Manuel Estrada Cabrera

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Manuel José Estrada Cabrera
Manuel Estrada Cabrera 01.jpg
Coat of arms of Guatemala.svg
President of the Republic of Guatemala
In office
8 February 1898 – 15 April 1920
Preceded by José María Reina
Succeeded by Carlos Herrera
Personal details
Born (1857-11-21)21 November 1857
Died 24 September 1924(1924-09-24) (aged 66)
Guatemala City
Political party Liberal Party of Guatemala

Manuel José Estrada Cabrera (21 November 1857 – 24 September 1924) was President of Guatemala from 1898 to 1920. He was lawyer with no military background and as President, he was a strong ruler, who modernised the country’s industry and transport, but only by granting concessions to the American-owned United Fruit Company, whose influence on the government was felt by many to be excessive. Estrada Cabrera used increasingly brutal methods to assert his authority, including armed strike-breaking, and the general elections were effectively controlled by him. He retained power for 22 years through controlled elections in 1904, 1910, and 1916, and was eventually removed from office when the national assembly declared him mentally incompetent, and he was jailed for corruption.[1]


Estrada Cabrera was a lawyer that studied in the Universidad Nacional and thanks to his work he reached the position of "First Designated for the Presidency" when José María Reina Barrios was elected as President for his second term.


During his first term, he extended roads, His achievements, however, were overshadowed by growing repression and blatant graft, including bribes for the president. The lot of native workers was little better than peonage, and everywhere there was a spy system to report subversive activities.

On the foreign front Estrada Cabrera was frequently concerned about plottings of Guatemalan exiles in neighboring countries. A border dispute with Mexico strained his relations with that nation, and a personal feud with Gen. Tomás Regalado led to a border clash with El Salvador when Regalado, inebriated, invaded Guatemala. Estrada Cabrera cultivated friendly relations with the United States, and he supported United States policy during the Panamanian revolution of 1903.

Interim President (1898)[edit]

Enrique Gómez Carrillo, famous Guatemalan chronicler, journalist and a constant political propagandist for Estrada Cabrera, even to the point to duel in his name in Europe.

After the assassination of Reina Barrios on Feb. 8, 1898, the Guatemalan cabinet called an emergency meeting to appoint a new successor, but declined to invite Estrada Cabrera to the meeting, even though he was the First Designated to the Presidency. There are two versions on how he was able to get the Presidency: (a) Estrada Cabrera entered "with pistol drawn" to assert his entitlement to the presidency [2] and (b) Estrada Cabrera showed up to the meeting and demanded to be given the presidency as he was the First Designated".[3]

The first Guatemalan head of state taken from civilian life in over 50 years, Estrada Cabrera overcame resistance to his regime by August 1,898 and called for September elections, which he won handily.[4] At that time, Estrada Cabrera was 44 years old; he was stocky, of medium height, dark, and broad-shouldered. The mustache gave him plebeian appearance. Black and dark eyes, metallic sounding voice and was rather sullen and brooding. At the same time, he already showed his courage and character. This was demonstrated on the night of the death of Reina Barrios when he stood in front of the ministers, meeting in the Government Palace to choose a successor, Gentlemen, let me please sign this decree. As First Designated, you must hand me the Presidency. "His first decree was a general amnesty and the second was to reopen all the elementary schools closed by Reyna Barrios, both administrative and political measures aimed to gain the public opinion. Estrada Cabrera was almost unknown in the political circles of the capital and one could not foresee the features of his government or his intentions.[5]


  • Interior and Justice: Francisco Anguiano
  • Promotion: Antonio Barrios
  • Finance: Rafael Salazar
  • Public Instruction: Domingo Morales
  • War: Salvador Toledo (changed after a few months by Gregorio Contreras)
  • Head of the Judiciary: José Pinto
  • First appointed to the chair: Feliciano Aguilar
  • Second appointed to the chair: Felipe Cruz [6]

Call for Elections[edit]

From the pen of the writers of 'The Liberal Idea', especially that of Gómez Carrillo, these phrases out support for the first election of Manuel Estrada Cabrera:[7]

  • (Estrada Cabrera) is a sincere man. He is also a committed man of good will and full of faith. Has strong ideas to fight for and for the sake of which would be sacrificed if necessary. He is a man. '"[8]
  • His lips form a contrast with his eyes. The eyes always bright, always calm, reveal the inner strength and mastery of his own soul. The lips are kind and sentimental. The forehead is broad and without crease, a studious man forehead which reflects intellectual robustness'[8]

And when the election was getting close:

  • Two months ago, our candidate was a hope; today he is a reality. Two months ago we encouraged confidence in his principles, in his heart and in his talent. Today is his behavior that enhances and strengthens our confidence. So, after having a candidate for the Liberal Party, today we have a candidate for the Homeland. It was what we needed. Tomorrow, finally, every patriot will see to the best liberal patriotism and every nuance is that his liberalism. [9]

In 1898 the Legislature convened for the election of President Estrada Cabrera, who triumphed thanks to the large number of soldiers and policemen who went to vote in civilian clothes and to the large number of illiterate family that they brought with them to the polls. Also, the effective propaganda that was written in the official newspaper "the Liberal Idea '. The latter was run by the poet Joaquin Mendez, and among the drafters were Enrique Gómez Carrillo, [Note 1] Rafael Spinola, Máximo Soto Hall and Juan Manuel Mendoza, [Note 2] and others.

Gómez Carrillo received as a reward for his work as political propagandist the appointment as General Consul in Paris, with 250 gold pesos monthly salary and immediately went back to Europe [10]

The other candidates were:

  • José Luis Castillo de Leon, who had 5 castillistas clubs in the capital and in 70 municipalities, and who was the strongest candidate.
  • Francisco Fuentes, who had most of his supporters in Quetzaltenango.
  • Feliz Morales, former Minister of Reyna Barrios.

First term and the United Fruit Company[edit]

Minerva Temples
Guatemala City temple in 1905, during the Minerva Celebration. Guatemala National Museum of History
View of North Hippodrome: Simeón Cañas Avenue, Baseball Stadium and Minerva Temple, 1905.
Baseball Stadium Enrique Torrebiarte Museum
Estrada's Temple of Minerva, Guatemala City, c. 1905. The architrave is inscribed: MANUEL ESTRADA CABRERA PRESIDENTE DE LA REPUBLICA A LA JUVENTUD ESTUDIOSA[Nota 1]
Baseball Stadium Enrique Torrebiarte (then Minerva Stadium) before stands construction.
Museo del Diamante de Béisbol Enrique Torrebiarte
Quetzaltenango Temple, Guatemala 2014.
Note the decay and that any Estrada Cabrera reference has been removed.
Estrada Cabrera Medallion, in recognition of the fifteenth anniversary of the Minerva Celebrations. .
Guatemala National Museum of History

One of Estrada Cabrera's most famous and most bitter legacies was allowing the entry of the United Fruit Company into the Guatemalan economical and political arena. As a member of the Liberal Party, he sought to encourage development of the nation's infrastructure of highways, railroads, and sea ports for the sake of expanding the export economy. By the time Estrada Cabrera assumed the presidency, there had been repeated efforts to construct a railroad from the major port of Puerto Barrios to the capital, Guatemala City. Yet due to lack of funding exacerbated by the collapse of the internal coffee trade, the railway fell sixty miles short of its goal. Estrada Cabrera decided, without consulting the legislature or judiciary, that striking a deal with the United Fruit Company was the only way to get finish the railway.[11] Cabrera signed a contract with UFCO's Minor Cooper Keith in 1904 that gave the company tax-exemptions, land grants, and control of all railroads on the Atlantic side.[12]

Estrada Cabrera often employed brutal methods to assert his authority, as that was the school of government in Guatemala at the time. Like him, presidents Rafael Carrera y Turcios and Justo Rufino Barrios had led tyrannical governments in the country. Right at the beginning of his first presidential period, he started prosecuting his political rivals and soon established a well-organized web of spies.

One American Minister returned to the United States after he learned the dictator had given orders to poison him. Former President Manuel Barillas was stabbed to death in Mexico City, on a street outside of the Mexican Presidential Residence on Cabrera's orders; the street now bears the name of Calle Guatemala. Also, Estrada Cabrera responded violently to workers' strikes against UFCO. In one incident, when UFCO went directly to Estrada Cabrera to resolve a strike (after the armed forces refused to respond), the president ordered an armed unit to enter the workers' compound. The forces "arrived in the night, firing indiscriminately into the workers' sleeping quarters, wounding and killing an unspecified number."[13]

In 1906 Estrada faced serious revolts against his rule; the rebels were supported by the governments of some of the other Central American nations, but Estrada succeeded in putting them down. Elections were held by the people against the will of Estrada Cabrera and thus he had the president-elect murdered in retaliation.

The Bomb[edit]

In 1907 the brothers Avila Echeverría and group of friends decided to kill the president using a bomb along his way. They came from prominent families in Guatemala and studied in foreign universities, but when they returned to their homeland, they found a situation where everybody live in constant fear and the president ruled without any opposition. Everything was carefully planned. When Estrada Cabrera went for a ride in his carriage, the bomb exploded, killing the horse and the driver, but only slightly injuring the President. Since their attack failed and they were forced to take their own lives; their families also suffered, as they were jailed in the infamous Penitenciaría Central. Conditions in the Penitentiary were cruel and foul. Political offenses were tortured daily and their screams could be heard all over the Penitentiary. Prisoners regularly died under these conditions since political crimes had no pardon.[14]

It has been suggested that the extreme despotic characteristics of the man did not emerge until after an attempt on his life in 1907.[15]

Unionist Party and end of Cabrera's regime[edit]

President Manuel Estrada Cabrera official portrait for his last presidential term.
Museo Nacional de Historia de Guatemala

Estrada Cabrera continued in power until forced to resign by new revolts in 1920. By that time, his power had declined drastically and he was reliant on the loyalty of a few generals. While the United States threatened intervention if he was removed through revolution, a bipartisan coalition came together to remove him from the presidency. He was removed from office after the national assembly charged that he was mentally incompetent, and appointed Carlos Herrera in his place on April 8, 1920.[16]


Minerva Celebrations[edit]

Estrada's most curious legacy was his attempt to foster a Cult of Minerva in Guatemala: Early in his reign he indicated interest in education and in 1899 he initiated feasts of Minerva, celebrating accomplishments of students and teachers. He ordered a number of Hellenic style "Minerva Temples" built in major cities of the country where he celebrated the "Fiestas Minervalias" for the Student Youth.[17]

He extended roads, the long-delayed railway from the Atlantic coast to Guatemala City was completed in 1908, and His achievements, however, were overshadowed by growing repression and blatant graft, including bribes for the president. The lot of native workers was little better than peonage, and everywhere there was a spy system to report subversive activities.

In fiction[edit]

Estrada Cabrera was immortalized in the dictator novel El Señor Presidente (1946), written by the Nobel laureate Miguel Ángel Asturias.[citation needed] Although the most famous, this is not the only book written about him: Rafael Arevalo Martinez wrote a book on his life, government and overthrow called Ecce Pericles, and Oscar Wyld Ospina wrote El Autócrata, a bitter biography of the president.

The role that UFCO played in Guatemala during Estrada Cabrera and Jorge Ubico's regimes is described in three novels from Miguel Ángel Asturias called The Banana Trilogy: Viento Fuerte, El Papa Verde, and Los Ojos de los Enterrados.

See also[edit]



  • Arévalo Martinez, Rafael (1945). ¡Ecce Pericles! (in Spanish). Guatemala: Tipografía Nacional. 
  • Chapman, Peter (2007). Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World. NY: Canongate. 
  • de Aerenlund, C. (2006). Voyage to an Unknown Land: The saga of an Italian Family from Lombardy to Guatemala. ISBN 1-4257-0187-6. 
  • Dosal, Paul J. (1993). Doing Business with the Dictators: A Political History of United Fruit in Guatemala. Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly Resources Inc. 
  • Gómez C., Enrique (1898). "Upcoming presidential elections". La idea liberal (in Spanish) (Guatemala: Guatemala). 
  • Gómez Carrillo, Enrique (1898). "Interview from Enrique Gómez Carrillo with His Excellency, President Manuel Estrada Cabrera". Diario de Centro América (in Spanish) (Guatemala). 
  • Montenegro, Gustavo Adolfo (2005). "Yo, el Supremo". Revista Domigo de Prensa Libre (in Spanish). Retrieved 20 July 2014. 
  • Mendoza, Juan Manuel (1946). Biografía de Enrique Gómez Carrillo: su vida, su obra y su época (in Spanish) (2nd ed.). Guatemala: Tipografía Nacional. 
  • Torres Espinoza, Enrique (2007). Enrique Gómez Carrillo, el cronista errante (in Spanish) (2nd ed.). Guatemala: Artemis-Edinter. 
Preceded by
José María Reina
Coat of arms of Guatemala.svg
President of Guatemala

Succeeded by
Carlos Herrera


  1. ^ ("Manuel Estrada Cabrera, President of the Republic, to the Studious Youths"). This structure was later demolished during the government of Col. Jacobo Arbenz in the early years of the 1950s, but similar Temples in Quetzaltenango and other cities still stand.
  1. ^ Famous writer who had just returned to Guatemala from Paris, and who had confidence that Estrada Cabrera was the president that Guatemala needed
  2. ^ Who later would be Gómez Carrillo biographer