Guatemala flag

PRESIDENT: Alvaro Colom (Jan. 2008 - 2012)

POPULATION: 12.3 million

KEY EXPORTS: Bananas and coffee

Andrew Clem blog

Guatemala



Guatemala blog archives


Recent chronology

July 2002Pope John Paul II visited Guatemala, where he canonized an Indian saint, then went to Mexico.
Oct. 2002Guatemala recalled its ambassador from Washington to protest criticism by U.S. Asst. Sec. of State Otto Reich that its government is plagued by drug corruption and flouts human rights standards.
Jan. 2003The U.S. State Department "decertified" Guatemala because of its government's blatant tolerance of narcotics trafficking. This disqualifies the country from a wide range of economic aid programs.
Mar. 2003After a wave of gang violence, political violence and death threats against judges, the government established a special commission to investigate human rights abuses.
May 2003Thousands of former paramilitary troops ransacked government offices in the southern town of Chicacao, protesting their exclusion from a government compensation plan that is part of the pacification campaign.
June 2003The leader of the national legislature, Efrain Rios Montt (of the Guatemalan Republican Front), was attacked with stones by relatives of victims of a massacre perpetrated by Army troops during the early 1980s, when he was president.
July 2003Supporters and opponents of former military ruler Efrain Rios Montt staged violent demonstrations in recent weeks, as various courts have ruled, first, in favor of allowing him to run for president, and later, against it.
Dec. 2003Fourteen people were killed during a prison uprising just before Christmas.
Nov. 2003 Oscar Berger (conservative ex-mayor of Guat. City) and Alvaro Colom (engineer) take top two spots in first round pres. election; only 18% for Rios Montt.
Dec. 2003Oscar Berger wins 2nd round pres. election with 54%.
July 2004Seventeen volunteers from U.S. "Seeds of Learning" org. were hijacked and robbed near Quetzaltenango.
Apr. 2005Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini protests against open pit gold mine in western Guatemala, challenging Pres. Berger. Arsenic causes environmental and health hazards.
Mar. 2005Protests force a delay in the vote by Congress to ratify CAFTA.
Aug. 2005At least 31 prisoners were killed in riots sparked by gang rivalries in prisons.
Oct. 2005Over 1,000 die in floods and landslides after heavy rains from Hurricane Stan.
Nov. 2005The top Guatemalan anti-narcotics investigator, Adan Castillo, was arrested in Virginia on drug-smuggling charges.

SOURCE: Washington Post, CNN, etc.


External links

Central America map

Geography

Guatemala is a beautiful, lush land with bounteous agriculture and precious plant and animal nature. Most people in Guatemala live in the hilly, somewhat drier region in the south and west. In the north and east it is very flat, covered by semi-tropcial forests. There are several active volcanos, which make the soil here one of the richest on earth, but these are symptoms of seismic instability, and earthquakes have done severe damage on many occasions. Most roads outside the capital city are substandard condition, and given the presence of lingering bandits (most of whom used to be guerrilla fighters), transportation is neither safe nor easy.

History

Guatemala has always been the leading country in Central America, having more population and natural wealth than any of its neighbors. Its social divisions, however, are as deep as anywhere in Latin America, and development has been stunted as a result. After winning independence in 1821, Guatemala City became the capital of the Central American Confederation. A peasant revolt led by Rafael Carerra against the "Liberals" (pro-commerce, pro-Bourbon) caused the breakup of the Confederation in 1838. Carrera used brute force to restore merchant guilds and the Catholic Church's official role, but after he died in 1865, the Liberals recovered power. From that point on, coffee growers dominated Guatemalan politics and began serious state building and modernization efforts. The United Fruit Company bought up the best land for banana plantations in the early 20th century, forcing peasants off the land. As in Mexico, there was a rising tide of discontent. The leftist-populist governments of Jacobo Arbenz (1946-1950) Juan Jose Arevalo (1950-1954) began land reforms and flirted with socialism, but were NOT communist. Nevertheless, all this was too much for McCarthy-era Washington to tolerate, and in 1954 a right-wing coup ousted Arevalo, with the support of the CIA. A succession of military governments followed for the next three decades, some of which were "elected." From the early 1960s until the mid-1990s, the army fought a war against the guerrilla insurgents, forcing many thousands of Indian peasants off their lands, some of whom became refugees in Mexico. A return to democracy came in 1984, but President Vinicio Cerezo had a hard time dealing with unyielding right-wing forces. During the 1980s, human rights activist Rigoberta Menchu, a Mayan Indian, spoke out on behalf of her people, and in 1992 received the Nobel Peace Prize. In May 1993 President Jorge Serrano tried to imitate Peru's Alberto Fujimori by launching an "auto-coup" (closing down the other branches of government), but he was soon forced to resign by international pressure.

Culture

Over half the population of Guatemala are descendants of the Mayan Indian civilization, which flourished for several hundred years and then abruptly collapsed around the year 1000. The cultural heritage is expressed in brightly colored clothing, in stone carvings, in the architecture of ancient cities, in language and in music. The white minority owns nearly all of the land and businesses, though there is a "Ladino" middle class of mixed racial background. The original colonial capital of Antigua, about 30 miles west of Guatemala City, is a favorite destination for tourists who want to learn Spanish and experience the authentic traditions of this sadly divided country. The ancient city of Tikal is one of the finest archeological sites in the world, with dozens of pyramids and other stone structures that are slowly being restored.



CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT:

Ornate street arch, in Guatemala City;

Gardens in the plaza at Antigua Guatemala;

Ancient Mayan Indian ruins at Tikal;

Cathedral in Guatemala City;

Volcano near Antigua Guatemala.

To see these and other photos on the Guatemala photo gallery page, click on the adjacent image.


Politics

Even in the 21st century, there is little distinction between war and politics in Guatemala. When I was visiting in 1989, I was shocked by the extreme tone of the right-wing propaganda on TV, suggesting that then-president Cerezo was an incompetent traitor. Sure enough, about a month after I returned home, there was a coup attempt against him. Fortunately, it failed. The three-decade war against the guerrilla insurgents finally ended after a peace treaty was signed in December 1996, but echoes continue to reverberate. Military officers who were complicit in ugly repression against poor Indians have yet to be brought to justice. Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera was murdered in 1998 after submitting a report on human rights abuses. Political parties are weak, usually centered around particular individuals. As in other Latin American countries, small parties are beginning to band together to have a better chance at winning. One example is the Grand National Alliance, headed by President Oscar Berger.

National Unity for Hope Others National Advancement Party Grand National Alliance Guatemalan Republican Front
Alvarado Colom Caballeros . Leonel Lopez Rodas Pres. Oscar Berger Efrain Rios Montt
33 18 17 49 41

NOTE: Width of each column shows each party's approximate strength. Colors and position (left to right) represent ideological leanings, which are often vague. Numbers show how many seats each party has in the National Assembly. Minor parties are not shown.

SOURCE: CIA World Factbook