Causes & Consequences of the Guatemalan Civil War

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  • 0:03 Guatemala
  • 1:14 Cause of the War
  • 2:34 Civil Rule
  • 3:05 1990s & Peace
  • 3:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will explore the events of the Guatemalan Civil War. In doing this, it will highlight the Mayan population as well as the many military figures that ruled Guatemala during this 36-year conflict.


The pages of history are full of civil wars, violent conflicts that tear countries apart. One of the most violent of these was the Guatemalan Civil War. In this 36-year conflict, the poor of Guatemala rebelled against government oppression. In today's lesson we'll take a look at this conflict that claimed over 200,000 lives. However, before we get to the war, let's learn a bit about Guatemala.

Sadly, the history of Guatemala is a violent one. For centuries, it has been marked with a huge gap between its poor and its wealthy. Many believe this gap has been caused by foreign corporations coming in and exploiting the native Mayan Indians of the country.

Although the Mayans make up a huge majority of the Guatemalan population, they are among the country's very poorest people. This disparity in wealth was a huge catalyst for the country's civil war. With this, let's get to the war. Due to the fact that its 36 years saw power changing hands an awful lot, we'll try to keep things simple, only naming the biggest power players.

Although the war officially began in 1960, we need to start in the '50s.

Cause of War

In 1954, a rebellion overturned the president of Guatemala. His name was Jacobo Arbenz. Interestingly, he was a democratically elected president. In other words, he was elected by the people. However, he was also a Communist, and this made the governments of the West very uncomfortable. This was especially true of the United States, who had lots of money invested in the country. In order to get rid of Arbenz and his Communist party, it's believed the United States funded the coup. With the help of Western dollars, the coup was successful; Arbenz was ousted, and a new president came to power.

Unfortunately, this new Guatemalan president, Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, was not the nicest of guys. As president, it's asserted he robbed poor Guatemalans of their rights to vote and their land. In 1960, the poor had reached their limit and fighters rose up in rebellion. With this, Colonel Armas was murdered and a new general took over rule of Guatemala.

Tragically, the rule of this new military man was marked with bloodshed and horrible atrocities against the poor of Guatemala. This fueled the fires of rebellion and, although he made it out of the country with his life, this general was toppled from power in 1963. However, a new military man took over and violence continued.

Civil Rule

After the country had been ruled by the military men for years, Cesar Mendez came to power in the mid-'60s. His rule is important because it was the only civilian ruler since the war began. Of course, the military was not at all thrilled by this, and neither was the U.S., who was backing the military. During Mendez's rule, it's believed the angry military butchered thousands upon thousands of Guatemalan Mayans in their plight to regain power. Like the others before him, Mendez fell and another military man came to power.

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