Pedro Alvarado, the first Spanish invader in Guatemala, arrived in the early 1520s. Accompanying him were smallpox, influenza, and the bubonic plague. Up to one-third of the population of the highlands area died during this first epidemic alone. Other epidemics followed in 1545-1548 and 1576-1581. The disruption of the economic and social life due to disease alone was horrific.
Guatemalan historian Severo Martinez Palaez sums up the colonial period as a “regimen of terror for the Indians.” He writes, “What we must recognize [is that the cruel treatment of the Indians was not a sporadic phenomenon, but…inherent in the social structures of the colony, absolutely necessary to maintain subjected to incredible forms of exploitation a mass of serfs with enormous numerical superiority.” (Handy, 14-15)
The Killers: Disease, War and Economics
Illustration of the encomienda system
Disease and war took their toll on the indigenous population during the first years of contact with the Spaniards. The economic systems that the Europeans established were equally devastating. The encomienda and repartimiento systems that prevailed in Peru, Bolivia, and Chile were also fundamental to Guatemala. Spanish wealth depended upon the exploited labor of the indigenous population.
The native-born Spaniards would not allow criollos, Spaniards born in Guatemala, to have any jobs other than that of corregidor, or managers of the estates. The tyranny and oppressive behavior of the corregadores was notorious throughout Guatemala. They robbed and exploited the indigenous population and became the objects of numerous revolts.
By 1750, attempts by the indigenous population to reclaim their communal practices and Mayan religion led to a number of revolts in outlying villages. The Catholic Church responded by trying to banish these “pagan” practices. Near the town of San Cristobal, the Tzotzil tribe received inspiration from a young woman who said that the Virgin told her to eliminate the Spaniards. Two thousand people rose up in revolt.
After the death of Raphael Carrera, who led a successful revolt against the wealthy landowners, “liberal” reforms took most of the communal lands of the indigenous population. During the last part of the nineteenth century, Guatemalan economy became export-oriented, with control of the land in the hands of large plantation owners, ensuring vast fortunes for a few people. Tens of thousands of indigenous people lost their land. Dictatorship became the norm.
Coffee was king until the beginning of the twentieth century when large U.S. corporations either bought or were given huge tracts of land for bananas. These corporations benefited from lax regulations. The United Fruit Company, for example, did not have to pay taxes for twenty-five years.
Jorge Ubico became dictator in 1931. He regularly used repression to maintain power, registered all printing presses to cut down on the amount of opposition literature, militarized the public schools, and suggested to United Fruit that the daily wage of the peasants be reduced from seventy to thirty cents. United Fruit was only to happy to oblige. Ubico believed he was the reincarnation of Napoleon, and was so paranoid that he said he had no friends, just “domesticated enemies.”