In 1838 the liberal forces of Honduran leader Francisco Morazán and of Guatemalan José Francisco Barrundia invaded Guatemala and reached San Sur, where they executed Chúa Alvarez, father-in-law of Rafael Carrera, then a military commander and later the first president of Guatemala. This action began a period of strife and war that lasted until the declaration of the Republic.
Republic Under Carrera (1847–1865):
On 21 March 1847, Guatemala declared itself an independent republic and Carrera became its first president. During the first term as president, Carrera brought the country back from extreme conservatism to a traditional moderation; in 1848, the liberals were able to drive him from office, after the country had been in turmoil for several months. Carrera resigned of his own free will and left for México. The new liberal regime allied itself with the Aycinena family and swiftly passed a law ordering Carrera’s execution if he returned to Guatemalan soil.
Carrera decided to return to Guatemala and did so, entering at Huehuetenango, where he met with native leaders and told them that they must remain united to prevail; the leaders agreed and slowly the segregated native communities started developing a new Indian identity under Carrera’s leadership. Carrera would go on to become President again in 1851 by utilizing relationships with the native peoples. He formed a moderate government and became President for Life in 1854 which kept him in office until his death in 1865.
Vicente Cerna y Cerna Regime (1865–1871):
Vicente Cerna y Cerna was president of Guatemala from 24 May 1865 to 29 June 1871. This government was described by Guatemalan writer Alfonso Enrique Barrientos as:
A conservative and archaic government, badly organized and with worse intentions, was in charge of the country, centralizing all powers in Vicente Cerna, ambitious military man, who not happy with the general rank, had promoted himself to the Army Marshall rank, even though that rank did not exist and it does not exist in the Guatemalan military.
The Marshall called himself President of the Republic, but in reality he was the foreman of oppressed and savaged people, cowardly enough that they had not dared to tell the dictator to leave threatening him with a revolution.
Liberal Governments (1871–1898):
Guatemala’s “Liberal Revolution” came in 1871 under the leadership of Justo Rufino Barrios, who worked to modernize the country, improve trade, and introduce new crops and manufacturing. During this era coffee became an important crop for Guatemala. Barrios had ambitions of reuniting Central America and took the country to war in an unsuccessful attempt to attain it, losing his life on the battlefield in 1885 against forces in El Salvador.
Manuel Barillas was president from 16 March 1886 to 15 March 1892.
Manuel Barillas was unique among liberal presidents of Guatemala between 1871 and 1944: he handed over power to his successor peacefully. When election time approached, he sent for the three Liberal candidates to ask them what their government plan would be. Happy with what he heard from general Reyna Barrios, Barillas made sure that a huge column of Quetzaltenango and Totonicapán indigenous people came down from the mountains to vote for him. Reyna was elected president.