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A Month in Guatemala
December 30, 2001 to February 4, 2002
GUATEMALA A Brief History
The fishing and farming villages which emerged on Guatemala's Pacific coast as early as 2000 BC were the forerunners of the great Maya civilization which dominated Central America for centuries, leaving its enigmatic legacy of hilltop ruins. By AD 250, the Early Classic Period, great temple cities were beginning to be built in the Guatemalan highlands, but by the Late Classic Period (AD 600 to 900) the center of power had moved to the El Petén lowlands. Following the mysterious collapse of the Maya civilization, the Itzaes also settled in El Petén, particularly around the present-day site of Flores.
When Pedro de Alvarado came to conquer Guatemala for the king of Spain in 1523, he found the faded remnants of the Maya civilization and an assortment of warring tribes. The remaining highland kingdoms of the Quiché and Cakchiquel Maya were soon crushed by Alvarado's armies, their lands carved up into large estates and their people ruthlessly exploited by the new landowners. The subsequent arrivals of Dominican, Franciscan and Augustinian friars could not halt this exploitation, and their religious imperialism caused valuable traces of Mayan culture to be destroyed.
Independence from Spain came in 1821, bringing new prosperity to those of Spanish blood (creoles) and even worse conditions for those of Mayan descent. The Spanish Crown's few liberal safeguards were now abandoned. 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.
Few exceptional leaders have graced Guatemala's political podium. Alternating waves of dictators and economics-driven Liberals were briefly brightened by Juan José Arévalo, who established the nation's social security and 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. Arévalo was followed by Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, who continued to implement liberal policies and 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, was the signal for the CIA to step in (one of these foreign companies was the United Fruit Company, which interestingly was part-owned by the then US Secretary of State). With their help a successful military coup was organized in 1954, Arbenz Guzmán fled to Mexico and the land reform never eventuated.
A succession of military presidents followed, and as both protest and repression became more violent, civil war broke out. Booming industrialization in the 1960s and '70s helped the rich get richer, while the cities became increasingly squalid as the rural dispossessed fled the countryside to find urban employment. The military's violent suppression of antigovernment elements (which meant the majority of landless peasants) finally led the USA to cut off military assistance, leading in turn to the 1985 election of the civilian Christian Democrat Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo.
Arévalo's five years of inconclusive government were followed by Jorge Serrano Elías, who won the presidency for the conservative Solidarity Action Movement. His attempts to end the decades-long civil war failed, and as his popularity declined he came to rely increasingly on military support. On May 25, 1993, following a series of public protests, Serrano carried out an auto-coup. Lacking popular support, Serrano fled the country, and an outspoken critic of the army, Ramiro de León Carpio, was elected by Congress. Carpio's law-and-order mantle was taken up by new president, Alvaro Enrique Arzú Irigoyen, who attempted to heal his feuding and crime-ridden country with a neo-liberal technocratic salve. 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. The greatest challenge to a lasting peace stems from great inequities in the basic social and economic power structure of Guatemalan society.
Guatemala swore in a new government 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. His main campaign promise is to shake up the country's armed forces.
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