Three distinct stages—Mayan indigenous, Spanish colonial, and modern republican—have left their mark on the history of Guatemala. These separate ways of life persist, but are slowly merging.
Guatemala includes much of the old Mayan civilization, which may date back as early as 300 BC . The classical Mayan period lasted from about AD 300 to 900 and featured highly developed architecture, painting, sculpture, music, mathematics (including the use of zero), a 365-day calendar, roads, and extensive trade. This great pre-Columbian civilization seems to have collapsed around AD 900, and by the 12th century, the Mayas had disintegrated into a number of separate Amerindian groups. The Amerindians offered resistance to the Spanish expedition sent by Hernán Cortés from Mexico and led by Pedro de Alvarado during 1523–24, but by the end of that time, their subjugation to Spain was virtually complete.
Alvarado founded the first Guatemalan capital, Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala, in 1524. Because of several earthquakes, the capital was moved a number of times until it became permanently established at Guatemala City in 1776. From 1524 until 1821, Guatemala (City and Province) was the center of government for the captaincy-general of Guatemala, whose jurisdiction extended from Yucatán to Panama. Economically, this was mainly an agricultural and pastoral area in which Amerindian labor served a colonial landed aristocracy. The Roman Catholic religion and education regulated the social life of the capital. Spanish political and social institutions were added to Amerindian village life and customs, producing a hybrid culture.
In 1821, the captaincy-general won its independence from Spain. After a brief inclusion within the Mexican Empire of Agustín de Iturbide (1822–23), Guatemala, along with present-day Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, formed the United Provinces of Central America in 1824. This federation endured until 1838–39. Guatemala proclaimed its independence in 1839 under the military rule of Rafael Carrera, an illiterate dictator with imperial designs. None of his ambitions were realized, and he died in 1865.
Guatemala then fell under a number of military governments, which included three notable administrations: Justo Rufino Barrios (1871–85), the "Reformer," who was responsible for Guatemala's transition from the colonial to the modern era; Manuel Estrada Cabrera (1898–1920), whose early encouragement of reform developed later into a lust for power; and Jorge Ubico (1931–44), who continued and elaborated on the programs begun by Barrios.
Guatemalan politics changed with the election of reform candidate Juan José Arévalo Bermejo in 1945. Arévalo's popularity marked one of the first mass-based movements in Guatemalan politics. In 1951, Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán was elected. Following Arévalo's approach to land reform, Árbenz expropriated holdings of the United Fruit Co., a US firm. The United States alleged communist influence within the Árbenz government, and began mobilizing opposition against him. In the summer of 1954, Col. Carlos Castillo Armas and an army of Guatemalan exiles, backed by the CIA, invaded Guatemala from Honduras and toppled Árbenz. Castillo took over, restored expropriated properties, and ruled by decree until he was assassinated by a presidential palace guard in July 1957.
After a period of confusion, Gen. Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes became president in January 1958. His administration was essentially a military dictatorship, even though he claimed to follow democratic principles. He was particularly hard on his domestic critics, denouncing them as communists. He was equally bombastic on the international stage, denouncing the United States, quarreling with Mexico over fishing rights, and challenging the UK over Belize. He was also contemptuous of Fidel Castro, and allowed Guatemala to be a training area for the exiles in the abortive US invasion of the Bay of Pigs in April 1961.
In March 1963, Ydígoras was overthrown by Defense Minister Col. Enrique Peralta Azurdia, who declared a state of siege. For two years, Peralta ruled dictatorially, and continued to assert Guatemala's claims on Belize. In September 1965, the Peralta regime announced a new constitution and elections, and in March 1966, Dr. Julio César Méndez Montenegro was elected president. He was the first civilian president since Árbenz, and would be the last for some time. During his term, the army and right-wing counterterrorists proceeded to kill hundreds of guerrillas, who were believed to be sponsored by Cuba, and claimed destruction of the guerrilla organization by the end of 1967. Uprooted from the countryside, the guerrillas concentrated their efforts on the capital, where, in 1968, guerrillas assassinated US Ambassador John G. Mein.
Guatemala returned to military rule as Col. Carlos Arana Osorio was elected president in 1970. He instituted the country's first comprehensive development plan, but the plan was upset by guerrilla violence, which now engulfed the country. Ambassador Karl von Spreti of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) was murdered in April 1970 by leftists. Many prominent Guatemalans were killed or held for ransom. In response to the violence, Arana suspended civil liberties from November 1970 to November 1971. In 1974, Arana's candidate, Gen. Kjell Laugerud García, was confirmed by Congress as president, after an election marred by charges of fraud. Laugerud followed a centrist policy and obtained a measure of popular support. During his tenure, guerrilla violence decreased, and some political liberties were restored. The principal challenge to Laugerud's administration was the need to rebuild Guatemala after the catastrophic earthquake of February 1976.
A militant rightist, Gen. Fernando Romeo Lucas García, was elected president in 1978. As guerrilla violence continued, there was also an upsurge of activity by right-wing "death squads," which, according to unofficial Guatemalan sources, committed over 3,250 murders in 1979 and even more during 1980. In addition, hundreds of Amerindians were reportedly massacred during antiguerrilla operations. The Carter administration objected to Guatemala's deteriorating human rights record, whereupon the military charged that communist influence had reached the White House.
The new government of Brig. Gen. Oscar Humberto Mejía Victores declared that the coup was undertaken to end "abuses by religious fanatics" and pledged continued efforts to eradicate the "virus of Marxism-Leninism." Elections for a constituent assembly were held, as promised, in July 1984. In May 1985, the assembly promulgated a constitution for a new government with an elected Congress. The general elections of November 1985 were followed by a runoff election in December. The overwhelming winner was Mario Vincio Cerezo Arévalo of the Guatemalan Christian Democratic Party (DCG). He also brought a majority into Congress. In January 1981, the main guerrilla groups united and escalated while the government went into crisis. The elections of March 1982 were won by Laugerud's handpicked candidate, Gen. Angel Aníbal Guevara. Three weeks later, a coup placed in power a "born-again" Protestant, Gen. José Efraín Ríos Montt. After his month-long amnesty offer to the guerrillas was rejected, he declared a state of siege in July, and the antiguerrilla campaign intensified. The government's counterinsurgency killed between 2,600 and 6,000 in 1982, and drove up to a million Guatemalans from their homes by the end of 1983. In March 1983, Ríos lifted the state of siege and announced that elections for a constituent assembly would be held in July 1984. But Ríos, who had fought off some 10 coup attempts during his administration, was overthrown in August 1983.
Political violence decreased under Cerezo, who withstood two attempted coups. But he was unable to make any progress on human rights in Guatemala, and was unwilling to risk prosecution of military personnel who had been the most serious violators. As the economy worsened, political instability increased, including violence.
The elections of 11 November 1990 necessitated a runoff election, which was won by Jorge Serrano of the Movement for Solidarity and Action (Movimiento para Acción y Solidaridad—MAS). Serrano's inauguration in January 1991 marked the first transition in memory from one elected civilian government to another. Serrano promised to negotiate with insurgents and bring to justice both corrupt former officials and human rights violators.
But Serrano overplayed his hand politically. On 25 May 1993 Serrano declared a state of emergency and suspended the constitution. A week later, the military intervened and removed Serrano from office. It then restored the constitution and allowed Congress to select Serrano's successor. This unusual service of the military in defense of democracy led to the naming of Ramior de León Carpio as president on 5 June. De León, a human rights advocate, promised to bring to justice those responsible for the dismal state of human rights in Guatemala. He also proposed reductions in the military, which predictably were not well-received by the officer corps.
On 29 December 1996, under the government of Alvaro Arzu, the Guatemalan government signed a peace accord with the guerilla Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity. This signaled the end of Central America's longest-running guerilla war. Peace came in phases beginning with an informal cease-fire in March 1996, along with the signing of the socioeconomic accord. The latter had taken a year to negotiate and called for the government to raise its tax revenues from 8% to 12% of GDP and increase its spending in health, education, and housing. The last accord, signed in Mexico City in September 1996, called for legislative and judicial reforms. It also included a reassessment of the military's role, as the parties agreed to remove the army from public security functions and to annul the law that provided for the Civil Defense Patrols established in the 1980s to fight guerillas in the highland villages.
In February 1999, the country's Historical Clarification Commission blamed the army for more than 90% of the deaths or disappearances of more than 200,000 Guatemalans during the 36-year civil war. In many instances, the army committed genocide against entire Mayan villages, the report concluded. The three-member commission blamed the United States government for supporting right-wing regimes even though it knew about the atrocities being committed by the army. An earlier report by the Catholic Church revealed similar findings. During a short visit to Guatemala in March 1999, US president Bill Clinton said his country had been wrong for supporting the Guatemalan army. He pledged to support the peace process. In May, the peace process suffered a setback when Guatemalans rejected 50 key constitutional reforms that would have diminished the role of the army and given protection and recognition to Amerindian languages and traditional customs, in a vote in which only about 20% of Guatemalans took part. In November of 1999, Alfonso Portillo, a populist lawyer, captured 47.8% of the vote in the presidential election, not enough to prevent a runoff election, held a month later. Portillo, a member of the conservative Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), was a controversial candidate. During his campaign, he confirmed reports that he had killed two men in the Mexican state of Guerrero and had fled to avoid prosecution in 1982. Portillo said the killings were in self-defense and that he left because he could not have gotten a fair trial. He was also criticized for close ties to former dictator Gen. José Efraín Ríos Montt, whose 17-month regime in 1982–83 was blamed for some of the worst atrocities against Amerindians. Ríos Montt, as FRG's secretary general, worked closely with Portillo. The populist attorney built support with promises to reduce crime, one of the worst problems facing the nation after the war. Crime was rampant throughout the nation, with dramatic increases in murders, kidnappings, and armed robbery. Portillo also promised to aid the poor and curb unemployment, a message that did not go unheard in a nation where 64% of Guatemalans are unemployed or underemployed. In the December runoff election, Portillo captured 68.3% of the vote to win the presidency. His party captured 63 of 113 seats in Congress, while the conservative PAN won 37 seats. A leftist coalition captured 9 seats.
New presidential and parliamentary elections were scheduled for late 2003. Former dictator Ríos Montt, now 77 years old, was widely perceived as the favorite to win the election. He was seeking to overturn a constitutional ban preventing former coup plotters from running for public office. Although he failed to overturn the ban 1999, the influence of sitting president Portillo on the Supreme Court might help Ríos Montt clear his way to be the official candidate for the Guatemalan Republican Front. The meager economic growth experienced in recent years, the fact that more than 60% of the country live in poverty, and the increasing levels of crime and violence might help Ríos Montt, perceived as tough on crime, to convince Guatemalans to give him a second chance, this time as an elected leader.