Between about 2500 B.C. and 250 A.D., Maya civilization developed throughout much of Guatemala and the surrounding region, reaching its zenith from 300 to 900 A.D. Maya societies flourished in a network of cultural city centers throughout Mesoamerica. These complex societies incorporated artisans, architects, merchants, warriors, priest astronomers, experts of medicine, mathematicians, and farmers. For unknown reasons, these major cities were abandoned around 900 A.D., and the Maya people dispersed into around 30 warring groups. At the time explorer Pedro de Alvarado came to conquer Guatemala for the king of Spain in 1523-24, Maya societies were already in decline. Those remaining Maya highland kingdoms of the K'iche' and Kaqchikel Maya were soon crushed by Alvarado's armies, their lands carved up into large estates and their people ruthlessly exploited by the new landowners. Within a decade of the Spaniards’ arrival, approximately 750,000 indigenous people had died due to brutal violence and diseases.
During Spanish colonial rule, most of Central America came under the control of the Captaincy General of Guatemala. The Spanish instituted a system of land distribution through which colonists and priests received grants of land to be tended by the labor of indentured indigenous serfs. A racial hierarchy was established that held “criollos” (European descendents) on top, “ladinos” (mixed blood) in the middle, and the indigenous majority at the bottom.
Independence from Spain came in 1821 but brought even worse conditions for those of Maya descent. The Spanish Crown's few liberal safeguards were now abandoned. Huge tracts of Maya land were stolen for the cultivation of tobacco and sugar cane, and Mayas were further enslaved to work that land.
Guatemala then passed through a series of dictatorships, perhaps the most brutal of which were those of Manual Estrada Cabrera (1898-1930) and General Jorge Ubico (1930-1944). During his regime, Cabrera granted the U.S.-owned United Fruit Company 40 percent of the country’s most fertile land, as well as control over Guatemala’s only real port – Puerto Barrios. Through the port concession, UFCO could control nearly all Guatemalan trade. Cabrera also granted control over most of Guatemala’s railways to the International Railways of Central America (IRCA), of which the United Fruit Company was a major shareholder, thereby securing company control over virtually all means of transport and communications in the country. In addition to its land, railroad and port facilities, United Fruit gained a monopoly in Guatemala’s electricity production, earning the epithet “the Octopus,” as it extended its tentacles into, and dominated, all aspects of Guatemala’s most vital production activities.
Once in office, Ubico established a repressive secret police force and reinstituted the vagrancy laws under which all peasants owning fewer than 10 acres of land were forced to work 90 days each year, unpaid. He continued Cabrera’s release of national property to foreign interests.
In 1944, the “October Revolutionaries,” a group of dissident military officers, students and liberal professionals overthrew General Ubico. In 1945, a civilian, Juan José Arevalo, became the first democratically-elected president in Guatemala, winning more than 70% of the votes. He initiated a series of unprecedented social reforms, including the dissolution of the secret police and vagrancy laws; the legalization of labor unions and political parties; the creation of national literacy programs, farm cooperatives, and voter registration drives; legal reforms that declared men and women equal before the law; the criminalization of racial discrimination; and the establishment of the nation's first social security and health care systems. It was a welfare state along the lines of Keynesian models and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán – another democratically-elected reformist president – succeeded Arevalo, winning 65% of the votes on March 15, 1951. In his inaugural speech, Arbenz vowed "to convert Guatemala from a backward country with a predominantly feudal economy into a modern capitalist state."
Arbenz began his government with several innovative projects. One was the construction of a government-run port to compete with United Fruit's Puerto Barrios. He also wanted to break IRCA's transportation monopoly by building a highway to the Atlantic and planned to build a national hydroelectric plant to offer a cheaper energy alternative different from the U.S.-controlled electricity monopoly. Arbenz continued to create a more open society, strengthening labor protections and extending suffrage even further, eventually legalizing the Communist party in 1952.
However, his most important advances involved land distribution. In 1950, 2 percent of the landowners in Guatemala controlled 70 percent of the nation's arable land. Arbenz considered this unequal land distribution to be the main obstacle to Guatemala’s economic development, so he set out to redistribute large parcels of idle land to a desperate peasantry. He believed the country needed "an agrarian reform which puts an end to the "latifundios" and the semi-feudal practices, giving the land to thousands of peasants, raising their purchasing power and creating a great internal market favorable to the development of domestic industry."
Arbenz’ agrarian reform was approved in 1952 with Decree 900, which empowered the government to expropriate only uncultivated portions of large plantations. Farms smaller than 223 acres were not subject to this law. Nor were those of 223-670 acres of which at least two thirds were cultivated. Fully worked farms of any size could not be expropriated.
In case of expropriation, the government would pay with twenty-five-year government bonds at a 3% interest rate. The value of a parcel of land was to be determined from its declared taxable worth as of May 1952. The expropriated lands would be distributed only to landless peasants in plots not bigger than 42.5 acres each.
The Agrarian Reform managed to give 1.5 million acres to around 100,000 families (~ 1/6 of all families) for which the government paid $8,345,545 in bonds. Among the expropriated landowners was Arbenz himself. Around 46 farms were given to groups of peasants who organized themselves in cooperatives.
The project, however, could not be developed as smoothly as Arbenz wished. Some peasants invaded lands before they were legally distributed, leading to confrontations with police and nourishing the fears of racist elites terrified of “uncivilized” indigenous peoples ready to take over the country. Nevertheless, the biggest obstacle to Arbenz' agrarian reform was the opposition of the United Fruit Company.
With 550,000 acres of land, only 15% of which was actively being cultivated, United Fruit was the largest landowner in Guatemala. Since the company had undervalued its property for decades in order to avoid taxes, it was not eligible to receive the higher compensation shareholders believed their due. When Arbenz expropriated 400,000 of United Fruit’s lands, the company turned to its connections in the U.S. government.
With strong ties to the Eisenhower administration, including three major shareholders, (UN Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and head of the CIA Allen Dulles), United Fruit executives took advantage of the anti-Communist fervor of the time, convincing the U.S. administration that Guatemala was a critical test to keep Communism out of the western hemisphere. In short order, the CIA began Operation PBSuccess, a covert operation to overthrow Arbenz.
In 1954, the CIA led a full spectrum coup, isolating Guatemala diplomatically, working with U.S. businesses to create an economic crisis, and applying insights from the new post-WWII behavioral social sciences to manipulate Guatemalan public opinion. The CIA even took the extraordinary step of commandeering a Guatemalan radio channel and broadcasting reports intended to convince the Guatemalan people that their own government had betrayed them and were in fact Communists. The reports escalated to the point of inventing military skirmishes and exaggerating the numbers of "Liberation Army" troops prepared to march on the capital and save Guatemala; in fact, the CIA was training a ragtag group of a few hundred mercenary troops in Honduras. CIA planes were convincing, however, as they conducted air raids, bombed strategic targets, and created a fearful frenzy.
Led by Guatemalan Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, the U.S.-sponsored mercenaries invaded from Honduras. Fearing overwhelming retribution from the United States, the Guatemalan military did not leave its barracks to defend the Arbenz administration. Seemingly outnumbered and outgunned, Arbenz resigned and fled the country.
Morally destroyed, when Arbenz realized resistance would only bring more deaths and no triumph for his movement, he decided to announce his resignation to the Guatemalan public over the radio. In his dramatic speech he declared, “They have used the pretext of anti-communism. The truth is very different. The truth is to be found in the financial interests of the fruit company and the other U.S. monopolies which have invested great amounts of money in Latin America and fear that the example of Guatemala would be followed by other Latin [American] countries…. I took over the presidency with great faith in the democratic system, in liberty and the possibility of achieving economic independence for Guatemala. I continue to believe that this program is just. I have not violated my faith in democratic liberties, in the independence of Guatemala and in all the good which is the future of humanity….”
Colonel Castillo Armas assumed the presidency with U.S. backing. Castillo reversed Arevalo and Arbenz reforms as quickly as he could, particularly targeting the Agrarian Reform Law and the legalization of union activities. He reinstituted mechanisms of repression, including a committee against communism that compiled lists of thousands of former union members and Arbenz supporters who were suspected subversives. His successor continued this repressive trend.
Seeing their hopes dashed and all means of peaceful resistance closed, a group of junior military officers revolted in 1960. This group became the nucleus of the forces that would engage the government in armed insurrection for the next 36 years. Three principal left-wing rural guerrilla groups, the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP), the Revolutionary Organization of Armed People (ORPA), and the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR), conducted economic sabotage and targeted government installations and members of government security forces in armed attacks. These three organizations, along with the outlawed communist party, known as the PGT, combined to form the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) in 1982.
In response, the United States engaged in counterinsurgency training for the Guatemalan armed forces. Methods used by the Guatemalan military included the spraying of napalm and the utilization of death squads, resulting in some 30,000 deaths, most of them civilian, at this time.
Between 1966 and 1982, there were a series of military or military-dominated governments, during which tens of thousands of Guatemalans were killed. The most brutal dictatorships were headed by Romeo Lucas García (1978-1982) and Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-1983), during which time it’s estimated that at least 132,000 civilians, mainly of Maya origin, were massacred. According to the UN-sponsored Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification, more than 200,000 mainly indigenous peoples were killed by State forces and over 440 villages razed in the 36-year internal war, with the military responsible for more then 93% of all war deaths. Both former dictators have been charged with genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity for their alleged role in planning these atrocities.
The U.S. played a key role in supporting the repressive regimes following the end of the “ten years of spring.” Guatemalan graduates of the School of the Americas – including Romeo García and Ríos Montt and the majority of officers in their military commands – were directly responsible for many of the gross human rights violations committed during the internal armed conflict.
At the School of the Americas U.S. teachers instructed pupils in torture techniques and counterinsurgency methods. Additional training and other U.S. support within Guatemala helped establish death squads in the country. The Guatemalan military eventually became the most brutal military force in the Americas, earning the reputation of being the first to carry out disappearances and regularly engage in torture and extrajudicial killings. The Guatemalan military carried out a scorched earth campaign reminiscent of policies practiced by U.S. troops in Vietnam, and forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to participate in paramilitary civil defense controls that would carry out thousands of atrocities against Mayan civilians.
Although Guatemala has completed a successful transition from military to civilian government, the military retains considerable political power. This transition began in May 1985, when Guatemala’s new constitution was put into effect. The center-right Guatemalan Christian Democrats formed the majority party in the new National Congress, staying in control until 1995 when they came up against serious challenges from the Party for National Advancement (PAN), which is dominated by business interests, and the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), which enjoys close relations with the army and a coterie of established landowners. A period of political musical chairs ended at the start of 1995 with a FRG/PDCG coalition in control of the legislature. The 1995 election was notable for the participation, for the first time, of some left-wing parties allied to the anti-government guerrillas.
In 1996, Peace Accords were signed.
November 1999 brought victory for the FRG whose presidential candidate, Alfonso Portillo Cabrera. Following were four years characterized by escalating State violence against human rights defenders and journalists.
Oscar Berger of the Grand National Alliance coalition (GANA), which consists of three rightwing political parties, claimed victory in the 2003 presidential elections, although the FRG continued to maintain the highest numbers in Congress, followed by GANA.
In November 2007, Alvaro Colóm of the National Unity for Hope (UNE) party won the presidential race. His rival, retired General Otto Pérez Molina of the Patriot Party (PP), is implicated in human rights abuses including the 1998 murder of Bishop Gerardi. UNE represents a mishmash of interests including center-left social organizations as well as big business and suspected clandestine groups. Colóm took office in January 2008.
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