The 15 September 1821 Declaration of Independence for Central America led to the drafting of a Magna Carta by Central American delegates, including those from Chiapas. After a brief annexation of the isthmus by Mexico until 1823, the delegates convened again to reaffirm Central American independence. Chiapas, however, remained under Mexican authority. Influenced by the Spanish liberalism of the Cortes of Cádiz and the U.S. Constitution, the representatives drafted the Constitution of the United Provinces of Central America, promulgated 24 November 1824. Within the following year, each of the member states (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica) drafted its own constitution, under the same terms. These constitutions, including the 1825 Constitution of the State of Guatemala, incorporated the three classic branches of legislative, executive, and judiciary. They provided the states with important powers, including those of tax collection and the creation of armed militias, which would lead to the eventual deterioration of federal power.
At the outset of a period dominated by conservatives, the Guatemalan authorities declared secession from the federation on 17 April 1839. May of that year saw the installation of a new constituent assembly, which drafted various temporary constitutional laws, including the Law of Guarantees, aimed at supporting the basic management of the Guatemalan state. There were various conflicts with the liberals, and other constituent assemblies convened in 1844 and 1845, but they were dissolved because the documents they drafted did not entirely reflect conservative thought. In 1847 the central government officially declared the Republic of Guatemala, but in 1848 another constituent assembly was dissolved after drafting a new constitution that failed to be ratified.
After the battle of La Arada in 1851, when President Rafael Carrera attained absolute power in the area, a new, conservative assembly convened. In October of that year, the group issued a Constitutional Act consisting of eighteen Articles. Afterward Carrera became President for Life, a dictatorship that was endorsed by both the Church and the elite.
In 1871 the so-called Liberal Revolution broke out. A constituent assembly was formed in 1872, but its sessions were suspended a year later. In 1876 the assembly met again, but only to ratify the dictatorship of Justo Rufino Barrios. Another constituent assembly met in 1879 and put into effect in December of that year the Constitution which, except for a few changes, remained in place until 1944. It contained the liberal principles of the Constitution of 1824, including an article that limited the term of office. However, the vote was reserved only for literates and conducted by voice under the supervision of an official delegate, whom no one would dare to go against. Thus the elected representatives met two or three months out of the year in order to ratify whatever the president had mandated. Except during the presidencies between 1885 and 1898, this formalism supported what was in fact a dictatorship. After that year it was routine for the Congress to modify the Constitutional Article that limited the term of office, in order to permit the president to remain in power. Manuel Estrada Cabrera made use of this practice, maintaining a dictatorship that lasted from 1898 to 1920.
After Estrada Cabrera's ouster and the brief conservative administration that lasted until 1921, some constitutional amendments were made. In that year the liberals returned to power, and despite some conflicts, continued to govern. Jorge Ubico made use of the same practice as Estrada Cabrera, ignoring the limit which the Constitution placed on his term of office. The Revolutionary Junta of November 1944 put an end to the "liberal" Constitution. The new Assembly ratified a new Constitution in March 1945 that assured democracy. It guaranteed the free organization of employers' groups, unions and political parties which was previously denied, and allowed for freedom of opinion and of the press. It created a Social Security program and workers' tribunals. Its articles also established the principle of the "social function of private property," which would be the focus of great conflict. Finally, members of the oligarchy, both liberal and conservative, met to confront social reform, especially when it affected landholdings.
With the Washington-assisted ouster of the reformist administration in 1954, the Constitution of 1945 was thrown out and a new one promulgated in 1956. Without changing the state administrative structure outlined in the previous constitution, this one restricted the participation of political parties and eliminated the concept of "the social function of private property." In 1963 the army took charge of the state and abolished the Constitution. Members of a new constituent assembly were chosen from among sympathizers with the authorities and from among the heirs of the liberals and conservatives. A new constitution, very much like the preceding one, was promulgated in September 1965. Authorized political parties remained subject to the State. The limit on the term of the presidency was respected, although military presidents predominated until the military coup in 1982.
Following the coup, differences among military leaders, and between the army and important landowners, were overwhelmed by a general insurgency that led to a violent civil war. Domestic and international opinion pressed for a new constitution that would expand democratic rights. A new constituent assembly, elected in a transparent manner, labored from 1984 to 1985, with little influence from the military. The new constitution and new electoral law contained important differences from their predecessors. Political parties are now free to operate and the rights of indigenous communities have been recognized. The Constitution calls for the creation of a Constitutional Court and a human rights prosecutor designated by the Congress—both founded to confront violations of individual rights. It strengthens the role of Congress. A constitutional reform to restrict the army's activities in civil life is being considered.
See alsoChiapas .
Luis Marinas Otero, Las constituciones de Guatemala (1958).
Azpuru de Cuestas, Dinorah, and Cynthia Arnson. The Popular Referendum (Consulta Popular) and the Future of the Peace Process in Guatemala. Washington, DC: Latin American Program, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 1999.
Fernando GonzÁlez Davison