The Maya Indians inhabited Guatemala as early as 2400 B.C. They developed an advanced civilization and flourished there, but declined after 900 A.D. In the 16th century, the Mayas were subdued by Spaniards under Pedro de Alvarado. He governed the captaincy general of Guatemala, which included all Central America except Panama. For nearly three centuries the region was under Spanish rule,
In 1821 the five provinces making up the captaincy general of Guatemala declared their independence, but the next year they became part of the new Mexican empire under Agustín de Iturbide. When Iturbide was driven from power in 1823 the provinces gained independence as a confederation called the United Provinces of Central America. During 1838–39, the confederation collapsed. Guatemala became an independent state in 1839.
Rafael Carrera, leader of the conservative forces that helped to bring about the dissolution of the confederation, made himself president of Guatemala in 1844 and became the dominant political figure in Central America. In 1854 he was made president for life. He died in 1865. Vicente Cerna, one of Carrera's generals, succeeded him as president but was overthrown in 1871. General Justo Rufino Barrios, a liberal, came to power in 1873, and the nation made economic progress under his rule. He was killed in 1885 in a war with El Salvador, while attempting to set up a union of Central American states. In 1898 Manuel Estrada Cabrera became president.
Estrada Cabrera ruled as a despot for 22 years. He favored the wealthy classes and encouraged industrial development. He was overthrown in 1920. Relative order prevailed until 1930, when economic depression led to another uprising.
In 1931 General Jorge Ubico came to power. Under his dictatorship, order was maintained and economic stability restored. In 1944 an alliance of students, liberals, and dissident members of the army forced Ubico out of office and seized control of the country. Many social and economic reforms were introduced by presidents Juan José Arévalo (1945–51) and Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán (1951–54). During their presidencies, Communist influence in the government began to grow. When Arbenz instituted land reforms and encouraged the growth of labor unions, his opponents claimed that he was under Communist control. The army, with covert aid from the United States, overthrew Arbenz in 1954 and outlawed the Communist party. A civil war between the army and Communist guerrillas began in 1961.
In 1963 Colonel Enrique Peralta Azúrdia led a successful revolt. He governed by decree, but promised to hold elections after a new constitution was enacted. The constitution took effect in 1965 and a civilian government was elected. It attempted economic and social reforms, but its programs were blocked by resistance from conservative businessmen and wealthy landowners. During the 1970's and early 1980's, reform was further delayed by a series of conservative military governments that were elected amid opponents' charges of election fraud.
In 1986 a new constitution went into effect and civilian government was restored. However, government corruption and human rights violations remained problems into the 1990's. In 1994 the government and the Communist guerrillas signed an agreement concerning the strengthening of human rights. In 1996 the government and the guerrillas signed a peace accord, ending the 35-year-old civil war. Hurricane Mitch caused widespread damage to the country in 1998.