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History, Military Control, 1954-1985

Castillo Armas, progressive reforms, Peten, Guatemalans, military coup

For the next 30 years military officers, beginning with Castillo Armas, dominated Guatemala. Many of the reforms begun during the revolution were reversed; land was returned to large property owners, Marxist parties were outlawed, and other political parties, labor groups, and rural organizations were banned or severely restricted. With strong U.S. military and economic assistance, the governments during this period were intensely anti-Communist and stifled free political activity. The military became a powerful elite class in society, with some officers gaining great wealth through corruption. With no peaceful way to seek political or social change, some Guatemalans turned to violence.

Castillo Armas was assassinated on July 26, 1957. After a period of instability and disputed elections, the legislature named conservative General Miguel Ydigoras Fuentes president in 1958. In November 1960 he faced a rebellion, one of many revolutionary movements that were supported by Fidel Castro after he took power in Cuba. The Guatemalan rebels, who were trying to restore the progressive reforms of the period from 1944 to 1954, were defeated, but some escaped into the mountains and organized the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR), beginning the civil war against the Guatemalan government.

Ydigoras allowed anti-Castro Cuban exiles, supported by the United States, to train in Guatemala for the ill-fated Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba in 1961. Although Ydigoras was strongly anti-Communist, growing unrest in Guatemala worried right-wing military officers, and in March 1963 he was overthrown. General Enrique Peralta Azurdia took over the presidency, canceled elections, and held power until 1966. During his term right-wing terrorist groups known as death squads emerged, murdering labor leaders and political opponents, while leftist guerrillas increased their attacks on the government.

From 1966 to 1970 Guatemala again had a civilian-led government, but it brought little change and more violence. A reform candidate, Julio Cesar Mendez Montenegro, won the most votes in the 1966 election, but the military government allowed him to take office only after he secretly agreed to let the army keep its authority over the war against the guerrillas. The military and death squads used harsh tactics against guerrillas and any citizens suspected of aiding them.

Beginning in 1970 army officers again controlled the presidency; these included Generals Carlos Arana Osorio (1970-1974), Kjell Laugerud Garcia (1974-1978), and Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia (1978-1982), who won elections that were often marred by violence and fraud. During their administrations, thousands died in the continuing civil war. Guatemala also suffered a devastating hurricane in 1974 and a violent earthquake in 1976 that claimed more than 20,000 lives and left a million people homeless. The economy, however, experienced remarkable growth, stimulated by development of petroleum in the Peten and higher coffee prices.

In 1982 another general, Angel Anibal Guevara, was elected, but he was quickly deposed by a military coup. General Efrain Rios Montt, a former presidential candidate of the moderate Christian Democratic Party, assumed control as a dictator. Rios Montt, a minister in a California-based Protestant Pentecostal sect, tried to reduce government corruption. He also offered amnesty to the coalition of guerrilla groups, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). But when the guerrillas rejected his terms, he launched a campaign against them that was more intensive and brutal than any previous effort. It was punctuated by military atrocities against indigenous communities and other rural citizens. Indigenous men were forced to join Civil Defense Patrols to fight the guerrillas, while the government carried out a “scorched earth” policy, in which the army killed or drove into exile thousands of rural inhabitants and destroyed more than 400 indigenous villages.

On August 8, 1983, the military ousted Rios Montt and began a period of conciliation. Guatemala suffered from serious economic problems caused by declining tourism and a general international economic downturn. At the same time, Guatemalan military leaders faced international and domestic condemnation over atrocities committed by the army and other groups. The military decided to turn over limited power to civilians, and in December 1985 Marco Vinicio Cerezo, a Christian Democrat, won election as Guatemala’s first civilian president in 15 years. Cerezo was unable to end the civil war and its accompanying human rights abuses, or to suppress the rising trade in illegal drugs. However, he played a major role in bringing about the Central American Peace Accord of 1987, which contributed to a settlement of the civil war in Guatemala and to conflicts in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

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