A History of Guatemala

By Tim Lambert

Early 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 the whole area.

The Spaniards then became the ruling class. Meanwhile, the indigenous people were converted to Christianity (although they 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.

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.

Modern Guatemala

The next ruler of note in Guatemala was Estrada Cabrera 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 Arevalo 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.

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 tourism potential. In 2023 the population of Guatemala was 17 million.

Last Revised 2023