By Tim Lambert

Spanish Guatemala

In 1523 Pedro de Alvarado was sent with a force of Spaniards to Guatemala. The Spaniards had a great technological advantage over the indigenous people and by 1540 they ruled whole area.

The Spaniards then became the ruling class. Meanwhile the indigenous people were converted to Christianity (although they actually kept many of their old beliefs) and the church became very rich and powerful in Guatemala. Meanwhile society in Guatemala was divided with those people born in Spain at the top. People of Spanish descent born in Guatemala were second in rank. Next came those of mixed race. At the bottom were indigenous people.

Independent Guatemala

Guatemala became independent of Spain in 1821. It was annexed by Mexico for a short time but in 1823 Guatemala became part of the United Provinces of Central America with Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Honduras. However the union was short lived. It broke up completely in 1840.

In the 1830s a liberal regime ruled Guatemala but in 1839 an uprising took place and a man named Rafael Carrera came to power. The changes introduced by the liberal regime were swept away.

However the liberals took power in Guatemala again in 1871 and in 1872 Rufino Barrios became president. He soon began to rule Guatemala as a dictator. Barrios restricted the power of the church. He also greatly increased coffee production. He created coffee plantations in Guatemala, which were owned by a small elite and were worked by the indigenous people. However Barrios died in 1885.

Guatemala in the 20th Century

The next ruler of note in Guatemala was Estrada Cabera who ruled from 1898 to 1920. During his time, in 1901 the American United Fruit Company began operations in Guatemala and by the 1930s they were growing huge amounts of bananas in the country. Meanwhile in 1931 Jorge Ubico was elected president. He remained in power until 1944 when he was forced into exile.

In 1945 Juan Jose Areval was elected president. He introduced many reforms. He also spent money on education and hospitals. However there were many attempts to overthrow him.

In 1951 Jacobo Arbenz succeeded him. In 1952 Arbenz introduced a law that land lying unused (including that belonging to the United Fruit Company) would be redistributed to the poor. The company would be compensated but the amount of compensation would be based on the value of the land they had given for tax purposes (which was a fraction of its real value). So the CIA orchestrated an invasion of Guatemala led by two Guatemalan officers. Arbenz was forced to step down.

Castillo Armas became the next president of Guatemala. He undid all the reforms. Furthermore anyone who could not read and write (most of the population) was deprived of the right to vote). Effectively the poor majority were disenfranchised.

During the 1960s and 1970s industry in Guatemala developed but dire poverty remained. A series of repressive regimes ruled but left wing guerrillas began fighting and thousands died in political violence in Guatemala. The violence reached a peak in the early 1980s however civilian rule returned in 1986 when Vinicio Cerezo was elected president. The bloodshed in Guatemala diminished but it did not end entirely. The killing finally ended in 1996 when peace accords were signed. The civil war in Guatemala may have cost 200,000 lives.

Guatemala in the 21st Century

Today Guatemala is still a very poor country and the economy relies on agriculture. Guatemala is also a very unequal society. Although poverty remains at least rates of literacy have improved. Guatemala is steadily developing. Still Guatemala has great potential for tourism. Today the population of Guatemala is 14 million.

A brief history of Mexico

A brief history of Costa Rica

A brief history of Panama

A brief history of Belize

A brief history of Nicaragua

Precious Guatemala


Last Revised 2013