From Civil War to Times of Peace: Guatemala's Modern History

While on a tour of Guatemala, travelers will discover a country that is still addressing the wounds after its 36-year long civil war. Few exceptional leaders have graced Guatemala's political podium. Instead, there as been an alternating wave of dictators and economics-driven liberals, that was briefly interrupted by Juan José Arévalo. He established the nation's social security, health systems and a government bureau to look after Mayan concerns. In power from 1945 to 1951, Arévalo's liberal regime experienced 25 coup attempts by conservative military forces. He was followed by Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, who continued to implement liberal policies. He also instituted an agrarian reform law to break up the large estates and foster highly productive, individually owned small farms. The expropriation of lands controlled by foreign companies, a move supported by the country's Communist Party, brought about the controversial involvement of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. A successful military coup was organized in 1954 - Arbenz Guzmán fled to Mexico and land reform never materialized.

For the next 30 years military officers dominated Guatemala. Political parties, labor groups and rural organizations were banned or severely restricted. As both protest and repression became more violent, civil war broke out. With no peaceful way to seek political or social change, many Guatemalans turned to violence. In response to a growing population of guerillas among the landless indigenous people in the 1960's, the army unleashed a campaign of terror in which thousands of people were killed and entire villages were massacred. Over its 36-year history, the war claimed the lives of an estimated 140,000 people.

Booming industrialization in the 60's and 70's helped the rich get richer. Cities became increasingly squalid as the rural dispossessed fled the countryside to find urban employment. The military's suppression of antigovernment elements finally led the USA to cut off military assistance. This led to the 1986 election of civilian Christian Democrat Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo.

Five years of inconclusive government were followed by the election of conservative Jorge Serrano Elías. His attempts to end the decades-long civil war failed. In May 1993, following a series of public protests, he carried out an auto-coup. Lacking popular support, he fled the country; an outspoken critic of the army, Ramiro de León Carpio was elected by Congress. Carpio's law-and-order mantle was taken up by a new president, Alvaro Enrique Arzú Irigoyen. In December 1996, the government signed a series of peace accords with leftist guerrillas and the army agreed to reduce its role in domestic security matters.

Recent History

In November 1999, Guatemala held its first peacetime elections in nearly 40 years. A new government was sworn in on January 14, 2000, under its recently elected right-wing president, Alfonso Portillo. An admitted murderer, Portillo won by claiming that if he could defend himself, he could defend his people. He vowed to clean up the judicial system, crack down on crime, tax the rich and respect human rights.

The subsequent 2003 elections were held amid much scandal and chicanery; the less extreme right-winger, Oscar Berger, supported by the traditional elites in banking and agriculture, was declared president.

The following year, the government instituted major cuts to the army (including the retirement of 10,000 soldiers) and admitted its guilt in some high-profile human rights violation cases.

In 2006, Guatemala ratified the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States, aimed at creating a free-trade zone and reducing tarrifs.