Cerna, Vicente (c. 1810–1885)

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Cerna, Vicente (c. 1810–1885)

Vicente Cerna (b. ca. 1810; d. 27 June 1885), field marshal and president of Guatemala (1865–1871). A military officer who became by 1847 a close associate of the dictator Rafael Carrera (1840–1865), Cerna played an important role at the battle of Arada (1851). This battle established Carrera as the dominant military figure in Central America and as president for life (formally so in 1854). Outside Carrera's family no military man was closer to the dictator than Cerna, who was politically and militarily dependable and a devout Catholic, as was Carrera. Cerna later received the rank of field marshal for his performance in the difficult 1863 campaign against El Salvador's Liberal president Gerardo Barrios. Shortly before his death in April 1865, Carrera named Cerna to succeed him. In the close presidential election that followed in May this endorsement gave Cerna his margin of victory.

Carrera's regime had been in large measure reactionary but provided peace and encouraged development of coffee culture. Cerna continued most of Carrera's policies, seeking sufficient modernization for economic development under traditional institutions such as monopoly franchises (estancos) and the Consulado de Comercio, which favored a restricted circle of landowners, entrepreneurs, and merchants. Under Cerna Guatemala became more closely connected with the world trading system, which favored free trade. Cerna's regime improved the infrastructure of transportation and communication: the Pacific port of San José was built up; some roads and highways were improved; railroads were commissioned, though not built; and the telegraph was introduced, although it would not become effective until after 1871. In 1870–1871 an ambitious currency reform was introduced, a reform of land tenure sought, and a modern public market, which would stand for a century, was completed.

Despite some successes, pressures on the regime grew. A series of insurrections began in 1867 and Cerna's church-dominated government had poor relations with Benito Juárez's victorious Liberal regime in Mexico. Both foreign and Guatemalan entrepreneurs associated with the expanding coffee culture became impatient with Cerna's policy. His reelection in 1869 involved manipulation, and in 1870 political repression ended parliamentary debate. Miguel García Granados, leader of the opposition, was forced into exile, from whence both Guatemalan and Mexican allies aided his organization of the Liberal revolution of 1871. Joined by those impatient for modernization in Guatemala, García Granados and Justo Rufino Barrios defeated Cerna's army on 29 June 1871 and took control of the government the next day.

See alsoGuatemala; Military Dictatorships: 1821–1945.


Jorge Skinner Klee, Revolución y derecho: Una investigación sobre el problema de la revolución en el derecho guate-malteco (1971), esp. pp. 65-74.

Wayne M. Clegern, "Transition from Conservatism to Liberalism in Guatemala, 1865–1871," in Hispanic-American Essays in Honor of Max Leon Moorhead, edited by William S. Coker (1979), pp. 98-110.

Ralph Lee Woodward, Jr., Central America: A Nation Divided, 2d ed. (1985), and Rafael Carrera and the Emergence of the Republic of Guatemala, 1821–1871 (1993).

Carol A. Smith, ed., Guatemalan Indians and the State, 1540–1988 (1990), esp. pp. 52-136.

Wayne M. Clegern, Origins of Liberal Dictatorship in Central America (1994).

Additional Bibliography

Taracena Arriola, Arturo. Invención criolla, sueño ladino, pesa-dilla indígena: Los Altos de Guatemala: De región a estado, 1740–1871. Antigua: Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de Mesoamérica, 1999.

                                   Wayne M. Clegern