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History of Guatemala

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Pre-Columbian Guatemala

The Maya civilization flourished throughout much of Guatemala and the surrounding region for close to 2000 years before the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century. Most of the Great Classic Maya cities of the Petén region of Guatemala's northern lowlands were abandoned by the year 1000 AD. The states of the central highlands, however, were still flourishing until the arrival of the Spanish Conquistador Pedro de Alvarado, who brutally subjegated the native states in 15231527.

Native peoples of the Guatemala highlands, such as the Cachiquel, Mam, Quiché, and Tzutuhil, still make up a sizable portion of Guatemala's population.

The Era of Spanish Rule

During Spanish colonial rule, most of Central America came under the control of the Captaincy General of Guatemala.

The first colonial capital of Guatemala, now called Ciudad Vieja, was ruined by floods and an earthquake in 1542. Survivors founded a second city of Guatemala, now known as La Antigua, in 1543. In the 17th century, Antigua Guatemala became one of the richest capitals in the New World. Always vulnerable to volcanic eruptions, floods, and earthquakes, Antigua was destroyed by two earthquakes in 1773, but the remnants of its Spanish colonial architecture have been preserved as a national monument. The third capital, modern Guatemala City, was founded in 1776, after which Antigua was ordered to be abandoned.

The 19th Century

Guatemala gained independence from Spain on September 15, 1821; it briefly became part of the Mexican Empire and then for a period belonged to a federation called the United Provinces of Central America, until the federation broke up in civil war in 18381840 (See: History of Central America). Guatemala's 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 land owners and the church.

Town  of Highland Guatemala in traditional dress, 1891
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Town alcaldes of Highland Guatemala in traditional dress, 1891

Guatemala's "Liberal Revolution" came in 1871 under the leadership of Justo Rufino Barrios, who worked to modernize the country, improve trade, and introduce new crops and manufacturing. During this era coffee became an important crop for Guatemala. Barrios had ambitions of reuniting Central America and took the country to war in an unsuccessful attempt to attain this; he died on the battle field in 1885.

The Early 20th Century

The United Fruit Company started becoming a major force in Guatemala in 1901, during the long presidency of Manuel José Estrada Cabrera. Government was often subservient to Company interests. While the company helped with building some schools, it also opposed building highways because this would compete with its railroad monopoly. The UFC controlled over 40% of the country's best land and its port facilities.

The "Ten Years of Spring"

In 1944, General Jorge Ubico's dictatorship was overthrown by the "October Revolutionaries", a group of dissident military officers, students, and liberal professionals. This started what is called The Ten Years of Spring, a period of free speech and political activity, proposed land reform, and a perception that great progress could be made in Guatemala. A civilian president, Juan José Arévalo, was elected in 1945 and held the presidency until 1951. Social reforms initiated by Arévalo were continued by his successor, Colonel Jacobo Arbenz. Arbenz permitted the communist Guatemalan Party of Labour legal status in 1952. This greatly upset the U.S. government which denounced the communist tendency of Guatemalan government and decided the Arbenz government had to be overthrown. Despite most Guatemalans' attachment to the original ideals of the 1944 uprising, some private sector leaders and the military adhered to the US-imposed ideas about communist threat and started to view Arbenz's policies as a menace. The army refused to defend the Arbenz government when a US-backed group led by Col. Carlos Castillo Armas invaded the country from Honduras in 1954 and quickly took over the government.

See also: Operation PBSUCCESS

Civil war

In response to the increasingly autocratic rule of Gen. Ydígoras Fuentes, who took power in 1958 following the murder of Col. Castillo Armas, a group of junior military officers revolted in 1960. When they failed, several went into hiding and established close ties with Cuba. This group became the nucleus of the forces that were in armed insurrection against the government for the next 36 years.

Four principal left-wing guerrilla groups — the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP), the Revolutionary Organization of Armed People (ORPA), the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR), and the Guatemalan Labor Party (PGT) — conducted economic sabotage and targeted government installations and members of government security forces in armed attacks. These organizations combined to form the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) in 1982. At the same time, extreme right-wing groups of self-appointed vigilantes, including the Secret Anti-Communist Army (ESA) and the White Hand, tortured and murdered students, professionals, and peasants suspected of involvement in leftist activities.

Shortly after President Julio César Méndez Montenegro took office in 1966, the army launched a major counterinsurgency campaign that largely broke up the guerrilla movement in the countryside. The guerrillas then concentrated their attacks in Guatemala City, where they assassinated many leading figures, including U.S. Ambassador John Gordon Mein in 1968. Between 1966 and 1982, there were a series of military or military-dominated governments.

On March 23, 1982, army troops commanded by junior officers staged a coup d'état to prevent the assumption of power by General Ángel Aníbal Guevara, the hand-picked candidate of outgoing President and General Romeo Lucas García. They denounced Guevara's electoral victory as fraudulent. The coup leaders asked retired Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt to negotiate the departure of Lucas and Guevara. Ríos Montt had been the candidate of the Christian Democracy Party in the 1974 presidential elections and was widely regarded as having been denied his own victory through fraud.

Ríos Montt was by this time a lay pastor in the evangelical protestant Church of the Word. In his inaugural address, he stated that his presidency resulted from the will of God. He was widely perceived as having strong backing from the Reagan administration in the United States. He formed a three-member military junta that annulled the 1965 constitution, dissolved Congress, suspended political parties and cancelled the electoral law. After a few months, Ríos Montt dismissed his junta colleagues and assumed the de facto title of "President of the Republic".

Guerrilla forces and their leftist allies denounced Ríos Montt. Ríos Montt sought to defeat the guerrillas with military actions and economic reforms; in his words, "rifles and beans". In May 1982, the Conference of Catholic Bishops accused Ríos Montt of responsibility for growing militarization of the country and for continuing military massacres of civilians. General Ríos Montt was quoted in the New York Times of July 18, 1982 as telling an audience of indigenous Guatemalans, "If you are with us, we'll feed you; if not, we'll kill you." The Plan de Sánchez massacre occurred on the same day.

The government began to form local civilian defense patrols (PACs). Participation was in theory voluntary, but in practice, many Guatemalans, especially in the northwest, had no choice but to join either the PACs or the guerrillas. Ríos Montt's conscript army and PACs recaptured essentially all guerrilla territory — guerrilla activity lessened and was largely limited to hit-and-run operations. However, Ríos Montt won this partial victory at an enormous cost in civilian deaths.

Ríos Montt's brief presidency was probably the most violent period of the 36-year internal conflict, which resulted in about 200,000 deaths of mostly unarmed indigenous civilians. Although leftist guerrillas and right-wing death squads also engaged in summary executions, forced disappearances, and torture of noncombatants, the vast majority of human rights violations were carried out by the Guatemalan military and the PACs they controlled. The internal conflict is described in great detail in the reports of the Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) and the Archbishop's Office for Human Rights (ODHAG). The CEH estimates that government forces were responsible for 93% of the violations; ODHAG earlier estimated that government forces were responsible for 80%.

On August 8, 1983, Ríos Montt was deposed by his own Minister of Defense, General Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores, who succeeded him as de facto president of Guatemala. Mejía justified his coup, saying that "religious fanatics" were abusing their positions in the government and also because of "official corruption". Seven people were killed in the coup, although Ríos Montt survived to found a political party (the Guatemalan Republic Front) and to be elected President of Congress in 1995 and 2000. Awareness in the United States of the conflict in Guatemala, and its ethnic dimension, increased with the 1983 publication of the autobiographical account I, Rigoberta Menchú, An Indian Woman in Guatemala; Rigoberta Menchú was later awarded the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize for her work in favor of broader social justice.

General Mejía allowed a managed return to democracy in Guatemala, starting with a July 1, 1984 election for a Constituent Assembly to draft a democratic constitution. On May 30, 1985, after nine months of debate, the Constituent Assembly finished drafting a new constitution, which took effect immediately. Vinicio Cerezo, a civilian politician and the presidential candidate of the Christian Democracy Party, won the first election held under the new constitution with almost 70% of the vote, and took office on January 14, 1986.

1986 to 2000

Upon its inauguration in January 1986, President Cerezo's civilian government announced that its top priorities would be to end the political violence and establish the rule of law. Reforms included new laws of habeas corpus and amparo (court-ordered protection), the creation of a legislative human rights committee, and the establishment in 1987 of the Office of Human Rights Ombudsman. The Supreme Court also embarked on a series of reforms to fight corruption and improve legal system efficiency.

With Cerezo's election, the military moved away from governing and returned to the more traditional role of providing internal security, specifically by fighting armed insurgents. The first two years of Cerezo's administration were characterized by a stable economy and a marked decrease in political violence. Dissatisfied military personnel made two coup attempts in May 1988 and May 1989, but military leadership supported the constitutional order. The government was heavily criticized for its unwillingness to investigate or prosecute cases of human rights violations.

The final two years of Cerezo's government also were marked by a failing economy, strikes, protest marches, and allegations of widespread corruption. The government's inability to deal with many of the nation's problems — such as infant mortality, illiteracy, deficient health and social services, and rising levels of violence — contributed to popular discontent.

Presidential and congressional elections were held on November 11, 1990. After a runoff ballot, Jorge Antonio Serrano Elías was inaugurated on January 14, 1991, thus completing the first transition from one democratically elected civilian government to another. Because his Movement of Solidarity Action (MAS) Party gained only 18 of 116 seats in Congress, Serrano entered into a tenuous alliance with the Christian Democrats and the National Union of the Center (UCN).

The Serrano administration's record was mixed. It had some success in consolidating civilian control over the army, replacing a number of senior officers and persuading the military to participate in peace talks with the URNG. He took the politically unpopular step of recognizing the sovereignty of Belize. The Serrano government reversed the economic slide it inherited, reducing inflation and boosting real growth.

On May 25, 1993, Serrano illegally dissolved Congress and the Supreme Court and tried to restrict civil freedoms, allegedly to fight corruption. The autogolpe (or autocoup) failed due to unified, strong protests by most elements of Guatemalan society, international pressure, and the army's enforcement of the decisions of the Court of Constitutionality, which ruled against the attempted takeover. In the face of this pressure, Serrano fled the country.

On June 5, 1993, Congress, pursuant to the 1985 constitution, elected the Human Rights Ombudsman, Ramiro de León Carpio, to complete Serrano's presidential term. De León was not a member of any political party; lacking a political base but with strong popular support, he launched an ambitious anticorruption campaign to "purify" Congress and the Supreme Court, demanding the resignations of all members of the two bodies.

Despite considerable congressional resistance, presidential and popular pressure led to a November 1993 agreement brokered by the Catholic Church between the administration and Congress. This package of constitutional reforms was approved by popular referendum on January 30, 1994. In August 1994, a new Congress was elected to complete the unexpired term. Controlled by the anti-corruption parties — the populist Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) headed by Ríos Montt, and the center-right National Advancement Party (PAN) — the new Congress began to move away from the corruption that characterized its predecessors.

Under de León, the peace process, now brokered by the United Nations, took on new life. The government and the URNG signed agreements on human rights (March 1994), resettlement of displaced persons (June 1994), historical clarification (June 1994), and indigenous rights (March 1995). They also made significant progress on a socioeconomic and agrarian agreement.

National elections for president, Congress, and municipal offices were held in November 1995. With almost 20 parties competing in the first round, the presidential election came down to a January 7, 1996 runoff in which PAN candidate Álvaro Arzú Irigoyen defeated Alfonso Portillo Cabrera of the FRG by just over 2% of the vote. Arzú won because of his strength in Guatemala City, where he had previously served as mayor, and in the surrounding urban area. Portillo won all of the rural departments except Petén. Under the Arzú administration, peace negotiations were concluded, and the government signed peace accords ending the 36-year internal conflict in December 1996. (See section on peace process) The human rights situation also improved during Arzú's tenure, and steps were taken to reduce the influence of the military in national affairs.

Guatemala held presidential, legislative, and municipal elections on November 7, 1999, and a runoff presidential election on December 26. In the first round the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) won 63 of 113 legislative seats, while the National Advancement Party (PAN) won 37. The New Nation Alliance (ANN) won 9 legislative seats, and three minority parties won the remaining four. In the runoff on December 26, Alfonso Portillo (FRG) won 68% of the vote to 32% for Óscar Berger (PAN). Portillo carried all 22 departments and Guatemala City, which was considered the PAN's stronghold.

Portillo was criticized during the campaign for his relationship with the FRG's chairman, Ríos Montt. Many charge that some of the worst human rights violations of the internal conflict were committed under Ríos Montt's rule. Nevertheless, Portillo's impressive electoral triumph, with two-thirds of the vote in the second round, gave him a claim to a mandate from the people to carry out his reform program.

President Portillo pledged to maintain strong ties to the United States, further enhance Guatemala's growing cooperation with Mexico, and participate actively in the integration process in Central America and the Western Hemisphere. Domestically, he vowed to support continued liberalization of the economy, increase investment in human capital and infrastructure, establish an independent central bank, and increase revenue by stricter enforcement of tax collections rather than increasing taxation. Portillo also promised to continue the peace process, appoint a civilian defense minister, reform the armed forces, replace the military presidential security service with a civilian one, and strengthen protection of human rights. He appointed a pluralist cabinet, including indigenous members and others not affiliated with the FRG ruling party.

The 21st Century

Progress in carrying out Portillo's reform agenda during his first year in office was slow. As a result, public support for the government sank to nearly record lows by early 2001. Although the administration made progress on such issues as taking state responsibility for past human rights cases and supporting human rights in international fora, it failed to show significant advances on combating impunity in past human rights cases, military reforms, a fiscal pact to help finance peace implementation, and legislation to increase political participation.

Faced with a high crime rate, a public corruption problem, often violent harassment and intimidation by unknown assailants of human rights activists, judicial workers, journalists, and witnesses in human rights trials, the government began serious attempts in 2001 to open a national dialogue to discuss the considerable challenges facing the country.

In July 2003, demonstrations rocked the capital, forcing the closing of the US Embassy, as supporters of Ríos Montt called for his return to power. His supporters demanded that the nation's courts to overturn a ban against former coup leaders so that he could run as a presidential candidate in the 2003 elections. The supporters were given meals by FRG in return for protesting.

On November 9, 2003, Óscar Berger, the ex-mayor of Guatemala city, won the presidential election with 38.8% of the vote. However, because he failed to achieve a fifty percent majority, he fought and won an additional December 28 runoff election between him and the center-left candidate Álvaro Colom. Ríos Montt trailed a distant third with just 11%.

External links

Further reading

  • Paul J. Dosal, Doing Business with the Dictators: A Political History of United Fruit in Guatemala 1899-1944, Wilmington, De., Scholarly Ressources 1993
  • Greg Grandin, The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War, Chicago 2004
  • Immerman, R. H., The CIA in Guatemala: The Foreign Policy of Intervention, University of Texas Press: Austin, 1982.
  • Walter LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993.
  • Victoria Sanford, Buried secrets : truth and human rights in Guatemala, New York [u.a.] : Palgrave Macmillan, 2003
  • Stephen Schlesinger, Stephen Kinzer, Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, Garden City, NY : Doubleday, 1982

es:Historia de Guatemala fr:Histoire du Guatemala

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