LYING between the Panama Isthmus and the southern border of Mexico are five tiny republics. Having a combined population of less than six millions and raw materials of little value, these republics are of international importance largely because of the accident of geography. Should they fall under the control of a foreign power, the position of the United States at Panama might be threatened under prevailing international standards. The maintenance of the "independence" of these republics is therefore a "vital interest" of the American government. Central America has much the same political importance to the United States that Egypt has to Great Britain and Manchuria to Japan.

It has been customary to regard the Central American republics as "backward." Except in Costa Rica, the rate of illiteracy is high, revolutions are frequent, financial difficulties are chronic, per capita trade is extremely low. The course of the present international depression, however, has unsettled traditional judgments; many countries which have been regarded as "progressive" have fallen into the dumps; many "backward" countries have shown a high degree of stability and capacity to survive. It is not too much to say that Central America has weathered the economic and political storm of the last few years more successfully than supposedly further advanced countries in South America.

Nevertheless, in common with the rest of the world, Central America has suffered from the depression. The five republics have experienced difficulties in raising foreign exchange to meet their debts, and in balancing their budgets. During 1932, Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica declared partial moratoria. No republic of Central America is however in complete default, in contrast to many countries elsewhere and to the bankrupt condition which existed in Central America twenty years ago. Central America's two leading exports -- bananas and coffee -- have slumped heavily. But the world price of coffee declined less during the last two years than that of any other of the world's raw materials; while the market for the mild variety which Central America produces has been better than for the coffee of Brazil. Owing to a low standard of living, the unemployed of Central America have suffered less acute distress than that experienced in more industrialized parts of the world; if need be, the people can live from the soil.

During the last few years revolutions have occurred on the isthmus but they have not been nearly so violent or so indecisive as in many other countries. In December 1930 an army clique forced Baudilio Palma out of office in Guatemala, installing General Manuel Orellana in his place. Partly because the United States withheld recognition, General Orellana resigned, and as a result of elections held in February 1931, General Ubico, representing a coalition of Liberals and Progressives, was elected.

Honduras, once a chronic center of civil war, has manfully continued along the path of constitutional government begun with the rule of Paz Barahona, a Conservative, in 1925. After an admittedly fair election, he was succeeded in 1929 by Dr. Mejía Colindres, a liberal. Dr. Mejía has just retired in favor of a Conservative, General Tiburcio Carías, who won the election of October 30, 1932. Following this election a revolt occurred which both President Mejía and President-elect Carías opposed. Although at one time the rebels threatened Tegucigalpa, Generals Reyna and Fonseca were forced in January to flee across the frontier into Nicaragua, where they were interned. It is too soon to predict, however, whether constitutional government in Honduras has won a permanent victory.

For a time Costa Rica, politically the most advanced of these countries, was threatened with a serious situation owing to the fact that the presidential election, held on February 14, 1932, failed to give the necessary majority to any candidate. One of the aspirants, Castro Quesada, former minister to Washington, took advantage of this situation to start a revolt; but it was quickly suppressed. On May 1, Congress broke the deadlock by choosing as the next president Costa Rica's Grand Old Man, Don Ricardo Jiménez, who had twice before been president and who is the outstanding figure in the country. The present heads of all three governments in Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica are regarded as stronger personalities than their predecessors.

In the two remaining countries of Central America -- Nicaragua and Salvador -- events of more than usual interest to the United States have recently transpired. In the first of these countries, the United States has terminated an intervention which, save for a brief period in 1925-26, had existed since 1912. In the second, the State Department has resisted an opportunity to intervene -- an opportunity which previous administrations might have readily seized.

Through the instrumentality of a legation guard and other means, the United States kept a Conservative government in power in Nicaragua between 1912 and 1925, although the Liberals constituted a distinct majority of the country. In return, this régime acquiesced in American control of the customs, the railway, and the bank; and in 1914 it ceded to the United States the right to construct the Nicaraguan Canal. Finally conscious-stricken by this policy of maintaining a puppet government, a policy which Japan today is imitating in Manchuria, the United States withdrew the marines in 1925, but without giving up its desire to dominate the country. In October of that year, Emiliano Chamorro, alleging that he had been tricked in the recent elections, executed a coup d'état which eventually forced President Solórzano to resign and Vice-President Sacasa to flee the country. The United States not only refused to recognize Chamorro as the de facto president but insisted that he resign. The basis for this action was a treaty signed between the five republics at Washington, February 7, 1923, taking the place of a previous treaty signed in 1907. In the 1923 agreement the five republics undertook not to recognize any revolutionary government if its head had been a leader in the revolution or related to such a leader, had been a Secretary of State during the previous six months, or was ineligible to become president under the local constitution. Although the United States was not a party to this agreement, it announced in June 1923 that it would follow these principles as the basis for its recognition policy. The Central American treaty had in fact embodied in treaty form the ideas of "constitutionalism" which Woodrow Wilson had applied, in some cases ruthlessly, to Mexico, Haiti, Santo Domingo, Cuba, Costa Rica, and Guatemala.[i]

Although the United States opposed Chamorro, it did nothing to assist Dr. Sacasa, the "legitimist" candidate, to resume power. After vainly visiting Washington, Dr. Sacasa returned to the east coast of Nicaragua where he established a government and launched a revolution. He was recognized and apparently supported by Mexico. Confronted by this situation, the United States now virtually made Don Adolfo Díaz president of Nicaragua -- the most pro-Yankee personage in the country. American support of Don Adolfo was especially remarkable inasmuch as, being an uncle of one of the leaders of the Chamorro coup d'état, he was debarred from recognition by the very treaty which the United States had applied against Chamorro. Despite this support of Díaz the revolution continued, and José Moncada, Sacasa's leading general, undoubtedly would have captured Managua, the capital, had it not been for the firm intervention of Henry L. Stimson, the special representative of President Coolidge, and about 5,000 marines and blue-jackets. After informing Moncada that the United States if necessary would forcibly disarm the rebels and that Adolfo Díaz must serve out his term as president, Mr. Stimson signed with General Moncada the famous Tipitapa agreement of May 1927. As compensation for suppressing the revolt in favor of the Conservatives, the United States undertook in this agreement to supervise the next presidential election, organize a non-partisan constabulary which should be the only armed force in the country, and undertake general responsibility for restoring order.

Having scattered troops all over the country, the United States seemed destined to remain in Nicaragua indefinitely. In addition to supervising the 1928 election, which resulted in a victory for the Liberal candidate, General Moncada, the United States agreed to supervise the 1930 congressional elections as well as the presidential elections of 1932. For a time there was a prospect that the United States might adopt supervision as a permanent policy, and that if the marines were withdrawn it would be only on condition that a large legation guard be left indefinitely at Managua.

It is to the credit of Mr. Stimson that as Secretary of State he combated these tendencies and ended an intervention for which he had been personally responsible in 1927. On February 13, 1931, the State Department announced that the marines would be withdrawn from Nicaragua following the 1932 election -- the final election to be supervised. In April 1931 Mr. Stimson resisted an opportunity for indefinitely extending the intervention when Sandino's "bandits" killed nine Americans near the east coast. At that time the Department laid down a doctrine, long followed in China, but new for Central America, that it could not undertake general protection of Americans in the interior of Nicaragua, but only in the coast towns.

The presidential election, held under American supervision in November 1932, was of significance because it resulted in the victory of Juan B. Sacasa as president and Rodolfo Espinosa as vice-president -- Liberals who had been the victims of the American intervention in 1927. Accepting the view widely held in Latin America that the United States would never permit the election of any president whom it could not control, the Conservatives once more nominated Adolfo Díaz as their candidate. The United States, however, did not lift a finger to help Díaz, and he went down to defeat. Although the Liberal government is friendly to the United States, it is following a "nationalistic" policy; and its victory over Díaz should dispel the popular belief that the United States will control the government of Nicaragua even though the marines are withdrawn.

In strict conformity with previous announcements, every American marine left Nicaragua on January 2, 1933. According to a State Department communiqué, "no American armed forces will remain in that country, either as instructors in the constabulary, as a legation guard, or in any capacity whatsoever." The withdrawal "marks the termination of the special relationship which has existed between the United States and Nicaragua." Provided the next administration refrains from again occupying Nicaragua in case disorder occurs, this evacuation registers a revolutionary change in the Caribbean policy of the United States.

Although the United States had carried out its avowed purpose of supervising elections and of organizing a constabulary by the time of its withdrawal in January, it had failed to restore peace in the north. Since the Tipitapa agreement, American soldiers (whether directly, or indirectly as officers of the Guardia) had been engaged in an utterly unsuccessful campaign to capture General Augusto Sandino, one of Moncada's generals, who refused to accept the American intervention and established his headquarters in the Segovias. In the Sandino campaign 201 marine casualties occurred, and the lives of several thousand Nicaraguans were lost, while the northern departments remained in a state of turmoil. Just as General Pershing failed to capture Villa in Mexico, so the American marines failed to get Sandino. One month following the American evacuation, that is on February 2, 1933, Sandino flew to Managua, and after fraternally embracing President Sacasa signed an agreement establishing peace.[ii] The Sacasa government has promised to provide lands for those of Sandino's followers who wish to become farmers, and also to carry out a program of public works in the northern area. This agreement with Sandino is of much importance to the future stability of Central America and has greatly enhanced the prestige of the Sacasa-Espinosa administration. For the last four years President Hoover and Secretary Stimson have denounced Sandino as an unprincipled "bandit." The voluntary establishment of peace so quickly after the evacuation of the American marines who had been in occupation ostensibly to restore order is another demonstration of the futility of the intervention policy.

In Salvador, the richest of the five republics, a delicate situation has arisen, again due in part to the recognition policy of the United States. In December 1931 a group of young military officers executed a coup d'état which forced President Araujo, a well-meaning but vacillating executive, to resign. The Salvador Congress quickly authorized Vice-President Martínez to take office. Almost immediately the new administration was confronted with a genuine communist uprising; attacks were made in the Sonsonate and Ahuachapa districts and a number of finca owners were killed. The Salvador army remained loyal to Martínez, and, aided by property owners, engaged in a campaign of reprisals which resulted in the slaughter of between 3,000 and 7,000 mozos, suspected of being communists. A second act of the Martinez government, taken on February 27, 1932, was to default upon its American loan of $21,000,000 made in 1922. This loan contract had always been unpopular because it had provided that the American bankers could maintain a fiscal representative in Salvador to receive the customs pledged to the loan and in case of default establish, in coöperation with the State Department, a customs receivership. Salvador's default now confronted Washington with the question whether it should extend its financial control over one of the proudest countries in Latin America, at a time when defaults were becoming widespread even in Europe. Realizing that any attempt to establish a receivership in Salvador would cause a storm of protest which would mortally injure President Hoover's Latin American policy, the State Department wisely declined to make any such move. In justification of this attitude, it gravely stated that it had not "recognized" the Martinez government. This seems to be the only case on record where our recognition policy has actually benefited the non-recognized régime! Subsequently Salvador made a satisfactory adjustment with the American bondholders.

While the refusal to establish a receivership averted an intervention, difficulties arose over the question of recognition. The Department declined to recognize Martínez on the ground that in addition to being vice-president he had been minister of war and hence was ineligible under the 1923 treaty. It had expected that its attitude would cause Martínez to resign, as General Orellana had done under similar circumstances a few months previously in Guatemala. But Salvador is a nationalistic country, and Martinez clung to his office. The position of the United States, which was formulated in coöperation with Guatemala and Honduras, was particularly resented on the ground that the Salvador Congress had ratified the Central American treaty on May 26, 1925, subject to an express reservation that Salvador would not accept the clause preventing the recognition of revolutionary governments, because the right of revolution was guaranteed in the Salvador constitution. In what was legally a correct answer, the Department declared that this reservation merely controlled the recognition policy of Salvador toward the other Central American countries; it did not prevent the other countries, and the United States, from applying the principles of the 1923 treaty against Salvador.

Politically, however, a delicate situation had arisen. Declaring that the 1923 treaty had merely led to interventions, the Jiménez government of Costa Rica on December 23, 1932, denounced its terms, to take effect in January 1934. Five days later, the Martinez government in Salvador likewise denounced the agreement. The Ubico government in Guatemala, which owes its existence partly to the fact that the United States did not recognize its predecessor, strongly opposes the abrogation of the 1923 treaty, and it particularly resents the methods followed by Costa Rica. According to Dr. Skinner Klée, the Guatemalan Foreign Minister, the Costa Rica government had invited Guatemala to attend a Central American conference in April 1933 to consider what action should be taken on this treaty, but proceeded to denounce it without awaiting the outcome of this conference.[iii] Guatemala also raises the question whether the denunciation of the 1923 treaty by the Martinez government has any validity, since that government has not been "recognized."

From the legal standpoint, the 1923 treaty may continue in existence after 1934 provided it is not denounced by three of the five parties in so far as those parties are concerned. Nevertheless, one may be really apprehensive of the future unless the issues raised by the 1923 treaty are soon peacefully solved. The fundamental question is whether there is room in Latin America for two conflicting recognition policies. Can the United States, which during the last three years has recognized revolutionary governments in South America, Panama and the Dominican Republic, follow the opposite policy in the case of the five Central American republics? Can Costa Rica and Salvador, the two most advanced countries of Central America, supported by Mexico (in accordance with the Estrada doctine), follow what amounts to a de facto recognition policy, while Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, supported by the United States, follow a legitimist recognition policy? An example of the confusion if not ill-will which may arise out of this situation is seen in the fact that although the United States and the other Central American republics have refrained from recognizing the new Salvador government, recognition has been extended to this government by eight Latin American countries and fifteen European countries. If Central America is to be saved from future unrest and turmoil a collective recognition policy must be agreed upon.

The question before the United States is whether or not it is to continue to oppose revolution in Central America, and to employ for this purpose the instrument of non-recognition. In the present state of international law the United States may withhold recognition from any other government purely as a matter of policy. Nevertheless, when the instrument of non-recognition is applied to countries as weak as the Central American republics it may easily become a means of intervention. Undoubtedly it was the attempt to apply these non-recognition principles which was responsible, more than any other single factor, for the intervention of the United States in Nicaragua in 1926, an intervention terminated only last January. As applied in the past, the Central America treaty of 1923 has been a kind of Platt Amendment, serving as a pretext for the interference of the United States in any disturbance in Central America. In applying the principles of this treaty to Salvador in 1931, the United States acted much more circumspectly than in the case of Nicaragua a few years previously. Instead of aggressively attempting to enforce a unilateral interpretation of the treaty, it acted in coöperation with the Honduras and Guatemala governments, both of which feared that the recognition of Martinez would encourage revolt. The State Department did not attempt to oust Martínez from office as it did Chamorro; nor did it land marines in Salvador. But had a strong counter-revolutionary movement arisen against Martínez, a condition of disorder might easily have arisen involving the prestige of the United States and provoking intervention. The history of Central America clearly indicates that the threat of non-recognition does not prevent revolts. Every one of these republics has suffered from disorder since 1923; what are probably the most serious revolts in the history of Honduras and Nicaragua have taken place during this period. Non-recognition does, on the other hand, weaken the de facto government and encourage counter-revolution. Non-recognition thus may prolong disorder in the country to which the policy applied. If this disorder is to be ended, the imposition of more positive sanctions, i.e., military intervention, may become necessary.

The doubts which once existed as to the validity of intervention under international law are being rapidly removed by recent events. Should revolution occur in Honduras and Nicaragua next year, it might be permissible for the State Department to land marines for the purpose of directly protecting American lives. But under the principles of law and procedure applied by the United States and the League of Nations to Japan during its recent intervention in Manchuria, the United States could not go further and directly interfere in the internal administration. Unilateral intervention in the internal affairs of another independent state is a clear violation of international law. This type of intervention -- going beyond what is directly necessary to protect foreign interests -- can be undertaken only under the authority of an inter-American or international community. No hypothetical fear that if the United States refrained from interfering in a revolution in Central America a European power would do so, can justify the anti-revolutionary policy. From the strategic standpoint, the American navy, enjoying complete supremacy in the Caribbean, can easily dislodge any foreign intervention after it takes place. From the political standpoint, the United States must be willing to entrust the independence of Central America in the first instance to the League Covenant, the antiwar pact, and the inter-American arbitration and conciliation agreements of January 1929. The United States cannot possibly justify asking Japan to internationalize its policy in Manchuria unless the United States is willing to internationalize its policy in the Caribbean.

Even though in unilaterally withholding recognition from a revolutionary government in Central America the United States technically refrains from intervention, it will find difficulty in justifying the legitimist recognition policy in the five Central American republics with the de facto policy followed elsewhere. If this inconsistency is not removed, the world will assume that the United States desires to maintain an exclusive sphere of influence in Central America, an aim which would be inconsistent with its general international professions and its refusal to acquiesce in the establishment of a Japanese sphere on the mainland of Asia. Certainly the United States is justified in its desire to promote stability in Central America; but the only sound and legal means of achieving this end lies in supporting the development of Central American institutions.

In view of the two denunciations of the 1923 treaty, a Central American Conference will soon have to be convened. It would be unfortunate, however, if the conference were to denounce the 1923 treaty outright. Many of its provisions, notably those terminating government help to revolutionaries in neighboring countries, have promoted peace. The grave danger of terminating the treaty is that it may mean the revival of Central American wars and the collapse of the ideal of union, which has existed on the isthmus since colonial times. The object of the Conference should be the development of the 1923 treaties so as to establish common institutions, with union as the ultimate goal.

A Central American confederation, arising out of such a conference, would be entirely justified in adopting measures against revolution in any one of its component parts and, in default of more effective measures, in employing the instrument of collective non-recognition as a means toward this end. But this instrument should be made more flexible than at present and should be applied by a permanent Central American court or council. Instead of applying an independent recognition policy, claiming a "moral mandate" to enforce order in Central America, the United States should support the decisions of the appropriate Central American institution regarding recognition.

Although the decision whether steps toward union shall or shall not be taken will be made by Central American leaders, in the last analysis the whole development will be decisively affected by the overshadowing influence of the United States. Instead of deprecating the idea, the diplomatic representatives of the United States in this area should lend their encouragement to any discussion of closer coöperation. But something more than moral support is necessary. An essential contribution of the United States toward the work of forming a Central American confederation lies in the revision of the Bryan-Chamorro treaty. In 1916-17 the Central American Court of Justice formally declared that this treaty (in which Nicaragua ceded to the United States the right to construct the Nicaraguan Canal and to build certain naval bases) infringed upon the rights of Costa Rica and Salvador. Neither the United States nor Nicaragua paid any attention to this judgment, and the court went out of existence. The Bryan-Chamorro treaty constitutes a standing obstacle to the rapprochement of the United States with Central America. So long as Nicaragua clings to this treaty, Central American confederation is impossible. In a rather timid effort to remove criticisms, the United States carried on certain negotiations with Costa Rica in 1923. The Costa Rican Congress declined to accept the proposed protocol, and no further steps toward removing the defects of this treaty have been made. A magnificent impetus to Central American union would be given if the United States and Nicaragua offered to revise the Bryan-Chamorro treaty, striking out all provisions concerning naval bases, and converting it into an agreement between the five Central American republics on the one hand and the United States on the other. The United States should also lend its influence toward any efforts which the Central American republics might jointly wish to take toward debt consolidation and toward securing new funds to construct desirable public works.

Ubiquitous "realists" will scoff at anyone who today seriously proposes the formation of a Central American Union. It cannot be denied that serious difficulties lie in the way of realizing such a goal. Nevertheless, the alternative principles of non-recognition and no-revolution, which have constituted the basis of the Central American policy of the United States in the past, besides being of dubious legal validity, have a sterile, negative character which have often accentuated destructive dictatorship on the one hand and chronic disorder on the other. To strive toward the goal of Central American union, however, means the gradual creation of a body of Central American public law, the development of indigenous institutions, the spontaneous promotion of political stability as a result of internal growth, and the promise of a richer life because of the unfolding of common cultural, economic and political interests. When the 1923 Central American treaties expire in 1934, the only wise course for the five republics to follow is not to denounce these agreements entirely, but to remould them in the light of the unionist ideal. And to the achievement of that aim the United States should extend every legitimate aid.

[i]Cf. Raymond Leslie Buell, "The United States and Central American Stability," Foreign Policy Reports, Vol. VII, No. 9, July 8, 1931.

[ii] For the complete text see La Prensa (Managua), February 4, 1933.

[iii]Nuestro Diario, Guatemala City, January 17, 1933.

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  • RAYMOND LESLIE BUELL, Research Director of the Foreign Policy Association; author of "The Native Problem in Africa," and other works
  • More By Raymond Leslie Buell