Guatemalan, and indeed Central American, independence came more as a result of pressures from without than from a genuine internal uprising demanding freedom from Spanish rule. This is not to say that all was well with Spanish colonial rule, as there were policies and social stratifications in place contributing to unrest among the lower strata of society. Spanish policies kept wealth and power in the hands of Spanish-born elites, or chapetones. Criollos, or those born in the New World of Spanish descent, were the next rung down the ladder, with the lowest standings reserved for mixed-blood mestizos and full-blooded Indians.
Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1808 led to the imposition of a liberal constitution on Spain in 1812. When Mexican general Agustán Iturbide declared his own country’s independence from Spain, Guatemala followed suit. The reigning Captain General Gabino Gaínza bowed to demands for independence but hoped to maintain the existent power structure with the support of the church and landowning elites. The declaration of independence essentially maintained the old power structure under new management. Mexico quickly dispatched troops to annex Guatemala, and all of Central America, to Iturbide’s new empire.
Iturbide was dethroned in 1823, and Central America, minus the state of Chiapas, declared its independence from Mexico. This second declaration joined the remaining states in a loose federation and adopted many U.S.-modeled liberal reforms such as the abolition of slavery. A protracted power struggle between liberals advocating a secular, more egalitarian state and conservatives wanting to maintain the church-dominated political and economic structures marked the early years of independence. The Central American Federation was weakened not only by inner power struggles within individual member states, but also by a struggle to determine regional leadership over neighboring states.
Justo Rufino Barrios and the Liberal Reforms
The liberals would finally succeed in 1871 under the leadership of General Justo Rufino Barrios, who, along with Miguel García Granados, set out from Mexico with a force of just 45 men, gaining numbers as their approach to the capital grew closer. The capital was taken on June 30, 1871, and Granados was installed as the leader of the new liberal government. Granados made only limited reforms and by 1872 a frustrated Barrios marched to the capital with his troops and demanded elections, which he won overwhelmingly.
Among the reforms quickly instituted by Barrios, who would go down in Guatemalan history as “The Reformer,” were educational reform and separation of church and state. Barrios was the first of the caudillos, military strongmen who ruled the country with an iron fist and sense of absolute omnipotence, mostly uninterrupted, until the revolution of 1944. He masterfully strengthened his power over the entire country with links to local strongmen in rural areas wielding power on his behalf but unable to challenge his hold because of the restricted development of secondary market centers and the overwhelming economic dominance of Guatemala City.
To further exercise his dominion, Barrios professionalized the military, creating a new military academy, the Escuela Politecnica, still in existence today. The addition of rural militia further strengthened national control over the rural hinterlands. Barrios was decidedly pro-Western and sought to impose a European worldview to suppress what he saw as a vastly inferior Indian culture. Liberal economic policies ensured minimal protection of village lands, Indian culture, or the welfare of peasant villages.
During this time, coffee came to dominate the Guatemalan economy and Barrios’s economic policies ensured the availability of a peasant workforce to supply the labor-intensive coffee harvest with its share of needed workers. Furthermore, the increasingly racist attitudes of Guatemala’s coffee elites toward the Indians served to justify the coercive means used to secure this labor force. The Indians were seen as lazy, making forced labor and the submission of the indigenous masses both necessary and morally justified. In this regard, the mandamiento, which came to replace the repartimiento, was increasingly enforced in the last two decades of the 19th century, requiring villages to supply a specified number of laborers per year.
Increasingly, however, elites found more coercive ways to exact labor from the Indians by way of debt peonage. Rural workers were required to carry a libreto, a record containing an individual’s labor and debt figures. Habilitadores, or labor contractors, were charged with advancing money to peasants in exchange for labor contracts. The contractors often used alcohol as an added incentive and took advantage of widespread peasant illiteracy to ensure many of them contracted debts they would never be able to repay. In this way, depressed rural wages from debt peonage and low-cost labor increased the wealth of agricultural elites while making the rural peasantry even poorer.
Manuel Estrada Cabrera
Justo Rufino Barrios died in battle in 1885 while fighting to create a reunified Central America under Guatemalan leadership. He was succeeded by a string of short-lived caudillo presidents. The next to hold power for any significant time was Manuel Estrada Cabrera, whose legacy included undivided support for big business and crackdowns on labor organization. He ruled from 1898 until his overthrow in 1920, having been declared mentally insane. Among Cabrera’s many peculiarities was the construction of several temples to honor Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom. Cabrera’s legacy includes gross corruption, a beefed-up military, and a neglected educational system.
Export agriculture continued its unprecedented growth under Cabrera, thus paving the way for the dominance of two foreign groups that would come to control much of Guatemala’s economy in later years. The first of these were German coffee planters who settled in the region of Las Verapaces. By 1913 this German enclave owned 170 of the country’s coffee plantations, with about half of them in the vicinity of Cobán. The other significant foreign presence in Guatemala during this time was the U.S.-owned United Fruit Company (UFCo), aptly nicknamed “El Pulpo” (The Octopus), and its tentacles consisting of International Railways of Central America (IRCA) and the UFCo Steamship Lines. Its vast control of land, rail, and steamship transportation, in addition to Guatemala’s sole Caribbean port, Puerto Barrios, made it a political and economic powerhouse. Its political clout would be seen in the mid-20th century when, together with the CIA, it would be directly responsible for ousting Guatemala’s president, Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, from power when land reform policies interfered with the company’s vast land holdings.
After the overthrow of Estrada Cabrera in 1920, the country entered a period of instability and power struggles culminating in the rise to power of Jorge Ubico. Continuing in the now well-established pattern of megalomaniacal, heavy-handed leadership that would come to characterize many of Guatemala’s presidents, Ubico continued the unconditional support for U.S. agribusiness and the local oligarchy. By 1940, 90 percent of Guatemala’s exports were sold to the United States. Ubico caved in to U.S demands for the expulsion of the German coffee planters from Guatemala during World War II, evidencing the increasing U.S. hold on Guatemalan domestic policy.
Within Guatemala, Ubico embarked on various reforms, including ambitious road-building projects, as well as improvements in health care and social welfare. Debt peonage was also outlawed but was replaced by a vagrancy law enforcing compulsory labor contributions of 150 days upon landless peasants in either rural plantations or in the government road-building programs. Ubico’s reforms always had in mind the modernization of the state economy. Far from an attempt to free the indigenous peoples from coercive labor practices, the vagrancy law asserted centralized control over the national labor force while keeping the political power of the oligarchy firmly in check.
Ubico was also obsessed with internal security. He saw himself as a reincarnated Napoleon and became increasingly paranoid, creating a network of spies and informers used to repress opposition to his increasingly tyrannical rule. Much of this opposition came from the indigenous peasant population, whom Ubico ignored and regarded as retrograde and inferior. This led to numerous revolts in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The discovery of an assassination plot in 1934 led to the execution of 300 suspected conspirators within 48 hours.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com