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History, Revolution of 1871

Guatemala money, Justo Rufino Barrios, Miguel Garcia Granados, Manuel Estrada Cabrera, UFCO

Carrera’s handpicked successor, General Vicente Cerna, continued conservative rule until 1871, when a liberal revolution headed by Miguel Garcia Granados and Justo Rufino Barrios defeated Cerna’s army. This ushered in a period of liberal rule in Guatemala, led by a series of strong dictators that continued until 1944. Under these liberal leaders, Guatemala’s economy grew substantially, largely from exports of coffee and other crops. This development was accompanied by major social and political changes; the gap between wealthy growers and rural laborers grew larger, and laws were passed to create a more secular state.

After Garcia Granados served briefly as president, Barrios was elected in 1873. He became Guatemala’s first liberal dictator and the model for those who followed him, driven by a philosophy that emphasized order, science, and progress. Ruling until 1885, Barrios focused on economic growth rather than political liberalism, encouraging foreign investment and expansion of the coffee industry. He represented the coffee-growing interests of the western highlands, and he chose members of leading families from Quetzaltenango to fill important government and military posts, replacing powerful officials from Guatemala City. Coffee exports soared, bringing Guatemala money to build roads, ports, and railroads. Guatemala City and Quetzaltenango became modern cities, with paved streets and impressive new buildings, sewage systems, and parks. However, coffee plantations took communal land from native people, whom the government viewed principally as inexpensive labor for expanding coffee production. Rural residents were forced to work on government projects, and many who lost their land migrated to cities, becoming poorly paid laborers. A middle class also began to form in the expanding cities.

Barrios sharply limited the power of the Roman Catholic Church, passing laws that abolished the tithe, confiscated church property, and greatly reduced the number of clergy in the country. He welcomed Protestant missionaries, established civil marriage and divorce, and made the University of San Carlos into a secular national university. He also established a system of public schools, but this mainly benefited middle- and upper-class citizens in the cities. Illiteracy remained very high among rural Guatemalans, who often lost their only source of education when local priests were forced to leave.

In foreign relations, Barrios settled boundary disputes with Mexico, which had aided his revolution, by granting to Mexico most of the land it claimed in Chiapas. He also renewed conflict with Britain over its claim of sovereignty over Belize. Barrios revived Francisco Morazan’s dream of a Central American union, which had failed 45 years earlier. Barrios tried to reunite the region’s independent nations as a single federation by military force. This provoked war with El Salvador, and in 1885 Barrios was killed and the Guatemalan forces were defeated during a battle at Chalchuapa, El Salvador.

Liberal policies and the growth of coffee exports continued under Barrios’s successors: General Manuel Lisandro Barillas, who was president from 1885 to 1892, and Barrios’s nephew, Jose Reina Barrios, elected president in 1892. When Reina Barrios was assassinated in 1898, another liberal leader from Quetzaltenango, Manuel Estrada Cabrera, became president. Estrada Cabrera remained in power for 22 years, one of the longest reigns of any Central American leader. His rule was marked by expansion of the export economy, corruption, and political repression.

Under Estrada Cabrera bananas became an important export crop in Guatemala, controlled mostly by the United Fruit Company (UFCO), which was owned by U.S. interests. United Fruit developed banana plantations in the lowlands on both coasts of Guatemala and built a railway from Puerto Barrios, Guatemala’s principal banana port on the Caribbean, to Guatemala City. It also built rail lines linking the coffee-producing regions to ports on both coasts and to Mexico and El Salvador. Guatemalan liberals had wanted such transportation, ports, and other facilities for decades, but with these benefits came greater foreign control over Guatemala’s economy. Many Guatemalans resented United Fruit, as well as the German immigrants who had begun to dominate the coffee industry.

Expanding exports benefited the small elite and growing middle class in Guatemala City, but the majority of Guatemala’s people gained little from coffee and bananas. Meanwhile, Estrada Cabrera built a fortune for himself from public funds, while using the army and a secret police force to eliminate any dissent. By 1918 opposition to his rule was growing in the capital city, among business leaders, military officers, intellectuals, and some students. Several assassination plots failed, but in April 1920 he was removed from office by the army and the national assembly, which charged that he was mentally incompetent.

A new Unionist Party, under the presidency of businessman Carlos Herrera, took over the government, but within a year army generals affiliated with the Liberal Party once more ruled Guatemala. For the next decade, under Generals Jose M. Orellana (1921-1926) and Lazaro Chacon (1926-1930), Guatemala enjoyed some political freedom as the export-led economy continued to grow. Labor unions began to organize in the capital, and the press exercised more freedom than it had since the 1830s. But the coffee elite continued to dominate the country, with the support of the army. They feared a violent revolution against them, similar to the Mexican Revolution that had begun in 1910, so they continued to repress radical political movements and serious efforts by the working class to gain a role in politics.

The Great Depression, the worldwide economic collapse of the 1930s, brought severe economic decline to Guatemala. Coffee exports dropped from $34 million in 1927 to $9.3 million in 1932, and banana exports also declined, although not as dramatically. Amid the worsening economic conditions, another Liberal general, Jorge Ubico Castaneda, took office as president in February 1931. Ubico remained in power until 1944, and became known both for improving the country’s infrastructure and imposing repressive military rule.

Alarmed by a Communist-led rural revolt in El Salvador in 1932, Ubico purged leftists in politics and labor, branding all opponents as Communists and executing or exiling many of them. His allies were wealthy coffee planters and the United Fruit Company. Ubico cultivated popularity among poor rural citizens by visiting the countryside and distributing gifts and favors. In 1934 he abolished debt peonage, a system of forced labor, but replaced it with a similar vagrancy law, assuring planters a supply of cheap rural workers. The poor also were forced to work on Ubico’s extensive program of public projects, which included roads, public buildings, and other facilities. His large network of roads and telegraph lines helped to link parts of the country that had been isolated. He reduced local autonomy, especially in indigenous communities, as he centralized power in Guatemala City and in his departmental chiefs.

Ubico maintained good relations with both U.S. and German business interests in Guatemala, and he openly admired the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany. But he recognized that Guatemala’s geographic position made its relations with the United States critical, and when the United States entered World War II in 1941, Guatemala became the first Latin American country to follow the United States in declaring war on Germany. Ubico quickly collaborated with U.S. officials in interning and seizing the property of many German Guatemalans who were accused of Nazi sympathies.

Ubico faced growing opposition in the 1940s from university students and middle-class political groups, who demanded democratic reforms. Street demonstrations and violence spread, and in July 1944 Ubico, in ill health, was forced to step down. General Jorge Ponce Vaides became president, but on October 20, 1944, a group of military officers and civilians forced him to resign and formed a junta to govern until new elections could be held.



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