José Rafael Carrera

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José Rafael Carrera

José Rafael Carrera (1814-1865) was a conservative general-president of Guatemala. He was the first of the three long-term dictator-presidents who dominated the country during the 19th century.

Rafael Carrera was born in Guatemala City on Oct. 25, 1814, the son of parents of mixed Spanish, native, and African heritage. He was astute and intelligent but uneducated, and he found only menial employment until a backcountry revolt gave him national stature.

Rise to Power

Carrera attained prominence as leader of an insurrection against liberal governments in Guatemala and the Central American Federation, headed, respectively, by Mariano Gálvez and Francisco Morazán. The original grievance was a succession of unpopular reforms, especially anticlerical measures, which alienated the rural population and brought to their support elements of the clergy and of the old aristocracy. Excesses committed by the soldiery sent to subdue the initial outbreaks and the appearance of cholera increased the excitement, and soon the countryside was in a frenzy of fear and defiance. Certain disaffected liberals cooperated with the rebels to force Gálvez from office in February 1838. In March 1840 at Guatemala City, Carrera defeated Morazán in his last desperate effort to reassert federal control and drove him into exile.

Carrera followed separatist and even nationalistic policies. On April 17, 1839, Guatemala withdrew from the Central American Federation and on November 29 gave the chief executive the title of president. On March 21, 1847, Carrera declared Guatemala absolutely independent. Separatist movements within the state, however, he crushed mercilessly. When the western departments of the country had seceded and formed a sixth Central American state, of Los Altos, in 1840, Carrera had overwhelmed its armies and abused its leaders.

Although officially declared in 1847, independent status was not recognized by constitutional change until 1851. Then an acta constitutiva provided for an all-powerful president and an Assembly of Notables, whose principal function was to elect the president. Under that charter Carrera was elected in 1851. In 1854 he was given life tenure with the privilege of choosing his successor.

President for Life

Carrera first exerted his influence in Guatemala through nominal heads of state. In December 1844, however, an obedient council elected him president. Liberals briefly regained power in 1848 and forced him to resign, but they were unable to consolidate their position. Conservatives managed Carrera's return from exile in 1849 and the next year reinstalled him as president. From that time until his death he held the office. His rule, known as "the thirty-year regime," was an unrelieved absolutism.

From the president's chair, or near it, Carrera imposed internal order and enforced the tranquility of conformity. He ameliorated Guatemala's position with foreign creditors and improved roads and ports, particularly on the Pacific coast, but he tried without great success to diversify Guatemala's commercial monoculture. He also allowed public education to languish.

Carrera acted on the precept that Guatemalan society was composed of disparate racial and cultural elements, of which one had to be patronized, chastised, and driven by the other to perform its duty. He repudiated innovation to the sacrifice of progress, valued order over liberty, and forswore growth-producing dissent to attain a stultifying harmony.

Chief among Carrera's accomplishments was restoration of the Church to its ancient position of power and prestige. He permitted the return of monastic orders, reinstalled an archbishop, and in 1852 made Guatemala the first independent Latin American nation to sign a concordat with the Holy See. He also reestablished such corporate entities of special interest as the Consulado de Comercio and the Sociedad Económica.

The last years of Carrera's long incumbency witnessed a permanent decline of the market abroad for Guatemalan cochineal and initiation of a desperate search for a new agricultural staple. Coffee appeared to hold great promise, and the government took such means as its conservative philosophy suggested to encourage and extend cultivation of that crop.

Carrera was the Central American strong man during most of his tenure. He intervened repeatedly in neighboring countries to eliminate unfriendly liberal governments, and in turn he had to defend his own regime against their attacks, singly or in combination. He participated in the Central American coalition that drove William Walker from Nicaragua but took no leading role in it. In 1859 he reached with Great Britain an agreement on tenure and boundaries of Belize (British Honduras), the interpretation of which is still disputed. Carrera died on April 14, 1865.

Further Reading

There is no biography of Carrera in any language. The best treatment of Carrera in English is in Chester L. Jones, Guatemala, Past and Present (1940; repr. 1966). □