1948: Ragnar Skancke, the last executed in Norway 1878: Sevier Lewis, a family affair

1865: Gerardo Barrios, Salvadoran statesman

August 29th, 2014 Headsman

August 29 is a National Day of Commemoration in El Salvador, honoring the execution on this date in 1865 of the country’s beloved ex-president Gerardo Barrios.

Today, you’ll find Barrios (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) entombed adjacent Francisco Morazan, an apt deposition for both those great statesmen of Central American union. Barrios was just old enough — he enlisted at age 14 — to have served in Morazan’s army of the United Provinces of Central America, the abbreviated political expression of a wonderful vision for Spain’s former possessions. “This magnificent location between the two great oceans,” Bolivar once enthused of Central America,

could in time become the emporium of the world. Its canals will shorten the distances throughout the world, strengthen commercial ties with Europe, America, and Asia, and bring that happy region tribute from the four quarters of the globe. Perhaps some day the capital of the world may be located there, just as Constantine claimed Byzantium was the capital of the ancient world.

El Salvador was the capital of this prospective emporium, and not only in the sense that its government met at San Salvador.* As the “provinces” of Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica pursued more autonomy and, eventually, outright independence, El Salvador was also the bastion of support for the failing union. It’s where Morazan fell back to as the United Provinces fractured, and it’s where he landed to mount a doomed reunification campaign.

Gerardo Barrios, come to political maturity as well as to manhood in Morazan’s service, was a Senator by the time the union ended. He followed Morazan into exile, and he raised a battalion for the abortive restoration attempt that cost Morazan his life.

After Morazan’s execution, Barrios increasingly became the key leader of remaining unionist aspirations, which also meant leadership of El Salvador’s liberal faction. This was the country — independent at last because all her sister provinces had declared independence from her — that Gerardo Barrios assumed leadership of in 1859,** a generation on from Morazan’s execution. Actual political reunification of the former provinces was by then as distant and gauzy a dream as Bolivar’s Byzantium; perhaps their most noteworthy common-purpose act in the meantime had been the coordinated defeat of American filibuster William Walker, an operation for which Barrios provided essential behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

So Barrios’s executive tenure would be a crucial period of state-building for Nicaragua: building up roads, schools, and other pillars of civil infrastructure; professionalizing the army; promulgating a comprehensive legal code; and economic development.†

It is from this farsighted era that Barrios won lasting fame as his country’s great statesman. And crowning the period with martyrs’ laurels has surely not done his reputation a bit of harm. His regional rivalry with the Guatemalan caudillo Rafael Carrera broke out into war in 1863, which quickly pulled in Honduras (on the side of El Salvador) and Nicaragua and Costa Rica (on the side of Guatemala). The populist Carrera, Guatemala’s “supreme and perpetual leader for life,” had been the central anti-unionist and anti-liberal figure dating back to the Morazan era, and besides his international alliances he gained the support in 1863 of Salvadoran Catholic clergy opposed to the secularization part of Barrios’s modernizing project. Finally encircled by his enemies in a besieged San Salvador in October of that year, Barrios was once again forced into exile.

Carrera died on April 14, 1865‡ and with the passing of the local hegemon Barrios — by now cooling his heels in Panama — saw an opportunity to regain leadership of his country. But the attempted rising that was to augur his re-entry into El Salvador came to nothing, and Barrios realizing the failure turned around to return to Panama almost as soon as he had arrived. Alas for him, a storm grounded his schooner in Nicaraguan waters.

Nicaragua extradited Carrera back to his native soil, albeit with an arrangement that the prisoner — who had been declared a traitor in absentia during his exile — would not face the death penalty. Once the man was in hand, El Salvador reneged on that part of the agreement and subjected Barrios to a military trial. “Today Duenas pronounces my sentence,” Barrios observed of his successor and enemy late the night of August 28, when the tribunal condemned him to be shot just hours thereafter. “But tomorrow I receive the verdict of history.”

The latter judgment has been an unmitigated victory for our man. His life is taught to schoolchildren and his image has graced the Salvadoran currency repeatedly. Two Salvadoran towns (Gerardo, and Barrios) are named in his honor, and many others have streets or plazas that bear his name, including a huge one in the center of San Salvador, ornamented with a monumental equestrian statue of its namesake.


(cc) image from Bradier044 of the Barrios statue in San Salvador’s Plaza Gerardo Barrios, also known as Plaza Civica.

* San Salvador, which is the present-day capital of El Salvador, was the capital of the United Provinces from 1834. Prior to that time, the capital was Guatemala City.

** Barrios had also been president on a brief interim basis for a few months in 1858.

† If you enjoy brewing a morning pot of El Salvador’s top agricultural export, coffee beans, tip your mug to Barrios: he’s credited with introducing coffee cultivation in the country.

‡ The same date John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,El Salvador,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,Politicians,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Treason

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