Civil War in Central America

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Argentina & Brazil: Contemporary Political & Economic Challenges

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:02 Civil War in Central America
  • 2:26 Nicaragua
  • 3:24 Guatemala
  • 4:11 El Salvador
  • 5:32 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed
Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

During the Cold War, numerous civil wars plagued Central America. This lesson takes a look at some of the dynamics of the wars in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

Issues Leading to Civil War in Central America

While many would have expected the defeat of the Axis powers at the end of World War II to have led to a safer world, nothing could have been further from the truth. The Cold War between the US and USSR led to conflicts throughout the world, including in Central America.

Let's go over some background information. The Soviets threatened the United States when shiploads of missiles arrived in nearby Cuba, known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, but the withdrawal of these arms was by no means the end of conflict in this region: Cuba and, as a result, Central America. Both were important due to their proximity to the Panama Canal, an American-owned canal that was central to Western strategy because it linked the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Anything that the Soviets could do to threaten this link was valued by those in Moscow.

So, the Soviets found that they could be influential in some Central American countries, specifically Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador. These countries all had populist concerns, like corrupt officials selling out to big business, foreign influence, and peasants being cheated out of their land. Each of these countries had rightwing dictatorships, closely aligned to the United States and American businesses. These governments ignored the majority of the population, leaving the people in poverty and without land. All the while, the small elite, as well as the American businesses, grew rich.

These peasant groups tried to find civil solutions, but they received less than satisfactory responses. These concerns, which manifested as leftwing rebellions, were easily manipulated by Communist propaganda.

So, the Central American civil wars became proxy wars fought between the United States and the USSR, using their respective groups in the country to do the actual fighting while the major powers provided the financing. Now we'll examine the civil wars of each country more closely.


In Nicaragua, the country was consumed by two civil wars. The first saw the rightwing US-backed Somoza dictatorship toppled by the leftwing populist Soviet-supported Sandinistas. The Sandinistas were quite chummy with the rest of the socialist world, including Cuba and the Soviet Union. Needless to say, this worried the United States, ultimately prompting the American government to sell arms to the Iranians in order to finance payments to the rightwing US-backed Contras, who fought against the Sandinistas. Despite this, the Sandinistas focused on healthcare and education, and elections held in the 1980s were considered by foreign observers to be fair. In fact, elections replaced the Sandinistas, although by the 21st century, they were elected back to office.


Meanwhile, in Guatemala, few international observers would have approved of the actions taken during that country's civil war. There, too, a war broke out between the rightwing, US-supported Guatemala military government and leftwing, Soviet-supported rebel groups, specifically over the use of land. In this struggle, thousands of ethnic Maya sided with the rebels, motivated by the loss of land that they had suffered at the hands of the government. For years, the world turned a blind eye to the actions of government troops, with thousands of Maya being killed in acts of genocide. Ultimately, by 1996 a peace treaty was signed.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account