Justo Rufino Barrios (1835-1885) was a Guatemalan general and president whose sweeping innovations gave form to modern Guatemala and earned for him the sobriquet "the Reformer."
Justo Barrios was born on July 19, 1835, in the department of San Marcos in western Guatemala. His well-todo parents had land holdings that extended into adjoining Mexico. He studied law in Guatemala City and became a notary, but in 1862 he returned home and engaged in farming until he joined the liberal revolution against conservative President Vicente Cerna.
The revolutionaries triumphed in June 1871, and their leader, Miguel Garcia Granados, became provisional president. Barrios, however, was the stronger personality. As military commander in the western departments, then as acting president, and finally as elected president after April 1873, he shaped the revolution and dominated Guatemala until his death.
Politically, Barrios ran an open dictatorship only slightly mitigated after 1879 by a charade of constitutionalism. He imposed internal peace and established central control over local affairs by means of appointed departmental governors (jefes políticos). As a lawgiver, he provided complete codes in many areas to replace the temporizing patchwork of legislation grafted on unrepealed Spanish laws accumulated since Guatemalan independence. In 1879 a compliant constituent assembly drafted a constitution accommodated to a strong executive, under which Barrios was overwhelmingly reelected in March 1880.
Barrios initiated far-reaching reforms of a pattern common to 19th-century liberals. He curtailed the powers of the Church by such measures as suppressing regular orders and nationalizing their properties, subjecting clerics to the civil courts, making civil marriage obligatory, and guaranteeing free exercise of all religions. Companion legislation provided for a public school system and made education laical, free, and compulsory. To encourage rapid economic growth of the country, he continued to promote coffee cultivation, offered land free or at moderate cost to prospective cultivators, and installed mechanisms to supply labor by Indians. To improve communications, he built roads and promoted railroad building, port development, and construction of telegraph, telephone, and cable lines. He stimulated immigration both for its direct effect and for the beneficial influence foreign settlers could exert on nationals.
Barrios also manipulated international affairs. He arranged a boundary settlement with Mexico that critics alleged served his own property interests better than the national welfare. Like other Central American strongmen, he intervened in neighboring states to overthrow hostile governments or to support those favorable to him. He proclaimed restoration of the Central American union, and when a previously compliant regime in EI Salvador did not respond favorably, he declared war. On April 2, 1885, he was killed on the battle filed at Chalchuapa, EI Salvador.
The Barrios regime set the pattern for "liberal" Guatemala until 1944. Barrios destroyed the traditional aristocracy but created another around the new entrepreneurs and other beneficiaries of his measures. He despised the Indian because of his cultural conservatism and his lack of sophistication; he believed him capable of no contribution to the new Guatemala other than as body given in labor or as an instrument of amalgamating the races.
The standard English source on Barrios is Paul Burgess, Justo Rufino Barrios (1926), an objective study by a Protestant missionary resident in Guatemala. Chester L. Jones, Guatemala: Past and Present (1940), contains a brief but excellent evaluation.