U.S. Policy in Central America

By Patricia Goudvis, Justin Sybenga, and Teaching for Change

Unit Summary

Concept map example. (Click map to make larger)

The countries in Central America have played a significant role in the rise of the U.S. empire since the mid 19th century. Multinational corporations have long enjoyed rich returns on their speculative ventures in the Central American economies. The average American consumes cheap fruit, coffee, and other products grown or extracted from Central American soil. The U.S. military has deployed troops, provided weapons, and trained officers in this region more frequently than any other region in the world.

Despite this history, U.S. relations with El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua rarely make headlines in the U.S. news. The exception was the tumultuous 1970s and ‘80s, when the Sandinistas overthrew the U.S.-backed dictator, Anastasio Somoza, and revolutionaries in El Salvador and Guatemala waged campaigns to overthrow their repressive governments who were also being supported by the United States. When the gun smoke finally settled with the peace accords in El Salvador in 1992 and in Guatemala in 1996, hundreds of thousands of civilians had been killed (the majority by military forces trained and funded by the United States),  and hundreds of thousands more had migrated to Mexico or to the United States. 

This series of lessons invites students to investigate the role of the United States in Guatemala and El Salvador in the 20th century. The unit launches with a mixer activity, in which students learn about a key figure in Guatemalan history, starting with the 1944-1954 “Ten Years of Spring,” the 36 year-long civil war (1960-1996), and on through to the present. Each student takes on the role of one historical figure and they converse with each other in these roles, discovering key storylines in the conflict in these discussions.

Next, the investigation focuses on El Salvador, which received more than six billion dollars in military aid from the U.S. during its civil war from 1980-1992. Through a role play, students investigate a variety of perspectives on the Salvadoran Civil War.Each student assumes the perspective of a key stakeholder from this time period and advises the newly elected president, Ronald Reagan, on what policy to pursue in El Salvador. 

Students then explore the short and long-term effects of U.S. policy in Guatemala and El Salvador on ordinary citizens through the stories of characters on the “When We Were Young/There Was A  War” website.Students take notes on key terms, people, and ideas and then participate in a concept-mapping activity to draw conclusions about how U.S. intervention shaped the civil wars and how the after-effects of these conflicts continue through today.

Finally, students demonstrate their historical knowledge and critical thinking by writing a persuasive essay evaluating the U.S. involvement in El Salvador from 1977-1996.

Each of these lessons can be taught as a stand alone lesson or as part of a larger unit.

  • Lesson 1: The 1954 U.S. Intervention in Guatemala: A Mixer Activity (75-90 minutes)

  • Lesson 2: Re-Imagining U.S. Policy in El Salvador in the 1980s: A Role Play (120-180 minutes)

  • Lesson 3: The Impact of U.S. Policy in El Salvador and Guatemala: Concept Mapping (90-120 minutes)

  • Lesson 4: Should the U.S. Intervene? A Persuasive Essay (45-60 minutes)

In preparation for teaching this unit, teachers can build essential background knowledge for themselves by investigating the following resources:

Guiding Questions 

  • What motivated the United States to intervene in both Guatemala and El Salvador in the latter half of the 20th century?

  • What were the short and long-term effects of U.S. economic, political, and military intervention in Guatemala and El Salvador?

  • When, if ever, should the U.S. military intervene in conflicts in other countries?

Learning Objectives/Target

  • To identify important people and events related to both the 1954 U.S. intervention in Guatemala and the civil war

  • To identify the many stakeholders in U.S. policy decisions in El Salvador in the 1980s and to explain their perspectives and interests

  • To develop and defend arguments for how the United States should intervene or not intervene in El Salvador in the 1980s

  • To explain how the civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador impacted the lives of families during the war and until the present day

  • To develop a clear, arguable claim evaluating the U.S. role in Central America that can be supported with reasoning and evidence

  • To synthesize information from a variety of primary and secondary sources to support a clear position on if and when the U.S. should intervene in other countries