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new internationalist
issue 250 - December 1993

Country profile: Guatemala

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Where is Guatemala?   [image, unknown]
Image from Guatemala [image, unknown]
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Beauty and horror are never far apart in Guatemala. Tourists marvel at the exquisite, volcano-fringed Lake Atitlan. Indian residents of the lakeside town of Santiago have endured decades of army brutality.

Divided into 21 different language groups, for 500 years Guatemala's majority Indian population (descendants of the Mayan civilization) has successfully struggled to retain its languages and traditions. Today the highlands to the north and west of Guatemala City remain an extraordinary human mosaic; for foreigners the Indians have become a 'tourist attraction'.

While many have protected their cultural identity, Guatemala's Indians constitute an impoverished underclass. Poor peasants are crammed into disease-ridden shanty towns, scraping a living from minute, overworked fields or as low-paid labourers on coffee plantations. Indians die younger, lose twice as many babies, have less chance of a decent job and eat less than the white minority.

Since the early 1980s they have borne the brunt of a 'dirty war', as one of the region's most merciless armies launched wholesale attacks against small guerilla organizations and other signs of political opposition in the shape of trade unions, peasant groups and radical Catholics. Around 400 Indian villages were destroyed and entire communities massacred or forced into exile or herded into 'model villages' where the men are dragooned into army-supervized Civil Defence Patrols. In total, an estimated 100,000 people have been killed since a US-backed coup toppled a reforming government in 1954.

Last December Guatemalan Indian leader Rigoberta Menchu received the Nobel Peace Prize, a recognition both of the Indians' 500 years of resistance and the heroic efforts of human rights campaigners such as Rigoberta to end the military's use of assassination, torture and 'disappearance'.

After continued bloodshed, the military staged a careful withdrawal from the Presidency, leading to elections for a civilian president in 1985. However they still retain enormous influence on the President, exerting a virtual right of veto over key issues such as peace talks with guerillas. In May an attempted suspension of much of the constitution was overturned when it ran into resistance from civil society. The reinstated parliament elected a new president, Ramiro de León Carpio, formerly a human rights ombudsman. Some corrupt officials have been sacked but his room for manoeuvre is limited and abuse of Indians and the war with guerillas continue.

In a country heavily dependent on agriculture, virtually all the best land remains in the hands of a few spectacularly opulent families.

Duncan Green


LEADER: President Ramiro de León Carpio

ECONOMY: GNP per capita US$900 (US $21,790)
Monetary unit: Quetzal
Main Exports: coffee, bananas, sugar, cardamom, cotton
Main Imports: machinery, consumer goods, oil

PEOPLE: 9.5 million (1991)

HEALTH: Infant mortality 52 per 1,000 live births (US 9 per 1,000).

CULTURE: About 70% of people are indigenous Mayan Indians. The main groups are Quich, Mame, Cakchiquele, Ekechie, Tzutuhile. The remainder are largely ladino (mixed race). Middle and upper classes claim European origin.
Religion: 65% Catholic but Guatemala is home to Latin America's fastest growing community of evangelical Protestants, who currently number around a third of the population. Some pre-colonial rites have also survived.
Language: Spanish is the official language, but many Indians speak one or more of 21different indigenous language groups.

Sources.State of the World's Children, UNICEF, 1993; 1993/4 Third World Guide, ITeM, Uruguay; Statistical Yearbook for Latin America and the Caribbean, United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, 1991; Guatemala Country Report No3, Economist Intelligence Unit, 1989.

Last profiled in September 1980



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INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown]
One of the worst in Latin America.

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LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Lowest in rural areas, especially among women and Indian population.

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SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
By Latin American standards debt is low. Heavy dependence on US trade.

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FREEDOM [image, unknown]
Genocidal policies since 1954. 100,000 killed.

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POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Few women in positions of power. Machismo worse among ladino élite than indigenous population.

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LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
65 years (US 76 years) Lower in rural areas, and among indigenous population.

1980 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]



Politics now
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50 years of military-dominated governments.


NI star rating

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New Internationalist issue 250 magazine cover This article is from the December 1993 issue of New Internationalist.
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