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History of Guatemala

Guatemala's history dates back thousands of years as settlers have been in the region since at least 6500 BC. Over time these hunters and gatherers turned to agriculture but no large settlements or organized societies existed for some time. The first organized society were the Olmec people who left a number of archeological remains behind and were perhaps the first Mesoamerican people; either the ancestors of the Mayans or a culture that later merged with them.

In about 1500 BC the Mayan people began to arise in what is today Guatemala. Over time the Mayans built cities, roads, and monuments, including many pyramids that still stand today. The peak of these achievements is found in the city of Tikal in northern Guatemala and date from 300 BC to 900 AD when the city was a leader in the region. The Mayans of Guatemala dominated the greater Guatemala region during this entire period, although near the end of this time this Mayan power base lost sway to Teotichcan (in modern day Mexico).

By the time the Spanish Conquistadors arrived to the region in the 1500s the people ruling the region of Guatemala were the Cakchiquel and K'iche people, although others also existed. The Cakchiquel joined forces with the Spanish to defeat the K'iche and made this a short battle as these two groups destroyed the K'iche people in 1524 and 1525.

Once the K'iche were destroyed, the Spanish turned against their Cakchiquel allies and by 1530 had defeated them as well. Smaller battles between the Spanish and indigenous people continued until 1548, at which time the Spanish had taken the entire region, with the exception of a few cities.

From the 1500s until the 1800s the Spanish consolidated their power in a few regions, including Mexico, Panama, and Guatemala. Over this time period Guatemala became the center of Spanish rule in the region, although nearly all Spanish resources were centered in Mexico and Panama with Guatemala only receiving what resources were left over. Much of the efforts of the Spanish government in Guatemala during this time were focused on arguments with the British in Belize and exploitation of the land.

In 1821 Spain gave Guatemala, along with many other Central American countries independence. Initially Guatemala wanted to join Mexico, however the rest of the federation (the other Central American countries) declined this and as one political entity, Guatemala's union with Mexico was quite brief. The countries in this federation fought over borders and other issues until 1838 when the federation was dissolved and Guatemala was given complete independence.

Until 1871 Guatemala held an odd position in Central America as they were the previous dominant country, but through their dominance had created a number of bad relations. In 1871 this past was reignited as new political leadership attempted to modernize the country, open their borders to trade, and expand their coffee growth and exportation. One aspect of this change was to reunite Central America, an effort that ended in 1885 after war with El Salvador proved unsuccessful.

In 1901 Guatemala again opened up to the rest of the world as foreign companies sought resources the country had, most notably in the form of fruit, but also with products such as coffee. The most powerful player in this exchange was the United Fruit Company (based in the United States), who had so much power and money, they actually bought Guatemala's communication systems, railroad, ports, and much of its land, in many ways taking over what were once government-operated systems. This foreign dominance continued through the 1940s as Guatemala improved economically, however lost control over its country in the process.

In 1944 the people revolted against their current dictator, one in a long line of dictatorships as a communist-leaning organization overthrew their dictator, General Jorge Ubico. However, Ubico managed to replace three of his generals in his stead, an act that didn't sit well with the revolutionaries, leading to a second military coup and new leadership once again. This coup however was only intended to overthrow the military leadership and once that task was completed, the military stepped aside and allowed for free elections in 1945; the first in the country's history.

Despite positive improvements, these freedoms only lasted for about ten years and in the early 1950s political arguments and power struggles began again. These battles were primarily between the indigenous people and the mestizos (combination of Native American and European) regarding social standing and economics. The reactions the government made to these protests were brutal as massacres were done to prove power. When changes were made it came at the expense of foreign investors, whose land was taken from them in order to redistribute, giving the government no true allies domestically or abroad.

These actions took the country in a direction towards communism and neither the people nor the country's former foreign investors viewed this as positive, perhaps due to the United States investing money in marketing campaigns in the country. The people did eventually fight the government and their president, Jacobo Arbenz stepped down in 1954.

The new government did little to comfort the people and in 1960 civil war broke out in Guatemala. This war involved foreign powers once more as the United States supported the current government and Cuba supported a communist faction. More than these two groups though were dozens of groups as both the extreme left and right fought the current status of the country. More importantly, the indigenous population was suppressed and many of these people were killed by both side of the battle as later many accusations of genocide were made. These battled ended in 1966 when Julio Cesar Mendez Montenegro took over the presidency and began a battle to wipe out any remaining insurgency groups. Although he maintained political power, the violence in the country continued for years.

Through the 1970s and early 1980s the government was controlled by military dictators who had rigged elections and hand-picked their successors. In the early 1980s General Efrain Rios Montt, who had taken over as a compromise candidate started local civilian defense patrols to fight the insurgents. This essentially created government organized militias as any insurgent or government protestor was killed without trial throughout the country. It did accomplish what Montt had hoped, it ended most of the insurgent activities.

In 1983 Montt was overthrown and by 1986 a democratically elected government was installed. This, and following governments were strife with corruption though and little progress was made until 1994 when the congress resigned and a new election took place. In 1996 a peace was signed between the parties who had been fighting since 1960 and things settled down.

Since 1996 Guatemala has made slow progress as educational and infrastructural changes have been slow to be implemented and political conflicts continue, but now being fought through words, not weapons. Additionally, the country has become a transit point for the drug trafficking trade moving from South America to North America, particularly the United States and Canada.

This page was last updated: March, 2013