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date: 17 October 2019

Summary and Keywords

Guatemala is one of the most complicated countries in the Latin American region, especially because of the interethnic dimensions of its historical processes. Its history goes back 35,000 years, when the territory was first populated. Thereafter, it saw the development of the most advanced culture in the Americas: The Maya civilization.

No less interesting is its colonial history. The years of the war of conquest and the centuries of colonial rule by the Spaniards are the very matrix in which all of the complicated ethnic differences among its peoples originated. These differences give an ethnic face to the economic, political, social, and cultural powers and events in everyday life.

The name Criollos (Creole) was given to the sons and grandsons of Spaniards born in the Americas. The formation of a Creole or Criollo motherland in the hearts and minds of the descendants of the conquistadors quickly developed because of the feudal land ownership imposed by the invaders, which provided the Criollos with a love of private property. Land ownership disputes among the Criollo elites gave way to wars that led to a failed attempt at Central American unity by liberals against the conservative forces representing the interests of the Catholic Church in matters of state. In the end, a liberal “modernity” was imposed, but this modernity contained a basic contradiction that remains alive to this day: A feudal land tenure as the basis of a supposed democratic liberal state that, oddly enough, often took the form of military dictatorships.

The impossibility of modernity characterizes the Guatemalan 20th century. An authoritarian state and army represented the oligarchic Criollo power throughout the first four decades of that century until a civic and military movement overthrew the dictator in charge, General Jorge Ubico. Democracy was established, thus modernizing the state and all public affairs, and the foundations of a “democratic Capitalism” (as President Jacobo Arbenz called it in his inauguration speech) were laid through a land reform affecting only public lands and buying private non-cultivated properties at a fair market price. In the midst of the Cold War, this meant defiance against the U.S. government. In 1954, the CIA, the local oligarchy, the Catholic Church hierarchy, and a faction of the National Army, perpetrated a coup d’état that ended Guatemala’s path toward real economic, political, and cultural modernity. The country went back to where it was: Oligarchic and military rule and the overexploitation of the landless campesino workforce, especially in the indigenous communities of Maya ascent.

In the early 1960s Guatemalans experienced the emergence of a guerrilla socialist movement inspired by the Cuban revolution that unleashed a war that lasted 36 years until peace accords were signed in 1996 by a militarily defeated guerrilla force and a triumphant National Army. This “peace” was the local requisite imposed by the corporate transnational capital on the local oligarchy to install a neoliberal regime in the country. Immediately after the peace accords were signed, the oligarchic government of Álvaro Arzú began to privatize public assets like the electric and telephone companies. The effect on the popular sectors and the middle class was devastating. The state abandoned its development plans, and this responsibility was shifted to international funding agencies. The resultant non-governmental organizations (NGOs) began to call themselves “civil society” and still do today. This simulacrum of a civil society was composed by well-funded groups of ex–left-wing militants and sympathizers that soon embraced and advanced issues related to multiculturalism, following the international agenda of the funding agencies. Class struggle was totally abandoned by these politically correct NGOs, which soon became “new social movements.”

Public powers were absorbed by illegal private powers now in association with drug trafficking and many other forms of organized crime. Neoliberalism became the national economic paradigm. And when public corruption was incontrollable, the United States intervened, waging a “struggle against corruption and impunity” that led to a “color revolution” and a soft coup d’état in 2015.

Keywords: Mayas, Quichés, Criollos, Ladinos, ethnicity, colonization, feudalism, capitalism, communism, socialism, post-modernity, neoliberalism, color revolution, Latin American politics

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