By Jennifer Herbst


Maya Civilization

Guatemalan history dates back as far as the Mayan cilivazation. The Maya lived in the highlands centuries before the birth of Christ. They created many city states. The Mayan civilization developed between 300 and 900 AD. In this period Mayans built many impressive ceremonial sites such as: Tikal, Uaxactun, Palenque, and Mirador. These sites featured many large temples, pyramids, and plazas that were highly decorated with sculptures, carvings, and harvesting techniques(mostly dealing with corn). These Mayans also developed a highly complex calendar and hieroglyphics. At about 900 AD the Mayan civilization collapsed. In the end the Mayans who remained in the highlands did not achieve the scientific or agricultural magnificence like those of the north, however, their civilization lasted longer.

Colonial period

In 1519 Spanish explorer, Hernan Cortes conquered the Aztec Empire in Mexico. In 1924 he sent his lieutenant Pedro de Alvarado to invade Guatemala. When Alvarado found the native Guatemalans they engaged in a civil war. Then in 1528 Alvarado faced a four year rebellion of the Cakchiquels which he suppressed and went on to establish Spanish rule over the region. Guatemala remained the Capital city of the kingdom. Many years later in 1812 the Spanish government adopted a liberal constitution which granted colonist a greater participapation in the government and representation in Spain.


From 1811 to 1818 Captain-General Jose de Bustamante ruled Guatemala and he repressed all moves toward independence. When his term was over, Guatemala gained independence from Spain without a war. In 1821 Mexico proclaimed itself an independent empire. They were led by General Agustin de Iturbide. On September 15th 1821 Guatemala was declared independent from Spain and they formed a government that assumed jurisdiction over the entire region. They kept Captain-general, Gabino de Gainza as the chief executive. The first federal president of Guatemala was Manuel Jose Arce of El Salvador who resigned in 1827 after a short two years in office. he resigned when a civil war broke out between the two political parties (liberals and conservatives. By 1827 liberals had gained control of the Guatemalan state and federal governments. However, in 1829 liberal forces took Guatemala city. Morazan was the president (1830-1840) The nations capital was then moved from Guatemala to San Salvador.

Revolution of 1871

After Carrera's rule his handpicked successor General Vincente Cerna ruled when a liberal revolution (headed by Miguel Garcia Granados) and Justo Rufino Barrios) defeated Cerna's army. This period of liberal rule was led by a series of strong dictators which continued until 1944. Guatemala's economy then rapidly grew. There were major social and political changes. The gap between wealthy land owners and laborers grew wider.Expanding exports helped the small and elite middle class. But the majority was helped only a little not or at at all by the sales of coffee and bannans.

A new Union Party under president Carlos Herera took over the government. Within a year the Liberal party ruled Guatemala once again. It was now that the inhabitants of Guatemala began to experience political freedom. Economy grew, labor unions were organized, and the press exercised their freedom.

In the 1930s the Great Depression sent Guatemalan economy plummeting. The coffee export dropped from $34 million in 1927 to $9.3 million i 1932. Another liberal General Jorge Ubico Castaneda took the presidential office in 1931.. He remained in power till 1944 and during his reign increased democracy and lessened military rule.

1944-1954 The Ten Years of Spring

Ubico made a decade of social, economical, and political reform in Guatemala, referred to as the "ten years of spring." A critic of Ubico and philosophy professor, Juan Jose Arevalo returned from his exile in Argentina was elected to become president in December of 1944. The next March a new constitution was adopted which stated a social-democratic revolution. Under this new policy, the government would pay more attention to the trouble of the lower and middle class. It would also restrict the power of those with privilege. It also gave Guatemalans a voice in their political system and provided women with the right to vote. There was a new freedom of speech and the before banned unions and political parties were allowed to organize.

Arevalo was an anti-communist who favored what he liked to call "spiritual socialism". He served a five year term and established a system of social security along with a labor code which protected a workers rights and his benefits. Arevalo began reforms in health care and education, while he encouraged he people to make and join labor unions and participation i politics. The great leader also promoted a new industry and new agricultural techniques. He helped Guatemala become one of the founding members of the United Nations in 1945. Then in 1948 he also helped Guatemala become on of the founding members of the Organization of the American States.

Although most people liked Arevalo, the elite or upper class was strongly against him. During his five years of presidency, there were over twenty military attempt to overthrow him. He advocated reforms which were feared by businesses.

Jacob Arbenz Guzman succeeded Arevalo as president.His most revolutionary act was the land reform law on June 1952 where he attempted to take the unused agricultural land from Guatemala's large property owners which he would then give to the landless rural workers. In 1953 the program approved of taking 91,000 hectares (225,000 acres) of the land belonging to United Fruit land offering some compensation that the company felt was not an equal trade. The United States did not like Arbenz so they launched a secret plan to overthrow him, with the help of Nicaragua and Honduras. on June 18th, a group of Guatemalan exiles, commanded by Colonel Carlos Castilo Armas and trained by the Central Intelligence Agency(CIA) and the U.S. Marine Corps officers, invaded Guatemala. By the 27th of June 1954 Arbemz was forced to resign. The military government replaced him and destroyed the legislature. This new government arrested Communist leaders and released about 600 political prisoners captured by Arbenz. Castillo Armas became the new president.

Under Military Control

From 1954 to 1985, Guatemala was controlled by Castillo Armas. He was the first president of the thirty years the government would rule Guatemala. During this time many of the reforms were reversed such as: property was returned to land owners, Marxist were outlawed, other political parties, labor groups, and rural organizations were banned or severely restricted. The government became strongly anti-communist with the assistance of the United States military and economy. As the military became the elites upper class of Guatemala, officers gained wealth through corruption. Many citizens tried to find political and social change through violence, since thee was no peaceful way to go about it. On July 26th 1957, Armas was assassinated.

The legislature named a conservative, General Miguel Ydigoras Fuentes, as the new president in 1958. After two years he faced many revolutionary movements which were supported by the powerful man in Cuba, Fidel Castro. The Guatemalans, trying to restore progressive reform, were defeated. Some Guatemalans escaped into the mountains and organized the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR). A long and terrible civil war thus began.

Ydigoras, being an anti-communist, was allowing anti-Castro exiles to train in Guatemala for a terrible Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. In the March of 1963 he was overthrown. The man who took over as president was General Enrique Peralta Azurdia. This man cancelled elections and held office till 1966. During his reign "death squads" or terrorist groups began to erupt. They murdered labor leaders, political opponents and attacked the government.

From 1966 to 1970 Guatemala once again had a civilian-led government. This new government brought about little change and more violence. One reform candidate, Julio Cesar Mendez Montenegro won most voted in the election in 1966. The military government only allowed him to take office once he secretly agreed to let the army keep its authority over the war and against the guerrillas (reformist). Military death squads used harsher tactics against the guerrillas and any citizens suspected of aiding them.

In 1970 the military once again controlled the presidency. During this times Generals such as:Carlos Arana Osorio (1970-1974), Kjell Laugerud Garcia (1974-1978), and Fernando Romeo Garcia (1978-1972). All of these men won election with violence and fraud. During these administrations, thousands died during the civil war. As if that wasn't enough destruction, A hurricane in 1974 and an violent earthquake together claimed more than 20,000 lives and left a million people homeless. In spite of this, the economy grew, stimulated by petroleum in the Peten along with an increase in the price of coffee.

Even more Generals came into play, General Angel Anibal Guevara was elected but quickly deposed. he was followed by General Efrain Rios Montt, a former president candidate of the Christian Democracy party, assumed the position of dictator. Rios Montt made an effort to reduce corruption, he offered amnesty to the guerrilla groups, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary unit (URNG). When he was rejected by the guerrillas he launched a campaign against them, which was more brutal to than any pervious effort. Indigenous men were forced to become part of the Civil Defense Patrols against the guerrillas. The government carried out a scorched earth policy (burning the crops and and farming tools so guerrillas couldn't get them.

On the eighth day of August 1983, the military threw-out Rios Montt, they then began a period of conciliation. Since Guatemala suffered from serious economic problems there was a major decline in tourism. During this time many Guatemalan military leaders were facing international and economic condemning over all of their autocracies which their army and other groups had committed. It was now that the military decided to once again turn over some limited power to civilians.

In the December of 1985, Marco Vinicio Cerezo (a Christian democrat) became Guatamala's first civilian president in fifteen years. However Cerezo was not able to end the civil war and its human rights abuses. (Another person who wanted human rights was Rigoberta Menchu who won the Nobel peace prize.) He was also not able to condemn the rising trade of illegal drugs. Cerezo did play a major role in bringing about the Central American Peace Accord of 1987. The contributed to a settlement of the civil war in Guatemala and on a negative note, it contributed to conflicts in Nicaragua and El Salvador.


Guatemala is an interesting place covering much land. Guatemala is one hundred and eight thousand four hundred and thirty square kilometers (108,430 or forty-two thousand five hundred square miles (42,500 sq. miles) in Mexico. This land is bordered by one thousand six hundred and eighty-seven kilometers (1,687 km) this includes two hundred and sixty-six kilometers bordering Belize to the north-east, two hundred and fifty-six kilometers bordering Honduras to the east, and two hundred and three kilometers bordering El Salvador to the east. The Mexican border is responsible for nine hundred and sixty-two kilometers of the border. Guatemala has an excellent coast line of four hundred kilometers. This hole area of Guatemala is inhabited by mountains and forest and volcanoes. For the most part Guatemala is a very tropical place with tends to get hot temperatures like! If hot is not your style the highlands of Guatemala are cooler. There are many volcanoes in Guatemala. Twelve percent (12%) is arable land, four percent (4%) is used for permanent crops, an additional twelve percent (12%) for meadow and pastures where many animals and people dwell. A whopping forty percent (40%) of the land in Guatemala is tropical forest. A huge thirty-two percent (32%) is used for other uses including one percent (1%) irrigation.



According to a census in nineteen ninety-nine there were twelve million three hundred thirty five thousand and five hundred and eighty people (12,335,580). A whopping forty-three percent (43%) of the population is fourteen years of age and under. Another fifty-four percent (54%) is between the ages of fifteen and sixty four. Those sixty-four years of age and older make up only three percent(3%). The population is pretty evenly spread there is 1.01 males to every female. This population grows about 2.68% a year. The Guatemalan life expectancy is not so bad, overall a Guatemalan can expect to live about 66.45 years, to be more specific the male can expect about 63.78 years of life while a female can expect about 69.24 years of life.


As far as children go Guatemala has some interesting results! On average there is about 4.74 children born to every woman! Why so many? The reasoning is quite simple. There are many farmers is Guatemala and farmers tend to have many children to work on their farm or farms. Also families of Spanish heritage tend to have large families from the beginning of their existence. The downfall to this many children is that there are many complications. Since Guatemala does not have the medical education most countries do, the woman sometimes do not know what to do and not to do during their pregnancy. Also if there are complications during birth the able doctors are few and far between and often can not help those in need, also those in need can sometimes not afford a doctor. Due to this lack of knowledge there 46.15 infant deaths to every 1000 living infants.


Over the years education in Guatemala has changed greatly. In the period of Spanish rule education was controlled mostly by the Catholic church. When the colonial era came about education was only given to the wealthier man's son whom was always either a Spaniard or Mestizo. In Antigua in 1679 the first Guatemalan university was founded and two years later the first classes were held. However it was not until after the e their independence till education was offered for free to every child. Some parents, mostly in rural areas, wondered why their children should got to school to learn to read and write. While they need to help their families on the farms. Currently only 55.6% can read and write.

In the nineteen forties a campaign was waged by the Arevelo government to end illiteracy. Sadly this campaign had little effect.

The biggest problem in the Indians of Guatemala . Many Indians consider Spanish a foreign language since they have their own language. This means that children will have to learn Spanish before they even go to school. It is also difficult for the government to find teachers who can speak in one or more Indian dialects and in Spanish.

There are three levels to the Guatemalan educational system. The most common of the three is primary school equivalent to the American elementary school. Many students only attend primary school. When graduated from a primary school, a secondary or vocational school comes next. If a student wishes to go on they will go to a University. Gifted scholars can attend a university as San Carlos of Guatemala in the Capital Guatemala city. At the University there are eight major fields of study: juridical and social sciences, medical science, chemistry and pharmacy, engineering, economics, dentistry, and agricultural.


The ethnicity of Guatemalans is not too varied . The population is mostly created from Mestizo and Indians. Mestizo are a mix of an Indians and Spanish. Those who follow the Western ways of living are called Ladinos, while the Indians (pure blood or not) are called Mestizos. For the most part the cities are populated by Mestizoes.


In Guatemala two religions dominate the country although there is no set religion. The Roman-Catholic is the religion of most Mestizoes and the Indians have their traditional religion.


Guatemala has a strong and prosperous government, in which the military has played a major role. This country has been divided into twenty-two different departments. A constitution was formed in 1945, during a revolutionary period for political and social reform. This democracy failed in 1954 due to military domination. The new constitution of May 13th 1985, is for a representative democracy with three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. Now they even have elections!


As of 1994 when amendments were made to their constitution, the exectuive branch is ran by a president who is elected to a four year term and unlike the United States, these presidents can not be reelected. This executive has great authority, however he does lack power in control of the military forces. The president has many powers, like the power to appoint his own Council of Ministers and he is aided by a vice-president.

legislature & judiciary

The legislature and judiciary branches go hand in hand. The legislature had some changes made in 1994 by reforms, when their members went from 116 to 80 and their terms from five to four years. The judicial branch does much review of the legislative acts. This Supreme Court is the highest level of appeal. In 1985 the constitution also created a Court of Constitutionality.


Since 1812 councils have been incorporated into the Guatemalan constitution. These councils have limited power and financial resources which limit this local government. Some departmental chiefs(appointed by the president) have exercised great authority and they sometimes become local dictators. Since 1985 Guatemala has been holding election in which local government plays an important role.


Guatemala has a history of having a strong economy which is centered around agriculture. In the early 1500s Guatemalans were producing corn, beans, chocolate, cotton, and a large variety of fruits and vegetables. Spaniards added wheat, sugar, livestock, and European fruits and vegetables. In the colonial period Guatemala exported small amounts of cacao,sugar, and cotton. Since the 18th century, when Spaniards started putting more emphasis on exports, Guatemala has steadily increased it's dependence on foreign market. In the 19th century coffee became the most important Guatemalan export. The most profitable crops have expanded into Guatemala's best land, forcing Guatemalans to import even more food, which then increases the cost of living. Through the 1960s and the 1970s economy grew about 5.5% per year. Although there was an economic crisis in TH 1980's the economy rebounded from 1990 to 1996 when the economic growth was 4.2%.

Fifty-two percent of Guatemalan workers are employed in an agricultural occupation. The next largest market is is manufacturing where fourteen percent of the labor force is employed. The minimum wage that many workers receive is from $2.50 to $5 per day, this went into effect in 1992.

The use of electricity in Guatemala is quite impressive. Guatemala uses less energy per person than in any other country in the whole western hemisphere, with the exception of Haiti. This poor country has thirty seven percent (37%) of its population fortunate enough to have access to electricity.

In all of Guatemala City (the Capital) there are few communications. There are four daily morning newspapers, two weekly magazines, five national television stations, there are 91 AM radio stations and 15 short wave radio stations. Phones are few and far between. There are 31 phone lines per every thousand people and four cell phones per every thousand people.

Credits--Guatemalan Picture Gallery

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