Barrios, Justo Rufino (1835–1885)

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Barrios, Justo Rufino (1835–1885)

Justo Rufino Barrios (b. 19 July 1835; d. 2 April 1885), president of Guatemala (1873–1885). Born in San Lorenzo, department of San Marcos, Guatemala, Justo Barrios was the son of Ignacio Barrios, a prominent dealer in horses and cattle and landowner, and Josefa Auyón de Barrios. He led the Liberal Reforma of 1871 and represented the shift in power from the Conservative elite of Guatemala City to the Liberal coffee interests of the western highlands.

Barrios received his elementary and secondary education from tutors and schools in San Marcos, Quetzaltenango, and Guatemala City, where he studied law and earned his certificate as a notary in 1862. In Guatemala City he came under the influence of leading Liberals, Miguel García Granados and Manuel Dardón, but he returned to his family lands in 1862 and especially developed his estate, "El Malacate," along the Mexican border.

In 1867 Barrios joined the Liberal insurgency against President Vicente Cerna. When an attack on the barracks at San Marcos failed, Barrios fled into Chiapas, in southern Mexico, where in 1869 he organized a rebel force in collaboration with Field Marshal Serapio Cruz. After Cruz's death in 1870, García Granados joined the movement and formed a provisional government early in 1871, with Barrios as military commander. They quickly gained control of the western highlands, and in a manifesto issued at Patzicía on 3 June 1871 they stated the goals of their revolution. The crucial battle came at San Lucas Sacatepéquez, on the heights above Guatemala City, where on 29 June, Barrios routed Cerna's army. On the following day he marched into the capital victorious. García Granados served as the first president under the Reforma. Barrios wanted more sweeping reforms, however, and in 1873 he won election as president of Guatemala.

Barrios quickly forged a strong dictatorship, eliminating the Conservative opposition and greatly strengthening the power of the state. He represented the coming to power in Guatemala of the liberal-positivist philosophy that would remain dominant until at least 1944. Barrios promoted strongly anticlerical legislation, suppressed the tithe, abolished the regular orders, expropriated church property, and greatly reduced the number of priests in the country; he also established religious liberty, civil marriage and divorce, and state collection of vital statistics. He launched a public education system at all levels and took the University of San Carlos out of the control of the church, making it the state university and establishing other secondary and normal schools. His educational reforms, however, benefited primarily the upper and middle classes of Guatemala City and Quetzaltenango. Most rural Guatemalans continued to have little access to education and often now lost their village priests, who formerly had provided some education to parishioners. Barrios's restructuring of the university emphasized professional and technical education at the expense of the humanities and liberal arts, another reflection of positivist thinking.

Barrios put great emphasis on material progress. Coffee exports increased enormously as he encouraged the encroachment of ladino planters on Indian communal lands and made their labor more accessible to planters, began a railroad system, and developed ports and roads. He facilitated formation of banks and other financial institutions to provide credit for economic development and modernization. New ministries of agriculture, development, and education reflected this emphasis on economic growth as well as the increased role of the state. Barrios also attracted immigration and investment from overseas; German and U.S. influence increased notably. His administration codified the laws and promulgated a new constitution in 1879, under which he was reelected in 1880. His policies spurred substantial modernization of both Guatemala City and Quetzaltenango.

In foreign affairs Barrios played an important role in the neighboring states of El Salvador and Honduras, and in 1882 he settled differences with Mexico at the cost of giving up Guatemalan claims to Soconusco and other parts of Chiapas. He renewed the Guatemalan claim to Belize, however, repudiating the Wyke-Aycinena Treaty of 1859 with Great Britain. He also tried to revive the unionist spirit of Francisco Morazán and sought to reestablish the Central American federation by means of Guatemalan military power. That effort, however, ended abruptly in 1885 when Salvadoran forces defeated the Guatemalan army at Chalchuapa, where Barrios died in battle.

Barrios established a new "coffee elite" centered in the western highlands around Quetzaltenango, reducing the power of the Guatemala City merchant elite that had dominated the country since the late colonial period. At the same time, he greatly accelerated exploitation of the indigenous population and moved Guatemala more rapidly into an export-led economy dependent on foreign markets and investment. Although celebrated in Guatemalan history as the "Reformer" who ended the long Conservative dictatorships of Rafael Carrera and Vicente Cerna (1839–1871), his own dictatorial rule and strengthening of the military established a pattern of repressive government for subsequent Liberal governments even to the present. Barrios's personal wealth increased enormously during his rule, especially in comparison with earlier Guatemalan presidents. In this, too, he set a pattern that many of his successors would emulate.

See alsoCentral America; Education.


Although there is an extensive literature on Barrios in Spanish, there is relatively little in English. The standard biography is Paul Burgess, Justo Rufino Barrios: A Biography (1926, 2d ed. 1946). Jim Handy, Gift of the Devil: A History of Guatemala (1984), has a useful chapter on the Barrios period. Excellent for understanding his economic policy is David J. McCreery, Development and the State in Reforma Guatemala, 1871–1885 (1983). Two helpful doctoral dissertations are available in English, but have been published only in Spanish: Hubert J. Miller, La iglesia y el estado en tiempo de Justo Rufino Barrios (1976); and Thomas R. Herrick, Desarrollo económico y político de Guatemala durante el período de Justo Rufino Barrios (1871–1885) (1974). Among the many works by Central American authors, the most useful are Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Zelaya, El patrón: Estudio histórico sobre la personalidad del General Justo Rufino Barrios (1966); Carlos Wyld Ospina, El autócrata: Ensayo político-social (1929); Víctor Miguel Díaz, Barrios ante la posteridad (1935); and Casimiro D. Rubio, Biografía del general Justo Rufino Barrios, reformador de Guatemala: Recopilación histórica y documentada (1935).

                                Ralph Lee Woodward Jr.

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Barrios, Justo Rufino (1835–1885)

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