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Estrada Cabrera, Manuel (1857–1924)

Estrada Cabrera, Manuel (1857–1924)

Manuel Estrada Cabrera (b. 21 November 1857; d. 24 September 1924), president of Guatemala (1898–1920). In 1898 Estrada Cabrera secured the Guatemalan presidency following the assassination of his protector and predecessor, President José María Reyna Barrios. A Quetzaltenango lawyer of limited ability and humble parentage, Estrada Cabrera has been described as one of the strangest personalities who ever raised himself to great power. Even though he served the Reyna Barrios administration (1892–1898) as minister of the interior and justice and first designate (vice president), upon his ascendancy to the presidency as the constitutionally recognized presidential successor, Estrada Cabrera was largely regarded as an undistinguished rural politician. The violence of Reyna Barrios's assassination, however, proved to be a fitting introduction to Estrada Cabrera's twenty-two-year reign of terror, which still ranks as the longest uninterrupted rule in Central American history. The president's renowned tendencies toward cruelty and corruption, combined with his legendary resourcefulness and invulnerability undoubtedly contributed to the longevity of his administration.

Like the father of Guatemalan liberalism, the revered Justo Rufino Barrios (1873–1885), Estrada Cabrera was a typical Latin American caudillo. Careful to cultivate the support of the coffee elite and dedicated to the Positivist watchwords of "order" and "progress," the dictator guided Guatemala on a course common in Latin America in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Throughout his presidency, Estrada Cabrera fostered the creation of a society typified by large landed estates, forced labor, an export-oriented economy, and highly centralized political power. Latin American caudillos rarely delegated political authority to subordinates and Estrada Cabrera was no exception to this rule. According to Dana G. Munro, a U.S. State Department representative in the first quarter of the twentieth century, the dictator "had no friends or personal followers except the army officers and government officials who supported his regime" and these only "for the sake of the license and graft" that he permitted.

During the Estrada Cabrera presidency, the exploitative and exclusive nature of Guatemalan society became increasingly obvious. Instead of real development, what emerged was a landed oligarchy, engaged primarily in the production of coffee, that utilized its economic might to construct a state that protected its dominant social and political status. Although economic growth and modernization proceeded at a moderate pace during the first two decades of the twentieth century, political and social problems associated with increased economic activity, lack of development, and the altered fabric of Guatemalan society arose. Significant among these were the rapid growth of the capital's middle class, the emergence of a significant labor element, and a vocal and politically conscious student population, all of which were refused a forum for political expression, not to mention an equitable share in the profits of the republic's lucrative coffee industry. The cumulative effect of these forces, augmented by the extremely repressive nature of Estrada Cabrera's administration, presented the republic with a rare opportunity to implement real and significant reform.

In late 1917 and 1918 general disenchantment with the political and economic status quo of the Estrada Cabrera regime was accelerated by a series of devastating earthquakes that left much of Guatemala City in rubble. Estrada Cabrera's apathetic response to the earthquakes, coupled with the student protests of the same years, aroused a heretofore unknown reaction in the capital. Awakened by the students' commitment to reform, other sectors of society, notably the Roman Catholic church, an incipient urban middle class, organized labor, and eventually the military and the landed elite, pledged their support to a new unified political coalition, the Unionist Party, to oppose the dictator. By April 1920, the president's inability to adapt to the republic's changing political and social conditions and the coalition's commitment to the dictator's unconditional surrender, prompted the Guatemalan National Assembly to impeach a physically weakened and politically alienated Manuel Estrada Cabrera.

See alsoCoffee Industry; Guatemala City; Reyna Barrios, José María.


Dana G. Munro, Intervention and Dollar Diplomacy in the Caribbean, 1900–1921, (1964).

Chester Lloyd Jones, Guatemala: Past and Present (1966).

Rafael Arévalo Martínez, ¡Ecce Pericles! La tiranía de Manuel Estrada Cabrera en Guatemala, 3d ed. (1983).

David McCreery, "Debt Servitude in Rural Guatemala, 1876–1936," in Hispanic American Historical Review 63 (1983): 735-759.

Jim Handy, Gift of the Devil: A History of Guatemala (1984).

Ralph Lee Woodward, Jr., Central America: A Nation Divided (1985).

Mary Catherine Rendon, "Manuel Estrada Cabrera, Guatemalan President, 1898–1920" (Ph.D. diss., Oxford Univ., 1988).

Wade Kit, "Precursor of Change: Failed Reform and the Guatemalan Coffee Elite, 1918–1926" (Master's thesis, Univ. of Saskatchewan, 1989).

Additional Bibliography

Buchenau, Jürgen. "Little Patience with a Little Neighbor: Understanding Mexico's Hostile Policies towards Guatemala's Manuel Estrada Cabrera, 1898–1920." Jahrbuch für Geschichte von Staat, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft Lateinamerikas 33 (1996): 289-311.

Dosal, Paul J. Power in Transition: The Rise of Guatemala's Industrial Elite, 1871–1994. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995.

Luján Muñoz, Jorge. Las revoluciones de 1897, la muerte de J.M. Reina Barrios y la elección de M. Estrada Cabrera. Guatemala: Artemis Edinter, 2003.

Rendón, Catherine. Minerva y la palma: El enigma de don Manuel. Guatemala: Artemis Edinter, 2000.

                                           Wade A. Kit

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