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Guatemalan Independence

Guatemala declared independence from Spain in 1821. After a brief period of annexation to Mexico, it was part of the Federation of Central American nations, which included Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Guatemalan independence was effectively achieved in 1840, when the guerilla movement led by Rafael Carrera, a peasant of mixed Spanish and indigenous ancestry, defeated the forces of Francisco Morazán, president of the federation. Carrera's presidency was conservative and backed by the clergy, as well as landowners.

President Justo Rufino Barrios Auyón, a leading coffee grower, began an era of liberalism in 1873. His government established freedom of religion and compulsory education, but it also confiscated ecclesiastic lands to create a private real estate market. In 1877 the Regulations Governing Day Laborers were enacted, which forced highland Maya into seasonal labor on coffee plantations.

In 1898, Manuel Estrada Cabrera became president. The following year, the U.S.-owned United Fruit Company was established, which dominated banana production in Central America and influenced Guatemalan government policy. Estrada Cabrera ruled until 1920. Over the next decade, workers organized, and the "Indian problem" became a topic of public discussion. In 1931, Jorge Ubico assumed the presidency, ruling with dictatorial force. His overthrow in 1945 began a period of free speech and land reforms.

Under President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, the government authorized the redistribution of large tracts of private land, prompting the CIA-backed coup d’état in 1954. The tragic Civil War of 1960–1996 grew out of a grass-roots response to the military dictatorship that established itself after that coup. Violence claimed the lives of 200,000 mostly Maya people. Maya have given witness to the terror through narratives: Victor Montejo, Testimony: Death of a Guatemalan Village (1987); and Rigoberta Menchú, winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala (1984).