Guatemala History

Guatemala History

The colonial period and independence

Inhabited mainly by Mayan populations, Guatemala was conquered by the Spaniards in 1523-25. As part of the viceroyalty of New Spain (established in 1535), the Audiencia del Guatemalaexercised its jurisdiction over all of Central America. After the destruction of the ancient capital by an earthquake (1773), it was moved to the new city of Guatemala, founded in 1776 not far from the previous one. To the traditional subsistence agriculture (cereals, legumes), the Spaniards joined the cattle breeding and the sugar cane and cocoa plantations; throughout the colonial period, however, commercial development was limited. Starting from the 17th century. the settlement of British colonists in the territory of present-day Belize progressively removed control from the Spanish authorities, laying the foundations for the birth of British Honduras.

According to localcollegeexplorer, the declaration of independence of Mexico in 1821 was followed by that of the Central American provinces, which in 1822 accepted the unification with Mexico proposed by A. Iturbide (crowned emperor). The resistance of the liberals was militarily suffocated, but after the abdication (1823) of Iturbide a constituent assembly proclaimed the independence of the United Provinces of Central America. While Chiapas remained incorporated into Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica entered the new federation (capital Guatemala) which, troubled by continuous power struggles, dissolved in 1839.

Since then, the life of Guatemala was dominated for a quarter of a century by R. Carrera (president for life since 1854), who imposed an authoritarian and clerical regime; in 1871 a revolution brought the liberals to power, who, in particular with J. Rufino Barrios (1873-85), started a modernization of the country. This policy was continued with dictatorial methods by M. Estrada Cabrera (1898-1920) who, to promote the development of export agriculture, opened the Guatemala to the penetration of the United Fruit Company of Boston; this gradually extended its control to a large part of the Guatemala economy, while the United States established itself as the country’s first economic partner. The increase in production was accompanied by that of the population, which more than doubled between the end of the nineteenth century and 1940, while the economic and demographic weight of the Ladin element increased compared to the Indian majority. The latter remained out of political life, also due to the exclusion of the illiterate (the great majority of Indians) from the right to vote.

The civil war

After a period of instability in the 1920s, the authoritarian modernization policy was relaunched by J. Ubico (1931-44) who, also inspired by European fascisms, accentuated its repressive elements. The growth of social unrest during the war (which saw Guatemala sided with the Allies) led in 1944 to the fall of Ubico and the return to power of the progressive forces and with JJ Arévalo a policy of social reforms was initiated; the new Constitution (1945) extended the right to vote to illiterate people. Arévalo’s successor, J. Arbenz Guzmán, launched an agrarian reform in 1952 that provided for the distribution of uncultivated lands belonging to large estates to peasants, arousing bitter opposition from the United Fruit Company (from which 70% of the land holdings were expropriated) and hostility from the US government. In 1954 irregular forces from Honduras and backed by Washington overthrew Arbenz Guzmán and brought to power C. Castillo Armas, who returned the lands to the old owners within a few months.

After the coup of Castillo Armas, the military regime maintained political control for over 30 years. The closure of the system and the narrowness of its social bases contributed to the birth, at the beginning of the 1960s, of a Castro-inspired guerrilla, active above all in the north-eastern regions. In the 1970s the guerrillas took root among the Indians of the western highlands, whose conditions of social inferiority and persistent exclusion from political life were accompanied by a strong cultural and linguistic identity; at the same time the terrorist actions of far-right paramilitary groups multiplied.

From the late 1970s the extension of the guerrilla, the worsening of the economic situation and the growing divisions within the ruling oligarchy of the armed forces provoked a crisis of the old ruling bloc. After the coup d’etat (1982) of gen. E. Ríos Montt, in turn deposed (1983) by gen. OH Mejía Victores, the establishment of a military regime (Constitution suspended, Congress and parties dissolved) was followed by a restructuring of the political system, which led to the rise of new formations against the old right. The general elections of 1985 saw the affirmation of the Guatemalan Christian Democracy, whose leader MV Cerezo Arévalo was elected president of the Republic, but the counter-insurgency campaign continued violently. The peace accords in Central America of 1987 (➔ Contadóra) provided, among other things, the opening of a process of dialogue between the government and the guerrillas, the start of which was slowed down in Guatemala by the resistance of the military. Only in 1996, with the mediation of the UN, the new administration of AE Arzú Irigoyen reached the signing of a peace agreement with the URNG (Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca). Despite the support of the international community, the situation remained difficult and the climate worsened further after the murder (1998) of J. Gerardi, auxiliary bishop of the capital, killed after having indicated in some representatives of the armed forces and right-wing paramilitary groups those responsible for the atrocities committed in the civil war (the toll of over thirty years of war was one million refugees and about 100,000 dead).

Only in 2000 A. Portillo, elected president with the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (FRG; founded by E. Ríos Montt, author of the 1982 coup and responsible for a very harsh repression), admitted for the first time the responsibility of the government in the violence committed against the Indians during the civil war, already denounced by the Nobel Peace Prize R. Menchú. In 2003 the presidential elections (the first with an Indian candidate among the participants) were won by the conservative O. Berger who, however, lacking a stable majority, was unable to carry out the reforms envisaged by the 1996 peace accords. In 2007 He was replaced by the Social Democrat A. Colom, leader of the Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE), defeating O. Pérez Molina, the former chief of staff of the Guatemalan army and exponent of Partido Patriota in the ballot presidential elections in September 2011 obtained 36% of the votes and in the following November he defeated in the second round, with 55% of the votes, the candidate of the Libertad Democratic party Renovada (LIDER) M. Baldizón. The first round of the presidential elections held in September 2015,Pérez Molina, while S. Torres (25.7%) of the social democratic party UNE (Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza) and A. Giammattei (13.8%), of the Vamos por una Guatemala diferente party prevailed in the consultations of June 2019, who with 59% of the votes was the winner in the ballot held the following August, and in January 2020 took over from Morales in the presidential office.

Guatemala History