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Top Guatemala

History and Politics

The Maya and Other Indigenous Groups

The first settlers of present-day Guatemala arrived thousands of years ago, and a number of early civilizations developed in the area. Most notable was the Maya, whose empire peaked around 700-1100 A.D. They built great palaces and cities and left behind several fascinating ruin complexes such as Tikal in Guatemala and Palenque in Mexico.

The Maya were great astronomers, builders, warriors and traders. Today, opinions vary as to the reason for their decline. Some believe that a series of natural disasters such as earthquakes and famines was responsible, while others say that the Maya warred amongst themselves too heavily. In any event, by the time the Spanish arrived in Maya lands in 1523 following the successful conquest of the Aztec Empire, the Maya had disintegrated into small, weak ethnic groups that continued to war amongst themselves even as the Spanish picked them off one by one.

The Spanish Conquest of Guatemala

There was little in the Maya region to interest the Spanish. They found very little gold and silver, and the natives were difficult to govern. Nevertheless, the Spanish established a colony in the area, and put an encomienda system in place. Under the encomienda system, vast tracts of land were given (along with any natives living on them) to Spanish conquistadores and bureaucrats who were, in turn, to make them productive and give the crown a percentage of the profits. Needless to say, this system led to a number of abuses and horrors.

One man who denounced the horrors of the conquest and the encomienda system was the Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas. He eventually became Bishop of Chiapas, and worked tirelessly his whole life to stop the abuses of the colonial system. He in known in Guatemala for the Vera Paz experiment, in which he sent missionaries into a troubled area of northern Guatemala to see if the natives there could be peacefully brought into the Spanish fold. It worked, and the region is still known as Verapaz.

Spanish rule in Guatemala came to an end in 1821 when Mexico declared independence and took Guatemala with it. In 1823, Guatemala and other Central American nations seceded from Mexico and established the Central American Federation. The new republic was unwieldy, as communication between Central American countries was very difficult. By 1839 the republic had disintegrated, and Guatemala was an independent nation.

Independence and the United Fruit Company

Guatemala muddled along for the next few decades, going through a succession of leaders but always remaining a poor nation of wealthy landowners and repressed peasants. Around the turn of the century, Guatemala attracted the attention of the United Fruit Company, a powerful American firm dedicated to raising and importing fruit – primarily bananas – from Central America and the Caribbean.

The legacy of the United Fruit Company in Guatemala is mixed. The company provided jobs, infrastructure, schools and electricity to many regions that never would have had those things. But it also supported corrupt, repressive governments and shared little of its profits.

In 1944, the repressive tyrant JosĂ© Ubico was overthrown and in the elections that followed, the people elected the socialist Dr. Juan JosĂ© ArĂ©valo Bermej. Another free election followed, and the people elected Jacobo Arbenz, who continued his predecessor’s social programs.

But Arbenz went too far. He believed in land redistribution, to allow the poorest Guatemalans to own land. When he announced his plans to nationalize and redistribute some of the United Fruit Company’s vast land holdings, the company went to the United States government to ask for help. As early as 1952, the CIA was working on plans to overthrow Arbenz and replace him with someone more agreeable to American big business.

US Intervention

In 1954, the CIA was ready. They found a dissident Colonel, Carlos Castillo Armas, living in Honduras and enlisted him to lead the uprising. Castillo Armas entered Guatemala with only 150 men and marched on Guatemala City. Meanwhile the CIA arranged for American pilots to bomb strategic targets in the capital and began a misinformation campaign that made the people believe a much larger force was coming. Arbenz and his government fled, and the coup was complete. The CIA considered it a rousing success, a textbook example of how to defeat communism in the post-war world.

In the long run, however, the plan backfired. The people of Guatemala, fed up with imperialism and the United Fruit Company, took up arms in rebellion not long after Arbenz’ ouster. By the early 1960's, there was a full-scale guerilla war taking place. In the 1970's, the war escalated and tens of thousands were massacred, mostly rural peasants. By 1977, the Guatemalan government had become so repressive and violent that the United States ceased military support.

Civil War and more Corruption

In 1982, General EfraĂ­n Rios Montt took power in a coup. Although Rios Montt was only in power for about a year before he, too, was deposed by a military coup, his administration is considered to be the most violent and repressive period in the whole civil war. Entire towns and villages were burned to the ground, hundreds of thousands were displaced, and thousands were murdered and buried in unmarked mass graves.

In 1983, Maya peasant Rigoberta MenchĂș wrote a testimonial account of the war, "I, Rigoberta MenchĂș." Though some of the details were found to have been fabricated, the story brought global attention to the plight of Guatemala's poor during the war. As global pressure mounted on Guatemala, Rios Montt's successor, Oscar Humberto MejĂ­a Victores decided to restore democracy to the country, and a new constitution was drafted. Vinicio Cerezo, a civilian, won the presidency in 1986 and ruled until 1991, when another civilian government took power through the ballot box. Under Presidents Ramiro De LeĂłn and Álvaro ArzĂș, the peace process accelerated, and a final agreement was signed with the leftists in December of 1996.

Guatemala Today
Guatemala's transition from dictatorship and war to democracy and peace has not been an easy one. Although a Truth Commission set about to document the atrocities of the war, the enactment of amnesty laws and the harassment of human rights investigators prevented a full airing of the truth.

Politically, the democratically-elected governments have been mired in corruption charges. Ríos Montt emerged as a major political force, although he has been barred from serving as president. In 2007, a center-left government under Álvaro Colom came to power.

Although the violence of the war subsided, gang violence has become a major problem in many of the major cities. The drug smuggling routes between Colombia and Mexico runs through Guatemala, leading to significant amounts of crime, as well as corruption in the judicial and political systems.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Guatemala: History of Flores, Manuel José Estrada Cabrera, Banana Republic: The United Fruit Company And Guatemala, History, Historical Summary, History of Quetzaltenango, Gaspar Ilóm, History, Regional History and Tikal History.

By Christopher Minster
I am a writer and editor at V!VA Travel guides here in Quito, where I specialize in adding quality content to the site and also in spooky things like...
17 Aug 2010

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