Manuel José Estrada Cabrera was president of Guatemala from 1898 to 1920 and established a tradition of Guatemalan strongmen that was to be revived by Jorge Ubico and later presidents. Estrada Cabrera is also credited with running the longest one-man dictatorship in Central American history.
Born on November 21, 1857, in Quezaltenango in the southwest of Guatemala, the nation's secondlargest city, Estrada Cabrera was educated in Roman Catholic schools, training as a lawyer. After many years practicing in Quezaltenango and then in Guatemala City, he became a judge of the Guatemalan supreme court before entering politics.
Elected to congress, he became minister of public instruction, minister of justice, and then minister of the interior during the presidency of José María Reina Barrios. On February 8, 1898, the president was assassinated, and Estrada Cabrera, who was in Costa Rica, returned to Guatemala City. He was the second in line to the presidency.
Estrada Cabrera was said to have burst in on the cabinet meeting where the politicians were discussing the succession. Charging in unannounced, he walked around the cabinet ministers and then drew a revolver from his pocket. Placing it on the table, he then announced: "Gentlemen, you are looking at the new president of Guatemala."
Estrada Cabrera was sworn in as the provisional president, elected soon afterward, and officially inaugurated on October 2, 1898. During his first term in office he respected the constitution, which forbade presidents' serving more than one term.
Before this first term was over Estrada Cabrera changed the constitution to allow himself to be reelected in 1904, again in 1910, and on a third occasion in 1916, remaining president until April 15, 1920. Political commentators do not credit him with any personal popularity or any plan of action or change except anything that might keep him in office.
During his time as president of the country, Estrada Cabrera certainly gave Guatemala internal peace, and this was welcomed by the landowners and the Guatemalan middle class, although the latter gradually tired of his rule.
There had been a financial crisis just before he came to power, and he managed to steer the country through it. He also encouraged investment by the United Fruit Company, which during his presidency started to take over the economic life of the country. Minor Keith of the United Fruit Company was also granted the rights to establish a railway across Guatemala in 1906.
When it was completed, the company took ownership not only of the railway but also of 170,000 acres of agricultural land. The actions of the United Fruit Company led to increased control of the Guatemalan economy by U.S. business interests, in contrast to the situation faced by U.S. companies in Nicaragua, where the reformist president, José Santos Zelaya, was trying to replace U.S. businesses with European ones.
In 1910 the Chicago Tribune sent Frederic Palmer to visit Guatemala and other parts of Central America. He found that the president was living not in the presidential palace but in a nearby building that was easier to secure.
In a meeting with the president, the journalist was told that the Guatemalan army numbered 15,000 to 16,000, but that in a time of war 60,000 could be fielded, which meant that Guatemala had one of the largest, relative to its population, standing armies in the world.
Certainly Estrada Cabrera used the army and, more importantly, his secret police, controlled by Justo Rufino Barrios, to ensure he had no opposition, removing any liberal moves that had been introduced just before he came to power. He also used the presidency to loot the treasury and make himself a large fortune.
Estrada Cabrera was also responsible for building a few schools; improving sanitation, especially in Guatemala City, the nation's capital; and raising the level of agricultural production. However, he kept the Indians in a terrible state, marginalizing them politically and economically. One of Estrada Cabrera's eccentricities was to establish a cult to Minerva in Guatemala, with Greek-style "Temples of Minerva" built in many cities throughout Guatemala.
In 1906 rebels supported by other governments in Central America threatened to push him from office. However, Estrada Cabrera managed to get help from neighboring dictator Porfirio Díaz of Mexico. The Mexicans later became worried by Estrada Cabrera's power, and after the Mexican Revolution he was to face bitter political opponents on Guatemala's northern borders, although internal strife in Mexico prevented them from intervening in Guatemala.
In April 1920 an armed revolt overthrew Estrada Cabrera, and the former dictator was thrown into jail. On April 15 the congress declared Estrada Cabrera to be medically unfit to hold office. He was replaced by Carlos Herrera and then by José María Orellana. This change ushered in a period of liberal political laws and a new reform government, which recognized opposition parties.
Estrada Cabrera had hoped for U.S. intervention to save him, but the U.S. president, Woodrow Wilson, decided not to intervene. In fact, the conspirators who overthrew Estrada Cabrera moved only when they had information that Wilson would not act. Manuel Estrada Cabrera died on September 24, 1924, in jail in Guatemala City.