Guatemala's history as an independent state spans almost
200 years. In contrast, this has been a conflicted and often
bloody story that includes a brutal civil war in the 1980s.
Before 1821, the country was part of a European empire.
Before 1521, the area was the center of Mayan culture, one
of mankind's oldest state-forming traditions.
The oldest traces of people in Guatemala are after
hunters and gatherers who lived in the highlands 20,000
years ago. Agriculture, and with its permanent settlements,
originated somewhere in central Mexico about 7,000 years
ago. Together with southern Mexico (the states of Chiapas
and Yucatán), Guatemala constitutes the core area of the
Mesoamerican tradition that is now known as Mayan culture.
Pollen found in Petén testifies to maize cultivation from
the year 3500 BCE. Besides maize cultivation, Mayan culture
is characterized by its complex calendar systems, a
sophisticated writing system and pyramids and other stone
monumental buildings. See
abbreviationfinder for geography, history, society, politics, and economy of Guatemala.
Archaeologists divide the Mayan culture into a
pre-classical or formative era (2000 BCE to 250 BCE),
classical (250–900) and post-classical (900–1520).
Pre-classical or formative times are the period when the
writing and calendar systems come into being, at the same
time as ever-larger monumental buildings tell of political
centralization. This occurs in close contact with Olmecian
culture in Mexico and probably at the earliest in the
lowland areas of the Pacific Coast and northeastern Petén.
The classic era is characterized by the fact that Petén
is a tightly cultivated patchwork of competing city states
or kingdoms. Tikal, which can house 70,000 people, was the
largest. Statues and inscriptions tell of ruler dynasties
and alliances with other cities as well as with the mighty
city state of Teotihuacán in central Mexico. The
inscriptions always contain references to dates and the
great cosmic cycles that framed the rulers' lives. The
calendar system always gives two dates. One belongs to a
365-day solar year, the other gives a series of day names
within a 260-day cycle (which probably corresponds to human
pregnancy). The 260-day calendar is a divination calendar (tzolkin)
still alive in Guatemala.
Around the year 800, Tikal and the other city states of
Petén collapsed. However, the Mayan tradition continued in
the highlands of Guatemala and Chiapas as well as in the
Yucatán until the kingdoms in these areas were conquered by
Spain in the 1520s. The ruins of the highlands are after the
capitals of these kingdoms: Q'umarkaj (Utatlán on náhuatl)
in the k'iche 'realm and Iximulew in the kaqchikel realm.
The four Mayan books that survived the Spanish fires are
from this time. Pop Wuj, which was written down with Latin
letters by scribbled k'iche's around the year 1550, is in
the same tradition of divination art and dynastic history.
The immediate causes of the collapse of the Petén
kingdoms probably lie in a combination of increasingly
intense wars between Tikal, rival Calakmul and their network
of allies as well as ecological stress as a result of
intensive agriculture and changes in rainfall patterns.
Spanish conquest and colonial times
Two years after Spanish conquistadors landed in Mexico
and conquered the Aztec Empire, Hernán Cortés sent his
second in command Pedro de Alvarado to Guatemala. Alvarado
had 420 Spanish soldiers as well as a few hundred Mexican
army troops. Alvarado initiated negotiations with the
kaqchikels against the k'iche before inflicting on the
k'iche 'prince Tekun Uman the decisive defeat outside
Quetzaltenango on February 22, 1522. By then, diseases from
Europe and Africa were alreadyabout to kill half the
original population. Over the course of ten years, Spanish
forces had defeated all local rulers in the highlands (as
well as in present-day El Salvador and Honduras), including
the kaqchicles. In the highlands of the north (Alta
Verapaz), the q'eq'chí Mayans were brought under Spanish
control of the Dominican Order, led by Bartolomé de Las
Casas. Itzá, the last independent Mayan group in Petén,
surrendered to Spain in 1697.
After moving the capital of its new colony a few times
due to floods and earthquakes, Guatemala city was founded in
1541 where Antigua ('the old') now resides. Also this city
was destroyed repeatedly before it was moved to where it is
now located in 1776.
As a Spanish colony, Guatemala, together with Chiapas, El
Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica, constituted an
administrative unit within the New Kingdom of the Viceroy of
Mexico City. As elsewhere in the Spanish empire, indigenous
people were Christianized and gathered in villages (reducciones).
In fact, most Mayans continued to live in clan-based hamlets
to go to their village on church and market days. This
scattered settlement pattern characterizes the highlands to
this day. The church financed itself by establishing
sainthood (cofradía) which eventually became the
largest and most important Catholic organization among
indigenous peoples in Mexico and Central America.
Guatemala was not a rich colony. The terrain rarely
allowed large goods and the mines were not particularly
rich. The most important export income came from indigo
cultivation. The distinction between Spanish speakers and
Indians (as the indigenous peoples were called) was absolute
and was maintained by the fact that each group had its own
forms of governance ('the two republics'). However, only
those born in Spain (peninsulares) could occupy the
top offices of the colony.
Independence in 1821 was the result of a wave of
rebellion throughout Spanish America, inspired by
revolutionary currents in Europe. The Creoles (Europeans
born in America) objected to the Spanish monopoly on
leadership positions in the colonies as well as on all trade
to and from America. Representatives from the elites of the
Central American provinces met in Guatemala City and
proclaimed their independence on September 15, 1821. Few
years earlier, k'iche ' leaders Atanasio Tzul and Lucas
Aguilar had led a comprehensive tax protest against local
highland authorities. In today's Guatemala, Tzul (as well as
Tekun Uman) is regarded as the precursors of the independent
The Central American elites were divided between liberals
and conservatives in the view of how the new state should be
organized. The conservatives were church-friendly, wanted a
strong central power and were skeptical of free trade. The
liberals did the opposite and also wanted a federation of
the provinces of the region. The liberal program also
included measures such as public education, secular
education and a jury-based judiciary. Such radical program
items also faced strong opposition among the Mayan people.
In this game, Guatemala City was the conservative and
After two decades of fighting between liberals and
conservatives (as well as two years as part of the
Conservative Empire of Mexico, 1821-1823), the federation
finally fell apart in 1841. Chiapas then went to Mexico.
From then on, Guatemala entered a peaceful but stagnant
period based on an alliance between conservative families in
Guatemala City, the church and warlord Rafael Carrera
(1814-1865). Carrera, who was of poor Mayan genealogy, was
the man who added to the Liberals the decisive defeat. He
emerged as a protector of the Mayan people and used their
support and military talent to defeat Quetzaltenango when
the liberal elite in the city proclaimed his own state in
1838 (Estado de Los Altos).
The Liberal Revolution
In 1867, a liberal uprising broke out in Quetzaltenango.
It was led and won by General Justo Rufino Barrios
(1835-1885). As president, Barrios carried out the liberal
revolution in Guatemala by expropriating land from Mayan
villages in areas suitable for coffee growing. The land was
handed over to the general's federal allies or sold to
immigrants from Europe (including German colonists in Alta
Verapaz). At the same time, duties were imposed on the Mayan
goods. This plantation economy forms the basis of the
extremely uneven distribution of land that is constantly
affecting the country.
For Barrios, land reform was part of the modernization of
Guatemala. Parallel to the transformation of the Mayan
community, the church's power was also severely curtailed
and general, secular schooling was introduced. Guatemala
City underwent significant renewal, a national police and
prison system was established and the country received
telegraphs and railways. Finally, Barrio's great foreign
policy ambitions for a new Central American Federation
brought the country into a series of regional battles,
including Mexico and the United States.interfered. Barrios
lost his life on the battlefield in El Salvador in 1885. A
few years later, the power of his nephew José María Reyna
Barrios (1854–1898), who continued what is often referred to
as 'the liberal dictatorship'.
At the same time as the coffee economy cemented old
social divisions, the income from this laid the foundation
for a modern state and an emerging industrialization.
Administration and infrastructure were developed based on
European progress belief (positivism). The Mayans and their
traditions were increasingly identified as reclining.
Reyna Barrios was assassinated in 1898 and followed by
the increasingly tyrannical Manuel Estrada Cabrera
(1857-1924). The novel Mr. President, with whom
Miguel Ángel Asturias won the Nobel Prize, provides a
relentless portrait of a paranoid ruler who ruled the
country for 22 years. At the same time, Cabrera provides the
first licenses to grow bananas on the Caribbean coast and
railroad construction to the United Fruit Company from the
United States. Thus, Guatemala is further absorbed into the
world economy, based on exports of large commodities
Throughout the 1920s, the liberal elite continued to
rule, partly through coup and partly through elections,
until the crackdown on world trade in 1929 sent prices of
raw materials to the bottom. In 1931, Jorge Ubico Castañeda
(1878–1946) was elected as the only candidate for new
president in a country in crisis.
At a time marked by fascism and authoritarian state
leadership worldwide, Ubico's regime is becoming
increasingly dictatorial. The regulations that mandated
Mayan public work (road construction) if they had not worked
long enough on a property, as well as giving landlords the
right to punish day laborers, have remained as scary
examples. At the same time, he was personally corrupt and
created the country's national audit.
Revolution and counter-revolution
In 1944, Ubico was overthrown after extensive protests.
The military junta who took over organized the first
reasonably democratic elections in that all reading and
writing men could participate. Teacher Juan José Arévalo
(1904-1990) won 86 percent of the vote. He was succeeded by
captain of the army, Jacobo Árbenz, in 1950.
The ten-year period between 1944 and 1954 is known as the
'Revolution'. Arévalo and Árbenz initiated a series of
reforms to modernize the economy and society. However, the
attempt at land reform challenged both domestic landlords
and foreign financial interests; especially the American
capital that owned the banana plantations and the railroad
network. The landowner elite and the Catholic Church saw
land reform as communism. This was during the Cold War and
the United Fruit Company had close ties with the US
In 1954, Árbenz was overthrown by a rebel movement (MLN)
led by Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas (1914-1947), with
extensive US support. His reign began the period known as
the 'Counter-Revolution' when the reforms of the Revolution
were rolled back, first under Castillo Armas and then under
Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes (1895-1982). This did not happen
without resistance. In 1960, two officers, Marco Antonio Yon
Sosa (1929–1970) and Luis Turcios Lima (1941–1966), began a
rebellion that was quickly defeated, but at the same time
added the spiers to the guerrilla movements that developed
in the decades that followed. Sosa and Lima had resorted to
weapons in protest of Ydígoras' close cooperation with the
United States to overthrow Fidel Castro (invasion of the Bay
of Pigs). Now the two refugees were just searching Cuba, and
with Cuban help, the Guatemalan Communist Party created an
armed faction - the FAR.
Between 1962 and 1968, FAR led guerrilla war in the
highlands of the east, but with the help of the United
States, the army won the fighting. At the same time, the
army was gaining more and more state power by manipulating
electoral processes, perhaps most obviously in 1974 when
MLN's candidate, Norwegian-Guatemalan officer Kjell Laugerud
García, defeated Christian Democrat Efraín Ríos Montt. From
then on, several other Marxist-Leninist insurgency movements
(ORPA and EGP) also sought to establish 'liberated
territories' as a first step towards a socialist revolution,
such as in neighboring Nicaragua.