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  Guatemala / Guatemalan history: A brief account


Carlos Sabino
Sociologist Universidad Francisco Marroquín
Visiting professor from Venezuela

Pre-Columbian Guatemala
The Maya civilization flourished for more than 2,000 years throughout much of Guatemala and the surrounding region of Mesoamerica. However, by the year 1000 A.D. most of the great classic Maya city-states of the Petén region, in the north of Guatemala, had been abandoned. When Pedro de Alvarado and the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century, there remained only several small kingdoms concentrated in the central and western highlands. Indigenous people of Guatemala, such as the Kiche, Kaqchikel, Mam, Tzutujil and Qeqchi, descend from these states and make up somewhat less than half of the country’s present day population.

The Colony
During Spanish colonial rule, most of Central America and parts of southern Mexico came under the control of the Captaincy General of Guatemala. The first colonial capital of Guatemala, now called Ciudad Vieja (old city), was ruined by an earthquake and mud landslides in 1542. Survivors founded a second city, today known as Antigua Guatemala (old Guatemala), in 1543. In the 17th century, Antigua became one of the richest capitals in the New World. Always vulnerable to seismic activity, the colonial capital was finally destroyed by two earthquakes in 1773. The magnificent remnants of its Spanish colonial architecture have been preserved as a national monument. The third capital, modern Guatemala City, was founded in 1776.

The Republic
Guatemala gained independence from Spain on September 15, 1821. The Act of Independence was written by José Cecilio del Valle. As one of the region’s most enlightened men, he promoted liberal ideas in the new nation. His personal library, one of the most important of the period, was donated by his descendants to UFM’s Ludwig von Mises Library. After briefly forming part of the Mexican Empire, Guatemala belonged to the United Provinces of Central America until the federation broke up in civil war in 1838–1840. Guatemalan Rafael Carrera was instrumental in leading the revolt against the federal government and breaking apart the Union. Carrera dominated Guatemalan politics until 1865, backed by conservatives, large landowners and the Catholic Church.

Guatemala’s "Liberal Revolution" came in 1871 under the leadership of Justo Rufino Barrios who worked to modernize the country. Bitterly anticlerical, he expelled the Jesuits and other religious orders, leaving the country almost without priests. (This vacuum would be filled—tragically—in the mid 20th century by left leaning foreign priests who promoted Liberation Theology and actively supported the guerrilla movements.) During this era, coffee became an important export crop for Guatemala. Barrios had ambitions of reuniting Central America and took the country to war in an unsuccessful attempt to achieve his goal. He died on the battlefield in 1885.

The long dictatorship of Manuel Estrada Cabrera (1898–1920) was followed by a period of political instability and then by the authoritarian government of General Jorge Ubico (1931–1944). Ubico increased the country’s physical infrastructure and emphasized law and order. He also encouraged foreign investment, particularly from the United Fruit Company.

Revolution and Turmoil
In the new democratic atmosphere created by the imminent end of World War II and by the overthrow of dictator Maximiliano Hernández Martínez in neighboring El Salvador, a widespread movement for civil and political liberties succeeded in getting Jorge Ubico to resign. The interim government of General Ponce Vaides, who wanted to become the new strongman, was politically very weak. He was overthrown by a military coup backed by the civilian population in what is known as the "Revolution of October 20th" (1944). A junta, made up of Major Francisco Arana, Lieutenant Jacobo Arbenz and the civilian Jorge Toriello, took over the government, dissolved the National Assembly (congress) and called for general elections. A constituent assembly drafted a new constitution that was approved in March of 1945.

Juan José Arévalo, a Guatemalan who had been a university professor in Argentina, was elected president by a large margin in December 1944. He assumed the presidency in March 1945. Arévalo promoted deep, and very anti-market, social reforms, including a state social security system and a labor code, which introduced rigidity into the labor market that continues to strangle the country today. Unions, legalized under the labor code, gained increasing power within his government, which itself leaned strongly to the nationalistic left. Arévalo's presidency was tainted by the assassination of Francisco Javier Arana in July 1949—the probable winner in the upcoming presidential election of 1950—in a controversial attempt to arrest him. With strong backing from the unions and the incumbent government, Arana's former junta partner Jacobo Arbenz (now a colonel) won the election and took office as president in March 1951. The government applied widespread coercion tactics in the countryside and the election took place in a climate of intimidation and limited freedom. The resulting triumph of pro-government forces left scarce political space to the opposition.

The few—but very well organized—communists who controlled the unions for their own ends positioned themselves as the most enthusiastic and reliable supporters of the new government. Arbenz fell under their influence. He allowed the legalization of the Guatemalan Communist Labor Party (PGT) and appointed its members to key posts in his administration where they played a prominent role. The watershed of Arbenz' presidency was the approval of the Land Reform Law that gave discretionary powers to the executive branch to expropriate land. Arbenz proceeded to expropriate a huge portion of the land holdings of the United Fruit Company as well as property of the most productive local farmers. As officially sanctioned land invasions spread through the countryside—fueled by communist agitators—so, too, did turmoil.

Opposition grew, promoted not only by traditional political forces and by those affected by the land reform, but also in response to the growing fear that the country could fall completely under the control of the communists. An exiled colonel, Carlos Castillo Armas, organized military and civilian exiles into a small ragtag force that invaded Guatemala from Honduras in June 1954. They received financial and logistic support from the CIA. In the context of the Cold War, the United States looked upon the possibility of a Soviet beachhead in the Americas with real apprehension. As it marched from the border to the capital, the "Liberation Army" enlisted hundreds of volunteer peasants. They met with little resistance from the army, many of whose members were also afraid of the communist leanings of the government. Within days, President Arbenz resigned.

Castillo Armas emerged from a military junta as provisional president, and a plebiscite made his status official. He promoted a new constitution and his efforts to restore the confidence of foreign investment boosted economic growth. However, he was assassinated in July 1957. The administration of the next president, General Miguel Ydígoras, was hampered by malcontent in the army and student agitation—in part promoted by Castro’s Cuba. A group of junior officers attempted a coup in 1960, but failed. Over the next few years, several of the failed coupsters established close ties with young leaders of PGT and, with the support of Cuba, began a guerrilla movement in the eastern region of Guatemala.

Between 1964 and 1967, the army, with the backing of the civilian population, launched a major counterinsurgency campaign that largely broke up the Marxist guerrilla force. The guerrillas then concentrated their attacks on Guatemala City, where they assassinated scores of leading figures, including U.S. ambassador John Gordon Mein in 1968 and German ambassador Karl von Spreti in 1970.

The economic performance of Guatemala in the 60's and 70's was impressive, but it came at a price. The economy was heavily influenced by the import substitution policies of ECLAC/CEPAL (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean) with a strong dose of state intervention and control. Railroads, telephones service and electricity were nationalized.

Subversive activities ebbed and flowed during the following two presidential terms. Indeed, the 60’s and 70’s were characterized by terrorist guerrilla activity, most notably bombings, sabotage, kidnappings and assassinations. (A UFM trustee was murdered and the son of another kidnapped and murdered during this period.) A horrendous earthquake devastated the country on February 4, 1976, leaving more than 20,000 people dead and 1,000,000 (a fifth of the population at the time) homeless.

In 1978 General Romeo Lucas was elected president in a climate of growing unrest. With four guerrilla groups operating in the country, as well as paramilitary anti-guerrilla squads, violence was on the increase. Encouraged by the conquest of power by the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and growing subversive activities in neighboring El Salvador, the guerrillas in Guatemala stepped up their activity, principally in the central and western highlands where the indigenous population is concentrated. The government became internationally isolated and found itself in difficult straits. The country had been cut off from U.S. military aid a few years earlier and insurgents were actively being backed by Castro, those in the Catholic Church under the influence of Liberation Theology, and several European socialist governments. Facing fierce guerrilla resistance, the government launched a harsh counter insurgency campaign that took many lives in the rural areas. By 1982, the rural population, increasingly organized and armed by the government, helped the army regain control of the situation.

On March 23, 1982 army troops commanded by junior officers staged a coup d'état and asked retired General Efraín Ríos Montt—at the time a lay pastor in an evangelical church—to head a military junta. The new government annulled the 1965 constitution, dissolved congress, banned political parties, repealed the electoral law, and promised new and clean elections. After a few months, Ríos Montt dismissed his junta colleagues and assumed the de facto title of "President of the Republic." Ríos Montt sought to defeat the guerrillas with a combination of military actions and economic reforms. His "beans and bullets” program supported the civilian defense patrols (PACs) created under the Lucas government and extended the role of armed peasants in the fight against subversion. Guerrilla activity quickly declined and became largely limited to hit-and-run operations and terrorist attacks.

Modern Guatemala
A new coup deposed Ríos Montt in August 1983. The succeeding president convened a constituent assembly to draw up a yet another new constitution and called for general elections. Christian Democrat Vinicio Cerezo won the election and took office on January 14, 1986. With the election of a civilian, the military moved away from governing and concentrated on its traditional role of providing internal security, principally by fighting the armed insurgents (already in retreat). In effect, the guerrilla movement had been defeated, although its leaders continued activities with the goal of strengthening their position at the negotiation table.

Jorge Serrano, a controversial businessman, won the next election and assumed the presidency in January 1990. During the Serrano administration, peace talks began with the remnants of the guerrilla groups still active in remote areas of the country. The Serrano government reversed the economic slide it had inherited, reducing inflation and boosting real growth. It also took the politically unpopular step of recognizing the sovereignty of neighboring Belize (a territory formerly under British administration, claimed by Guatemala, that became independent in 1981). In May 1993, Serrano failed in an attempt to assume dictatorial powers. He left the country and the congress elected Guatemala’s former human rights ombudsman, Ramiro de León Carpio, to complete Serrano's presidential term.

The following administration was headed by civilian Alvaro Arzú, former mayor of Guatemala City. Arzú carried out positive economic reforms—including the non-monopolistic privatization of electricity and telecommunications. The latter, considered one of the most market friendly regimes in the world, was driven by a view to liberate the market rather than by an opportunity for fiscal revenue. Arzú also concluded the peace talks with the guerrilla diehards, which brought to a formal conclusion a long and terrible conflict that took thousands of lives. The number of deaths currently cited by several human rights organizations of 200,000 is a huge misrepresentation. More accurate projections give a much smaller number, somewhere between 25,000 and 50,000 deaths.

Arzú was followed as president by Alfonso Portillo (from the party founded by General Ríos Montt, FRG). Portillo was succeeded by Oscar Berger, incumbent mayor of Guatemala City, who assumed office in January 2004 and ends his term in 2008.