The Association of Communitarian Health Services (ASECSA) and the Role of Religion and Health in Central America
The Association of Communitarian Health Services (ASECSA) is a transnational, religiously influenced health program in Central America created during the Cold War. ASECSA was founded in 1978 by a small group of international health professionals with ties to programs started by Catholic and Protestant clergy and laity in Guatemala’s western highlands in the 1960s. It introduced a model of healthcare in which Maya health promoters and midwives became partners in healing rather than objects to be cured. Support for the health programs and ASECSA came from secular and religious international agencies, including the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), German Misereor, Catholic Relief Services, and the World Council of Churches. ASECSA was founded to disseminate knowledge of popular health education strategies used by health promoters and midwives to provide preventive and curative medical services to their communities. The education methods grew from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and its use by religious agents influenced by liberation theology. Although it was founded in Guatemala, ASECSA’s publications and meetings attracted participation by health professionals and paraprofessionals from Mexico, Central America, and even the Caribbean. Ecumenical religious centers affiliated with liberation theology in the 1960s and 1970s facilitated the development of popular health programs that played a defining role in the region.
What can we learn about the documents we work with if we incorporate a study of document creation, travel, and storage into the consideration of document content? Some well-known documents, such as the Popol Vuh, have backstories that reveal as much as their content. But even obscure documents, such as a dispute over a road detour in 18th-century Guatemala, can be read productively as objects with life trajectories. Understanding the “life” of this document—the world in which it was made, the tools and knowledge of its making, its travel while being written, its storage in colonial and national archives—sheds new light on its meaning. Similarly, all colonial documents can be interpreted in new ways if their lives are treated as part of the interpretation.
Jorge González Alzate
The Kingdom of Guatemala, a neglected backwater of the Spanish Empire under the Habsburgs, figured prominently in the long-term strategic planning of the Bourbon state. Royal preoccupation with this impoverished colony was reflected in the wide-ranging program of reform that the crown sought to put into practice in the isthmus over the course of the 18th century. For Philip V and his successors, the most pressing concern was the crown’s lack of control over the colony’s Caribbean coast (also known as the Mosquito Shore), a swampy and insalubrious region that for decades had been under the effective control of British interlopers and their native allies, the indomitable Sambo-Mosquitos. The main thrust of the reform project was therefore directed at addressing that serious security gap, a situation which, at the same time, severely limited Spain’s capacity to reap the benefits of Central America’s economy and trade. In its initial stages, the effort to implement the reforms proved to be a protracted and frustrating process, hampered by resistance from vested interests, lack of funds and personnel, natural disasters, and above all by recurring military conflict. It was not until the aftermath of the Seven Years War (1756–1763) that Charles III, facing the prospect of an even more damaging British attack, resolved to take decisive action and commanded his ministers to expedite the pace of reform. Royal orders were then issued that called for the de-Americanization and overhauling of the civil administration, direct state intervention to stimulate economic productivity and expand maritime trade, the establishment of a modern, efficient, crown-administered fiscal structure, the strengthening of the defense system, and the assertion of royal authority over the ecclesiastical establishment. Initially, the uncompromising manner utilized by the crown in introducing the changes, particularly the reforms to the fiscal system, provoked much unrest and resistance among wide segments of the population. But in the end, the reforms survived and, by the closing years of the century, most of the measures had largely met the crown’s objectives. The fiscal surplus generated by the economic and commercial expansion of the second half of the 18th century enabled the Bourbons to attain their principal strategic objective in Central America, namely dislodging the British enemy from much of the Atlantic coast. Unfortunately, not long after this climatic point, the decades-long effort quickly unraveled as the monarchy began to collapse in 1808. In the end, the reform project proved insufficient; the dream of attaining modernization and preeminent status among European powers remained elusive. As conditions in the mother country deteriorated, so did the economic and political stability of Central America. The kingdom’s provinces were engulfed by increasing political volatility and economic depression. Following the example of neighboring New Spain, Central Americans declared their independence in 1821. Thus, in the end, the Bourbons had “gained a revenue and lost an empire.”
During the Cold War’s earliest years, right-wing governments and oligarchic elites in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua fostered closer relationships with the Catholic Church. Dictatorial leaders like Guatemala’s Carlos Castillo Armas and dynastic regimes like Nicaragua’s Somoza family regarded the Church as an ally against supposed Marxist influence in the region. Those ties began to fray in the late 1960s, as the Second Vatican Council’s foundational reforms moved Catholicism farther to the political and social left around the globe. This shift was especially prominent in Central America, where Catholics like El Salvador’s Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero and Guatemala’s Father Stanley Rother were among Central America’s most visible critics and reformers as political violence increased across the region during the 1970s. Relatedly, evangelical Protestants, particularly Pentecostal groups based in the United States, flooded Central America throughout that decade. Their staunch anticommunism and established ties to influential policymakers and political lobbyists in the United States, among other factors, gave evangelical Protestants greater influence in US-Central American relations. Their influence was strongest during the early 1980s, when José Efraín Ríos Montt, an ordained Pentecostal minister with Eureka, California’s Verbo Ministries, seized Guatemala’s presidency via a coup in March 1982. Notable US evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson praised Ríos Montt’s regime for its rabid anticommunist ideology, while President Ronald Reagan claimed that the dictator had received a “bum rap” in the global press. Concurrently, some US evangelical missioners and pastors also foregrounded the Sandinista government’s anti-Protestant activities as additional justification for US support for Nicaragua’s Contra forces. Religious actors were also instrumental to Central America’s peace processes after the Cold War, as Catholic and Protestant leaders alike worked closely with regional governments and the United States to end decades of political violence and enact meaningful socioeconomic reforms for the region’s citizens.
From the period of imperial conquest and competition, the Caribbean coast of Central America has served as an interstitial space: between British and Spanish rule; between foreign corporate control and national inclusion; mestizo, black, and indigenous. Running from Guatemala in the north through Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama in the south, “la Costa” has functioned as a contested terrain imbued with economic import, ethnic difference, and symbolic power. The coastal zones were transformed in the 20th century through the construction of railroads and later highways, large-scale foreign immigration, the spread of states’ bureaucratic agents, and internal migrants, as well as transnational projects such as the Panama Canal and the United Fruit Company’s integrated banana plantation empire.
The coastal region’s inaccessible terrain, large communities of lowland indigenous people, and vast numbers of Afro-Caribbean migrants from islands such as Jamaica markedly differentiated these lowlands from the wider Central American republics. From indigenous groups such as the Rama, Mayangna-Sumu, Kuna, Guaymí, and Bribri, to the Afro-indigenous Garifuna and Miskitu, and the English-speaking black Creoles and Afro-Antilleans, the region has enjoyed great ethnic diversity compared to the nominally mestizo republics of which it has formed part. Finally, ladino (non-indigenous) or mestizo (mixed-race) campesino migrants from the Pacific or Central regions of the isthmus arrived in large numbers throughout the 20th century. Racism, ethnic exclusion, and marginalization were often the response of national states toward these coastal populations. In some contexts, tensions between and among ethnic groups over land and natural resources, as well as between national states and local autonomy, flared into violent conflict. Elsewhere in Central America, the Caribbean coast’s position in national political development permitted a gradual meshing of national and regional cultures during the second half of the 20th century.
Regarded as an ethnohistorical treasure, the Popol Wuj narrative has been read exclusively as a freestanding, self-contained text used to inquire into a history far removed from when it was actually created. Consequently, the colonial context of the text itself has been minimized, including the central role of Dominican friar Francisco Ximénez as transcriber and translator of the only copy in existence. The present study delineates a historical trajectory of the Popol Wuj, reframing the narrative within its colonial ecclesiastic context. It explores the physical structure of Friar Ximénez’s 18th-century manuscript, preserved as MS 1515 by the Newberry Library in Chicago, to demonstrate that his work was first and foremost a series of religious treatises intended to carry out the conversion of the K’iche’ to Christianity. As a cautionary word, rather than revisiting the old, biased approach of questioning the authenticity and authorship of this Popol Wuj narrative, the current study suggests a broader reading, addressing the complexities intrinsic in this text, particularly the fact that the narrative was the result of the cultural contact between mendicant friars, whose main objective was to evangelize, and indigenous groups, who strived to maintain their cultural continuity by recording their oral history in the face of such a threat. Finally, this study invites scholars to ponder on the implications that the present structure of Ximénez’s manuscript (MS 1515) presents for future Popol Wuj studies as the narrative enters the age of electronic information and digital imaging.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. Please check back later for the full article.
The Sandino Rebellion Digital Historical Archive website, a work in progress, is envisioned as a comprehensive, interpretive, open-access digital archive housing all relevant primary documents, and rare, out-of-print, or hard-to-access published works, that treat the period of the Sandino rebellion in Nicaragua (1927–1934) and the counterinsurgency campaign waged by the U.S. and Nicaraguan governments against this homegrown, campesino-based nationalist insurgency led by Augusto C. Sandino, the supreme chief of the Defending Army of Nicaraguan National Sovereignty (Ejército Defensor de la Soberanía Nacional de Nicaragua, or EDSN). Primary documents, digitized from the originals in public and private archives in the United States, Nicaragua, Great Britain, Honduras, and elsewhere, are categorized by type, provenance, and theme, with many transcribed and fully searchable. The website currently housed more than 3,700 hitherto unpublished primary documents as of May 2014; ultimately, the goal is to make universally accessible approximately 30,000 documents, including letters, diaries, military reports, consular dispatches, court records, newspaper accounts, oral histories, photographs, maps, rare published works, and other materials, to be accompanied by interpretive commentaries on specific documents, events, issues, and controversies.
The digital archive is organized in the manner of a historian’s workspace in the wake of repeated visits to the many libraries, archives, and repositories that bear on the questions we seek to address. The criterion informing the selection of documents is simple: material is included if it helps to shed light on how Nicaraguans struggled to make their own history during this period. In the spirit of social and cultural history, the focus is on ordinary people and members of subordinate groups—campesinos, indigenous communities, women, migrants—while abiding attention is also paid to more prominent and powerful actors, including merchants, landowners, politicians, and military leaders.
Roughly two-thirds of this material was culled from Record Group 127 (Records of the United States Marines) in the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, which includes a staggering array of documentation relating to virtually every aspect of this rebellion and the counterinsurgency campaign that sought to crush it: patrol and combat reports, intelligence reports and memoranda, photographs, captured correspondence, court records, prisoners’ statements, and much else. Other major repositories and collections include the Library of Congress; the records of the U.S. Department of State (Record Groups 59 and 84 of the U.S. National Archives II in College Park, MD); the Marine Corps Research Center (Quantico, VA); the oral histories produced by the Instituto de Estudio del Sandinismo in the 1980s (now the Instituto de Historia de Nicaragua y Centroamérica of the Universidad Centroamericana, or IHNCA-UCA, in Managua); and private collections, most notably material generously shared by Walter Castillo Sandino, the grandson of General Sandino.
Dora María Téllez
Throughout their history, the countries of Central America have attempted several forms of political and economic integration. After declaring independence in the 19th century, the region lacked its earlier cohesion vis-à-vis Spanish colonial governance. The former provinces aligned themselves in favor of either centralizing regional power in a federal republic or establishing complete political autonomy through the formation of new nation-states. Forces in favor of the latter eventually prevailed.
An attempt at economic integration began in the mid-20th century. It was actively backed by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and eventually led to the creation of the Central American Common Market (CACM). Despite favorable economic conditions in the Post-World War II period, a number of complications undermined integration efforts: war, political crises, and interests that ran contrary to those of the United States. Integration was postponed until the end of the 1980s, after the Esquipulas II Accord reestablished peace in the region.
After the countries of Central America signed the Guatemala Protocol in 1993, economic integration was promoted under the banner of free trade. This was done by regional economic groups with the goal of reconnecting the region to global commerce under the most advantageous circumstances possible.
Xiomara Avendaño Rojas
Unlike the French and North American revolutions, which fought against a monarchical power, the Hispanic political revolution began by evoking the memory of the beloved Ferdinand VII of Spain. The French invasion of Spain in 1808 had unimaginable repercussions; the government was reestablished in the name of the King, and the territories of the Americas that were convened in the Cortes participated in the development of a charter in 1812 that created a constitutional monarchy. In the Kingdom of Guatemala, the application of constitutionalism gave rise to tensions between elected officials and former royal appointees. By way of indirect elections, the isthmus took its first steps in the construction of a representative system, and worked its way up to local, provincial, and legislative power.
The Declaration of Independence, which took place on September 15, 1821, along with the Plan of Iguala inadvertently brought about a type of “examination” in which the provinces, empowered by their sovereignty and autonomy, broke away from the metropolis but produced a dilemma: Mexico or Guatemala. Independent from the choice, they assumed full ownership of the government that originated from the 1812 Constitution of Cádiz. Few people called for a congress, and the traditional referent in the political community, the cabildos, chose the Imperio del Septentrión (the Northern Empire). After the fall of the monarch Agustín de Iturbide, in March 1823, a constituency was organized to decide on their future government as the Provincinas Unidas del Centro de América (United Provinces of Central America). The new republican project was issued in a second Declaration of Independence or absolute independence, signed on July 1, 1823.
Throughout the 1980s, Central America was wracked by conflict. El Salvador faced a guerrilla insurgency, Guatemala’s long conflict festered, and Nicaragua faced a continually escalating U.S.-led proxy war that used fighters, loosely referred to as the Contras, to wage war on the Nicaraguan government through cross-border raids that implicated Costa Rica and Honduras in persistent violations of sovereignty. The Treaty of Esquipulas, spearheaded by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez, ended these conflicts and brought stability to the region.
The Treaty of Esquipulas stands as one of the most significant and understudied peace agreements of the late Cold War. These accords ran counter to the will of the more powerful United States, which throughout the 1980s had sought to use military force as the key to achieving regime change in Nicaragua. The United States policy of supporting guerrillas that waged a war of regime change in Nicaragua fanned the flames of conflict and destabilized the region. Esquipulas undermined this destructive policy. For the first time, the small nations of Central America, so long considered the imperial servants of the United States, thwarted an aggressive U.S. military policy. Through intense diplomatic meetings, and in the wake of the controversy that developed from the Iran–Contra scandal, President Arias of Costa Rica succeeded in creating a peace agreement for Central Americans and authored by Central Americans. The Esquipulas accords were a blanket repudiation of the near decade-long Contra war policy of the United States. Central America created diplomatic unity and facilitated a successful opposition to the military policy of its more powerful neighbor. This agreement was a great triumph of peace and diplomacy created in the face of what seemed like overwhelming odds.