A War of Words: Manuel Montufar, Alejandro Marure, and the Politics of History in Guatemala

Article excerpt

In 1832, Manuel Montufar y Coronado published Memorias para la historia de la Revolucion de Centro America (Memoirs concerning the history of the Central American Revolution), popularly known as the Memorias de Jalapa due to its place of publication. This was the first work to attempt to analyze the creation of the new nation of Central America. A year later, Dr. Mariano Galvez, the reformist governor of Guatemala, commissioned another history, envisioned as an analysis of the struggle for independence and the early nation-building process. Galvez entrusted the latter commission to a young scholar and government official, Dr. Alejandro Marure, and in order to complement and support this study, the Guatemalan government simultaneously released official documents pertaining to the postindependence period in a publication entitled Documentos para la historia de las revoluciones de Centro-America (Documents for the history of the Central American revolutions). (1) Ostensibly, Marure's Bosquejo historico de las revoluciones de Centroamerica, desde 1811 hasta 1834 (Historical sketch of the Central American revolutions from 1811 to 1834) and the Documentos would together serve "to fix the truth of the deeds of the Revolution." (2)

The early 1830s was a time of intense social, political, and economic experimentation within Guatemala that followed an even more turbulent first decade of independence. Here, as in the rest of Latin America, the precipitous end of 300 years of colonial status produced a wide variety of strategies and blueprints for rapid national development. In such an atmosphere a preoccupation with the immediate past among nation builders intent on ensuring a better future for their country might appear premature. Yet, it was the logical culmination of an emerging political and ideological dispute within the Creole (Americans of European descent) governing class over the organization and identity of the new Central America, a country created out of the former Kingdom of Guatemala and encompassing the states of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. (3)

During the initial debate over the future of the region after the collapse of Spanish rule in 1821, the traditional Guatemalan landowning and merchant elite used its tremendous influence to push the colony toward annexation by the Mexican empire of Agustin Iturbide. The collapse of this enterprise by 1823, however, discredited this local nobility and allowed a younger, more radical element to play a greater role in the political and economic life of what would become the Central American Federation. As the fight for power between these groups heated up during the mid-1820s, two overtly incompatible political philosophies began to emerge that would dominate regional politics for more than half a century.

The established Guatemalan elite and their traditionalist allies from across the social spectrum became known as the Conservatives--serviles (sycophants) to their opponents--and were united in favor of moderate change, the retention of colonial institutions, the preservation of a hierarchical and corporate social order, and a centralized political structure, rooted in the former colonial, now national, capital of Guatemala City. On the other side of the political divide were the Liberals, or fiebres (hotheads). This group drew its strength from the heretofore disenfranchised urban middle classes, professionals, and provincial elites and promoted a complete break with the Spanish colonial legacy through the incorporation of progressive Western innovations and institutions; an emphasis on Enlightenment values such as individual rights, liberty, and equality; and the establishment of a federal system of government with all states operating as equals. Although independence was achieved peacefully, the growing political polarization in Central America caused the early stages of nation building to be characterized by extreme and bitter factionalism. …