The Cold War in Guatemala

Photographs from the CIRMA Photography Archives, 1940s-1990s

Curated by Marcos Armstrong and Anaís García Salazar

Click on any photo for a slideshow.

The Cold War in Guatemala: Photographs from the CIRMA Photography Archives, 1940s-1990s shows the everyday uses of the camera to capture various aspects of life in Guatemala during the Cold War—from political and public events, to cultural and daily activities. The digital exhibition’s main focus is on events of the revolutionary decade after WWII (1944-54), the internal conflicts that followed—armed, political, economic and social—and the period leading up to the peace accords signed in 1996.

This exhibition explores how photographs were produced and circulated in Guatemala during the Cold War by considering what the photographs depict, and also additional information offered by their collections and the archive.

Fototeca is the photography archive of Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de Mesoamérica (CIRMA) which also houses a library and historical document archive. Its 190 collections contain over one million photographs dating from 1850 to present. CIRMA was founded in 1978 in Antigua, Guatemala with the support of Guatemalan historians and American academics, and out of a desire to return past and contemporary published research of foreign scholars who studied Guatemala, along with documents and photographs.

Figure 1
OLIVER GARRISON RICKETSON, JR. (United States, 1894-1952)
Loading bananas onto United Fruit Company boats in Puerto Barrios, c. 1932-33.
Gelatin silver print. Mary Ricketson Bullard Collection.

The export of bananas and coffee has been an important part of the Guatemalan economy since the 1890s. Archaeologist Dr. Oliver Garrison Ricketson photographed many of the United Fruit Company’s shipping and agricultural activities in Guatemala, twenty years prior to agrarian reforms that took place under the leadership of Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán from 1951 to 1954. The collection’s thirty-five negatives, postcards, and photographic prints were donated to CIRMA by the photographer’s daughter, Mary Ricketson in 2000.

Figure 2
SOL LIBSOHN (United States, 1914-2001)
Transport of bass instrument by airplane, Petén, September 1949.
Gelatin silver print. Sol Libsohn Collection. 


The ten years following the revolution of October 20, 1944 were marked by liberal national policies including agricultural reforms and infrastructural developments. One such initiative was the Institute for Promotion and Development of Petén (El Instituto de Fomento y Desarrollo del Petén). It promoted the development of homes, roads and runways.

The 'Air Story' collection contains 7 large prints by American documentary photographer, Sol Libsohn. They depict the development of air transport between the archeologically significant region of Petén and the nation's capital, an activity that promoted the exchange of commerce, education and culture. This collection includes documents detailing Libsohn’s travels in Central America.

Figure 3
Demonstration in Parque Central during the October Revolution in Guatemala City, October 20, 1944.
Gelatin silver print. Enrique Muñoz Meany Album Collection.

Soon after WWII, portable camera equipment such as the Kodak 35 and Leica resulted in more photographic documentation of diplomatic and political events in Guatemala. Joaquin Francisco Muñoz photographed many events of the October Revolution in 1944 that led to the end of General Jorge Ubico’s dictatorship, and a decade of revolutionary reforms. Francisco Muñoz was an official photographer of Juan José Arévalo, the successive leader who launched the revolutionary decade beginning in 1944.

This vintage print is one of 146 donated to CIRMA by the wife of Enrique Muñoz Meany, Minister of External Relations during the reign of the second leader of the revolutionary decade, Jacobo Árbenz Guzman. The photographs in this collection depict various diplomatic activities of the revolutionary period.

Figure 4
President Coronel Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán toasts with U.S. Ambassador Rudolf Schoenfield in Guatemala City during the commemoration of the U.S. independence, July 4, 1953.
Gelatin silver print. Diario El Imparcial Archive.

El Imparcial, a national newspaper published from 1922 to 1985, featured the work of many Guatemalan press photographers. The newspaper’s aim to promote freedom of thought, and to inform—without formal links—about the political, economic, social, and cultural life of Guatemala made it a target of suppression and influence by governments.

This photograph illustrates the diplomatic relations between Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán’s government (1951-54) and the U.S. government. Less than one year after this photograph was made, this ambassador’s successor along with the CIA intervened in the overthrow of Árbenz Guzmán’s government.

Figure 5
Movimiento de Liberación Nacional, MLN (The National Liberation Movement), Chiquimula, 1954.
Gelatin silver print (copy of original). Movimiento de Liberación Nacional Collection.

Alejandro Guzmán began his photography career as a photojournalist for the newspaper Prensa Libre. He then worked as an official photographer for the National Liberation Movement (MLN). The MLN was part of a military and U.S. backed campaign to support Colonel Carlos Castillo Arma's overthrow of Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán government in 1954.

The MLN collection includes 450 prints and contact sheets that depict counter-revolutionary activities led by Castillo Armas, who launched his anti-communist campaign while in exile in Honduras. This collection reveals how the MLN used photography to construct and promote its image to a mass audience.

Figure 6
Guatemalan President Coronel Carlos Castillo Armas receives an official welcome from U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon on arrival in Washington, D.C., 1955.
Gelatin silver print. Diario El Imparcial Archive. 

Castillo Armas’ connection with the U.S. government prior to Árbenz Guzmán’s removal of power reflected a shared goal to eliminate what were perceived as communist policies and influences in Guatemala. El Imparcial published this photograph of Castillo Armas’ first state visit to the U.S. in 1955.

The El Imparcial archive was purchased by CIRMA in 1997, and includes 20,897 issues, and 1,000,000 press clippings. The photographs are from 1950 to 1985, and include 146,000 35mm negatives and 10,000 gelatin silver prints.

Figure 7
Agreement signed for the development of "Ydígoras Program" during his term with U.S. Ambassador Juan José Muccio, Guatemala City, c. 1960.
Gelatin silver print. Diario El Imparcial Archive.

This photograph shows the leader General Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes after he gained power in 1958. 1960 marked the beginning of 36 years of civil war in Guatemala. The press clipping notes that Ydígoras Fuentes and other members of his government are meeting with the new U.S. ambassador, Juan José Muccio, and the CIA director, Keith Himebaugh.

Crop marks on some photographs in the El Imparcial archive show how images were presented in this widely read publication. Many of the photographs are not attributed to their authors; it was not until 1964 that the newspaper began inscribing or typing photographer’s names on the sleeves and envelopes.

Figure 8
RAMIRO DÍAZ PINOT (Guatemala, 1899-1972)
Portrait of Ruth Peralta, Guatemala City, n.d. Gelatin silver negative on film. Estudio Rodí Collection.

Studio Rodí was a portrait studio in Guatemela City that experienced great success, especially in the 1940s. It resulted from the collaboration of journalist and painter, Ovidio Rodas Corzo, and Guatemalan photographer, Ramiro Díaz Pinot.

This portrait of a sitter named Ruth Peralta, demonstrates a style of studio photography available to Guatemalans from better-off economic classes—in which careful attention to lighting and re-touching were applied to create dramatic results, reminiscent of portraits of American film actors from the same period. Other studios operating around the same time such as Estudio Mejía—its collection also in CIRMA—offered more affordable prices and were therefore accessible to a broader market.

CIRMA acquired over 10,000 negatives and 2,000 prints from Studio Rodí. The only information accompanying the portraits is the names of the sitters written on envelopes, and evidence of re-touching on some of the negatives.

Figure 9
Debris from the Church of San José caused by earthquake, Guatemala City, February 1976.
Gelatin silver print. Pablo Sittler Collection.

Pablo Sittler photographed Guatemala City’s architecture and urban landscape from the 1950s to 1970s. He also documented the aftermath of the earthquake of February 1976.

Sittler’s work provides context to the period’s events and conflicts, and highlights infrastructural and housing needs, poverty and social inequalities. In 2002, CIRMA acquired a number of Sittler’s prints, in addition to his postcards that were produced for the tourist market.

Figure 10
Administrator of the San Andrés Osuna finca with his family. Mazatenango, Suchitepéquez, 1979.
Gelatin silver print. Mitchell Denburg Collection.

The Mitchell Denburg Collection includes over 2,000 prints that document various aspects of the daily lives of Guatemalans living on large rural farms and in areas outside of the capital. They form the first collection in the Fototeca photography archive, founded by Denburg in 1979. Most of this collection’s photographs were taken from 1979 to 1982, a period of popular uprisings and intense fighting between the military and guerilla groups on many fronts.

Figure 11
Campesina of the San Andrés Osuna finca with her son. Mazatenango, Suchitepéquez, 1979.
Gelatin silver print. Mitchell Denburg Collection.

Denburg's photographs show the varied living conditions in rural communities. His work also includes portraits of indigenous peoples, views of architecture and the agricultural production of coffee and sugar cane. Many of the prints in this collection were printed by Denburg. 

Figure 12
Poverty in Guatemela City, c. 1975-1990.
Color transparency on 35mm film. Dutch Committee for Solidarity with the People of Guatemala Collection (Archivo del Comité Holandés de Solidaridad con el Pueblo de Guatemala).  

The Dutch Committee was founded in 1978 out of ties between Dutch humanitarian and religious groups and the Committee of Peasant Unity (CUC). It undertook to protect photographs produced by guerilla groups. Photographs were sent covertly to Holland, and images were then distributed through publications and other media with an aim to support the building of an equitable society. The photographs document examples of violence, poverty and social inequalities in Guatemala.

The Committee donated its archive of over 1,800 color negatives, transparencies, and prints to CIRMA after the signing of the peace accords in 1996. 

Figure 13
Galeras that served as housing for workers in the sugar cane farms, Costa Sur, c. 1975-1990.
Color transparency on 35mm film. Dutch Committee for Solidarity with the People of Guatemala Collection (Archivo del Comité Holandés de Solidaridad con el Pueblo de Guatemala).  

The Dutch Committee collection includes many photographs that document daily life in rural communities. This photograph shows housing for workers living on a sugar cane farm; it is one of many photographs in this collection that document the labor conditions on cane farms in the south coastal region of Guatemala from around 1970 to 1990. Many families who endured seasonal migration to cut sugar cane lived in conditions of poverty. 

Figure 14
Video recording of the group, Alux Nahual (Grabación de videoclip del grupo Alux Nahual), Guatemala City, January 13, 1980.
Gelatin silver negative on 35mm film. Diario El Gráfico Collection.

Alux Nahual was one of the first Guatemalan alternative rock groups that brought young people together in an arena of ​​uncensored musical expression. The group’s lyrics often addressed violence that escalated under the leadership of Romeo Lucas García (1978-82). Urban terrorism, assassinations, disappearances, and popular protests formed a backdrop to the documentation of this group's video recording on January 13, 1980. During a protest later that month, on January 31, a military attack on the Spanish embassy in the capital that was occupied by campesinos and student protesters resulted in a fire and many deaths.

The Diario El Gráfico collection contains nearly 700,000 photographs and newspaper clippings from 1964 to 1999. Initially published in 1961 as El Deportivo Grafico, the newspaper focused solely on sports. By 1968, the newspaper included several sections and became known as Diario El Grafico. It was one of Guatemala's largest newspapers and was devoted to national and international news events, culture and arts. In 1979, this center-leaning newspaper was the most highly circulated in the country.

Figure 15
PHOTOGRAPHER UNKNOWN Demonstration of Peasant Unity Committee (Comité de Unidad Campesina, CUC), Guatemala City, c. 1978-1980s.
Gelatin silver negative on 35mm film. Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres, EGP (Guerrilla Army of the Poor) Collection.

The CUC formed on April 15, 1978, when campesinos and farm workers came together to demand better agricultural wages, land reforms, decreased militarization, and an end to discrimination against indigenous peoples. These groups were increasingly caught up in the fighting between various guerrilla groups and the military, especially in the late 1970s and 1980s.

The Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres, EGP (Guerrilla Army of the Poor) collection includes many photographs that document mass demonstrations, violence, and insurgent activities. The collection consists of 1,600 negatives, 2,700 transparencies and 450 prints. The photographs were protected by people who lived in Guatemala and in exile, until after the peace accords in 1996, when they were acquired by CIRMA.

Figure 16
Commemoration of the death of members of Asociación de Estudiantes Universitarios, AEU (Association of University Students), murdered in June 1956, at 6th Avenue and 11a Street, Zone 1, Guatemala City, c. 1963
Gelatin silver print. Diario El Imparcial Archive.

This print depicts a group of people gathered at a memorial for students who were murdered by police. Students were often targeted by the state because of suspected ties and involvement with leftist and anti-government activities.

Figure 17
Training the Fuerzas Irregulares Locales, FIL, Huehuetenango, c. 1980
Gelatin silver negative on 35mm film. Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres, EGP (Guerrilla Army of the Poor) Collection.


CIRMA has attributed this photograph to Megan Thomas, who worked as a journalist in Guatemala. It depicts members of FIL, Fuerzas Irregulares Locales, a civilian arm of EGP.

The EGP collection is comprised of photographs made by many photographers, mostly unknown. The photographs offer candid, first-hand perspectives of guerilla groups training and fighting, and the encampments of displaced populations.

Figure 18
Reagan and Politics in Guatemala, c. 1981-1990.
Color transparency on 35mm film. Dutch Committee for Solidarity with the People of Guatemala Collection (Archivo del Comité Holandés de Solidaridad con el Pueblo de Guatemala). 

This photographic composition includes various newspaper clippings about the U.S. intervention in Guatemala incriminating Ronald Reagan, particularly the influence of his administration’s policies on many of Guatemala's state policies, including the violent suppression of dissent. It is an example of a slide presentation that the Dutch Committee produced about the internal armed conflict in Guatemala.

Figure 19
Untitled, c. 1980s. Color transparency on 35mm film. Dutch Committee for Solidarity with the People of Guatemala Collection (Archivo del Comité Holandés de Solidaridad con el Pueblo de Guatemala). 

The Dutch Committee’s photographic compositions address the effects of violence and suppression by the military on indigenous peoples. This slide depicts the silhouettes of military officers, an indigenous Mayan girl wearing traditional clothing, and a church in Rabinal, a town in central Guatemala that was the site of massacres during the 1980s.

Figure 20
RONY VÉLIZ SAMAYOA (Guatemala, 1960)
Baile de Unsitragua (Unsitragua Dance), Guatemala City, October 20, 1991.
Gelatin silver negative on 35mm film. Rony Véliz Collection.


The return to peace after more than three decades of internal conflict was of particular interest to Rony Véliz Samayoa who worked as a photojournalist for Guatemalan publications and international news media including Reuters. He made this photograph of Rigoberta Menchú Turn one year before she won the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to bring attention to the experiences of Guatemala's indigenous peoples throughout the armed conflict. Menchú Turn is seen here dancing in Parque Central, a focal point in the capital for mass demonstrations and celebrations throughout the 20th century.

This collection spans from 1983 to 2001, and is rich in human rights issues, the internal armed conflict, and depictions of the daily life of Guatemalans. Véliz Samayoa used mostly black and white 35mm film up until the late 1990s, since the newspapers he worked for often supplied black and white film. Most of this photographer’s colour photographs were made after the peace accords.

In 2006 Véliz Samayoa donated his archive of photographs to CIRMA - 16,000 negatives on 35mm film, and 183 prints.

Figure 21
Alternative rock concert in Guatemala in "The Claw Chapin" (Concierto de rock alternativo en Guatemala bajo el conexto de "La Garra Chapina"), Guatemala City, c. 1994-99.
Color negative on 35mm film. Kurt Zierlein Collection.

During the 1990s youth expressions were mostly marked in music, painting and literature. This period saw the formation of the alternative Guatemalan rock movement called "La Garra Chapina”. Zierlein documented Guatemalan youth culture and the beginnings of many of the country's rock groups. His body of work traces Guatemala’s music culture from the period immediately preceding the signing of peace accords in 1996 and after.

This collection consists of over 9,000 35mm negatives, mostly of rock groups performing to large audiences as well as more intimate performances. His work is mostly color since it appeared in the vibrant youth culture magazine, Aula 2000 (Classroom 2000), printed in color offset, and distributed weekly as a supplement of Prensa Libre newspaper.