Guatemala Overview

Brief History

The earliest Maya civilizations began to emerge in the highlands of Guatemala by as early as 2000 BC. Bustling city-states grew, and trading networks covered large areas of what is now Central America and Mexico. By AD 250, the Early Classic Period, great temple cities of pyramids and plazas rose in the Guatemalan highlands. In addition to the notable architecture, the Maya also developed a complex calendar, a hieroglyphic writing system, and an impressive body of scientific knowledge.

The Maya civilization was already somewhat fragmented when Europeans arrived in the early 1500's, and the weak and divided Maya were easily conquered by the Spaniards. By 1528 Pedro de Alvarado had established Spanish rule over the region, and those of native blood descended to the bottom of the new social hierarchy. The lands were carved up into large estates and the people ruthlessly exploited by the new landowners.

Independence from Spain came in 1821, bringing new prosperity to those of Spanish blood (creoles) and even worse conditions for those of Mayan descent. Huge tracts of Mayan land were stolen for the cultivation of tobacco and sugar cane, and the Maya were further enslaved to work that land. The country's politics since independence have been colored by continued rivalry between the forces of the left and right - neither of which have ever made it a priority to improve the position of the Maya.

After a series of dictators and otherwise ineffective leaders, finally in 1945 Juan Jose Arevelo rose to power, bringing with him a liberal agenda of national social security, health care, and land reform. Arevelo was followed by Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, who shared his agenda and similarly worked toward improving the Mayan situation. The land reform included a plan to break up unused agricultural land held by large-scale property owners, and redistribute it to landless rural workers. Seeing a communist thread to this plan, the CIA intervened and in 1954 helped organize a military coup. Interestingly, some of the affected properties were immense banana plantations of the United Fruit Company, partially owned by the then US Secretary of State.

For the next 30 years military officers dominated Guatelama. 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. In late 1996, the civil war ended when a series of agreements were signed between the Guatemalan government and guerilla insurgents. Over its 36 year history, the war claimed the lives of an estimated 140,000 people.


With a more stable political climate, Guatemala has become an increasingly popular tourist destination, with much to see and a rich cultural heritage. Guatemala's many Mayan ruins and colonial buildings are its most impressive architectural attributes. One of the most intriguing cultural aspects is the infinite and exotic variety of the handmade, traditional clothing of Guatemala's Maya population. The design of the women's colorfully embroidered tunics, capes and skirts dates back to precolonial days. Certain details of garment and design identify the wearer's group and village, and can also have multiple religious or magical meanings. Music and traditional dance are also featured in many Mayan religious festivals.