I have covered the pre-Colombian history of Guatemala in the page on the history of the Maya Nation so I will only mention some of the post Colombian events that I perceive as having caused Guatemala to be as it is today.
The Maya culture had gone through its decadence (900 to 1000 AD), and the Toltec-Maya renaissance was itself entering decadence through Cocom and Xiu conflicts when the Spanish struck around 1530 after first having dispatched the powerful Aztecs.
The brutal eradication of the Maya culture by the Spanish ranks with the genocide of Christian Armenians by Muslim Turks in 1915 and the holocaust perpetrated on Jews by Nazis during W.W.II.
After the conquest, the Maya majority survived by adopting the disguise a Christianity which hid their own traditional deities. They survived , but they were completely excluded from the centres of power which were fought over by extremist Conservatives and Liberals with a violence characteristic of the Spanish Heritage in its ex colonies.
After independence from Spain in 1821 and from Mexico 1823 and the break-up of the Central American Federation in 1840, Guatemala was ruled by a succession of conservative dictators with rare intervals of liberal regimes.
After W.W.II, a liberal president, Juan José Arévalo, elected in 1945, instituted National Social Security, and a number of other progressive reforms that were pursued in 1951 by his successor Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. When Arbenz declared his intention to carry out an agrarian reform the USA organised an invasion from Honduras in 1954, led by exiled Guatemalan officers to prevent the distribution of the vast land holdings of United Fruit to those who farmed them.
The violence of protest and repression grew yearly and peaked under General José Efrain Ríos who seized power in 1982. Amnesty international estimates that political violence cost 60 000 lives in the '70s and another 15 000 during Ríos Montt's 11 month term. In 1983 Ríos Montt was deposed by Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores who continued the bloodbath with an estimated 100 political assassinations and 40 abductions per month. The scandal of these excesses became so bad that the US had to withdraw its support of the military. Three elections brought civilians to power in 1985, 1990 and 1996 but the fighting war raged on until a peace accord was signed between the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union (URNG) and the government in 1996 after 36 years of civil war.
Guatemala now has a small "middle class" but the top 20% of the population enjoys incomes 30 times greater than those of the poorest 20%. Guatemala's Gini Coefficient hovers around 0.60, one of the highest in the world.
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I posted photos of El Salvador taken in 1993 to show the Tazumal and San Andrés Maya ruins. Actually, I did not visit El Salvador on this trip. I took a pickup truck from Copan Ruinas to the nearby Guatemala border, then a bus to Chiquimula and a second bus to Guatemala City. I found a nice yet inexpensive room at the Hospedaje de Oslo, halfway between the unsafe bus terminal zone and the Plaza Major.
The city was founded in 1776 to serve as capital after an earthquake had destroyed the earlier capital Antigua. The new site was also unstable. The new capital was almost completely destroyed in 1917 and further damaged in 1976.
The Palacio Nacional, shown here, is the seat of power in the country. The presidential Mansion is just behind. Guatemala is formally a constitutional democracy but effective power, concentrated in the hands of a small number of land owning families and foreign companies, has been expressed by right wing dictators during much of the country's existence.
Guatemala is still healing its wounds (200 000 deaths, a million refugees), from a 36 year civil was that was ended by the signature of a peace accord in the Palacio Nacional on December 29 1996. The civil war is over but the inequalities that caused it remain, 70% of the land is owned by less than 3% of the population and discrimination against indigenous people (60% of the population), is an accepted practice, inherited from the Spanish belief in white supremacy, adapted for their own benefit by the mixed blood ladinos.
Yet, the ancestors of these downtrodden people, the Maya, created the most advanced civilisation of pre-Colombian times, the first to devise an accurate calendar and the only one to have developed a writing system.
Guatemala City's "Museo Nacional de Arqueologia y Etnologia" is definitely worth a visit. It is paradoxical that Guatemala be so proud of the Maya yet treat their descendants so poorly.
Having visited Tikal in 1993, I was particularly interested in this idealised model showing all the hypothetical structures that could be extrapolated from the ruins excavated so-far at that site.
I would have taken more pictures of Tikal in February 1993 had I known I would be writing about it in 2001.
This shows Temple 1 in the background as seen from behind Temple II.
Below left, Temple I, looking east from the terrace of the North Acropolis and on the right, Temple II seen across the East Plaza. The chap in the foreground is a Spanish backpacker I met there, Alejandro Crespillo.
That's me, in front of the North Acropolis.
And here are Alejandro with his friend Antonio Garre Lopez that I saw again when I visited "La Costa del Sol" in 1999.
Here is a view from the top of Temple IV of the flat jungle land that once was part of the Maya Empire.
The Maya Indians' present deprecated position is in part due to the absolutism of the Spanish Catholic Church that conscientiously eradicated as much of the "pagan" Maya culture as it could. Temples and idols were destroyed and thousands of Maya books were burnt. Only three survived, the Dresden Codex kept in that city, the Tro-Corteianus Codex kept in Madrid and the Peresianus Codex kept in Paris.
The "Catedral Metropolitana" was finished in 1815 more than a century before the "Palacio Nacional" was built next to it on Plaza Central ,
The Catholic Church wield considerable power in Guatemala as everywhere else in Latin America but it has lost some ground to Protestant evangelical religions as a consequence of its close association with the extreme right and great land-owning families.
Catholic or Protestant, ladinos are very religious.
The Maya Indians are also religious and most still practice their ancient religion in spite of all the efforts of the Church to eradicate it.
The Maya had little difficulty to absorb Christianity and to blend it with their own Maya beliefs which are compatible in several areas. Mayan beliefs include an afterlife spent either in a 13 level heaven or the 7 level hell, "Xibalba". Christians had many saints and Mayans had innumerable gods or deified ancestors. Ordinary Mayan mortals could scarcely hope to communicate with the gods but had to rely on a sacrosanct priesthood just as the Catholic did.
Finally, it was obvious to the Maya that the Catholic religion was as inseparable from Spanish power as their religion was from their own dominant elites.
Amongst the multitude of Mayan-Christian saints and gods is the colourful rum guzzling and cigar smoking Maximón revered by the Cakchiquel Maya around Santiago on Lago Atitlan. The competing Quiché Maya in Zunil have an equivalent disreputable god-saint called San Simón!
After a great earthquake destroyed the old capital on this site in 1773, the seat of government it was moved to a new site in the hope it would be safer. It was a forlorn hope for the new capital, Guatemala City, was almost completely destroyed in 1917.
Antigua was gradually rebuilt keeping its traditional colonial character, architecture and cobbled streets. It was declared National Monument in 1944 and elevated to the status of World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979.
My friend Mariana Landaverde and her sister Edna, seen here before the fountain in Antigua's central park, scored a hit by driving me around this place one fine afternoon.
I had spent some time here learning Spanish in 1993 so it was a double treat for me to enjoy the beauty of the town and to remember the good times I had enjoyed here.
Antigua is surrounded by three volcanoes, Acatenango to the west, Fuego southwest and Agua southeast. This one is Agua, viewed from the street between the Cathedral and the Central Park.
The "Catedral de Santiago", founded in 1542, was damaged by earthquakes and rebuilt many times. It is still being restored.
Just look at the colour of these Jacaranda trees!
And the style of these cobbled streets.
Bold colours and flowers everywhere.
Arco de Santa Caterina.
Iglesia de la Merced.
No wonder UNESCO declared Antigua a World Heritage Site.
There were not many tourists that day. That was fine for us but not so for the Cakchiquel artisans trying to make a living from their handiwork.
Here is another view of the "Agua" volcano taken from the gardens of the five star Casa Santo Domingo Hotel.
The hotel makes very good use of the ruins of ancient Santo Domingo convent and church around which it is built. It's like a museum...
The Santo Domingo is also one of the best restaurants in town. A great meal was the icing on the cake of a perfect day with Edna and Mariana.
Mariana Landaverde is a professional translator. I owe her a lot for she is responsible for a large part of the Spanish version, which is much appreciated as you can see from a glance at my guestbook.
I have no hesitation to recommend Mariana and her team of translators. You can reach her at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
Mariana is also the talented designer and master of the website of her Evangelical Church, "El Refugio de la Oveja" in Guatemala.
When I arrived in Guatemala City, Mariana's father Emilio and his friend Jesus had planned to visit Candelaria, a small fishing village near Iztapa on the Pacific coast. They spontaneously invited me to join them which of course I did.
In the usual order, Jesus, myself and Emilio, their friends Efigenio and José Edwin Castillo with Doña Marta and children in front.
Don Efigenio's home, typical house of the prosperous farmer-fishermen of this area, where I enjoyed the kind of hospitality that has disappeared from over developed North America and Europe.
José Edwin showing me a unique "pez lagarto" or alligator fish the he has caught and prepared for us.
I had never seen such a strange fish with its alligator jaws, armoured skin and prehistoric looking tail (it looked like that of a coelacanth). The firm flesh was delicious fried in butter over an open fire.
We visited a number of Jesus' friends and were plied with food and drink at every stop. Around this table, Emilio, Urban Urbano, José Edwin, Doña ...., Jesus, ......, and Efigenio.
In this other house, Doña ..... is cooking ducks for us. We stuffed ourselves like pigs and drank beer like fish but we had the good excuse that it would have been impolite to refuse the hospitality of these fine people.
Finally we lounged in the breeze to chew the fat on the balcony of this house Urban Urbano had built on the coast to rent to tourists and city people.
I was beginning to discover aspects of Guatemala I had not seen before.