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Constitutional Limits on Government: Country Studies - Guatemala

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2010: 3 Political Rights, 4 Civil Liberties (Partly Free)


Guatemala is a small country in Central America—ranked 106th in the world by area at 109,000 square kilometers—located immediately south of Mexico. Its population of about 13 million, like Bolivia's (see Country Study of Bolivia), includes a large, rural Amerindian contingent, but the indigenous population is not well integrated into the political and economic elite. Economically, the country ranks in the world's upper half in overall nominal GDP, at 69th with $35 billion in 2006. But it remains in the lower half in nominal per capita GNI, at 122nd with $2,640 per year. By PPP measurements, that figure rises to $4,800, but the world ranking drops to 135th. Guatemala's PPP GDP in 2006 was ranked 69th at $62 billion.


Guatemala was home to some of the most ancient civilizations in the Americas, but the Spanish conquest was particularly severe and complete, enslaving most of the subdivided Mayan nations. From the time it established itself as an independent republic in 1839, Guatemala was ruled mostly by dictators who often allowed foreign companies to dominate the economy and agriculture. A popular revolution in 1944 introduced universal suffrage and land reform, but a U.S.-coordinated coup in 1954 overthrew the elected government and began 30 years of right-wing military rule, during which counterinsurgency campaigns killed tens of thousands of people and dispossessed many communities of indigenous farmers. After a coup in 1984, a constituent assembly drafted a new constitution, initiating a period of more democratic governance.

From the time it established itself as an independent republic in 1839, Guatemala was ruled mostly by dictators who often allowed foreign companies to dominate the economy and


Guatemala was a central part of the Mayan civilization, and its territory contains some of the richest archaeological sites in the world. Originally inhabited between 18,000 and 10,000 BC, Guatemala saw the beginnings of the Mayan and nearby Olmec civilizations around 1500 BC. The Mayan civilization flourished between AD 300 and 900, though one of Guatemala's most significant archaeological sites, El Mirador, reached its peak several centuries earlier. The complex is thought to have formed the largest city in the ancient Americas, and its pyramid structures rival those of Egypt in overall size. The Mayan civilization declined after the 10th century, with the large city-states and population centers dissipating into smaller settlements, but many aspects of Mayan language and culture remained dominant among the Amerindian nations that inhabited the region in the succeeding centuries.

Spanish Conquest: The General Captaincy of Guatemala

The Spanish conquest of Guatemala beginning in 1523 was led by Pedro de Alvarado, a lieutenant sent by the conqueror of Mexico, Hernan Cortes. Alvarado, with a small force of Spanish troops supported by many Amerindian allies, defeated or co-opted the divided polities and peoples of Central America and initiated the destruction of remnants of Mayan civilization. The entire region between southeastern Mexico and Panama was placed under the captaincy general of Guatemala for nearly three centuries. The current capital, Guatemala City, was founded in 1776 after earlier capitals were destroyed by earthquakes.

Spanish conquest meant the introduction of a dominant class of Spanish settlers, who were given control of the land and authority to subjugate all rural inhabitants, and the exploitation of natural resources through slave labor (see also the Country Study of Bolivia, and the Country Study of Venezuela). Roman Catholicism was imposed as the dominant religion. Nevertheless, Mayan culture survived in clandestine practice over centuries and remains an important part of Guatemalan society.

Independence, Unity, and Strongman Rule

After independence from Spain in 1821, the captaincy general of Guatemala became part of the short-lived Mexican Empire under Agustin de Iturbide. It then separated to form the United Provinces of Central America, including present-day Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. But the federation dissolved in a civil war, and Guatemala was effectively an independent republic by 1839, under the dictatorship of General Rafael Carrera. He ruled with the support of the most important colonial power brokers, landowners and the Catholic Church, until his death in 1865.

Carrera set the pattern for strongman rule in Guatemala, although some change came after the liberal revolution of 1871. One of the leaders of the movement, Justo Rufino Barrios, assumed the presidency in 1873 and took steps to curb the power of the old landowning class and the church. He introduced a new constitution and secular education, and sought to modernize the economy, partly through coffee cultivation. However, Barrios's attempts to reconstitute a Central American federation by force led to his death in a battle in El Salvador in 1885.

The long presidencies of Manuel Estrada Cabrera (1898–1920) and General Jorge Ubico (1931–44) dominated Guatemalan politics in the first half of the 20th century. They followed previous rulers in institutionalizing authoritarian rule and attracting extensive foreign agricultural investment to develop the Guatemalan economy. During this period, particularly under Ubico, the country's fiscal situation improved even as individual liberties were increasingly suppressed.

The 1944 Revolution

A general strike in June 1944 forced Ubico's resignation, and a further popular revolt supported by dissident army officers ousted his chosen successor in October. The interim military leaders, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman and Francisco Javier Arana, ceded power in 1945 to a civilian president, Juan Jose Arevalo, who had won a largely uncontested election. Arevalo introduced universal suffrage, initial land reform efforts, and labor reforms that benefited workers and trade unions. Arevalo's challenge to the old order resulted in fierce conservative opposition and accusations that he was a Communist. Nevertheless, he served until the end of his term in 1951.

The Arbenz Presidency and the 1954 Coup

Arbenz won what was arguably the first free election in Guatemala's history and succeeded Arevalo in 1951. Influenced by socialist ideas, he oversaw the passage of a major agrarian reform law, allowing the seizure and redistribution of large estates that were not being cultivated. The move was welcomed by the country's many impoverished peasants, but it represented a serious threat to the U.S.-based United Fruit Company, which had built up huge landholdings since the turn of the century. Arbenz's cooperation with local Communists also fed U.S. fears that Guatemala could eventually ally itself with the Soviet Union. In 1954, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency sponsored an invasion by right-wing exiles, compelling Arbenz to resign and leave the country (see the Country Study of Cuba, and the Country Study of Chile). The leader of the U.S.-backed force, Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, was installed as the new president.

The Coup's Bloody Aftermath

Although Castillo Armas was assassinated in 1957, the coup in which he took power marked the beginning of a 30-year period of strongman rule, military dictatorship, and a brutal civil war that broke out in 1960. Counterinsurgency campaigns designed to crush the guerrilla movements that arose at that time are estimated to have caused at least 200,000 deaths. The leftist insurgency also carried out mass executions and forced recruitment of youths, keeping parts of the country in a state of terror. The terrible excesses of government forces led U.S. President Jimmy Carter to cut off military aid in 1977, but it was resumed under President Ronald Reagan.

From Coup to Democracy

A 1982 coup by junior officers and army troops brought the religiously charismatic General Efrain Rios Montt to power. He assumed dictatorial authority and used it to carry out an especially bloody counterinsurgency campaign. But General Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores overthrew Rios Montt in August 1983, pledging to restore democratic rule. Constituent assembly elections were held in 1984, and the constitution drafted by the body was approved the following year. Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo, the candidate of the reformist Christian Democratic Party, won a presidential election in December 1985 and took office in January with strong popular expectations and backing from the United States and other democratic countries.

Constitutional Limits

Since independence, Guatemala has had a history of weak constitutional controls and strong presidential rule. The 1985 constitution, designed to correct those problems, limits the president to one four-year term and requires a runoff election if no presidential candidate obtains a majority in the first round, instead of allowing Congress to determine the winner. The 158-member unicameral Congress also has a four-year mandate. A human rights ombudsman is empowered to investigate violations of the constitution's guaranteed freedoms, and a Constitutional Court serves as the final arbiter of disputes involving the charter. Still, the rule of law remains weak in Guatemala, and the country's legacy of violence continues to undermine public security.

The Constitution Is Tested

The first president to be elected under the new constitution, Cerezo, fell short of expectations as the economy declined, his peace efforts failed, and human rights investigations of the military stalled. Jorge Serrano Elias, a businessman running as the candidate of the right-wing Movement of Solidarity Action (MAS), received a strong majority in the second round of presidential elections in 1991. However, Serrano became unpopular due to his economic austerity measures, and he suddenly tested Guatemala's new democracy by dissolving Congress and assuming dictatorial powers in 1993. But this time, the military sided with the citizenry and the Constitutional Court, and Serrano was obliged to resign and leave the country. The human rights ombudsman, Ramiro de Leon Carpio, was elected by Congress to complete the presidential term, in keeping with the constitution.

...the rule of law remains weak in Guatemala, and the country's legacy of violence continues to undermine public security.

De Leon Carpio immediately set out on a mission to end corruption, asking all members of the Congress and Supreme Court to resign and pushing through a number of reforms. A new Congress was elected in 1994 to complete the old body's term. With United Nations assistance, de Leon Carpio also reinitiated peace talks with the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union (URNG), which had kept up a weakened guerrilla insurgency despite the introduction of democracy. De Leon Carpio's successor, Alvaro Arzu Irigoyen of the center-right National Advancement Party (PAN), finalized the peace accord with the URNG in 1996. It agreed to reconstitute itself as a political party but failed to win substantial voter support.

A Second Test

In 2003, Rios Montt, bolstered by his party's majority position in Congress, instigated violent street demonstrations in Guatemala City and successfully pressured the Constitutional Court to allow him to run for president, despite a constitutional ban on anyone who had participated in a coup. The court's decision was widely criticized by the public. In the end, though, he garnered only a fraction of the vote in that year's election and failed to advance to the runoff. The winner was Oscar Berger Perdomo of the Great National Alliance (GANA). In the same elections, GANA edged out Rios Montt's Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) as the leading party in Congress.


After a difficult history of coups, military dictatorship, and insurgency, Guatemala has emerged as a democracy in which constitutional limits have prevented the arrogation of power by would-be dictators. The 1985 constitution has proven to be more stable than previous charters. Nevertheless, Guatemala continues to grapple with serious challenges. While the country's democratic institutions have successfully fended off a major coup attempt and the return of a military ruler, persistent problems including corruption, impunity for rights abuses, criminal violence, and incompetent governance threaten Guatemala's political stability.