Guatemala Modern History

By | January 31, 2023

Guatemala is a country located in North America. With the capital city of Guatemala City, Guatemala has a population of 17,915,579 based on a recent census from COUNTRYAAH. Between 1954 and 1985, Guatemala was a military dictatorship. Heavy repression and uneven land distribution led to a civil war between the guerrillas and the army in the 1960s. The war lasted until 1996, when a peace agreement was concluded. The period thereafter has been characterized by widespread violent crime and continued great social injustice.

The military coup in 1954 (see Older history) became the beginning of over three decades of military rule. During the 1960s and 1970s, they were often generals or presidents. Elections were organized, but they were characterized by cheating, and all or part of the opposition was excluded. The Communist Party was banned. Trade unions and left and middle parties were subjected to violent persecution.

  • ABBREVIATIONFINDER: List of most commonly used acronyms containing Guatemala. Also includes historical, economical and political aspects of the country.

The repression and the uneven distribution of land created the breeding ground for armed revolt. In the early 1960s, a guerrilla war began, which intensified when General Romeo Lucas García was president from 1978 to 1982. At most, guerrilla groups are estimated to have had 4,000 members. Three of them and parts of the Communist Party joined in 1982 in the Revolutionary National Guatemalan Unit (URNG). Check best-medical-schools for more information about Guatemala.

The same year General Efraín Ríos Montt came to power through a coup d’état. His regime became relatively short but was the bloodiest during the Civil War. In the hunt for guerrilla soldiers, entire villages were wiped out, most of which were populated by Maya. Tens of thousands of people were killed and even more fled, many to Mexico. The regime’s “rifle and bean” campaign offered rural residents food in exchange for the men joining so-called civilian self-defense patrols (PACs). The forcibly affiliated members of these peasant militia were often forced to commit brutal assaults on their own.

Negotiations lead to peace

Resistance to Ríos Montt grew and in August 1983 he was overthrown by his defense minister who was preparing for a transition to civilian rule. Within the framework of a new constitution, in 1985 elections were held by Christian Democrat Vinicio Cerezo. The hopes were high on Cerezo who promised democracy and the rule of law, but he failed to limit the military’s influence or stop the violence.

However, Cerezo made a first contact with the URNG guerrillas. The contacts were later followed up by Jorge Serrano Elías, who had been elected president in 1991. However, the talks soon collapsed and human rights violations increased. The situation in Guatemala gained international attention when Rigoberta Menchú of the k’iche people received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her fight for the rights of indigenous peoples. Serrano Elías lost more and more support and in 1993 he tried to carry an autogolpe, a coup against himself to strengthen the presidential power. The criticism was massive both at home and abroad, and he was forced to resign.

Time seemed to have run away from the dictators of the old kind. Within the country, more and more people wanted peace and the United States did not want to see new generals in power. Instead, Congress appointed the human rights ombudsman to transition president.

The peace talks with the URNG continued during the UN mediation. In the 1995 election, the entrepreneur-friendly National Progress Party (PAN) won both the presidential post and a majority in Congress. The new president Alvaro Arzú immediately invested in bringing the peace process to port. In March 1996, URNG announced a ceasefire and Arzú responded by canceling all military efforts against the guerrillas. Several sub-agreements were concluded before a final peace agreement could be signed in December 1996.

Violence also characterizes the post-war society

This set the point for 36 years of civil war. Over 200,000 people had been killed at that time, most of them belonging to the Mayan people. A UN-supported Truth Commission ruled that the military and government-backed militia were behind more than 90 percent of the abuses.

The peace settlement included political, social and economic reforms. This included agreements on the rights of indigenous peoples, disarmament, constitutional changes, landowner issues and some amnesty for crimes committed during the war. Some quick results of the peace agreement were that the URNG was disarmed and became a political party, and that the military was lost. Otherwise, the reform work was slow. In 1998, Bishop Juan Gerardi was assassinated just two days after he presented a comprehensive report blaming the military for most of the heinous crimes committed during the war. The murder showed that politically “uncomfortable” people were still living dangerously. A year later, the Guatemalans rejected a number of constitutional changes that would have strengthened the rights of indigenous peoples, reformed the judiciary and limited the military’s power.

The civil war was over but the crime of violence increased instead avalanche. The social injustices persisted, the economy deteriorated and corruption spread. In late 1999, the right-wing populist party won the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), founded by the former dictator Ríos Montt. The party’s presidential candidate Alfonso Portillo won big. As an old barrister, Ríos Montt himself was not allowed to run for office, but he became the President of Congress and, according to many judges, the real ruler. The FRG’s reign was characterized by widespread corruption and impunity, and harassment of lawyers, journalists and human rights activists increased.

Civil parties win the election

The election campaign in the autumn of 2003 was uneasy and violent. Ríos Montt stood for FRG, after getting the Constitutional Court’s approval, but he was knocked out in the first round. The final winner of the election became businessman Oscar Berger Perdomo, a candidate for the newly formed Great National Alliance (Ghana), a election collaboration between three bourgeois parties. Ghana also became the largest in the Congress.

When President Berger took office in January 2004, he officially apologized for the human rights crimes committed during the civil war. He promised to take action against corruption and organized crime. Prosecutions of corruption were also brought against several members of the previous government and against high-ranking military, but the judicial process was slow. Among the accused were former President Portillo, who fled to Mexico. Attempts were also made to bring Ríos Montt to justice for crimes against humanity in the early 1980s and for the unrest before the 2003 presidential election. However, it would take almost ten years before the trial against him began.

In 2005, about 2,000 people perished when Hurricane Stan pulled in over the country. Entire villages were buried in landslides and the material damage amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Roll victory for the left

The electoral movement ahead of the 2007 presidential and congressional elections became the most violent since the end of the civil war. Over 50 candidates and political activists were murdered, which helped put security at the top of the agenda. The fight against violent crime came to overshadow other electoral issues in the debate.

The election ended with a left-wing party coming to power for the first time since the 1954 military coup. Álvaro Colom Caballeros, candidate for the National Union of Hope (UNE) won the presidential election and UNE became the largest party in Congress (see further Calendar). Colom had been defeated by Berger in the second round of elections in 2003.

Colom had strong support from the poor outside the cities, where his promises of investment in health care, education and rural development went home. In his take-up in early 2008, President Colom promised to fight crime by reducing poverty and by dismissing corrupt prosecutors and judges. His goal was to build a social democratic Guatemalan with a “Mayan face”. Colom’s flagship was the social program Mi familia progresa (My family is making progress), in which almost half a million poor families in rural areas received housing and food assistance if they sent their children to school. To fund more comprehensive social reforms, tax increases were required, but when Colom tried to raise taxes, he, like previous presidents, encountered a patrol in Congress.

Drug cartel Zetas infiltrates the country

Guatemala was characterized by violent crime and the number of murders increased constantly. The situation was made worse by the fact that Mexican drug cartels, especially Zetas, started moving their operations to northern Guatemala around 2008 after the Mexican police struck hard against the drug cartels in Mexico. Zeta’s presence helped Colom announce a state of emergency on two occasions (see Calendar).

UNE’s already weak majority in Congress was further eroded when a group of outbreaks from the party in early 2009 formed a new, independent bloc: Renewed Democratic Freedom (Líder). Later, other members joined Líder, who after six months became the largest opposition party.

In 2009, the government got into a serious crisis because of a bizarre murder story. President Colom was accused of being involved in the murder of a prominent lawyer. This led to demonstrations against him, but the UN-backed international commission Cicig (see Political system) later concluded that Colom was innocent and that the lawyer orchestrated the murder of himself (see further Calendar).

Famine and global financial crisis

Guatemala was hit hard by the global financial crisis that began in the fall of 2008. Economic growth was weak, while severe food shortages were occurring in the country. The situation caused Colom to announce disaster states in September 2009. The government appealed for food aid from abroad. Nearly 500 people were estimated to have died of starvation at that time and over 50,000 families were affected by the lack of food. Severe droughts, especially in eastern Guatemala, were behind the emergency.

Colom’s difficulties with a reluctant congress became apparent when, in the fall of 2009, he failed to get legislators to adopt the 2010 budget on time. Thus, the budget for 2009 also became applicable in 2010. The term of office was also marked by countless changes of ministers, national police chiefs and prosecutors. Several were dismissed on suspicion of corruption and drug trafficking.

Ex-general wins presidential election

Prior to the 2011 presidential election, the Left was left without a candidate as the person Colom wanted to see as his successor was rejected by the Constitutional Court. The person in question was his former wife, Sandra Torres. The two had just separated and the court found that this happened only because she could stand in the election, since it is forbidden for a spouse or wife of the incumbent president to run for office.

The winner of the election became former General Otto Pérez Molina, candidate for the right-wing Patriotic Party (PP), defeated by Colom in the previous election (see Calendar). The election movement was violent, but the election day itself was calm. Pérez Molina took office as president in January 2012.

In 2012, a number of violent and social riots occurred in several parts of the country. In one case, the military killed six protesters representing the Mayan people. Violence continued in 2013, when fatalities occurred in connection with protests against a planned silver mine. The protesters claimed that the mine would destroy their drinking water.

corruption Revelations

When half a year remained for the September 2015 elections, opinion polls pointed to victory for Manuel Baldizón who, as in the previous election, was Líder’s candidate. The second candidate was PP’s candidate, former Minister of Communications Alejandro Sinibaldi. But then came in quick succession two revelations that radically changed the conditions. First, Cicig and the State Prosecutor’s Office presented a tavern within the country’s tax authority SAT. About 50 people were charged with tax crimes and for being part of a complex smuggling herd in the multi-million class. Among the suspects were both the current and the previous head of the SAT as well as Vice President Roxana Baldetti’s private secretary, who was appointed as the leader of the ranks.

The disclosure led Sinibaldi to resign just five months before the election. Sinibaldi also left the party. The government, which was already pressed by foreign countries to request an extension of Cicig’s mandate, did just that, just a few days after the disclosure. The mandate would otherwise have expired in September.

The scandal triggered street protests demanding that the president resign. Vice President Baldetti came under even stronger pressure when business representatives also demanded her resignation, although initially she was not formally designated as involved in this. When the Constitutional Court gave the go-ahead for an investigation to revoke her prosecution immunity, Baldetti resigned in early May. Several ministers were also allowed to go.

New charges

Just a few weeks later, Cicig and the Prosecutor’s Office came up with new corruption charges, this time against the Social Security Institute IGSS. Among those arrested were the institute’s head, a close ally with the president, and the country’s central bank governor.

In the following months, protests against the president grew. Demonstrations and mass meetings were held almost uninterrupted in the capital demanding that Pérez Molina resign. A total of six ministers resigned and resigned from the president, as did five deputy prime ministers and several senior officials. At the beginning of August, the deposed Vice President Baldetti was arrested and at the end of the month Cicig made the most serious charges to date: both Baldetti and Pérez Molina were directly identified as participating in the tax hike. The country was thus in a serious political crisis, just a few weeks before the September 6 elections. When only days remained, Congress voted by a wide margin to lift the president’s immunity from prosecution, and an arrest warrant against him was issued. After that, it wasn’t long before Pérez Molina announced that he would leave his post. A judge ordered him detained. Alejandro Maldonado, who succeeded Baldetti as vice president in June, took over as president.

As the presidential election approached, in addition to Baldizón, there were two leading candidates. One was Sandra Torres, who was once again a candidate for UNE. The other candidate showed up shortly before the election and soon became a favorite. It was Jimmy Morales, secretary general of the small conservative National Convergence Front (FCN). He portrayed himself as an anti-establishment candidate challenging the traditional elite.

It won the vote of the voters: Morales got the most votes in the first round. Between Baldizón and Torres, it weighed so evenly that it took the Electoral Court about a week to come up with a result: Torres defeated Baldizón by just under 20,000 votes and was put against Morales in the second round of elections.

In the second round of October 25, Morales won convincingly, with about 67 percent of the vote.

Guatemala Modern History