Costa Rica on three occasions between 1948 and 1974. Figueres was responsible for the modernization enjoyed by Costa Rica today. He gave women and illiterate people the right to vote, abolished the army and nationalized the banks. Above all, he was dedicated to democratic rule in his nation, and most modern Costa Ricans regard his legacy very highly.

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Manuel Zelaya, the Ousted President

Manuel Zelaya
Manuel Zelaya. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Manuel Zelaya (1952-) was President of Honduras from 2006 to 2009. He is best remembered for the events of June 28, 2009. On that date, he was arrested by the army and put on a plane for Costa Rica. While he was gone, the Honduran Congress voted to remove him from office. This initiated an international drama as the world watched to see if Zelaya could claw his way back into power. After elections in Honduras in 2009, Zelaya went into exile and did not return to his homeland until 2011.

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Your Citation
Minster, Christopher. "Controversial Presidents of Central America." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Minster, Christopher. (2023, April 5). Controversial Presidents of Central America. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "Controversial Presidents of Central America." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).