Destination: Guatemala

Official Name: Republic of Guatemala
Established: 15 September 1821 (Independence from Spain),  1 July 1823 (Independence from Mexico)
Population: 17,263,239 (2018 estimate)
Religion: 45% Catholic, 42% Protestant, 11% No religion
Language(s): Spanish
Capital: Guatemala City
Order of Visit: Forty-Sixth 
First Visit: 05 January 2013
Last Visit: 14 January 2013 
Duration: 10 Days
Visit Highlights:
 Antigua: Exploring the old city, fun shopping in the Zocalo, pimped out Chicken buses
 Chichicastenango: Handicraft market
– Flores:
 Exploring the massive and impressive Tikal Ruins (Tikal National Park), cruising Lake Petén Itzá
 Panajachel: Surreal and stunning sunset, cruising Lake Atitlán
 San Juan: Public artworks, Piñata fun, excited children, staying with a local family. 
 Rio Dulce: Exploring the area by kayaking, howler monkeys, enjoying the hot springs, boat tour to Livingstone, visiting a volunteer school 
Places Visited
: Antigua, Chichicastenango, Flores, Panajachel, Rio Dulce, San Juan 
Guatemala Journal Entries  

History and Geography 
Covering 108,889 square kilometres Guatemala is a country in Central America bordered by Mexico to the north and west, Belize and the Caribbean to the northeast, Honduras to the east, El Salvador to the southeast and the Pacific Ocean to the south.

The first evidence of human habitation in Guatemala dates to 12,000 BC. There is archaeological proof that early Guatemalan settlers were hunter-gatherers.

The core of the Maya civilization, which extended across Mesoamerica, was historically based in the territory of modern Guatemala and lasted until around 900 AD.

The Post-Maya period resulted in regional kingdoms including the Itza, Kowoj, Yalain and Kejache in Petén, and the Mam, Ki’che’, Kackchiquel, Chajoma, Tz’utujil, Poqomchi’, Q’eqchi’ and Ch’orti’ peoples in the highlands. These Kingdom preserved many aspects of Maya culture. 

The Spanish started several expeditions to Guatemala, beginning in 1519. Before long, Spanish contact resulted in an epidemic that devastated native populations. During the colonial period, Guatemala was an audiencia, a captaincy-general of Spain, and a part of New Spain (Mexico).

On 15 September 1821, the Captaincy General of Guatemala, an administrative region of the Spanish Empire consisting of Chiapas, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Honduras, officially proclaimed its independence from Spain. Independence from Spain was gained, and the Captaincy General of Guatemala joined the First Mexican Empire under Agustin de Itubide.

Under the First Empire, Mexico reached its greatest territorial extent, stretching from northern California to the provinces of Central America (excluding Panama, which was then part of Colombia).  On 21 March 1847, Guatemala declared itself an independent republic.

The Great Depression beginning in 1929 badly damaged the Guatemalan economy, causing a rise in unemployment, and leading to unrest among workers and laborers. Afraid of a popular revolt, the Guatemalan landed elite supported Jorge Ubico, who was known for “efficiency and cruelty” as a provincial governor. Ubico won the 1931 election as the only candidate. After his election his policies quickly became authoritarian. He replaced the system of debt peonage with a brutally enforced vagrancy law, requiring all men of working age who did not own land to work a minimum of 100 days of hard labor.  His government used unpaid Indian labour to build roads and railways. Ubico also froze wages at very low levels, and passed a law allowing land-owners complete immunity from prosecution for any action they took to defend their property effectively legalising murder.

Ubico made massive concessions to the United Fruit Company, often at a cost to Guatemala. He granted the company 200,000 hectares of public land in exchange for a promise to build a port, a promise he later waived. The United Fruit Company expanded its land-holdings by displacing farmers and converting their farmland to banana plantations causing a lot of unrest.

On 1 July 1944 Ubico was forced to resign from the presidency in response to a wave of protests and a general strike inspired by brutal labour conditions among plantation workers.   His chosen replacement, General Juan Federico Ponce Vaides, was forced out of office on 20 October 1944 by a coup d’état led by Major Francisco Javier Arana and Captain Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán. About 100 people were killed in the coup. The country was then led by a military junta.

The junta organized Guatemala’s first free election, which the philosophically conservative writer and teacher Juan José Arévalo won.   Arévalo built new health centres, increased funding for education, and drafted a more liberal labor law, while criminalizing unions in workplaces with less than 500 workers, and cracking down on communists. Although Arévalo was popular among nationalists, he had enemies in the church and the military, and faced at least 25 coup attempts during his presidency.

Despite their popularity within the country, the reforms of the Guatemalan Revolution were disliked by the United States government, which was predisposed by the Cold War to see it as communist, and the United Fruit Company (UFCO), whose hugely profitable business had been affected by the end to brutal labour practices. 

Eisenhower authorised the CIA to carry out Operation PBSuccess in August 1953. The CIA armed, funded, and trained an invasion force led by Carlos Castillo Armas.  The force invaded Guatemala on 18 June 1954, backed by a heavy campaign of psychological warfare, including bombings of Guatemala City and an anti-Árbenz radio station claiming to be genuine news. While the invasion force fared poorly the psychological warfare and the possibility of a U.S. invasion intimidated the Guatemalan army, which refused to fight. Árbenz resigned on 27 June 1954.  

Carlos Castillo Armas became President on 7 July 1954. Elections were held in early October, from which all political parties were barred from participating. Castillo Armas was the only candidate and won the election with 99% of the vote and reversed most of the previous Government policies.

In 1963, the Government called an election, which permitted Arevalo to return from exile and run. However, a coup from within the military, backed by the Kennedy Administration, prevented the election from taking place, and forestalled a likely victory for Arevalo. The new régime intensified the campaign of terror.

Military advisers from the United States Army Special Forces (Green Berets) were sent to Guatemala to train troops and help transform the army into a modern counter-insurgency force used against para military groups and general population.

The 1970s saw the rise of two new guerrilla organizations, the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP) and the Organization of the People in Arms (ORPA). They began guerrilla attacks that included urban and rural warfare, mainly against the military and some civilian supporters of the army. The army and the paramilitary forces responded with a brutal counter-insurgency campaign that resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths.  In 1979, the U.S. president, Jimmy Carter, who had been providing public support for the government forces, ordered a ban on all military aid to the Guatemalan Army because of its widespread and systematic abuse of human rights.

In 1982 and General Efraín Ríos Montt was named President of the military junta. He continued the bloody campaign of torture, forced disappearances, and “scorched earth” warfare. The country became a pariah state internationally, although the regime received considerable support from the Reagan Administration.

The Guatemalan Civil War ended in 1996 with a peace accord between the guerrillas and the government, negotiated by the United Nations through intense brokerage by nations such as Norway and Spain. Both sides made major concessions. The guerrilla fighters disarmed and received land to work. The U.N.-sponsored truth commission found that government forces and state-sponsored, CIA-trained paramilitaries were responsible for over 93% of the human rights violations during the war.

Since the peace accords Guatemala has had both economic growth and successive democratic elections.  Distrust of the USA remains high after their multiple interventions and support for regimes that killed many citizens.

Tikal Ruins – Tikal National Park, Guatemala (Taken 5 January 2013)

Kayaking fun – Rio Dulce, Guatemala (Taken 7 January 2013)

Chicken Bus – Antigua, Guatemala (Taken 9 January 2013)

Stunning sunset – Panajachel, Guatemala (Taken 10 January 2013)

Piñata fun – San Juan, Guatemala (Taken 11 January 2013)

What I experienced
Few countries in Central America have been scarred and suffered as much from outside interventions in the fight against ‘communism’ or really in this case the right to exploit a countries resources.   Guatemala remains a poor country which is still recovering from those days.  Crime is high in certain areas and I could see many locals giving harsh daily lives especially seeing children abandoned to a volunteer school as their parents could not support them.

Despite this I also saw and experienced some happy locals and some villages with a big community spirit especially in San Juan.  The landscape is stunning, forests everywhere and impressive lakes.  The Maya ruins are definitely worth a visit as well.  

Guatemala can a bit rustic and the infrastructure sometimes fails but it’s well worth a visit, the sunset I experienced at Panajachel was the best I’ve ever seen.

Countries Visited List

Magnificent – Lake Atitlán, Guatemala (Taken 12 January 2013)

About Nathan

A World traveller who has so far experienced 71 countries (76 by June 2023) in this amazing world.
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