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Country Profile: Guatemala

Human Rights

Country ratings

  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
  • Freedom
  • Literacy
  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)

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An indigenous woman weaving a huipil

Photos: Anna-Claire Bevan.

Asi es la vida en los trópicos (‘such is life in the tropics’) is an expression that follows catastrophe in Guatemala. Whether it is raining lava, the ex-president is being investigated for money laundering or an iconic folk singer has just been shot dead, life carries on. The aroma of freshly made corn tortillas will continue to permeate the air three times a day, the sound of cuetes (fireworks) will stir you from your siesta and chicken buses will tear past you at inconceivable speeds.

People say Guatemala has no middle class – just a ruling class and an exploited class – and nowhere is this more evident than in its capital, Guatemala City. Skyscrapers and contemporary malls eclipse shanty towns that dangle off cliff edges, while disabled beggars peer in the windows of blacked-out SUVs hoping for fichas (loose change). Guatemala’s unequal distribution of wealth, coupled with its rapid population growth, has given it one of the highest poverty rates in Latin America and has no doubt also contributed to its reputation as one of the most violent countries in the world.

Guatemala’s troubled present was born out of a bloody past. Once the site of the impressive ancient Mayan civilization, it was conquered by the Spanish in 1524 and endured three centuries as a colony. Since its liberation in 1821, the country has been stained by further bloodshed: US-supported military dictatorships, social unrest and guerrilla uprisings culminated in a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996. The conflict was one of the most brutal in the northern hemisphere: over 200,000 people died and up to 50,000 were reportedly ‘disappeared’. Only now are a handful of those responsible for the atrocities being brought to account. Government forces have been found guilty of genocide and recent landmark prison sentences saw four ex-soldiers jailed for 6,000 years each. The President, Otto Pérez Molina, himself an army general during the war, will be scrutinized by human rights activists in coming months as to how he handles these investigations.

Although the Peace Accords were signed 15 years ago, people say that many parts of the country are more dangerous now than they were at the height of the conflict. Daily newspapers regularly feature body counts into double figures, bus drivers face extortion by criminal gangs and even fast-food restaurants have armed guards.

Guatemalan flag

The country’s turbulent history is matched by its landscape. Sitting on three tectonic plates, surrounded by active volcanoes and bordered by both the Caribbean and the Pacific, Guatemala is precariously positioned and repeatedly falls victim to natural disasters. In the past, major earthquakes have razed cities and left millions of people homeless. Hurricanes that used to be a rare occurrence now arrive annually – bringing with them clean-up operations that exhaust already scarce resources. In 2010, Volcán de Pacaya erupted during the rainy season, blanketing the capital with thick ash that then blocked drains.

Despite these adversities, Guatemalans remain positive about their country’s future and are intensely patriotic. This long-suffering people does not expect wealth or a lawabiding government, but yearns for the national football team to make it to the FIFA World Cup.

Many Guatemalans rely on family members working illegally in the US sending money home.

Though indigenous people are in the majority – with their colourful handicrafts decorating market stalls and their ancient ruins among the most popular tourist attractions – they remain on the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder. Most live in the highlands, are poorly educated and poorly provided for – and their plight is unlikely to be improved by a government preoccupied with increasing security and tackling the endemic drug war.

Fact file

Leader President Otto Pérez Molina
Economy GNP per capita $2,740 (ElSalvador $3,360, United States $47,140).The agricultural sector accounts for nearly 15% of GDP and around half the labour force. Since the end of the civil war, foreign investment has increased, but insecurity remains the largest stumbling block – not least for the tourism industry.
Monetary unit Quetzal.
Main exports Coffee, bananas, sugar.
People 14.7 million. Population growth rate 2.7% pa. People per sq km 134 (UK 253).
Health Infant mortality 25 per 1,000 live births (El Salvador 14, US 7). HIV prevalence rate 0.8%. Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 210 (US 1 in 2,100). Some 20% of Guatemala’s population lacks healthcare – mostly in rural indigenous areas. Children regularly die of diarrhoea, chronic malnutrition and respiratory diseases.
Environment Fragile ecosystems are not just under threat from volcanic eruptions and increasingly frequent tropical storms, but also from private companies eager to manipulate land for financial gain. Water contamination, soil erosion and deforestation are all major problems.
Culture A diverse ethnic mix: more than 50% are indigenous, the rest are either mestizos/ladinos, whites descended from European settlers, or Garifunas, who are of Afro-Caribbean descent.
Religion Predominantly Roman Catholic, although in recent years there has been a surge in conversions to evangelical churches. Many indigenous follow the surviving Mayan faith.
Language Although Spanish is the national language, there are 21 official Mayan languages spoken widely in indigenous areas. Two other languages are also used: Garifuna on the Caribbean coast, and Xinca near the Salvadorean border.
Human Development Index 0.574, 131st in the world (El Salvador 0.674, US 0.910).

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution One of the most unequal countries in the world. Some of the richest Guatemalans commute to work by helicopter, while the poorest live on less than $1 a day.
Literacy 74%. Primary net enrolment rate is 95%: more children miss out on primary school in rural indigenous areas.
Life expectancy 71 years. Up from 65 years when last profiled (El Salvador 72, US 78).
Freedom Guatemalans live in fear of criminal gangs and widespread corruption; often people refuse to report crimes for fear of the consequences. Although press freedom is enshrined within the constitution, journalists are careful what they say and whom they say it about.
Position of women Traditional machismo still rules and almost half of all females have suffered multiple forms of violence. Indigenous women are especially vulnerable.
Sexual minorities Homosexuality is not illegal, but sexual minorities struggle for recognition within the legal system of this conservative country. Guatemala’s healthcare system has been accused of discriminating against LGBT people, preventing them from receiving adequate HIV treatment.
Previously reviewed 2003
New Internationalist assessment The rightwing Partido Patriota of General Otto Pérez Molina came to power in November 2011, promising to govern Guatemala with an ‘iron fist’ and use the military to improve internal security throughout the country. The presidential race was characterized by violence and unregulated campaign financing. Latin America’s one-term presidential policy – a safeguard against dictatorship – is in practice limiting all presidents from making the real changes that are so desperately needed.

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