Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Department of History & Department of Latino and Caribbean Studies

The Historical Origins of Central American Revolutions

01:595:391 / 01:508:366

Version: 10.30.2018



Dr. A. Lauria-Santiago


This course has three goals. First, we will briefly examine the history of Central America since the eigtheenth century and basic concepts in the study of revolt and revolution. Second, we will study the main themes in the history of Central America since the early twentieth century, especially those associated with the roots of the repressive states that took shape between the 1930s and 1960s and entered into crisis in the 1970s. Finally, we will study the history of the revolutionary processes of Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador between the late 1970s and the early 1990s.

The revolutionary movements and civil wars that shook Central America in the 1980s defined the decade and led to a massive US direct, military and covert intervention in the region. Framed by some as a final battleground of the so-called cold war between the US and the Soviet Union, Central America scholars prefer to emphasize the complexity of internal social and political forces and the US's traditional desire to control anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian movements in its traditional 'back yard.' This course will allow students to examine the historical formation of three distinct militarized and anti-democratic states, the complex class, regional and racial tensions that constituted Central American societies, and the movements that challenged state, class and other hierarchies. At the end of the course we will consider the last 25 years or so of post-revolution states, migration to the US and the continued challanges to human rights and democracy in the region.


This is an advanced course and you will need to read and process about 100 pages of reading per week. This is a history course. Dates, places, names, individuals will matter to us greatly. Pay attention to these details as we go along. The syllabus will change somewhat as we advance through the semester. Sections marked with the red "new" icon Changes made here!will bring your attention to these changes. The readings and lectures will be the basis for your work. You need to do all the readings and bring notes and questions to each discussion session.


The following books are required and should be ordered from any retailer. Other readings for this course are available on reserve on our sakai site.


Week 1: [9/5] Conceptualizing Revolt and Revolution/The Historical Geography of Central America/Colonial History

For Wed next week: In-class Map Exercise--identify all the principal countries, cities, and physical features of Central America [exercise will be done in class on a blank map]  Use the following maps to prepare:

Additional Links:

Week 2: [9/10 & 9/12] Geography, Demography and the Formation of a Colonial Region to 1820s

Week 3: [9/17 & 9/19] National States and Societies to 1830s to 1920s

Read one of these three. Read two if you can, these are very interesting!

Week 4: [9/24 & 9/26] Imperialism, Caudillismo and Nationalism in Nicaragua, 1920s-1930s

Read one of these two:

Week 5: [10/1 & 10/3] Development and the Somozista State, 1940s-1960s

Week 6: [10/8 & 10/10] Nicaragua: Sandinismo and the Sandinista Revolution, 1979-1990

First Paper due Monday Oct 15

Week 7: [10/15 & 10/17] Nicaragua: Demise of the Revolution and post-Revolutionary Period, 1990-2000

OPTIONAL but inspiring and insightful, short intereviews:

Week 8: [10/22 & 10/24] Guatemala: Popular Movements, Reform, and Cold War Terror, 1944-1970


Week 9: [10/29 & 10/31] Guatemala: Urban Revolt, Rural Insurgency, Mass Repression, 1977-1990

Optional but recommended:

Second discussion paper: Due Sunday Nov 4 by midnight:

Guatemala experienced a rare period of reform during the late 1940s and 1950s.  Do you think this earlier experience made the state and elite’s response to demands for change in the late 1970s more violent and rigid?  Or is the longer-term character of Guatemalan society the critical piece that conditioned the state’s response?  Discuss with evidence.Same rules.  Six pages. More pages ok.  References in simple form in footnotes. To dropbox.

Week 10: [11/5 & 11/7] El Salvador: The 1932 Peasant Revolt and Massacre


Week 11: [11/12 & 11/14] El Salvador: Development and the Military State, 1950-1970s


Week 12: [11/19] El Salvador: Origins of Crisis, 1976-1980


Week 13: [11/26 & 11/28] El Salvador: Revolution, Civil War and Resolution, 1981-1992

Second discussion paper: Due Sunday Dec 3 by midnight

Discuss the sources and origins of El Salvador's revolutionary conflict. Why did El Salvador experience a strong insurgency and popular revolutionary movement during the late 1970s and 1980s? How did demands for reform connect (or not) to revolutionary action? Who were the protagonists of these movements, what motivated them and were they able to transform El Salvador's society and politics?

Week 14: [12/3 & 12/5] El Salvador: Post-war Realities, Defeats, Peace, Elected Governance, Social Violence


Week 15: [12/10 & 12/12] Central America: Post-war Realities, Migration and Diaspora in the US