José Rafael Carrera Turcios (24 October 1814 Guatemala City – 14 April 1865 Guatemala City) was the president of Guatemala from 1844 to 1848 and from 1851 until his death in 1865. During his military career and presidency, the new nations in Central America faced numerous problems. This led to a rise of caudillos, a term that refers to charismatic populist leaders among the indigenous people. Many regional and national caudillos were interested in power for their own gain. Carrera was an exception as he genuinely took the interests of Guatemala's Indian majority to heart.
Backed by the Church, conservatives, and land owners, he dominated politics in the first five decades of Guatemala's independence more than any other individual. He led the revolt against the federal government and was instrumental in breaking up the Federal Republic of Central America (Republica Federal de Centroamérica).
Rafael Carrera was born on October 24, 1814 in Candelaria barrio of Guatemala City towards the end of the Spanish colonial period. He was of humble origin, a mestizo and illiterate. He first worked as a farmhand. He enlisted in the army during the civil war, which lasted from 1826-1829. He left the army in 1835, moved to Mataquescuintla, married Petrona Alvarez and worked as a swineherd.
Rise to Power
In the 1830s Rafael Carrera pledged a vendetta against Central American president Francisco Morazán and the Federal government after undisciplined Federal soldiers killed some of his relatives. By 1837, rural masses expressed numerous grievances against the liberal government. Inexperienced in republican politics, the liberal leaders did not foresee the power of popular resistance and refused to change course. A cholera epidemic added to the frustration over grievances, led to panic, and helped Carrera rally the peasants into a continuous military resistance. Strongly supported by the Church, Carrera became de facto ruler of much of Guatemala and led a large uprising of Indians in eastern and southern Guatemala. The movement was strongly conservative and eager to restore many of the colonial institutions and traditions that the liberals had abandoned. Morazán repeatedly chased Carrera's forces out of cities and towns, but Carrera's followers would retake places as soon as Morazán's army left. For almost a decade, he was content being a military commander and enjoyed the respect of his followers.
In 1840, Belgium began to act as an external source of support for his independence movement, in an effort to exert influence in Central America. The Compagnie belge de colonisation (Belgian Colonization Company), commissioned by Belgian King Leopold I, became the administrator of Santo-Thomas. It replaced the failed British Eastern Coast of Central America Commercial and Agricultural Company. Belgium continued to support Carrera in the mid-19th century.
Rafael Carrera was elected president in 1844. In 1847, Guatemala asserted itself as an independent republic.
One year later, as result of pressure by pro-federation liberals who accused Carrera of neglecting the interests of the people he had defended ten years before, Carrera was briefly driven into exile. Back in Guatemala City within a few months, he was commander-in-chief, backed by military and political support of the Indian communities from the densely populated western highlands. During the first presidency from 1844 to 1848, he brought the country back from excessive conservatism to a traditional climate, and restored relations with the Church in Rome.
In 1850, a Constituent Assembly published Guatemala's first constitution and named Carrera its president. In 1852, he restored relations between Guatemala and the papacy in Rome. In 1854, he was declared "supreme and perpetual leader of the nation" for life, with the power to choose his successor. He was in that position until he died on April 14, 1865. While he pursued some measures to set up a foundation for economic prosperity to please the conservative landowners, military challenges at home and in a three-year war with Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua dominated his presidency. His rivalry with Gerardo Barrios, President of El Salvador, resulted in open war in 1863. At Coatepeque the Guatemalans suffered a severe defeat, which was followed by a truce. Honduras joined with El Salvador, and Nicaragua and Costa Rica with Guatemala. The contest was finally settled in favor of Carrera, who besieged and occupied San Salvador, and dominated Honduras and Nicaragua. He continued to act in concert with the Clerical Party, and tried to maintain friendly relations with the European governments. Before his death, Carrera nominated a general, Vicente Cerna Sandoval, as his successor.
Carrera did not significantly enhance the life of rural Indians, but he delayed the destruction of their culture that characterized the liberals' capitalist developments. Carrera's regime established the foundations of all following government, including "economic control by unified elites, the military as the Latinos' means of social mobility, and even the alienation of Indian land and labor." His success was the result of his military brilliance, charisma, and his ability to quickly identify core issues and problems. His rule may have been arbitrary and severe, but not more so that of other Latin American leaders.
- M. Adas, P. N. Stearns and S. B. Schwarz, Turbulent Passage: A Global History of the Twentieth Century. (4th ed). (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2009), p.77
- Ralph Lee Woodward, Rafael Carrera and the Emergence of the Republic of Guatemala, 1821-1871. (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1993), p. 456
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- Weaver, 137.
- Peter Calvert, Guatemala: A Nation in Turmoil. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1985), 64.
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- Christofer Minster, Biography of Rafael Carrera.
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- Calvert, Peter. Guatemala: A Nation in Turmoil. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1985.
- Kortheuer, Dennis. "Rafael Carrera and the Emergence of the Republic of Guatemala: 1821-1871." The Historian 57.1 (1994): 153+. Academic OneFile. Web. 9 Feb. 2011.
- Miceli, Keith. "Rafael Carrera: Defender and Promoter of Peasant Interests in Guatemala, 1837-1848". The Americas, 31.1 (1974): 72-95.
- Minster, Christofer. Biography of Rafael Carrera.
- F.S. Weaver. "Reform and (Counter) Revolution in Post-Independence Guatemala: Liberalism, Conservatism, and Postmodern Controversies]". Latin American Perspectives, Volume 26, Number 2 (March 1, 1999), pp. 129–158,
- Woodward, Ralph Lee. Rafael Carrera and the Emergence of the Republic of Guatemala, 1821-1871. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1993.
- Biography on Catholic Encyclopedia
- Hamill, Hugh (ed.) Caudillos: Dictators in Spanish America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.
- The Poverty of Progress: Latin America in the Nineteenth Century by E. Bradford Burns
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