The main information on the history of Guatemala

The History of Guatemala

Joel Walsh ( has written for numerous web sites, in addition to the Let's Go: Mexico travel guidebook, and translations for a Venezuelan human rights NGO. At university, he studied Spanish literature and the history of Spanish-speaking countries, spending his final semester at the University of Havana.

General overview

The cultural hearth of the Mayan civilization, the history of Guatemala has mostly been a sob story ever since the arrival of the Spaniards. A common expression in some other countries has been, “de Guatemala a Guatepeor…” “from Guate-bad to Guate-worse.”

While Guatemala has made its masters rich with exports of coffee and bananas, the wealth has mostly been used to push down the majority of Guatemalans and force them to continue producing the wealth.
The history of Guatemala is a succession of foreign mastery: at first the Spanish homegrown elites, and the wealthy corporations of the United States, chief among them the United Fruit Company, also known as Chiquita.

Guatemala before Spain

Guatemala is the original homeland of the Maya people, one of the largest groups of indigenous societies in the Americas. The Maya culture rose out of farming communities in the highlands of Guatemala in the centuries B.C. City-states were formed and trade flourished.

The Maya spread north toward Mexico, where they built the “Classic” period empire, building great stone pyramids at sites such as Chichen Itza in the Yucatan.

Today, the Maya culture extends along the “ruta maya,” which runs from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, southward through the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, further south to Guatemala. Mayans also once controlled Belize and much of Honduras, while a Maya-influenced culture controlled present-day El Salvador, though today little trace of those societies remains.

Within Guatemala there are still many important Classic Maya ceremonial cities, albeit in ruins: Tikal, Uaxactun, Quirigua, Mirador, and many other sites in northern Guatemala.

The Classic Maya ruins attest not only to the great power of that time. The sculptures and wall paintings at the sites document Maya literature, astronomy, mathematics (including a complex calendar), and other scientific achievements.

The “Classic” Maya empire fell apart around AD 900. The center of Mayan society shifted further north to new cities in the Yucatan peninsula, where scientific and cultural achievements were continued right up through the Spanish invasion, and to some extent, even today.

Split apart, the different Mayan ethnic groups developed even more unique ethnic identities. Today, there is not so much one Mayan language as several dozen. In Guatemala, the Maya groups include the Quiche, Cakchiquel, and the Zutujil.

Spain Conquers Guatemala

After conquering the Aztecs in 1519, Cortes sent a lieutenant, Pedro de Alvarado to invade Central America. Alvarado brought thousands of indigenous soldiers from Mexico. The Mayans, who had been badly weakened by European diseases, were already in a civil war. Alvarado allied with the Cakchiquels to defeat the Quiche, then fought a four year war with the Cakchiquels, finally defeating them in 1528.

Guatemala became part of an audiencia, or administrative unit, of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, headquartered in Mexico City. The audiencia, which came to be called the Kingdom of Guatemala, stretched from the present-day Mexican state of Chiapas southward through Costa Rica.

Guatemala was the center of Central America, and its merchants and officials had special privileges that sometimes built resentment among Salvadorans, Hondurans, and others.

Guatemala, like the rest of Central America, was not very prosperous until reforms in the 1770s encouraged growth in exports. To this day, Central America subsists largely on exports in coffee, bananas, and other agricultural products.

The indigenous people of Guatemala were treated as horribly as any other indigenous people with the misfortune to fall under Spanish rule. They and their descendents were forced to work the large estates into which the country had been divided.

However, because there were so many indigenous people to start, the population was not entirely wiped out, and today Guatemala has one of the largest proportions of indigenous people in the Americas, including a number of Mayan communities where Spanish is a foreign language.

Independence for Guatemala

When Mexico became independent, so did Guatemala. A year later, the United Provinces of Central America was formed, with Guatemala as its capital. But internal rivalries between Guatemala and the other provinces, especially El Salvador, led the confederation to collapse in 1840. Seven years later, Guatemala became an independent republic.

Of all the people of Spanish colonies in the Americas, Guatemalans perhaps benefited least from independence. The condition of many Mayans and mestizos probably got worse. Many of them saw their lands taken away by “liberal” governments that also “reformed” the country by removing the Church from its role in public education, without providing anything to take its place.

Conservative leaders, meanwhile, capitalized upon popular resentment toward the liberals but did not improve the quality of life in Guatemala.

Exports grew by fits and starts, and by the end of the nineteenth century, Guatemala was exporting a wealth of bananas and coffee. In fact, it was also exporting much of the wealth earned on these products—the companies were largely owned by US and other foreign interests. Chief among them was the United Fruit Company (which goes under the Chiquita brand name), based in the US.

A small middle class emerged during this time, but for the most part, Guatemala’s people suffered badly as they worked themselves to death to grow crops that brought little benefit to them.

Guatemala was ruled by a series of dictators and elected presidents who did not represent most Guatemalans. Popular attempts to influence government policy usually led to government violence. In fact, pretty much the same could be said of Guatemala’s entire history straight through to the present day.

The exception to this long, dire history, was the “Ten Years of Spring” , from 1945 to 1954, under the administration of the country’s two best presidents ever, first Arevalo, and then Arbenz.

Arevalo put forth a new constitution that gave women the right to vote, safeguarded freedom of speech, and allowed labor unions and political parties a free right to organize.

Arevalo also pushed through a strong social security system and labor code.

Arbenz continued this reform by redistributing unused banana plantation land to poor farmers. The United Fruit Company did not find the government’s payment for the land adequate and begged the US to intervene. The US Secretary of State, Dulles, was actually a major stakeholder in the United Fruit Company.

The US trained and armed a group of Guatemalans in exile to overthrow the government.

Military Dictatorship

Guatemala was ruled by a series of extremely brutal military dictatorships over the next thirty years, with a brief interruption of ineffectual civilian administration under the thumb of the military, from 1966 to 1970. When democracy was reestablished in 1985, the death toll was estimated in the hundreds of thousands.

The government mostly inflicted this death toll on civilians. There was also strong guerrilla resistance to the dictatorships and horrific repression of them. Chief among the guerilla groups was the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR). Throughout this time, the dictatorships were propped up with aid, especially weapons, from the United States.

The return of free elections in 1985 did not end the guerilla fighting, or the government death squads. A treaty in 1996 finally ended the fighting in exchange for having the death squads disbanded, and a few other reforms.

The succeeding presidents have been democratically elected. However, none of them has been able to deal with deepening poverty or skyrocketing violent crime.

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