Guatemalan History

For a quick summary of Guatemala’s history, click the following screenshot for an interactive timeline of key dates and events – from Spanish colonization, to the 30-year Guatemalan Civil War, to today.

For a plain-text version, see below:


A small, powerful Spanish elite turns Guatemala into a Spanish colony, and begins to exploit the indigenous Mayan people for money, power, labor, and land.


Guatemala becomes fully independent. Though no longer under control of the Spanish crown, Spanish descendents maintain control and inequality barely shifts.


The harsh and militaristic ruler Jorge Ubico is overthrown, and Guatemala enters its “Democratic Spring.” Under the presidencies of Juan Jose Arevalo and Jacabo Arbenz, a sweeping social-democratic reform agenda is pursued, promoting economic independence, modern capitalism, and improvements in material well-being.


In a coup backed by the United States and commanded by Guatemalan exile Castillo Armas, the democratically-elected Arbenz is overthrown. Armas declares himself president, reversing the reform initiatives of the Democratic Spring, and setting the stage for Guatemala’s brutal and lengthy civil war.

1960-1996: CIVIL WAR

Prompted by the 1954 US-led coup and by the fierce inequality between the rich and poor, rebel insurgent groups take arms against the military government. The government brutally represses the revolution, massacring indigenous Mayans and destroying entire villages.

1994-1996: PEACE TALKS

Peace talks occur between the government and guerilla insurgents. Rebels declare a cease-fire and the United States stops providing military and economic aid to the Guatemalan army. In 1996, the Civil War official ends with the signing of a peace treaty.


The UN-backed Commission for Historical Clarification declares that Guatemalan security forces were responsible for 93% of human rights atrocities committed during the Civil War, which resulted in over 200,000 deaths. In March, US President Bill Clinton formally apologizes to Guatemalans for the role the US played in the war.


Guatemalans – especially indigenous Guatemalans – continue to face high levels of violence, inequality, poverty, and corruption. Twelve years after the end of the Civil War, little progress has been made towards promoting accountability and bringing human rights perpetrators to justice.

BBC News – Timeline: Guatemala

FRONTLINE/World Guatemala Timeline (PBS)