History of Guatemala

From even before its colonial beginnings in the 1520s to today, the Central American nation of Guatemala has had a rich, tumultuous, and intriguing history.

1523-12-09 00:00:00

Spanish Colonization

A small, powerful Spanish elite turns Guatemala into a Spanish colony, and begins to exploit the indigenous Mayan people for money, power, labor, and land.

1839-12-01 00:00:00


Guatemala becomes fully independent. Though no longer under control of the Spanish crown, Spanish descendents maintain control and inequality barely shifts.

1944-12-01 00:00:00

Democratic Spring

The harsh and militaristic ruler Jorge Ubico is overthrown, and Guatemala enters into a "Democratic Spring." Under the presidencies of Juan Jose Arevalo and Jacabo Arbenz, a sweeping social-democratic reform agenda is pursued, promoting economic independence, modern capitalism, and improvements in living standards.

1954-12-01 00:00:00


In a coup backed by the United States and commanded by Guatemalan exile Castillo Armas, the democratically-elected Arbenz is overthrown. Armas declares himself president, reversing the reform initiatives of the Democratic Spring, and setting the stage for Guatemala's brutal civil war.

1960-12-01 00:00:00

Civil War

Prompted by the 1954 US-led coup and by the fierce inequality between the rich and poor, rebel insurgent groups take arms against the military government. The government brutally represses the revolution, massacring indigenous Mayans and destroyed entire villages.

1994-12-01 00:00:00

Peace talks

Peace talks occur between the government and guerilla insurgents. Rebels declare a cease-fire and the United States stops providing military and economic aid to the Guatemalan army. In 1996, the Civil War official ends with the signing of a peace treaty.

1999-12-01 00:00:00

human rights violations revealed

The UN-backed Commission for Historical Clarification declares that Guatemalan security forces were responsible for 93% of human rights atrocities committed during the Civil War, which resulted in over 200,000 deaths. In March, US President Bill Clinton formally apologizes to Guatemalans for the United States' role in the war.

2011-12-31 00:00:00


Guatemalans - especially indigenous Guatemalans - continue to face high levels of violence, inequality, poverty, and corruption. Twelve years after the end of the Civil War, little progress has been made towards promoting accountability and bringing human rights perpetrators to justice.

History of Guatemala

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