During the period of colonization of the region in the first half of the sixteenth century, the Spanish colonialists coerced the indigenous Maya population into forced labour in the agro-export sector. Following independence in 1821, an oligarchic, landowning elite of Spanish, or mixed Spanish-Mayan ( ladino), descent emerged. The military-backed expropriation of land from the Maya, together with the socio-economic inequity between them and the ladinos in the country, subsequently intensified. The ladinos have continued to current times in monopolizing politics, capital, military power, and resources. The most fertile of the arable land continues to be owned by the larger landowners, while most of the Maya who do have plots scrape a living from subsistence agriculture. The extensive expropriation of land, and the widespread poverty that has ensued, ensure a surplus supply of labour, for whom work on the plantations at minimal wages in harsh conditions is an economic necessity. The legal requirement during colonial times for indigenous peasants to work on plantations for minimum wages has been replaced by economic necessity in recent decades.
Until 1945, Guatemala was ruled by a succession of dictatorial governments, interrupted by brief periods of constitutional rule. The decade that followed was unique in Guatemalan history, characterized by the introduction of social and agrarian reforms, and a new Constitution which codified respect for civil liberties and acknowledged ideological pluralism. The communist Guatemalan Workers Party (PGT) became close advisers to the successive presidencies of Juan José Arévalo (1945-50) and Colonel Jacobo Arbenz (1950-54) in matters such as the suppression of privileges for companies from the USA, which angered large landowners including American interests in the country, most notably the United Fruit Company (McClintock 1995). In the civil war that was eventually to follow, the guerrilla groups often referred to this period as the 'spring' in Guatemalan history which the revolution sought to restore.
In 1954, a CIA-backed coup installed a new military-backed general as president; he suspended the Constitution, reversed the socio-economic and agrarian reform measures, and returned the country to authoritarian rule. Between 1954 and 1986 a series of military and one civilian (but de facto military) government ruled Guatemala. Although a facade of democracy was constructed by holding elections, these were largely fraudulent, and the country became known as home to the highest number of violations of human rights in the Western Hemisphere. The justice system lost its independence and became subordinate to the counter-insurgency policies of the armed forces. The lack of plurality in politics and opportunities for reform are reflected by the consistently high abstention rates in national elections (63 per cent in 1996).
In response to the increasing power of the insurgents at the end of the 1970s, between 1980 and 1983, the army intensified its counter-insurgency campaign dramatically. These years were by far the most violent and destructive period of the entire conflict. Most of the massacres during the war were perpetrated during this assault, which is referred to by some as La Violencia. Essentially, the basis of this offensive was to take the war to the civilian population, particularly in rural areas and most notably in the north-western highlands, with the intention of destroying the support base of the guerrillas. This 'scorched earth' strategy resulted in 440 villages being burned to the ground, 75,000 people being killed or 'disappeared', and about one and a half million people being displaced. Most of these resettled after a short time, but some 200,000 fled over the border into Mexico and a similar number remained displaced within the country, many of them in hiding in the jungle. This military assault was primarily directed against the rural indigenous in the departments of Petén, Quiché, and Huehuetenango. By 1985, La Violencia is thought to have left at least 75,000 women widowed and 250,000 children orphaned.
In the wake of the 1981-1983 military onslaught in the highlands, the Guatemalan government, with the support of the military, launched a campaign of Security and Development, which continued at a reduced rate until the late 1980s. At the heart of this strategy was the resettlement of displaced persons in 33 so-called 'model villages', several of which were organised into 'development poles' or population and commerce centres. The army oversaw the provision of infrastructure, housing and services, which was provided by public and private agencies. But once the physical outlay was achieved, little development assistance, such as the provision of small scale loans, was provided. Most of the villagers are farmers and prior to the conflict their dwellings were surrounded by fields of corn, beans and other crops. However, in the model villages there was insufficient land for subsistence for the majority of households and work on infrastructure projects was one of the few economic opportunities open to them. These tended to be Food-for-Work programmes, providing food only to the worker and only for days actually worked. Consequently, malnutrition became a serious problem in many households. The military's campaign in the highlands created a situation of dependency and control in communities rather than one of development.
By 1984 the army had almost completely annihilated the guerrilla movement, and although armed resistance did continue until the signing of the final peace accord in December 1996, it was at an abated level. In the years that followed this emergency phase, the army became more selective in those it targeted. Typically, those it allegedly extra-judicially executed and 'disappeared' were leading politically/socially active members of the community including campesinos and cooperative leaders, human rights activists, journalists, union leaders, student activists, opposition politicians, catechists, and church leaders. Either they were never seen again or their tortured and mutilated bodies would reappear days or weeks later as a warning to others. There were scarcely no political prisoners. With time, threats and intimidation were often sufficient to scare people into non-resistant behaviour. With the police and judiciary system unable to resist its authority, the army, as well as the Civil Defence Patrols (PACs), were able to carry out these acts with complete impunity.
From 1985, the army began to allow the gradual and limited opening of political and civil space. However, despite the return to civilian rule in 1986 with the introduction of a new progressive Constitution and talk of democratisation and national reconciliation, the armed forces continued to exert considerable influence on government and societal structures. The State also continued to employ extra-judicial execution, 'disappearance', torture and intimidation to contain those that it saw as a threat to its economic and political interests ( Palencia 1996 ). However, massacring entire communities was no longer seen as necessary, although this more selective killing did occur in comparatively high numbers. The country had moved from the emergency phase to one of limited tolerance through social control maintained through repressive tactics on a more selective scale. Although both sides in the conflict continued to carry out military operations until the cease-fire in March 1996, it was at a diminished level and the army was the dominant force.
Under pressure from other countries in Central America, as well as the USA and Europe, a dialogue aimed at peace and regional development began at the end of the 1980s. This evolved into a lengthy peace process, involving the signing of numerous peace accords, which was concluded in 1996. Refugees in Mexico returned to Guatemala throughout the 1990s, and by mid-1999, UNHCR declared this process concluded.
- International Peace Research Institute: Chronology of Events - http://www.prio.no/publications/reports/guatemala/Appendix_A.asp
- World History Archives: Chronology of Guatemala's 36-Year Civil War - http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/47/161.html
- US Department of State - http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2045.htm
- Guatemalan Government - http://ahguatemala.com/61dea8d6fb1a89b9d51ae0365ed721ed/government/
Guatemala is a Constitutional Democratic Republic, with an Executive led by a President who is constitutionally only permitted to rule for a single four-year term. The existing Constitution dates back to May 1994, but was amended in January 1994. The country comprises 22 departments, led by appointed governors, which in turn are comprised of 331 municipalities, run by elected mayors and city councils. The country's major political parties are: Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), National Advancement Party (PAN), New Nation Alliance (ANN), and Unionists ( Unionistas).
The 1999 presidential and legislative elections were considered by international observers to have been free and fair. Participation by women and indigenous voters was higher than in the recent past, although concerns remained regarding the accessibility of polling places in rural areas. The president is both the chief of state and the head of government. The current president is Alfonso Portillo Cabrera, of the FRG, who was elected in 1999 and took office in early 2000.
The political balance was disrupted in 2000 when allegations surfaced that the FRG had illegally altered legislation. Following an investigation, the Supreme Court stripped those involved, including President of Congress and FRG chief Rios Montt, of their legislative immunity to face charges in the case. At roughly the same time, the PAN opposition suffered an internal split and broke into factions; the same occurred in the ANN. Reforms essential to peace implementation still await legislative action.
- US State Department - http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2045.htm
- Congreso de la República de Guatemala - http://www.congreso.gob.gt/
The population of Guatemala is extremely ethnically diverse. About 60 per cent (estimates vary widely) of the population are indigenous Amerindians of Maya origin, whose mother tongue is one of twenty-one distinct Maya languages. Although the Mayan population is dispersed throughout the country, it is mainly concentrated in the highlands in the north and the west. There are also two other ethnic groups: the Xinca people, who live mainly on the Pacific coast close to El Salvador, and the Garífuna, who live on the Caribbean coast. The rest of the population, known as ladinos or mestizos, are of mixed European and indigenous parentage or ancestry. They speak Spanish and identify with a dominantly Western way of life, particularly in terms of patterns of consumption. They form the majority of the population in the capital, Guatemala City. Although the ladinos dominate politics, major economic activities, and academia, they are not a homogeneous group. Large numbers live in levels of poverty similar to those experienced by the majority of the indigenous population. In recent years the distinction between indigenous and ladino has become largely cultural. A pure-blood Maya who migrates to an urban area, adopts Western styles of dress, and speaks Spanish may often be considered a ladino.
Geography, society, and economy
Guatemala is the largest country in Central America. With the largest economy in Central America, Guatemala suffers seriously from poverty and inequality. After Haiti, Guatemala is probably the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Approximately 75 per cent of the population are estimated to live below the poverty line, and almost 56 per cent to live below the extreme poverty line (World Bank 1995). Most social and economic indicators, including patterns of malnutrition, health, and education also point to extreme poverty. More than 90 per cent of the indigenous population live on an income which puts them below the poverty line, as compared to 66 per cent of the non-indigenous population. In addition, there is a high degree of inequality in land distribution, income, and consumption. Land is concentrated in the hands of a wealthy elite of landowners. The most recent agricultural census (1979) indicates that 2.5 per cent of Guatemala's 5.3 million farms control 65 per cent of agricultural land. The country is divided into twenty-two departments and 328 municipios. About 70 per cent of the population live in rural areas, residing in 20,017 communities, 87 per cent of which have fewer than 500 inhabitants. Guatemala covers an area of 108,889 sq km, two thirds of it mountainous, it is densely forested in the north with the more fertile agricultural land on the coastal plains.
- Instituto Nacional de Estasdística (INE) - http://www.segeplan.gob.gt/ine/bienve/mainbien.htm