Guatemala: History

Land of Eternal Spring

Guatemala History

Today Guatemala is an independent democratic republic, which has a President who is both Head of State and Head of Government. The history of what is now Guatemala dates back to the ancient Olmec civilisation, some 1,000 years BC. Later Guatemala was at the geographical centre of the Mayan culture, which consisted of small kingdoms. In 1524, the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado conquered present day Guatemala for Spain after defeating the Mayan kingdoms of Quiche and Calchiquel in the highlands. The Spanish conquest saw the division of these Mayan lands into large estates on which the native peoples were exploited. Soon afterwards, missionaries arrived and conversion of the indigenous population to Christianity started. Franciscan missionaries destroyed most of the Mayan’s books, or codices, which they saw as stopping the spread of Christianity. In 1539, the Captaincy of Guatemala was established under the Viceroyalty of New Spain.

Life was harsh for all of the peoples of Guatemala under Spanish rule, except for those born in Spain. Instability in Spain’s American colonies led to Guatemala proclaiming its independence in 1821, along with parts of Mexico. However by 1823, the Central American Federation was established, also consisting of El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras, but not the Mexican states. The Central American Federation lasted only until 1840, followed by formation of Guatemala as a republic in 1847.

Guatemala’s history in the nineteenth century was largely a series of struggles between liberals and conservatives for supremacy, with the indigenous peoples remaining exploited on the large estates (fincas). The twentieth century saw the rule of various dictatorships (caudillos) of both the left and right, with intermittent attempts at democracy and several revolutions. A left-wing uprising removed President Jorge Ubico from power in 1944 and eventually led to land reforms by President Arbenz. These brought the government into conflict with the US owned United Fruit Company. The CIA engineered a plot that resulted in the government’s overthrow and to the dictatorship of President Armas, who was assassinated in 1957. There then followed a period of instability, death squads and guerilla warfare costing some 150,000 lives. Eventually, in 1996, peace accords were signed that recognised the rights of the indigenous people. Today, political life in Guatemala has returned to something like stability, with the establishment of a new constitution in 1985, free elections and a civilian government.