Manuel Estrada Cabrera (1857-1924) is regarded as one of the worst tyrants in Guatemalan history. His presidency, which began in 1898, grew progressively more despotic until his overthrow in 1920.
Manuel Estrada Cabrera, a foundling, was born in Quezaltenango on Nov. 21, 1857. He received early schooling under Church supervision and eventually became a lawyer, practicing in both Quezaltenango and Retalhuleu. President José Maria Reyna Barrios (1891-1898) appointed him minister of government and justice, but his performance was colorless.
When Reyna Barrios was assassinated on Feb. 8, 1898, Estrada Cabrera, who had risen to vice president, became provisional president. The first Guatemalan head of state taken from civilian life in over 50 years, Estrada Cabrera overcame resistance to his regime by August 1898 and called for September elections, which he won handily. He retained power for 22 years through controlled elections in 1904, 1910, and 1916. One Guatemalan historian has suggested that the extreme despotic characteristics of the man did not emerge until after an attempt on his life in 1907.
Estrada Cabrera's regime did bring some advances. He extended roads, the long-delayed railway from the Atlantic coast to Guatemala City was completed in 1908, and early in his reign he indicated interest in education. In 1899 he initiated feasts of Minerva, celebrating accomplishments of students and teachers. 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.
By 1919 strong opposition developed against the dictator, which, emboldened by rumors of United States disenchantment with Estrada Cabrera, moved in the early months of 1920 to challenge his control. Popular pressure forced the National Assembly on April 8 to declare Estrada Cabrera insane. Fighting followed, but good offices of the diplomatic corps brought a settlement which included Estrada Cabrera's surrender and assurances of his safety. He was later tried and imprisoned but released in 1922 because of ill health. He died on Sept. 24, 1924, and was buried at Quezaltenango.
There are no full-length studies of Estrada Cabrera in English. Dana G. Munro, The Five Republics of Central America (1918) and Intervention and Dollar Diplomacy in the Caribbean, 1900-1921 (1964), which emphasizes United States relations, contain sections on the Guatemalan leader. Chester Lloyd Jones, Guatemala: Past and Present (1940), also has an excellent summary of Estrada Cabrera's administration. □