- BBC News World
This September is the bicentennial for six nations of Latin America.
In that month, but of the year 1821, declarations of Independence were made on the Spanish crown that, after several political experiments, concluded with the birth of six countries that we know today: Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
Even the territories of Chiapas, Yucatán and Texas they had a short independent life.
They all emanated from the New Spain, one of the vast territories in America that the Spanish Empire created and administered for three centuries.
But why did one of the greatest empires of the past millennium lose control of its most extensive possession and its territory ended up so fragmented?
To answer it, you have to look at what happened at the beginning of the XIX century.
What was New Spain like?
New Spain was one of the greatest nations of its time.
It stretched for more than 7 million square kilometers, from regions of the southwest and southeast of the present United States to the northwest of Panama.
The current territory of Spain would fit 14 times only in New Spain (even more in its other viceroyalties and territories in America, Africa and Asia).
Its territorial conformation was diverse: there were kingdoms like that of Mexico and Nueva Galicia in the central region. (The following maps show land extensions based on current country and local state boundaries).
To the north were the inner provinces of the east, like Nuevo León or Nueva Extremadura, and the western internal provinces, including the Californias, Nueva Navarra or Nueva Vizcaya.
To the south were the captaincies general of Yucatan and Guatemala.
The latter was also subdivided into provinces: Chiapas (current state of Mexico), Guatemala (including current Belize), San Salvador (current El Salvador), Nicaragua and Costa Rica (then a single unit) and Comayagua (current Honduras).
The capital was Mexico City, but Guatemala City acted as a second capital in terms of government.
“Era a very complicated jurisdictional spliceBut in practical terms there was a lot of independence of the Central American provinces with respect to Mexico, but there were also some functions in which they depended on Mexico, “historian Alfredo Ávila tells BBC Mundo.
In economic matters, religion and justice through the Holy Inquisition, the government of Mexico City had control over the entire New Spain. But in other matters, such as the armed forces, the Captaincy of Guatemala or Yucatán had their autonomy.
“In Central America there was not a viceroyalty in general terms, but an audience, with a political leader, a general captaincy,” continues Ávila, an academic at the Institute of Historical Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).
“And it is very difficult to talk about identities. A person who was born in San Salvador was Guatemalan, because he depended on the Guatemalan Court. But if he was the son of Spaniards, he was Spanish,” he says.
All of this played an important role in what would happen around 1810.
The decline of a huge empire
The elites linked to political, commercial and religious power were exposing their discrepancies with Spain after three centuries of coexistence.
Starting in 1808, the discontent of the ruling class in America led to the emergence of various independence movements that grew stronger as the Spanish crown went through its own warlike conflicts in Europe with England and France.
That left the Spanish crown very weakened to face rebellions In America. Even the government of Mexico City had lost military control over its dominions.
“The viceroy of Mexico did not command the headquarters of Guadalajara or Monterrey,” explains Ávila. There the military chiefs were the ones who “had such force that the viceroy no longer had influence over them.”
“There began a process of viceregal disarticulation that reached Central America,” he says.
The great outbreak in New Spain is that of the early morning of September 16, 1810, when an independence conspiracy was discovered and the priest Miguel Hidalgo called the Mexican people to take up arms in the famous Grito de Dolores.
The Mexican War of Independence culminated 11 years later, September 27, 1821.
For its part, the Captaincy of Guatemala had a relatively peaceful process in which the independence determination was made in an assembly with members of the provinces on September 15, 1821.
Although those are the most remembered dates, in fact there was a moment that weeks before was decisive for New Spain.
The Treaties of Córdoba
When Mexico and the provinces of Central America declared their independence, they already had a plan in place: to form an empire.
The idea was embodied in the Treaties of Córdoba, that were signed between the Mexican independentistas and authorities of New Spain on August 24, 1821. Their final objective was the foundation of the Mexican empire.
The Spanish knew that they could no longer contain the independence movement, but they wanted to rescue the valuable trade routes.
The document “recognized the independence of Mexico, but it sought to maintain the commercial relationship of both sides. And a part of the Guatemalan elite wanted to take advantage of that,” Avila explains.
Chiapas – which was part of the Captaincy of Guatemala – was the first Central American province to join the empire, followed shortly after by the Captaincy of Yucatan.
“And the discussion of the Central Americans then was what was more convenient: remain independent from Spain or join one of the two great neighboring powers, Colombia or the Mexican Empire, “says the historian.
“Clearly due to historical ties it made more sense to join the Mexican Empire.”
Panama, which today is part of Central America, remained in the Great Colombia.
Under the new empire 24 provinces were delimited, many of which retain their names in Mexico and the United States (Texas, New Mexico, California) to the present day.
With regard to Central America, the almost current delimitation occurred: Guatemala (including Belize), El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica (these last two were no longer one).
The final fragmentation
However, the Mexican Empire did not last long.
The political instability that persisted since the assumption of Emperor Agustín de Iturbide led to a coup in February 1823, which led to the dissolution of the Mexican Empire a year later.
The Mexican provinces, to which Chiapas was integrated, formed the first Mexican Federal Republic, while the southern provinces created the Federal Republic of Central America.
But that attempt to maintain the union of such diverse territories could not be sustained. The reasons were not only for the political agreements of the moment, but also historical.
“In Central America it was not possible to build a broader identity[como la mexicana]. Of a million, half lived in Guatemala. Another good part in Chiapas. The rest of the provinces were very sparsely populated and had almost no contact with each other, “explains Ávila.
“And there was a certain rejection of Guatemala, because it was seen as the city that collected taxes, that sent troops, that was a bit oppressive,” he adds.
In the 1930s there were various conflicts that resulted in the dissolution of the union of the provinces that sought to have greater self-determination.
It was then that they were born five independent republics: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
And in the Mexican case, in the 1830s and 1840s, Mexico lost important territories against the United States: Texas, Alta California and New Mexico.
Even Yucatán declared its independence for eight years, but returned to the Mexican union.
Thus, the more than seven million square kilometers were divided into the nations that this year celebrate two centuries of independence.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.