Unfinished Revolutions and the Politics of Postponement in Guatemala

This post is a part of our “Latin America’s Ongoing Revolutions” series, which explores the colonial and post-colonial angles of Latin America’s revolutionary history. Check out the entire series.

By Julie Gibbings

On August 27, 2015, one hundred thousand people filled the plaza in front of Guatemala’s National Palace under the banner of #RenunciaYa (Resign Now). After months of protesting, the Congress had voted 132-0 to strip President Otto Pérez Molina of his immunity from prosecution. In joyous celebration, local newspapers and social media feeds filled with images of a people who had succeeded in the pursuit of justice against corrupted government officials.

A crowd protesting in front of Guatemala's Presidential Palace.
An aerial shot of protests at Guatemala’s Presidential Palace on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015. Thousands of Guatemalans demanded President Otto Pérez Molina resign.

Across social media, protestors also circulated images juxtaposing the National Plaza in 2015 with the National Plaza some 71 years earlier. Harkening to Guatemala’s famed October Revolution, these protestors evoked historical parallels with a popular coalition of students, teachers, and urban middle-classes, who forced the resignation of President Jorge Ubico, ushering in Guatemala’s “Ten Years of Spring” (1944-54), a decade of democratic social reforms. Unfortunately for Guatemalans in 2015, history did not repeat itself, even in the short term. While President Pérez Molina was arrested and tried for his role in the La Linea, a customs fraud scheme, the elections planned for a month later went forward without candidates who would help bring meaningful change. Guatemalan desires for a new future now were put on hold. When voters went to the polls a few months later, many spoiled their ballots in protest. Jimmy Morales, a former comedian with ties to the right wing and the military, was elected President. In the aftermath of the elections, historical memories of 1944 also sparked ongoing frustrations with the failure of the Guatemalan state to address basic human rights.

For many Guatemalans, the democratic project of 1944-54 remains unfinished. Historical memories of 1944 continue to offer hope to many Guatemalans who long for a democratic revolution that would overturn the political bankruptcy of the Guatemalan state and inaugurate a more just and inclusive society.  What a new democratic revolution might mean, however, is widely debated. Every October 20th, Guatemalans occupy the National Plaza to celebrate the anniversary of the Revolution and to demand reform. In recent years, these demands have far exceeded anything that the 1944-54 revolution itself embodied: an end to violence against women, prosecution of those responsible for past human rights violations, indigenous rights and resolution of land claims, the end of exploitative and environmentally destructive mining practices, and the recognition of LGTBQ+ peoples. The memory of 1944 has united a broad spectrum of peoples under a single rubric and signifier. In short, Guatemalans infuse these “revolution(s)” with their varied demands for a more democratic and inclusionary future.

Guatemalan demands for democracy, however, are not confined either to 1944-54 or to the present, but they have much deeper roots in nineteenth-century nation-state building and capitalist market formation. During Latin America’s first wave (1780-1898) of revolutionary upheaval, early liberal reforms, including the 1812 Spanish constitution, introduced new republican institutions and rhetoric into public discourse. In far flung places, like the northern department of Alta Verapaz, rural and largely illiterate Mayas understood republican discourses and institutions as opportunities to take power back from abusive governors and to force indigenous authorities to respond to their demands for lower taxes. Decades later, when officials reinstated colonial-era forced labour, rural Mayas, along with ladino (non-Maya) allies, once again drew upon the republican languages of freedom against slavery to demand control over their bodies, and the right to free wage labour. In the 1920s, when another corrupt and aged dictator, Manuel Estrada Cabrera, was ousted from power, rural Mayas once again took up the rhetoric of freedom and democracy to demand the end of coerced labour, the right education, and for their inclusion as full citizens in the nation. [1]  

Across all of these historical moments, state officials and coffee planters responded to Maya demands for liberty and equality with the assertation that rural Mayas were not yet ready for full citizenship in the nation.  In contrast to Maya demands for inclusion now, state officials relegated Mayas to the past as barbaric others, who required the so-called civilizing force of time. State officials, as well as coffee planters and intellectuals, routinely drew upon a racialized temporal scheme to postpone Maya citizenship. Supposed racial differences between uncivilized and civilized peoples were judged by each group’s relative location on the linear historical march towards modernity. Mayas, they contended, were indolent and regressive, and had not yet developed modern, capitalist needs. First, Guatemalan statesmen and coffee planters reasoned, Mayas needed to be instructed in the virtue of hard work through forced labour. Only when they had attained more advanced sentiments, embodied most clearly in western Europeans, could they be granted rights as citizens entitled to free wage labour. As Dipesh Chakrabarty argued, “Historicism – and even the modern, European idea of history – one might say, came to non-European peoples in the ninetenth century as somebody’s way of saying ‘not yet’ to somebody else.”[2] This practice of deferring political rights for certain people is what I have called, elsewhere, the politics of postponement.[3]

When the state deferred political rights and freedoms for whole sections of the Guatemalan population (Mayas constituted half of the national population), this generated anxieties about the nation’s ability ever to reach modernity. Indeed, the politics of postponement fostered deeply-rooted desires among urban middle and lower classes to be recognized as a modern citizenry in a modern and progressive nation. These frustrated desires for modernity often found expression in populist appeals to the downtrodden and excluded. Even before Guatemala’s 1944 revolution, President Manuel Estrada Cabrera (1898-1920), who might be considered an early populist, tapped into popular desires to be included in the nation and in western civilization during his annual Minerva festivals.[4] During these elaborate festivities, the entire nation, regardless of race, gender, or class, gathered together in ornate Greco-Roman temples to celebrate the goddess of Wisdom, Minerva. Explicitly designed to flatten social hierarchies and to inculcate the feeling of being at the centre of western civilization, these annual celebrations were full of pomp and celebration that brought everyone from coffee planters to workers into a common celebration across the nation. While these festivities might have temporarily alleviated desires for western modernity, they could never end coerced labour, limited citizenship, and racial hierarchies.

When the Guatemalan revolution erupted in 1944, these longer frustrations with the politics of postponement, and the failure to the state to address the enduring structures of exclusion, erupted with great force from below. The young Guatemalans who led the 1944 revolution, however, had other ideas. Inspired by the Atlantic Charter and the global struggle against fascism, these youthful revolutionaries sought a new democracy that did not necessarily involve the expansion of the vote to illiterate Mayas, whom many feared were incapable of citizenship.[5] When they sought to draft a new constitution, the question of indigenous rights as citizens was widely debated. Some like, Jesús Pereira, representative from the largely Maya region of El Quiché, suggested that Mayas were largely responsible for Guatemala’s history of dictatorship, a claim that had been used to limit indigenous citizenship since the late nineteenth century.[6]  Rather, much of Guatemala’s “Ten Years of Spring” comprised state policies and practices designed to reign in the burgeoning revolution from below that demanded the end of coerced labour, labour rights and better wages, and the restitution of indigenous lands.[7]

In this sense, there were many revolutions underway in Guatemala in 1944-54, not all of them were very radical.[8] The most radical program of the revolution – the 1952 agrarian reform – was implemented in order to rationalize agricultural production and promote the more efficient use of land resources. In this sense, the 1952 agrarian reform was another effort to instil capitalist wants among rural Mayas, in effect to “civilize” them. As María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo has argued, both the revolutionary left and anti-communist right understood indigenous peoples as subjects to be guided, developed, and transformed into proper historical agents.[9] When Maya peasants took up agrarian reform to organize into campesino unions and reclaim lands that had been lost, often through violence, intimidation, and corruption, they pushed the agrarian reform well beyond the bureaucratic norms that Guatemalan state officials had imagined.  As Jim Handy had argued, this helps to understand why, in 1954, with the CIA-supported a military coup, very few middle-class Guatemalans sought to defend the revolution.[10]

After the ill-fated end of Guatemala’s “Ten Years of Spring” and the country’s slow descent into the genocidal state violence that marked the 1980s, these divergent and unfinished revolutions remain at the heart of Guatemala social and political worlds. While Guatemalans united peacefully to defeat a corrupt president in 2015, this unity quickly gave way to divergent political projects and deep-rooted fears of what Charles Hale has called “the insurrectionary Indian.”[11] For some Mayas, this promise remains the realization of distinctly indigenous modernities. While the contours of a different political modernity have not yet been defined, and new national leaders offer glimpses of hope, it is clear that indigenous modernity must leave behind the one-size-fits-all notion of citizenship that had shaped nineteenth and twentieth-century revolutions and the politics of postponement.

Julie Gibbings is a Lecturer in the History of the Americas at the University of Edinburgh. You can find her on Twitter @JulieGibbings.

Title Image: Screenshot of video posted on Twitter, November 21, 2020.

Further Readings:

Bastos, Santiago, and Manuela Camus. Entre el mecapal y el cielo: Desarrollo del movimiento maya en Guatemala. Guatemala City, Guatemala: FLACSO, 2003.

Carey, David. Jr. I ask for Justice: Maya Women, Dictators, and Crime in Guatemala, 1898-1944. University of Texas Press, 2013.

Esquit, Edgar. La superación indígena: La política de la modernización entre las elites indígenas de Comalapa, Siglo XX.  Instituto de Estudios Interétnicos Universidad de San Carlos, 2010.

Konefal, Betsy. For Every Indio who Falls: A History of Maya Activism in Guatemala, 1960-1996. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2010.

Forster, Cindy. The Time of Freedom: Campesino Workers in Guatemala’s October Revolution. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001.

Gibbings, Julie  and Heather Vrana, Out of the Shadow: Revisiting the Revolution from Post-Peace Guatemala. University of Texas Press, 2020.

Gibbings, Julie. Our Time is Now: Race and Modernity in Postcolonial Guatemala. Cambridge University Press, 2020.

González, Matilde. Se cambió el tiempo. Vol. 1: Conflicto y poder en territorio K’iche’, 1880-1996; Vol. 2: Historias de vida y tradición oral de San Bartolomé Jocotenango, Quiché. Guatemala City: Asociación para el Avance de las Ciencias Sociales en Guatemala (AVANCSO), 2002.

Grandin, Greg. The Blood of Guatemala: A History of Race and Nation. Duke University Press, 2000.

Grandin, Greg. The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America and the Cold War. Chicago University Press, 2004.

Grandin, Greg, Deborah T. Levenson, and Elizbeth Oglesby, eds. 2011. The Guatemala Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Hale, Charles. “Mas Qué un Indio” (More than an Indian): Racial Ambivalence and the Paradox of Neoliberal Multiculturalism in Guatemala. Santa Fe: School of American Research, 2006.

McAllister, Carlota, and Diane M. Nelson, eds. 2013. War by Other Means: Aftermath in Post-Genocide Guatemala. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Nelson, Diane M. 1999. A Finger in the Wound: Body Politics in Quincentennial Guatemala. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Smith, Timonty and Abigail Adams. After the coup: An Ethnographic Reframing of          Guatemala, 1954. University of Illinois Press, 2011.

Taracena Arriola, Arturo, ed. . Etnicidad, estado y nación en Guatemala. 2 vols. Antigua, Guatemala: Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de Mesoamérica, 2002–2004.

Velásquez Nimatuj, Irma Alicia. 2008. Pueblos Indígenas, Estado y Lucha por Tierra en Guatemala. Guatemala City: AVANCSO.

Vrana, Heather.  The City Belongs to You: A History of Student Activism in Guatemala, 1944-1996. University of California Press, 2017.


[1] See Julie Gibbings, Our Time is Now: Race and Modernity in Postcolonial Guatemala (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

[2] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. (Princeton University Press, 2009), 8.

[3] Gibbings, Our Time is Now

[4] See Gibbings, Our Time is Now, and Catherine Rendón, Minerva y palma: El enigma de Don Manuel Estrada Cabrera (Artemis, 2000).

[5] See Gibbings, Our Time is Now, and Heather Vrana, The City Belongs to You: A History of Student Activism (University of California Press, 2017)

[6] Diario de las Sesiones de la Asamblea Nacional Constituyente de 1945 (Guatemala: Tipografía Nacional, 2006), 118-120.

[7] See especially, Cindy Forster,  The Time of Freedom: Campesino Workers in Guatemala’s October Revolution (Pittsburgh University Press, 2001).

[8] Julie Gibbings and Heather Vrana, Out of the Shadow: Revisiting the Revolution from Post-Peace Guatemala. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2020).

[9] María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo, The Revolutionary Imagination in the Americas and the Age of Development. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003)

[10] Jim Handy, Revolution in the Countryside: Rural Conflict and Agrarian Reform in Guatemala, 1944-54 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994)

[11] Charles Hale, “Mas Qué un Indio” (More than an Indian): Racial Ambivalence and the Paradox of Neoliberal Multiculturalism in Guatemala. (Santa Fe: School of American Research, 2006).

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