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History, Independence

Rafael Carrera, Morazan, liberal reforms, Gabino, opposing factions

Captain General Jose de Bustamante ruled the Kingdom of Guatemala from 1811 to 1818 and repressed all moves toward independence, maintaining the region’s loyalty to Spain. After the French were defeated in Spain in 1814, King Ferdinand VII was restored to the throne and tried to reassert absolute royal power. In 1820, however, a revolt in Spain restored the constitution of 1812. Spirited local election campaigns followed in Central America, opening a period of intense political rivalry between emerging liberal and conservative factions of the elite.

Guatemala gained independence from Spain without the wars that ravaged much of Latin America. In 1821 Mexico proclaimed itself an independent empire, led by General Agustin de Iturbide. On September 15, 1821, a council of notables in Guatemala City declared independence from Spain and formed a government that assumed jurisdiction over the entire kingdom, keeping the acting captain general, Gabino de Gainza, as the chief executive. Yet individual municipalities throughout the region, from Chiapas to Costa Rica, also assumed the right to act on their own, and several declared independence not only from Spain, but from Mexico and Guatemala as well. The government in Guatemala, dominated by the Honduran lawyer and scholar Jose Cecilio del Valle, quickly moved to incorporate the kingdom into Iturbide’s Mexican Empire in January 1822. Resistance from the provinces soon erupted into civil war, but before the issue was decided, Iturbide’s government collapsed. A Central American convention declared Central America independent on July 1, 1823, and formed the United Provinces of Central America, a federation that included Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua.

Dissension plagued the federation. Member states strongly resented the Guatemalan commercial and bureaucratic elite, which had wielded power over them throughout the colonial era. In addition, the elite class was divided into liberal and conservative factions, which fought over government power, economic policies, and the role of the Roman Catholic Church in society. The first federal president, Manuel Jose Arce of El Salvador, resigned in 1827 after only two years in office, as civil war broke out between the opposing factions. By 1827 Guatemalan conservatives had seized control of both the Guatemalan state and federal governments, but in 1829 liberal forces commanded by Honduran General Francisco Morazan took Guatemala City. Under Morazan’s presidency (1830-1840) the federation launched liberal reforms and moved the national capital from Guatemala City to San Salvador.

Morazan and other liberals advocated capitalism and republican government and wanted to limit the power of the clergy, while conservatives supported a strong church, traditional landowners, and highly autonomous states. Morazan instituted liberal policies that were pushed even further at the state level by Guatemalan Governor Mariano Galvez. These measures took land from the church, indigenous people, and rural communities and turned it over to private owners and foreign investors for commercial agriculture. Liberal officials also made major changes in the educational systems, encouraged foreign immigration, and introduced trial by jury and other judicial innovations, replacing traditional Spanish legal practices. These actions alienated large sectors of the Guatemalan clergy, legal profession, and rural peasants, who were angered by the loss of their land and attacks on their priests. When a cholera epidemic spread misery throughout Guatemala in 1837, spontaneous revolts began to occur.

Rafael Carrera, a former army officer who had fought in the 1827-1829 civil war, led the peasants in a successful guerrilla war. Carrera held staunch conservative views, supporting the church and advocating states’ rights against federal authority. He toppled Galvez, the governor of Guatemala, in 1838. Then, as the federation began to disintegrate, he defeated its president, Morazan, in March 1840, effectively ending the United Provinces. From then until his death in 1865, Carrera dominated Guatemala, ruling almost as a dictator.

Under Carrera’s highly conservative rule, Guatemala formally declared itself a sovereign republic in 1847. The Catholic clergy regained much of its power, and foreign influence declined. By imposing stability and order on the country, the regime brought modest economic growth and began developing the country’s roads and other infrastructure. First cochineal, a dye derived from insects, and later coffee became major exports, tying Guatemala’s economy closely to Britain and its Central American trading center at Belize. Carrera’s military power also influenced events in neighboring states. Carrera intervened several times in the internal politics of El Salvador and Honduras, and in 1857 Guatemalan troops played a major part in ousting a U.S. adventurer, William Walker, from power in Nicaragua.



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