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Country Profile: Guatemala

Human Rights

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

Monetary unit
Main exports
Human Development Index
Last profiled http://www.newint.org/features/2003/07/05/profile/

At a glance

Country profile: Star rating: 

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