Carrera, José Rafael (1814–1865)

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Carrera, José Rafael (1814–1865)

José Rafael Carrera (b. 24 October 1814; d. 14 April 1865), chief of state of Guatemala (1844–1848, 1851–1865). Born to poor parents in Guatemala City, Carrera joined the Central American federal army as a drummer at age twelve, and rose rapidly in the ranks during the civil war of 1826–1829. The army, dominated by the Guatemalan conservative elite, not only provided military training but also indoctrinated him in conservative ideology. After Francisco Morazán defeated this army in 1829, Carrera drifted for several years, eventually settling in Mataquescuintla, where he became a swineherd. Father Francisco Aqueche influenced him there and was instrumental in Carrera's marriage to Petrona García, the daughter of a local landowner.

Carrera emerged as a natural leader of the peasants and landowners of eastern Guatemala against the liberal reforms of the Guatemalan governor, Dr. Mariano Gálvez. The rural population, spurred on by the clergy, opposed his anticlericalism, taxes, judicial reforms, and land, labor, and immigration policies that appeared to favor foreigners over natives. With these grievances already strong, the Gálvez government's efforts to check the cholera epidemic that broke out in 1837 led to uprisings, especially in eastern Guatemala. Although Carrera did not instigate the 1837 revolt, and in fact had accepted assignment as commander of a government quarantine patrol, local residents soon persuaded him to join the revolt. At Santa Rosa, on 9 June 1837, he led a ragged band of insurgents to a stunning victory, sending government troops fleeing back to the capital.

Aided by serious divisions between Gálvez and José Francisco Barrundia, Carrera's peasant army took Guatemala City on 1 February 1838, bringing down the Gálvez government. This resulted temporarily in a more liberal government under Lieutenant Governor Pedro Valenzuela, who succeeded in persuading Carrera to leave the capital in return for promised reform and military command of the district of Mita. Resurgent strength of the conservative elite of the capital, however, and failure of the Valenzuela government to move fast enough with the reforms caused Carrera to resume the war in March 1838. President Morazán brought federal troops from El Salvador into the struggle, but on 13 April 1839 Carrera once more took the capital, this time installing a conservative government under Mariano Rivera Paz. In March 1840 Carrera decisively defeated Morazán at Guatemala City, effectively ending the Central American national government. From this point until his death, except briefly in 1848–1849, Carrera was the military master of Guatemala. He consolidated the power of his army during the early 1840s, especially by the Con-venio of Guadalupe on 11 March 1844.

In December 1844 Carrera assumed the presidency of Guatemala. Although his policies were conservative, during this period he sometimes supported moderate liberal political leaders as a check against the pretensions of the conservative ecclesiastical and economic elite of the capital. On 21 March 1847 Carrera completed the process of Guatemalan secession from the defunct Central American union by establishing the Republic of Guatemala.

Liberal opposition, combined with continued rebel activity in eastern Guatemala, led to Carrera's resignation and exile in Mexico in August 1848. The new Liberal government, however, failed to achieve unity or solve the country's problems, and Carrera re-entered the country in March 1849 at the head of an "army of restoration" composed heavily of Indians. When Carrera took Quetzaltenango, several generals defected to him and an agreement was reached in June that made him a lieutenant general in the Guatemalan army, followed in August by his appointment once more as commanding general of the army. Thereafter he strengthened the army as he carried out campaigns against continuing rebellions within Guatemala and against the liberals' attempts to revive the Central American union in El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. He dealt those forces a major blow with a stunning victory against the "national army" at San José la Arada on 2 February 1851. This victory assured the dominance of the conservatives in Guatemala for many years to come.

After 1850 Carrera allied himself closely with the conservative and ecclesiastical elite of Guatemala City. His government restored close relations with Spain and signed a concordat with the Vatican guaranteeing the clergy a major role in the regime. Although Carrera was often described as reactionary by his opponents, Guatemala enjoyed considerable economic growth during the next twenty years as coffee began to replace cochineal as its leading export. Carrera once more became president of Guatemala on 6 November 1851. He consolidated his strength and greatly increased his power when he became president for life, a virtual monarch, on 21 October 1854.

As the most powerful caudillo in mid-nineteenth-century Central America, Carrera affected the development of neighboring states as well, frequently intervening to assure conservative rule in El Salvador and Honduras. When the North American filibuster William Walker came to the aid of Nicaraguan liberals and subsequently became president of Nicaragua, Carrera provided substantial aid to the combined Central American force that routed Walker in 1857. Although he declined an invitation to command the Central American army, leaving that to Costa Rica's Juan Rafael Mora, Carrera sent more troops than any other state in the National Campaign.

In 1863 Carrera challenged the rise in El Salvador of Gerardo Barrios, who had begun to pursue liberal, anticlerical reforms. Although initially repulsed at Coatepeque in February, he returned to conquer San Salvador later in the year, removing Barrios from office.

When he died in 1865, probably from dysentery, Carrera had achieved considerable stability and economic growth for Guatemala, but had also established a stifling political dictatorship that had reserved many of the benefits of the regime for a small elite in Guatemala City. At the same time, Carrera deserves credit for protecting the rural Indian masses of the country from increased exploitation of their land and labor and for bringing Indians and mestizos into positions of political and military leadership. Perhaps the most lasting legacy of his long rule, however, was the establishment of the military as the dominant political institution in the country.

See alsoCentral America .


Luis Beltranena Sinibaldi, Fudación de la República de Guatemala (1971).

Keith L. Miceli, "Rafael Carrera: Defender and Promoter of Peasant Interest in Guatemala, 1837–1848," in The Americas 31, no. 1 (1974): 72-95.

Ralph Lee Woodward, Jr., Rafael Carrera and the Emergence of the Republic of Guatemala, 1821–1871 (1993).

Additional Bibliography

Sullivan-González, Douglass. Piety, Power and Politics: Religion and Nation Formation in Guatemala, 1821–1871. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998.

                              Ralph Lee Woodward Jr.

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Carrera, José Rafael (1814–1865)

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