Interpreting the History of a Region in Crisis

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date




Publication Title

The Oxford Handbook of Central American History




As Latin America’s most well-defined multinational region, Central America stands apart primarily for its distinctive status as an isthmus between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, surely its most historically consequential feature, but not its only one. Ever since its separation from the Spanish monarchy two centuries ago, Central America’s fraught political history has been marked by antagonistic tendencies within the region both for and against unification, by successive national and regional movements in favor of reform, revolution and counter-revolution, and by the intervention of external powers, particularly the United States. As a result, a persistent pattern of violence, instability and lawlessness has also distinguished its political history, as its economy continues to rank among the poorest of Latin America. This introductory essay interprets the region’s largely unsought separation from Spain (a process that spanned the years 1808 to 1821) as the hinge event of the last 500 years, having launched what the author calls Central America’s ongoing, two-century “crisis of order.” The cross-regional and country-level essays that follow this introduction reach back to the period before the Spanish conquest and proceed to the beginning of the twenty-first century. Each chapter aims to both synthesize and evaluate the main directions of the historiography related to its particular theme. The overall purpose of the volume is to highlight both Central America’s distinctiveness as a region and the attributes it shares with the rest of Latin America, while encouraging the comparative study of national, cross-national, and subnational historical experiences both within Central America, and between it and other places within and beyond Latin America.

Original Publication Citation

Holden, R. (2022). Interpreting the History of a Region in Crisis. In R. Holden (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Central American History.