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Republic of Guatemala
República de Guatemala

CAPITAL: Guatemala City

FLAG: The national flag consists of a white vertical stripe between two blue vertical stripes with the coat of arms centered in the white band.

ANTHEM: Himno Nacional, beginning "Guatemala feliz" ("Happy Guatemala").

MONETARY UNIT: The quetzal (q) is a paper currency of 100 centavos. There are coins of 1, 5, 10, and 25 centavos, and notes of 50 centavos and 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100 quetzales. q1 = $0.13072 (or $1 = q7.65) as of 2005. US notes are widely accepted.

WEIGHTS AND MEASURES: The metric system is the legal standard, but some imperial and old Spanish units also are used.

HOLIDAYS: New Year's Day, 1 January; Epiphany, 6 January; Labor Day, 1 May; Anniversary of the Revolution of 1871, 30 June; Independence Day, 15 September; Columbus Day, 12 October; Revolution Day, 20 October; All Saints' Day, 1 November; Christmas, 25 December. Movable religious holidays include Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.

TIME: 6 am = noon GMT.


Situated in Central America, Guatemala has an area of 108,890 sq km (42,043 sq mi), with a maximum length of 457 km (284 mi) nnwsse and a maximum width of 428 km (266 mi) enewsw. Comparatively, the area occupied by Guatemala is slightly smaller than the state of Tennessee. It is bounded on the e by Belize, Amatique Bay, and the Caribbean Sea, on the se by Honduras and El Salvador, on the s by the Pacific Ocean, and on the w and n by Mexico, with a total boundary length of 2,087 km (1,297 mi).

Guatemala has long laid claim to territory held by Belize (formerly known as British Honduras). In 1821, upon achieving independence, Guatemala considered itself the rightful inheritor of this former Spanish possession and continued to regard Belize as an administrative adjunct of Guatemala. In 1859, British rights to the area were defined in a treaty with Guatemala, but, alleging that the United Kingdom had not fulfilled its obligations, Guatemala subsequently refused to recognize the British title. In mid-1975, Guatemala demanded the cession of one-fourth of the territory of Belize as a condition for recognizing that country's sovereignty.

When Belize did become independent in September 1981, Guatemala refused to recognize the new nation. In January 1983, the Guatemalan government announced that it would drop its sovereignty claim and would press instead for the cession of the southernmost fifth of Belize's territory. Guatemala's claim has been rejected not only by the United Kingdom and Belize but also by the UN General Assembly and, in November 1982, at the CARI-COM heads of government conference. In mid-1986, Guatemala and the United Kingdom reestablished consular and commercial relations.

Guatemala's capital city, Guatemala City, is located in the south central part of the country.


A tropical plain averaging 48 km (30 mi) in width parallels the Pacific Ocean. From it, a piedmont region rises to altitudes from 90 to 1,370 m (300 to 4,500 ft). Above this region lies nearly two-thirds of the country, in an area stretching northwest and south-west and containing volcanic mountains, the highest of which is Mt. Tajumulco (4,211 m/13,816 ft). The larger towns and Lake Atitlán are located in basins at elevations of about 1,500 to 2,400 m (5,000 to 8,000 ft). To the north of the volcanic belt lie the continental divide and, still farther north, the Atlantic lowlands. Three deep river valleysthe Motagua, the Polochic, and the Sarstúnform the Caribbean lowlands and banana plantation area. North of it, occupying part of the peninsula of Yucatán, is the lowland forest of Petén, once the home of the Mayas. The largest lakes are Izabal, Petén Itza, and Atitlán.

Near the boundaries of the Cocos and Caribbean plates, Guatemala is in a geologically active region with frequent earthquakes and volcanic activity. Of some 30 volcanoes in Guatemala, six have erupted or been otherwise active in recent years. A catastrophic earthquake in February 1976 left nearly 23,000 dead, 70,000 injured, and 1 million people whose homes were partially or completely destroyed.


Temperature varies with altitude. The average annual temperature on the coast ranges from 25 to 30°c (77 to 86°f); in the central highlands the average is 20°c (68°f), and in the higher mountains 15°c (59°f). In Guatemala City, the average January minimum is 11°c (52°f) and the maximum 23°c (73°f); the average minimum and maximum temperatures in July are, respectively, 16°c (61°f) and 26°c (79°f). The rainy season extends from May to October inland and to December along the coast, and the dry season from November (or January) to April. Because of its consistently temperate climate, Guatemala has been called the "Land of Eternal Spring."

On 4 October 2005, Hurricane Stan, a Category 1 hurricane, struck Guatemala's Pacific coastal region, sending winds of 128 km/h (80 mi/h) along the coast below Guatemala City. The disaster caused landslides and mudslides, which destroyed many towns. Villages near the popular tourist area of Lake Atitlán suffered damage. Almost 1,000 died and hundreds lost their homes.


Flowers of the temperate zone are found in great numbers. Of particular interest is the orchid family, which includes the white nun (monja blanca), the national flower. There is also an abundance of medicinal, industrial, and fibrous plants. Overall, there are more than 8,600 plant species throughout the country.

Indigenous fauna includes the armadillo, bear, coyote, deer, fox, jaguar, monkey, puma, tapir, and manatee. The national bird is the highland quetzal, the symbol of love of liberty, which reputedly dies in captivity. Lake Atitlán is the only place in the world where a rare flightless waterbird, the Atitlán (giant pied-billed) grebe, is found; this species, classified as endangered, has been protected by law since 1970. There are more than 900 other species of native and migratory birds. Reptiles, present in more than 204 species, include the bushmaster, fer-de-lance, water moccasin, and iguana.


Guatemala's main environmental problems are deforestationover 50% of the nation's forests have been destroyed since 1890and consequent soil erosion. As recently as 1993, the nation obtained 90% of its energy from wood, losing 40,00060,000 hectares of forest per year. Between 1965 and 1990, Guatemala also lost over 30% of its mangrove area, which totaled 16,000 hectares in the early 1990. From 19902000 the rate of deforestation was about 1.7% per year. In 2000, about 26.3% of the total land area was forested.

The nation's water supply is at risk due to industrial and agricultural toxins. Guatemala has 27.8 cu mi of water with 74% used for agriculture and 17% used in farming activity.

United Nations sources show that environmental contamination is responsible for a significant number of deaths due to respiratory and digestive illnesses. Despite the establishment in 1975 of a ministerial commission charged with conserving and improving the human environment, coordination of antipollution efforts remains inadequate, and Guatemala still suffers from a lack of financial resources and well-trained personnel to implement environmental control programs.

In 2003, 20% of Guatemala's total land area was protected. Tikal National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and there are four Ramsar wetland sites. According to a 2006 report issued by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), threatened species included 7 types of mammals, 10 species of birds, 10 types of reptiles, 74 species of amphibians, 14 species of fish, 2 species of invertebrates, and 85 species of plants. Endangered or extinct species in Guatemala included the horned guan, Eskimo curlew, California least tern, green sea turtle, hawksbill turtle, olive ridley turtle, spectacled caiman, American crocodile, and Morelet's crocodile.


The population of Guatemala in 2005 was estimated by the United Nations (UN) at 12,701,000, which placed it at number 69 in population among the 193 nations of the world. In 2005, approximately 4% of the population was over 65 years of age, with another 42% of the population under 15 years of age. There were 95 males for every 100 females in the country. According to the UN, the annual population rate of change for 200510 was expected to be 2.8%, a rate the government viewed as too high. Although the government implemented programs that provide access to subsidized contraception, only 31% of women used modern contraception and the fertility rate remained high at 4.9 births per woman. The projected population for the year 2025 was 19,962,000. The population density was 117 per sq km (302 per sq mi). Most of the population is concentrated in the southern third of the country.

The UN estimated that 39% of the population lived in urban areas in 2005, and that urban areas were growing at an annual rate of 3.27%. The capital city, Guatemala City, had a population of 951,000 in that year. Other large cities and their estimated populations are Quezaltenango, 250,000, and Escuintla, 68,000.


Because of persecution and civil war, Amerindian peasants began emigrating across the Mexican border in 1981. Under the CIRE-FCA plan (International Conference on Central American Refugees), 18,000 Guatemalans repatriated between 1989 and 1994. In 1995, 9,500 repatriated from Mexico, and in 1996, another 3,974 repatriated from Mexico. In 1997, there were still 40,000 in Mexico and Belize. Between 1984, when the first repatriation movements took place, and 1999, a total of 43,663 refugees had returned to more than 160 communities throughout Guatemala. The Guatemalan government spent some $30 million on 36 farms purchased for collective returns. In 2004 there were 656 refugees, 4 asylum seekers, and 8 returned refugees. A population that remained of concern to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at the end of 2004 was 660 persons in Guatemala City.

In 2003 remittances were $2 billion. In 2005, the net migration rate was -1.63 migrants per 1,000 population, down from 4.3 per 1,000 in 1990. The government views the migration levels as satisfactory.


Guatemala has a larger proportion of Amerindians in its total population than any other country in Central America. In 2004, persons of mixed Amerindian and Spanish ancestry, called mestizos, constituted about 59.4% of the national total. Amerindians who have become assimilated and no longer adhere to a traditional Amerindian life-style are also called ladinos, but this term is sometimes used to refer to mestizos. There are at least 22 separate Mayan groups, each with its own language. The largest minority groups include the Quiché (9.1%), the Cakchiquel (8.4%), the Mam (7.9%), and the Q'equchi (6.3%). Other Mayan groups account for about 8.6% of the population. The Garifuna are de scendants of African slaves. The white population is estimated at less than 1% of the total.


Spanish, spoken by about 60% of the population, is the official and commercial language. Amerindians speak some 28 dialects in five main language groups: Quiché, Mam, Pocomam, and Cholall of the Mayan language familyand Carib, Kekchi, Garifuna, Cakchiquel, and Xinca. Amerindian languages are spoken by about 40% of the populace. A 2003 Law of Languages mandates the use of Mayan languages in public sectors such as health, education, and justice.


Historically, Roman Catholicism is the predominant religion (between 5060%), with an archbishopric at Guatemala City and bishoprics at Quezaltenango, Verapaz, and Huehuetenango. Many inhabitants combine Catholic beliefs with traditional Mayan rites. Protestants account for about 40% of the population. The largest Protestant denominations are the Full Gospel Church, the Assembly of God, the Church of God of the Central American Church, and the Prince of Peace Church. Other denominations represented are Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and Jehovah's Witnesses. Minority groups and religions with small communities include Jews, Muslims, and followers of the Indian spiritual leader Sri Sathya Sai Baba.

A 1995 Agreement on the Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples was approved to provide freedom of practice and promote respect for the forms of spirituality practiced by the Maya, Garifuna, and Xinca groups. As of 2005, however, very little had been done to implement the agreement. Though there is no official religion, the constitution recognizes the Catholic Church as a distinct legal personality. Other religious groups must register with the government in order to make legal business transactions. Some tension exists between Christian groups and the indigenous Mayan religious groups. The Interreligious Dialogue and Foro Guatemala are groups that encourage tolerance and cooperation between indigenous and Christian faiths. The Ecumenical Forum for Peace and Reconciliation is a group of primarily Christian leaders who conduct public conferences and debates on a variety of social and political topics.


In 2002, the total length of Guatemala's road system was estimated at 13,856 km (8,610 mi), of which 4,370 km (2,715 mi) was paved, including 140 km (87 mi) of expressways. In 2003, there were approximately 127,800 passenger cars and 145,900 commercial vehicles registered. Two international highways cross Guatemala: the 824-km (512-mi) Franklin D. Roosevelt Highway (part of the Pan American Highway system) and the Pacific Highway. Guatemala Railways operates 90% of the nation's 884 km (549 mi) railroad system, all of it narrow-gauge.

Few of the rivers and lakes are important to commercial navigation. Of the 990 km (615 mi) only 260 km (161 mi) are navigable year round, an additional 730 km (454 mi) are only navigable during high water. Puerto Barrios and Santo Tomás on the Caribbean coast are Guatemala's chief ports. The Pacific coast ports are Champerico and San José. In 2002, Guatemala had no registered cargo ships.

There were an estimated 452 airports in 2004, but only 11 had paved runways as of 2005. La Aurora International Airport at Guatemala City, the first air terminal in Central America, serves aircraft of all sizes, including jumbo jets. The government-owned Aviateca has a monopoly on scheduled domestic service and also flies to other Central American countries, Jamaica, Mexico, and the United States. In 1998, (the latest year for which data was available) 508,000 passengers were carried on scheduled domestic and international flights.


Three distinct stagesMayan indigenous, Spanish colonial, and modern republicanhave left their mark on the history of Guatemala.

Guatemala includes much of the old Mayan civilization, which may date back as early as 300 bc. The classical Mayan period lasted from about ad 300 to 900 and featured highly developed architecture, painting, sculpture, music, mathematics (including the use of zero), a 365-day calendar, roads, and extensive trade. This great pre-Columbian civilization seems to have collapsed around ad 900, and by the 12th century, the Mayas had disintegrated into a number of separate Amerindian groups. The Amerindians offered resistance to the Spanish expedition sent by Hernán Cortés from Mexico and led by Pedro de Alvarado during 152324, but by the end of that time, their subjugation to Spain was virtually complete.

Alvarado founded the first Guatemalan capital, Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala, in 1524. Because of several earthquakes, the capital was moved a number of times until it became permanently established at Guatemala City in 1776. From 1524 until 1821, Guatemala (City and province) was the center of government for the captaincy-general of Guatemala, whose jurisdiction extended from Yucatán to Panama. Economically, this was mainly an agricultural and pastoral area in which Amerindian labor served a colonial landed aristocracy. The Roman Catholic religion and education regulated the social life of the capital. Spanish political and social institutions were added to Amerindian village life and customs, producing a hybrid culture.

In 1821, the captaincy-general won its independence from Spain. After a brief inclusion within the Mexican Empire of Agustín de Iturbide (182223), Guatemala, along with present-day Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, formed the United Provinces of Central America in 1824. This federation endured until 183839, but was fragmented by liberal and conservative divides. Guatemala proclaimed its independence in 1839 under the military rule of the conservative Rafael Carrera, an illiterate dictator with imperial designs. Though the people went through three different pushes for independence, representative democracy was the exception from the mid-19th century until the mid-1980s. The country passed through dictatorships, military rule, insurgencies (in the 1960s), and coups.

After Carrera died (without reaching his dictatorial goals), Guatemala fell under a number of military governments. These included three notable administrations: Justo Rufino Barrios (187185), the "Reformer," who ruled through the transition from the colonial to the modern era; Manuel Estrada Cabrera (18981920), whose early encouragement of reform developed later into a push for increased power; and Jorge Ubico (193144), who continued, and elaborated upon, the programs begun by Barrios.

Guatemalan politics changed with the election of reform candidate Juan José Arévalo Bermejo in 1945. Arévalo's popularity marked one of the first mass-based movements in Guatemalan politics. In 1951, Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán was elected. Following Arévalo's approach to land reform, Árbenz expropriated holdings of the United Fruit Co., a US firm. The United States alleged communist influence within the Árbenz government, and began mobilizing opposition against him. In the summer of 1954, Col. Carlos Castillo Armas and an army of Guatemalan exiles, backed by the CIA, invaded Guatemala from Honduras and toppled Árbenz. Castillo took over, restored expropriated properties, and ruled by decree until he was assassinated by a presidential palace guard in July 1957.

After a period of confusion, Gen. Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes became president in January 1958. His administration was essentially a military dictatorship, even though he claimed to follow democratic principles. He was particularly hard on his domestic critics, denouncing them as communists. He was equally bombastic on the international stage, denouncing the United States, quarreling with Mexico over fishing rights, and challenging the United Kingdom over Belize. He was also contemptuous of Fidel Castro, and allowed Guatemala to be a training area for the exiles in the abortive US invasion of the Bay of Pigs in April 1961.

In March 1963, Ydígoras was overthrown by Defense Minister Col. Enrique Peralta Azurdia, who declared a state of siege. For two years, Peralta ruled dictatorially, and continued to assert Guatemala's claims on Belize. In September 1965, the Peralta regime announced a new constitution and elections, and in March 1966, Dr. Julio César Méndez Montenegro was elected president. He was the first civilian president since Árbenz, and would be the last for some time. During his term, the army and right wing counter-terrorists proceeded to kill hundreds of guerrillas, who were believed to be sponsored by Cuba, and claimed destruction of the guerrilla organization by the end of 1967. Uprooted from the countryside, the guerrillas concentrated their efforts on the capital, where, in 1968, guerrillas assassinated US Ambassador John G. Mein.

Guatemala returned to military rule as Col. Carlos Arana Osorio was elected president in 1970. He instituted the country's first comprehensive development plan, but the plan was upset by guerrilla violence, which now engulfed the country. Ambassador Karl von Spreti of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) was murdered in April 1970 by leftists. Many prominent Guatemalans were killed or held for ransom. In response to the violence, Arana suspended civil liberties from November 1970 to November 1971. In 1974, Arana's candidate, Gen. Kjell Laugerud García, was confirmed by Congress as president, after an election marred by charges of fraud. Laugerud followed a centrist policy and obtained a measure of popular support. During his tenure, guerrilla violence decreased, and some political liberties were restored. The principal challenge to Laugerud's administration was the need to rebuild Guatemala after the catastrophic earthquake of February 1976.

A militant rightist, Gen. Fernando Romeo Lucas García, was elected president in 1978. As guerrilla violence continued, there was also an upsurge of activity by right wing "death squads," which, according to unofficial Guatemalan sources, committed over 3,250 murders in 1979 and even more during 1980. In addition, hundreds of Amerindians were reportedly massacred during antiguerrilla operations. The Carter administration objected to Guatemala's deteriorating human rights record, whereupon the military charged that communist influence had reached the White House.

In January 1981, the main guerrilla groups united and escalated while the government went into crisis. The elections of March 1982 were won by Laugerud's handpicked candidate, Gen. Angel Aníbal Guevara. Three weeks later, a coup placed in power a "born-again" Protestant, Gen. José Efraín Ríos Montt. After his month-long amnesty offer to the guerrillas was rejected, he declared a state of siege in July, and the antiguerrilla campaign intensified. The government's counter-insurgency killed between 2,600 and 6,000 in 1982, and drove up to a million Guatemalans from their homes by the end of 1983. In March 1983, Ríos lifted the state of siege and announced that elections for a constituent assembly would be held in July 1984. But Ríos, who had fought off some 10 coup attempts during his administration, was overthrown in August 1983.

The new government of Brig. Gen. Oscar Humberto Mejía Victores declared that the coup was undertaken to end "abuses by religious fanatics" and pledged continued efforts to eradicate the "virus of Marxism-Leninism." Elections for a constituent assembly were held, as promised, in July 1984. In May 1985, the assembly promulgated a constitution for a new government with an elected Congress. The general elections of November 1985 were followed by a runoff election in December. The overwhelming winner was Mario Vincio Cerezo Arévalo of the Guatemalan Christian Democratic Party (DCG). He also brought a majority into Congress. Political violence decreased under Cerezo, who withstood two attempted coups. But he was unable to make any progress on human rights in Guatemala, and was unwilling to risk prosecution of military personnel who had been the most serious violators. As the economy worsened, political instability increased, including violence.

The elections of 11 November 1990 necessitated a runoff election, which was won by Jorge Serrano of the Movement for Solidarity and Action (Movimiento para Acción y SolidaridadMAS). Serrano's inauguration in January 1991 marked the first transition in memory from one elected civilian government to another. Serrano promised to negotiate with insurgents and bring to justice both corrupt former officials and human rights violators, but was deposed by the military after he declared a state of emergency and suspended the constitution on 25 May 1993. The military, in unusual service in defense of democracy, then allowed Congress to name Ramior de Serrano's successor. This unusual service of the military in defense of democracy led to the naming of Ramior de León Carpio as president on 5 June. De León, a human rights advocate, promised to bring to justice those responsible for the dismal state of human rights in Guatemala. He also proposed reductions in the military, which predictably were not well-received by the officer corps.

On 29 December 1996, under the government of Alvaro Arzu, the Guatemalan government signed a peace accord with the guerrilla Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity. This signaled the end of Central America's longest-running guerrilla war, beginning with an informal cease-fire in March 1996, and the signing of the socioeconomic accord (which called for the government to raise its tax revenues from 8% to 12% of GDP and increase its spending in health, education, and housing). The last accord, signed in Mexico City in September 1996, called for legislative and judicial reforms. It also included a reassessment of the military's role, as the parties agreed to remove the army from public security functions and to annul the law that provided for the Civil Defense Patrols established in the 1980s to fight guerrillas in the highland villages.

In February 1999, the country's Historical Clarification Commission blamed the army for more than 90% of the deaths or disappearances of more than 200,000 Guatemalans during the 36-year civil war. In many instances, the army committed genocide against entire Mayan villages, the report concluded. The three-member commission blamed the United States government for supporting right wing regimes even though it knew about the atrocities being committed by the army. An earlier report by the Catholic Church revealed similar findings. During a short visit to Guatemala in March 1999, US president Bill Clinton said his country had been wrong for supporting the Guatemalan army. He pledged to support the peace process. In May, the peace process suffered a setback when Guatemalans rejected 50 key constitutional reforms that would have diminished the role of the army and given protection and recognition to Amerindian languages and traditional customs, in a vote in which only about 20% of Guatemalans took part.

In November of 1999, a populist lawyer named Alfonso Portillo captured 47.8% of the vote in the presidential election. This vote was not enough to prevent a runoff election (held a month later), which was unsurprising as Portillo was a very controversial candidate. Portillo had fled Mexico in 1982 to avoid what he termed unfair prosecution for the killing (in self-defense) of two men in Guerrero. Further, he was also associated with former dictator Rios Montt (whose 17-month regime in 198283 committed some of the worst atrocities against Amerindians) through membership in the conservative Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG). Ríos Montt, who had his eye set on the presidency in 2003, worked closely with Portillo as FRG's secretary general. Portillo built support with promises to reduce crime, one of the worst problems facing the nation after the war. Crime was rampant throughout the nation, with dramatic increases in murders, kidnappings, and armed robbery. Portillo also promised to aid the poor and curb unemployment, a message that did not go unheard in a nation where 64% of Guatemalans are unemployed or underemployed. In the December runoff election, Portillo captured 68.3% of the vote to win the presidency. His party captured 63 of 113 seats in Congress, while the conservative PAN won 37 seats. A leftist coalition captured nine seats.

Montt attempted to overturn a constitutional ban preventing former coup plotters from running for public office, but he failed to overturn the ban in 1999. It was widely speculated that, in the midst of meager economic growth, a 60% poverty rate, and increasing levels of crime and violence, Montt's tough-on-crime stance would be able to convince the Guatemalans to give him a second chance. However, Montt was defeated in the first round of voting, as he was only able to win 19.3% of the vote. The former Guatemala City mayor, Oscar Berger Perdomo won 54.1% of the vote as the Grand National Alliance (GANA) candidate. Alvarado Colom Caballeros, a center-left candidate of the National Unity for Hope (UNE) party, garnered 49.1% of the vote. Though there were fears that violence and fraud might mar the election, those fears were not realized. Berger Perdomo, a conservative backed by the business class, assumed office on 14 January 2004. Portillo, however, quickly fled Guatemala as news of a corruption scandal in the presidency grew. In October 2005, Guatemala requested that Mexico send Portillo back to face accusations of public funds misusespecifically, a diversion of about $16 million in military funds.

In his inaugural speech, Oscar Berger Perdomo committed to adherence to the 1996 Peace Accords. However, the UN Verification Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA) reported that many of the fundamental reforms of the 1996 Peace Accords were not being realized due to persistent racism and social inequality. MINU-GUA predicted that the persistence would lead to an engendered future social conflict, stunted economic development, and corrosion of democratic government. Violence against women, femicide, was also a growing problem in Guatemala, where 527 women, mostly poor, were reportedly raped and murdered in 2004.

Civil war, corruption, and instability are among the reported reasons that Guatemala maintained a 75% poverty rate in 2005. The effects of Hurricane Stan and its concomitant flooding and landslides, claimed thousands of lives in October 2005.


Constitutionally, the Guatemalan government is defined as democratic and representative, and the new constitution that took effect on 14 January 1986 reaffirms that definition. Since the 1950s, however, civil disorder has often prompted the suspension of constitutional guarantees. In October, 1999, Congress approved constitutional reforms that ended the military's constitutional role in internal security except for limited periods and under civilian control.

Guatemala is a republic. The president, who must be a nativeorn lay person at least 40 years old, is elected by direct vote for a four-year term and may not be reelected. The constitution calls for a popularly elected vice president. The office of vice president provides a guarantee of presidential succession in case of the death or disability of the chief executive. There is a five-member court of constitutionality, which officially advises the president. Its members are appointed, one each by the Supreme Court, Congress, the president, the University of San Carlos, and the bar association. The president, who has broad powers, appoints and is assisted by a cabinet. The cabinet members traditionally resign at the end of each year so that the president may choose a new cabinet. The president, who is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces, appoints most military officers, the 22 governors, and other important public and diplomatic officials. Presidential duties include preserving public order, proposing laws, and making an annual presentation of the budget.

The unicameral National Congress has 113 members elected to four-year terms. Ninety-one members are elected from departmental constituencies, while 22 are elected by proportional representation. In districts with a population over 200,000, an additional deputy is elected to represent each additional 100,000 inhabitants or fraction exceeding 50,000. In addition, at-large representatives are elected by proportional representation from lists submitted by each political party. Under the constitution, Congress imposes taxes, enacts the national budget, declares war and makes peace, and ratifies treaties and conventions proposed by the president. Congress elects the president of the judiciary and judges of the Supreme Court and courts of appeals. The president may veto congressional bills, but Congress may override by a two-thirds vote. All public officials must declare the amount of their incomes and property holdings before assuming their posts and after they leave office.

Citizenship is acquired at the age of 18. Voting is obligatory for literate men and women 18 years of age and older and optional for nonliterate citizens.


Political power in Guatemala has been largely a matter of personal, rather than party, influence. Although parties have generally developed along conservative or liberal lines, political periods are commonly identified with the names of important leaders.

Under President Carlos Castillo Armas (195457), the Guatemalan Communist Party and other leftist parties were dissolved, and all other parties were temporarily suspended. To prevent further party proliferation, the membership necessary for party certification was raised from 10,000 to 50,000 in 1963. Only three parties were able to meet this requirement in time for the March 1966 elections: the Revolutionary Party (Partido RevolucionarioPR), a center-left party, the conservative Institutional Democracy Party (Partido Institucional DemocráticoPID), formed in 1965, and the militantly anticommunist National Liberation Movement (Movimiento de Liberación NacionalMLN).

During the 1970s, these parties remained dominant. The MLN won the presidency in 1970, and an MLD-PID coalition took the 1974 election (which was ultimately decided in Congress), defeating Gen. José Efraín Ríos Montt, representing the leftist National Opposition Front, a coalition of the several parties, including the Christian Democrats (Partido de Democracía Cristiana GuatemaltecaDCG). In 1978, the PR and PID formed a center-right coalition. In the congressional voting, the MLN won 20 seats, the PID 17, the PR 14, the DCG 7, and other parties 3. In the presidential elections of March 1982, a coalition of the PR, PID, and the National Unity Front (Frente de Unidad NacionalFUN), an extreme right wing party formed in 1977, won a plurality of 38.9% of the vote. Congress endorsed the PR-PID-FUN candidate, Gen. Ángel Aníbal Guevara, as president, but he was deposed in a coup later in March. All parties were suspended by the new ruler, Gen. Ríos, but political activity resumed in March 1983. In the 1980s, the Christian Democrats grew significantly, winning the 1985 presidential and congressional elections. In addition, a host of new parties entered the political arena. Many had hopeful names suggesting national reconciliation, moderation, and solutions to Guatemala's problems. Among these were the National Union of the Center (Unión del Centro NacionalUCN), the Democratic Party for National Cooperation (Partido Democrático de Cooperación NacionalPDCN), the Solidarity Action Movement (Movimiento para Acción y SolidaridadMAS), the National Advancement Plan (Plan por el Adelantamiento Nacional), and the National Authentic Center (Centro Auténtico Nacional).

The left wing guerrilla movement is represented by the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional GuatemaltecaURNG). Founded in 1982, these groups consist of the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (Ejército Guerrillero de los PobresEGP), the Guatemalan Workers' (Communist) Party (Partido Guatemalteco del TrabajoPGT), the Rebel Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas RebeldesFAR), and the Organization of the People in Arms (Organización del Pueblo en ArmasORPA). During the 1999 elections, the leftists won nine seats in Congress. The main political parties in 1999 were the conservative Frente Republicano Guatemalteco and Partido de Avanzada Nacional; Frente had 63 seats in Congress and PAN had 37 seats.

In the November 2003 elections, the Grand National Alliance (GANA) won 49 of the 140 seats in Congress; the FRG won 42 seats; the National Unity for Hope (UNE) won 33 seats; and PAN took 16. In the November and December 2003 presidential elections, Óscar Berger Perdomo of the Grand National Alliance won both the first and second rounds of voting to become president. His opponent, Caballeros, won 49.1% of the vote. The next legislative and presidential elections were scheduled for November 2007.


Guatemala is divided into 22 departments, plus Guatemala City, each with a governor appointed by the president. Municipalities are governed by a mayor and independent municipal councils whose officials are popularly elected for two-year terms.


The Constitution of 1985 established an independent judiciary and a human rights ombudsman. Courts of ordinary jurisdiction are the nine-member Supreme Court, 10 courts of appeals, 33 civil courts of first instance, and 10 penal courts of first instance. There is also a Constitutional Court. Judges of the Supreme Court and courts of appeals are elected for four-year terms by the National Congress from lists prepared by active magistrates, the Bar Association, and law school deans. Judges of first instance are appointed by the Supreme Court. Courts of private jurisdiction deal separately with questions involving labor, administrative litigation, conflicts of jurisdiction, military affairs, and other matters. An independent tribunal and office of accounts supervises financial matters of the nation, the municipalities, and state-supported institutions, such as the National University.

In 1986, under Cerezo's civilian government, reforms were added in the effort to end political violence and establish rule of law. These included amparo (court ordered protection), new laws of habeas corpus, and a series of Supreme Court reforms to fight corruption and make the legal system more efficient. However, the government was criticized for still failing to investigate and prosecute human rights violations throughout the rest of Cerezo's term.

A new criminal procedural code affording stronger due process protections took effect in July 1994. Trials are public. Defendants have the rights to counsel, to be presumed innocent, and to be released on bail.

In 2001, there was some concern that intimidation would stop justice, specifically in regards to the prosecution of the Bishop Gerardi murder. In this trial, retired army and foreign intelligence chief Col. Disrael Lima and his son Capt. Byron Lima were charged for murder along with former member of the Presidential Guard (EMP) Ogdulio Villanueva, among others. Archbishop Gerardi was beat to death two days after the Restoration of Historical Memory (REMHI) report was released by the human rights office (ODHA) that he headed. The report blamed the military and paramilitary for Guatemala's 36-year long civil war and the majority of deaths that occurred during that time. The reopening of the trial in 2001 was met by a bomb attack against Judge Iris Yassmin Barrios the night before the reopening of the Gerardi trial. Several witnesses died suspiciously, and judicial officials, judges, and prosecutors backed out of participation in the case due to threats and surveillance.

In 2004, Guatemala's judiciary was still said to suffer from corruption, inefficiency, intimidation, and the de facto doling out of impunity, despite its legal independence. Furthermore, military courts retain control of military personnel who commit crimes while on official business, thus disallowing civil courts to try human rights abuses by the military.

The consequently incomplete justice under the formal judicial system has been a reason that some citizens have taken justice into their own hands through the carrying out of linchamientos in vigilante groups that attack war criminals and others accused of war crimes. According to MINUGUA, an average of one lynching per week was carried out between April 1997 and May 1998, usually in rural areas lacking substantive police presence and where civil patrols had once been prevalent. Former patrollers, ironically, were often involved in the instigation of attacks.

Some outside courts have attempted to give justice where Guatemalan courts have had less progress. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered that the state pay compensation to victims of human rights abuses committed by the state. In December, 2004, $3.5 million was paid. The court found the state specifically responsible for the 1982 massacre of 268 people in Plan de Sanchez, Rabinal, and Baja Verapaz. The Constitutional Court, in 2005, also rejected the proposal to create a UN Commission for the Investigation of Illegal Bodies and Clandestine Security Apparatus, saying it would be unconstitutional and that alternative methods of protecting human rights from state aggression would be carried out. It also questioned the legality of Guatemala's accepting the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. An attorney with close ties to the military sought this ruling. Incidentally, Guatemala had not accepted compulsory ICJ jurisdiction, either, as of 2004.

The World Bank invested in a Judicial Reform Project aiming to create a more effective, accessible and credible judicial system that would improve consistency, equity, public trust, and confidence in its judging of the law.


The Guatemalan national armed forces (29,200 active and 35,200 reservists in 2005) are combined for administrative purposes, with the Army providing logistical support to the Navy and Air Force. In 2005 the Army had 27,000 active personnel, while there were 1,500 in the Navy, and 700 in the Air Force. The Army's primary armament included 12 light tanks, 57 reconnaissance vehicles, and over 118 artillery pieces. The Navy's major units consisted of 31 coastal patrol craft and 1 amphibious landing craft. The Air Force had 10 combat capable aircraft, including 4 fighter ground attack aircraft, in addition to 21 utility helicopters. Paramilitary forces included a 19,000 member national police force, in addition to a 2,500 member Treasury Police force. The defense budget in 2005 totaled $101 million. A decree promulgated in December 1983 authorized military service for women.


Guatemala is a charter member of the United Nations, having joined on 21 November 1945; it participates in ECLAC and several other UN specialized agencies, such as the FAO, ILO, IMF, UNESCO, UNIDO, WHO, and the World Bank. It is one of five members of the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (BCIE) and the Central American Common Market (CACM). The country also belongs to G-24, G-77, the Latin American Economic System (LAES), OAS, the Association of Caribbean States (ACS), and the Río Group. In 2004, Guatemala, the United States, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic signed the US Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). The agreement must be ratified by all participating countries before it enters into force. Guatemala has observer status in the Latin American Integration Association (LAIA). Guatemala was a founding member of the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN).

Guatemala is part of the Nonaligned Movement and is a signatory of the 1947 Río Treaty, an inter-American security agreement. The country is also part of the Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (OPANAL). In environmental cooperation, Guatemala is part of the Antarctic Treaty, the Basel Convention, the Convention on Biological Diversity, Ramsar, CITES, the London Convention, the Kyoto Protocol, the Montréal Protocol, MARPOL, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and the UN Conventions on the Law of the Sea, Climate Change, and Desertification. Guatemala is also signatory to the Central American-US Joint Declaration (CONCAUSA).


Since the Spanish conquest, the economy of Guatemala has depended on the export of one or two agricultural products. During the colonial period, indigo and cochineal were the principal exports, but the market for them was wiped out by synthetic dyes in the 1860s. Cocoa and essential oils quickly filled the void. Coffee and bananas were introduced later, and in 1999, the chief exports were coffee, sugar, and bananas. Guatemala's economy, the largest in Central America, is dominated by the private sector, which generates nearly 90% of GDP. Since World War II, the government has encouraged light industrial production (such as tires, clothing, and pharmaceuticals). Nevertheless, in 1995, agricultural pursuits occupied 58% of the national labor force and accounted for some two-thirds of Guatemalan foreign exchange earnings. Living standards and personal income remain low, and no significant domestic market exists, except for subsistence crops. However, the agricultural-based structure of the economy has been changing slowly since about 1980, morphing into a country that is more services-based and focused on commerce and financial services. As of 2004, commerce was the largest sector in the economy, accounting for approximately 25% of GDP; agriculture comprised 22.8% of GDP. Manufacturing accounted for 12.6% of the GDP.

The economy boomed from 1971 thorough early 1974. Then, as a result of inflation (21.2% in 1973), the world energy crisis, and an annual population growth of 2.9%, the economic growth rate slowed from 7.6% for 1973 to 4.6% for 1974. During the second half of the 1970s, Guatemala's economic performance slowed further; during 197480, the average annual growth rate was 4.3%. By the early 1980s, the civil war, coupled with depressed world commodity prices, had led to decreases in export earnings and to foreign exchange shortages. The GDP dropped by 3.5% in 1982, the first decline in decades, and the GDP declined or was stagnant through 1986. The annual inflation rate, which averaged 11% during 197981, dropped to no more than 2% in 1982. It rose thereafter, reaching 31.5% in 1985 and about 40% in the first half of 1986.

In the 1990s the Guatemalan economy grew at a healthy pace, propelled by nontraditional exports and investment. Inflation was reduced through fiscal and monetary policies to an average of 12% in 1993. Economic growth accelerated to an estimated 5.0% in 1993 compared with 4.6% in 1992. In a sudden shift that was perceived as a recession by the private sector, GDP growth decelerated in 1996 to 3.1%. The slowdown reflected a combination of factors: windfall profits from coffee exports, a slowdown in most Central American countries causing a significant decline in Guatemalan exports, and a severe competition of domestic products by Mexican imports. In addition, domestic demand cooled off as private sector credit demand ran out of steam, and tax increases were designed to strengthen the fiscal situation ahead of the signing of the peace accords. Growth for 1997 had improved to 4% thanks to greater domestic and trade liberalization; despite Hurricane Mitch, which destroyed a large portion of the country's agricultural produce for the year, GDP growth reached 5% in 1998.

Real GDP growth remained steady throughout 200105, between 23%. Additionally, inflation remained under 10% for the 5-year period.

The US Central Intelligence Agency reported that Guatemala was still struggling with an appalling poverty rate75% of the population lived beneath the poverty line as of 2004. The unemployment rate was estimated at 7.5% in 2003, and GDP per capita was estimated at $4,200 in 2004. In 2004, there remained an estimated 250,000 internally displaced persons, indicative of the continued negative influence of prior conflict on the current economy.


The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reports that in 2005 Guatemala's gross domestic product (GDP) was estimated at $62.8 billion. The CIA defines GDP as the value of all final goods and services produced within a nation in a given year and computed on the basis of purchasing power parity (PPP) rather than value as measured on the basis of the rate of exchange based on current dollars. The per capita GDP was estimated at $4,300. The annual growth rate of GDP was estimated at 3.1%. The average inflation rate in 2005 was 9.1%. It was estimated that agriculture accounted for 22.8% of GDP, industry 19.1%, and services 58.1%.

According to the World Bank, in 2003 remittances from citizens working abroad totaled $2.147 billion or about $175 per capita and accounted for approximately 8.7% of GDP. Foreign aid receipts amounted to $247 million or about $20 per capita and accounted for approximately 1.0% of the gross national income (GNI).

The World Bank reports that in 2003 household consumption in Guatemala totaled $22.25 billion or about $1,809 per capita based on a GDP of $24.7 billion, measured in current dollars rather than PPP. Household consumption includes expenditures of individuals, households, and nongovernmental organizations on goods and services, excluding purchases of dwellings. It was estimated that for the period 1990 to 2003 household consumption grew at an average annual rate of 4.0%. It was estimated that in 2004 about 75% of the population had incomes below the poverty line.


In 2005 Guatemla's labor force was estimated at 3.76 million. As of 2002, it was divided among the following sectors: agriculture 38.7%; industry 20%; services 37.5%; with 3.9% in other undefined occupations. As of 2003, the unemployment rate was estimated at 7.5%.

The trade union movement was born at the end of World War II. Directed in part by foreign communist labor leaders and cultivated by a sympathetic administration, the labor movement grew in the next 10 years to a force claiming nearly 500 unions with 100,000 members. With the overthrow of the Árbenz government in 1954, however, the unions were dissolved. After slow reorganization, the trade unions numbered about 110 by 1974, but in 1979 and 1980, trade union activity was severely restricted. In 1992, the Labor Code of 1947 was amended to facilitate freedom of association, to strengthen the rights of working women, to increase penalties for violations of labor laws, and to enhance the role of the Labor Ministry and the courts in enforcement. Approximately 2% of the workforce were union members in 2002. Unions are independent of government and political party domination, however retaliation against union participation is common. Workers dismissed for union activity have little legal or administrative redress. Workers have the right to strike, but it is weakened by legal restrictions and the force of tradition in a country where strikes were illegal until recently.

The workweek is statutorily recognized as being 44 hours long, but most workers work longer hours out of economic necessity. The minimum legal age to work is 14 but child labor remains a huge problem particularly in agriculture and in the informal economy. Hazardous conditions for child laborers are common especially in the fireworks industry. The minimum wage as of 2002 was $3.57 per eight-hour day for industrial workers and $3.24 per day for agricultural workers. There is routine noncompliance of the minimum wage law in the rural areas.


In 2003, only about 18.9% of the total land area of Guatemala was used for the production of annual or perennial crops, although almost two-thirds is suitable for crop or pasture use. Agriculture contributes about 23% to GDP, makes up 48% of export earnings, and employs 46% of the labor force. The principal cash crops are coffee, sugar, bananas, and cotton, followed by hemp, essential oils, and cacao. Coffee is grown on highland plantations; most of the bananas are produced along the Atlantic coastal plain. Cash crop output in 2004 included 18,000,000 tons of sugarcane, 216,000 tons of coffee, 1,000 tons of cotton, and 1,000,000 tons of bananas. Subsistence crop production included 1,072,000 tons of corn and 97,000 tons of dry beans, along with rice, wheat, and fruits and vegetables. Nontraditional agricultural exports have greatly increased in recent years; such products include: lychee, rambutan, melon, papaya, mango, pineapple, broccoli, okra, snow peas, celery, cauliflower, asparagus, garlic, spices and nuts, and ornamental plants. Guatemala's trade deficit in agricultural products was $454.5 million in 2004.

An agrarian reform law of 1952 provided for government expropriation of unused privately owned agricultural lands, with the exception of farms of 91 hectares (225 acres) or less and those up to 273 hectares (675 acres) if two-thirds of the acreage was under cultivation. By 1954/55, 24,836 hectares (61,371 acres) had been distributed to 10,359 farmers. The law of 1952 was supplemented by an agrarian reform law of 1956, which aimed to distribute state-owned farms (fincas nacionales) to landless peasants. From 1954 to 1962, the government distributed 17,346 land titles. In 1962, the National Agrarian Improvement Institute was created to provide assistance to the new landowners and to improve their living standards. The government requires plantation owners to set aside land for the raising of subsistence crops for their tenants. An agrarian credit bank provides loans to small farmers. Some of the land farmed by Amerindians is held in common by groups of families and is never sold.


Consumption of dairy products and meat is low, despite improvements in stock raising and dairying. The wool industry in the western highlands supplies the famed Guatemalan weavers. Hog and poultry production is ample for domestic consumption. In 2005, there were 2,540,000 head of cattle, 212,000 hogs, 260,000 sheep, 124,000 horses, and 27,000,000 chickens. Guatemala exports poultry, with 155,000 tons of poultry meat and 85,000 tons of eggs produced in 2005. Total cattle numbers continue to fall despite increased illegal imports from Honduras and a decline in illegal exports to Mexico. Depressed beef prices and rising production costs are the main causes of this trend.


Guatemalan waters are rich in fish, including shrimp, snapper, and tuna. The total catch in 2003 was 30,480 tons (up from 6,513 tons in 1991), about 32% of which came from inland waters.


Forests are among Guatemala's richest natural resources; they covered some 26% of the total land area in 2000. The forests in the Petén region yield cabinet woods, timber, extracts, oils, gums, and dyes. Mahogany, cedar, and balsam are important export products, and chicle for chewing gum is another important commodity. In 2004, 16.4 million cu m (579 million cu ft) of roundwood were produced, with 97% burned for fuel. Sawn wood production was 366,000 cu m (12.9 million cu ft) that year. Imports of forestry products exceeded exports by $165.8 million in 2004.


The principal commercial minerals were gold, iron ore, and lead. Production of antimony fell to zero in 19992001, from a high of 1,020 tons in 1997, when Guatemala ranked third in Latin America, behind Bolivia and Mexico. Gold, which was mined from the colonial period until the early 20th century, was no longer a major export item. An estimated 4,550 kg was produced in 2003, up from an estimated 4,500 kg in 2002. Rough marble, which ranged in color from white through green, was exported to Mexico and other nearby countries. Deposits of nickel have also been found at Marichaj and Sechol. Barite, bentonite, kaolin, other clays, feldspar, gypsum, iron ore, lime, pumice, salt, limestone, sand and gravel, and silica sand were also produced, primarily for domestic use. Reported deposits of copper, quartz, manganese, uranium, mica, and asbestos awaited exploitation.


Guatemala is the only oil producing country in Central America, but has no refining capacity. Therefore it must import all of its refined petroleum products. Most of the country's oil production lies in its northern jungles along the Mexican border. According to the Oil and Gas Journal, Guatemala has proven oil reserves of 526 million barrels, as of October 2005. Since the end of the civil war in 1996, the government has been granting oil exploration concessions. In March of 2005, a new oil licensing round was initiated, the first since 1997. Two blocks, A6 and A7, with known proven reserves were offered, with two unexplored blocks, Piedras Blancas and Cotcal offered. Production averaged an estimated 19,800 barrels per day in 2004, of which almost all was exported to the United States. In 2002, oil exports totaled an estimated 3,104 barrels per day. Consumption of refined products totaled 64,560 barrels per day in that year. Guatemala has modest natural gas reserves of 1.543 billion cu m as of 1 January 2002, but no production.

Guatemala is Central America's largest producer and consumer of electricity. In 2002, electric power generating capacity came to 1.698 million kW, while total production in that year reached 6.808 billion kWh, of which: fossil fuels accounted for almost 60%; hydropower for 27%; and geothermal/other sources accounted for the rest. Electricity consumption in Guatemala grew at an annual rate of 8.1% from 1993 to 2003. In 2002, electric power demand totaled 5.76 billion kWh. The surplus power generated has made Guatemala a power exporter. In 2002, electric power exports totaled 4.40 million kWh, with imports at 55 million kWh.


Manufacturing and construction accounted for a growing proportion of GDP in 2004. In that year, agriculture accounted for 22.7% of the GDP while industry accounted for 19.5% and services accounted for 57.9%. Guatemalan factories produce beverages, candles, cement, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, cigarettes, foodstuffs, furniture, matches, molasses, rubber goods, shirts, shoes, soap, sugar, textiles, and apparel. More recently established firms produce electrical machinery, refined petroleum products, metal furniture, instant coffee, pasteurized milk, plastic, plywood, aluminum and tires. Handmade woven and leather goods are sold to tourists and exported.

Most of the country's industrial enterprises operate on a very small scale. A small domestic market has traditionally limited Guatemala's industrial potential, although the CACM temporarily broadened the market for the country's exported manufactures. The value of Guatemala's exports more than tripled between 1972 and 1978. During the 1980s, however, the industrial sector declined, partly because of the collapse of the CACM but also because of a shortage of the foreign exchange necessary to purchase basic materials. In the mid-1980s, Guatemalan firms turned to export production as internal demand contracted. The 1986 devaluation of the quetzal raised the cost of imported industrial inputs. During the 1990s, the value added by manufacturing remained at a steady pace, except for during 1996. The manufacturing sector suffered from increased competition from Mexico, often unregistered and untaxed, while export to major neighboring markets was hampered in 1996 by the slowdown in Costa Rica and El Salvador.

In 2002, major manufactures included sugar, clothing and textiles, furniture, chemicals, petroleum, metals, and rubber. Heavy industry included a small steel mill located in Escuintla, and an oil refinery that had a capacity of 16,000 barrels per day. The pharmaceutical industry shrank by 53% in 1998 because several manufacturing companies had moved their businesses to Mexico. Construction, very dynamic during the first half of the 1990s, was affected by falling demand in 1996 and 1997, but grew by about 25% annually in 1998 and 1999. Electricity generation and telephone services continued to grow strongly, while oil production, thanks to a very active development policy, increased by 250% between 1992 and 1998.

Maquila plants have comprised a growing proportion of the manufacturing sector, though they are not as heavy of a proportion as in Mexico, Honduras, or El Salvador. In 1994, maquilas in Guatemala employed 70,000; this number grew to 113,200 in 2004. As of December 2004, 222 maquila plans operated in Guatemala65.3% were Korean-owned, 27% Guatemalan-owned, and 59.9% US-owned.


In 198797, total Guatemalan expenditures on research and development amounted to 0.2% of GDP, with 112 technicians and 104 scientists and engineers per million people engaged in research and development. The Academy of Medical, Physical, and Natural Sciences, headquartered in Guatemala City, dates from 1945. In 1996, Guatemala had learned societies devoted to natural history, pediatrics, and engineering, and research institutes concerned with nuclear energy, industry, and earth sciences. The Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama founded in 1949 and administered by the Pan American Health Bureau Organization and the World Health Organization, conducts research and disseminates scientific and technical information. Five universities offer degrees in basic and applied sciences. The National Museum of Natural History is located in Guatemala City.

In 2002, high technology exports by Guatemala totaled $55 million, or 7% of the country's manufactured exports.


Outside the capital city, markets are held on appointed days, and local fairs are held annually. Traders bring their wares on large racks atop buses or by mule, herding animals ahead of them. Prices are not fixed. Although there are some modern, tourist-oriented shops, traditional methods of commerce, with modifications, also prevail in Guatemala City. Franchise stores are beginning to gain acceptance. In 2002, there were about 150 franchising companies with around 450 outlets nationwide. Business hours are weekdays, 8 am to 6 pm; shops also open on Saturday mornings. Normal banking hours in Guatemala City are weekdays, 9 am to 3 pm.


The Guatemalan commodity export market is dominated by coffee, sugar, bananas, and oil. Other main exports are medicinal and pharmaceutical products, vegetables, and cardamom. Nontraditional exports, such as cut flowers, fruits and berries, shrimp, and textile assembly, are of growing importance to the Guatemalan economy.

Most exports go to the United States (55.3% in 2003); they also have increasingly gone to other Central American countries. Guatemala runs a trade surplus with the region, exporting mainly to El Salvador (10.5% of exports), but also to Honduras (7.1%) and Mexico (4.1%). As of 2003, Guatemala imported primarily from

Country Exports Imports Balance
World 2,634.7 6,718.7 -4,084.0
United States 790.9 2,944.1 -2,153.2
El Salvador 501.7 398.9 102.8
Honduras 281.2 101.5 179.7
Nicaragua 153.9 153.9
Costa Rica 152.6 302.1 -149.5
Mexico 106.9 561.9 -455.0
Panama 91.6 322.2 -230.6
Korea, Republic of 59.5 85.4 -25.9
Russia 46.7 5.0 41.7
Germany 46.3 159.0 -112.7
() data not available or not significant.

the United States (comprising 33.1% of imports), Mexico (9.1%), and South Korea (8.8%). In 2004 Guatemala imported 34% of its imports from the United States, 8.1% from Mexico, 6.8% from South Korea, 6.6% from China, and 4.4% from Japan. Guatemala typically imports fuels, machinery and transport equipment, construction materials, grain, fertilizers, and electricity.

Guatemala signed the Central American Free-Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) on 10 March 2005.


Guatemala generally finances its trade deficit through capital inflows. Capital flight caused by regional instability during the 1980s led to large deficits on the overall payments balance and brought foreign exchange reserves down from $709.6 million at the end of 1978 to $112.2 million at the end of 1982. In 1991 and 1992,

Current Account -1,050.9
   Balance on goods -3,126.7
     Imports -6,175.0
     Exports 3,048.3
   Balance on services -68.0
   Balance on income -318.1
   Current transfers 2,461.9
Capital Account 133.8
Financial Account 1,155.9
   Direct investment abroad
   Direct investment in Guatemala 115.8
   Portfolio investment assets 21.7
   Portfolio investment liabilities -11.0
   Financial derivatives
   Other investment assets 116.0
   Other investment liabilities 913.4
Net Errors and Omissions 311.4
Reserves and Related Items -550.1
() data not available or not significant.

with inflation lowered, private capital inflows were large enough to offset public capital outflows and the current account deficit. As a result, foreign reserves expanded during the 1990s, growing by $559 million. Foreign exchange reserves were over $1 billion from 1997 into 1999. Exports increased by 7.2% in 1997 and by 20.7% in 1998. National income reports do not include the export value added by the textile assembly industry (as they are generally located in the Free Trade Zones), and remittances from Guatemalans living abroad, which help finance the trade deficit.

Guatemala's underdeveloped infrastructure is a hindrance to foreign investment and economic development. A disproportionate share of investment goes to the Guatemala City area, despite rehabilitation of the railway system and investment in highways, telephone service, and electricity.

The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reported that in 2004 exports were approximately $2.9 billion; imports were approximately $7.1 billion, resulting in a trade deficit of approximately $4.2 billion.


The Bank of Guatemala (BANGUAT) is the central bank and the bank of issue. The Monetary Board, an independent body, determines the monetary policy of the country. Associated with the Bank of Guatemala are six other government institutions: The National Mortgage Credit Institute (the official government mortgage bank); two development banks, the National Bank of Agricultural Development and the National Housing Bank; and the National Finance Corp., organized in 1973 to lend funds to industry, tourism, and mining to provide technical assistance. BAN-GUAT intervenes in the foreign exchange market to prevent sharp deviation in the exchange rate. In 1998, the Central Bank spent over $500 million to support the exchange rate, but the currency depreciated by 15% anyway that year.

As of 2002, the formal banking system consisted of 32 private commercial banks, three state banks, and several financial houses. Over 18 international banks are represented in one form or another. The five largest banks control approximately 45% of total assets. Several financial institutions collapsed in 1998 and 1999, prompting the government to bring banks into line with the Basel convention on minimum capital requirements. The government also hopes to make credit more available. The International Monetary Fund reports that in 2001, currency and demand depositsan aggregate commonly known as M1were equal to $2.7 billion. In that same year, M2an aggregate equal to M1 plus savings deposits, small time deposits, and money market mutual fundswas $6.3 billion. The money market rate, the rate at which financial institutions lend to one another in the short term, was 10.6%.

When the Bank of Guatemala was established the Fund for the Regulation of the Bond Market was created to promote security issues. Nevertheless, Guatemalans still tend to prefer tangible investments, and there is no fully developed securities market. The National Stock Exchange of Guatemala (the Bolsa Nacional de ValoresBNV) opened in 1989 where shares from private companies in the country and other securities are traded. It is the largest of Guatemala's stock exchanges. The other two main exchanges, the Bolsa Nacional Global and the Bolsa Agrícola, merged to form the Corporación Bursatil in 1994. Three government bonds are traded on the exchanges, including CENIVACUS, CERTIBONO, and CDP. The volume traded in 1999 was $5.9 billion.


In Guatemala, worker's compensation (the country's Social Security Plan) is compulsory, providing pension, disability pension, medical and hospital benefits, maternity benefits, and funeral expenses. In addition, the insurance market is entirely domestic, as foreign insurers are prohibited from issuing policies. Market rates, and the types of fire, auto, life, personal accident, and crime insurance are set by the superintendency. In 2003, the value of direct premiums written totaled $271 million, with nonlife premiums accounting for $222 million. The country's top nonlife insurer that same year was G&T, which had gross nonlife written premiums of $55.2 million.


Fiscal policy loosened after the 1985 elections, but tax reforms in 1987 failed to generate additional income, and governmental expenditures continued to grow. By 1990, the public sector deficit was 4.7% of GDP. The Serrano administration transformed the deficit of 1990 to a slight surplus in 1991 and a virtually balanced budget in 1992. The consolidated public sector deficit amounted to 1.2% in 1991 and 1.0% in 1992. Guatemala's public sector is among Latin America's smallest, and the tax burden is one of the lightest, at about 8% of GDP. The budget deficit grew to 2.5% of GDP in 1998, from only 0.50% in 1997, forcing the government to reevaluate its taxation and customs practices. Continued privatization and trade liberalization should boost public finances.

The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimated that in 2005 Guatemala's central government took in revenues of approximately $3.3 billion and had expenditures of $4.0 billion. Revenues minus expenditures totaled approximately -$667 million. Public debt in 2005 amounted to 26.9% of GDP. Total external debt was $5.503 billion.

Revenue and Grants 21,694.4 100.0%
   Tax revenue 20,317.7 93.7%
   Social contributions 504.7 2.3%
   Grants 377.1 1.7%
   Other revenue 494.9 2.3%
Expenditures 26,210.9 100.0%
   General public services 5,819.7 22.2%
   Defense 1,235.1 4.7%
   Public order and safety 2,725.1 10.4%
   Economic affairs 6,265.3 23.9%
   Environmental protection 204.7 0.8%
   Housing and community amenities 2,948.3 11.2%
   Health 1,830.4 7.0%
   Recreational, culture, and religion 395.2 1.5%
   Education 4,625.1 17.6%
   Social protection 162 0.6%
() data not available or not significant.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) reported that in 2003, the most recent year for which it had data, budgetary central government revenues in millions of quetzales were 21,694.4 and expenditures were 26,210.9. The value of revenues in millions of US dollars was $2,732 and expenditures $3,275, based on a market exchange rate for 2003 of 7.9408 as reported by the IMF. Government outlays by function were as follows: general public services, 22.2%; defense, 4.7%; public order and safety, 10.4%; economic affairs, 23.9%; environmental protection, 0.8%; housing and community amenities, 11.2%; health, 7.0%; recreation, culture, and religion, 1.5%; education, 17.6%; and social protection, 0.6%.


The corporate income tax rate in Guatemala is 31% of net income. However, companies operating there have a choice between two payment regimes: a general withholding regime, and an optional tax regime. Under the General regime, a monthly 5% tax on gross income is made. Under the optional regime, a quarterly payment at the 31% corporate rate is made on net taxable income. In addition, there is a 2.5% asset tax that is applied to the previous year's income or net assets. The asset tax is credited against the corporate income tax. An industrial development law provides tax exemptions for new industries. There is also a 3.5% tax on all foreign exchange transactions. Only income earned from Guatemalan sources is taxed. Capital gains, like the corporate income tax, offer two payment regimes: a general withholding regime; and an optional tax regime. Under the first, a 10% monthly withholding rate is applied, while under the second, a quarterly 31% rate is used. Dividends from resident companies are exempt from tax if the income tax was paid out of the income that was distributed as dividends by the distributing company. Otherwise a 10% withholding tax is applied.

The progressive personal income tax schedule has a top rate of 31%. Nonresidents pay a flat 31% rate, while income from employment and professional services is charged at the progressive rate. Other taxes include property taxes, and inheritance and gift taxes. Excise taxes are levied on beverages, cigars, tobacco, gasoline, vehicles, and airline tickets. Royalties are taxed at 31%.

Guatemala's main indirect tax is a 12% value-added tax (VAT) that is applied to most transactions. However, basic foodstuffs, sales of some low-cost housing and certain financial services are exempt. Exports are zero-rated.


Guatemala requires licenses for the importation of restricted goods, including pharmaceuticals, basic food grains, milk, coffee beans, and armaments. As a member of the Central American Common Market CACM, Guatemala adheres to a common tariff classification system as well as a common customs code and regulations. Duties are stated as both specific and ad valorem. Import duties are generally minimal, ranging from 5 to 15%. Imports of agricultural products that exceed the quota have higher rates. There is also a 12% value-added tax (VAT) that is collected at the port of entry.


There are no general requirements for local participation nor any restrictions on repatriation of capital. Guatemala's major diplomatic interests are regional security and, increasingly, regional development and economic integration. Guatemala participates in several regional groups, particularly those related to trade and environment. Foreign investor interest in Guatemala picked up with the signing of peace accords in 1996 and deregulation of the electric and telecommunications sectors. Structural reforms, such as the privatization program and trade liberalization measures, will add to investor appetite, but substantial investment in infrastructure and training the workforce is needed. As of the first quarter of 1997, the government had invited bids for 12 oil exploration and production contracts. Oil production increased by 250% between 1992 and 1998.

In 1998, Guatemala passed the Foreign Investment Law, reducing the barriers to foreign investment. But investment was still restricted to minority ownership of domestic airlines and ground transport. Incentives are available for the forestry, mining, tourism, and petroleum sectors. There are also eight free trade zones. The Foreign Investment Law had also removed limitations to foreign ownership of domestic airlines and ground transport companies in January 2004. There were also plans within the government to form mining legislation in 2005 that would encourage foreign investment.


Guatemala's economic development policy is to create rural employment through the provision of investment incentives. Such enticements include inexpensive financing by government institutions, free assistance and technical support, and preferential treatment to use government facilities and institutions for guidance. The government has initiated a number of programs aimed at liberalizing the economy and improving the investment climate. After the signing of the final peace accord in December 1996, Guatemala was well-positioned for rapid economic growth. Growth in the late 1990s was led by development of petroleum mining and refining.

The country's economy is commanded by the private sector which generates about 85% of GDP. The public sector is small and shrinking, with its business activities limited to transportation, and several development oriented institutions. Problems hindering economic growth include illiteracy and low levels of education; inadequate and underdeveloped capital markets; and lack of infrastructure, particularly in the transportation, communications, and electricity sectors. The distribution of income and wealth remains unequal. The wealthiest 10% of the population receives almost one-half of all income; the top 20% receives two-thirds of all income.

Tax reform was one government objective in 2003, as was reform of the financial services sector, liberalizing trade, and overhauling public finances. Drought and low coffee prices harmed the economy in 200102, and caused malnutrition among the poor in rural areas. In 2003, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a nine-month, $120-million Stand-By Arrangement to support Guatemala's economic program through March 2004. In 2003, the government was targeting the fiscal deficit, aiming to control inflation, and working toward putting into place a new legal framework for the financial sector. The country was also improving transparency in government, and working to strengthen governing structures themselves.

A tax reform was passed in June 2004 to supplement the rolledover 2003 budget. Corporate income tax was changed, and excise duties on alcohol were levied. Further, a new corporate tax (the Impuesto Temporal de Apoyo a los Acuerdos de PazIETAAP) was made to support peace agreements. This replaced the agricultural and mercantile business tax (Impuesto sobre Empresas Mercantiles y AgropecuariasIEMA) that was rejected by the Constitutional Court in January 2004 and left the government vulnerable to a shortfall in tax revenue if tax reform were not carried out.

In 2005, the IMF supported President Berger's economic policy program and declared that Guatemala was capable of dealing with potential balance of payments without a new Stand-By Arrangement. The Stand-By Arrangement that gave Guatemala a $120-million credit line ended in 2004.


A social insurance system covers all employees, including agricultural workers. Public employees are covered by a separate program. The pensions for old age, survivorship, and disability are funded by a small contribution from employees, larger contribution from employers, and 25% covered by the government. Retirement is set at age 60. Cash and medical benefits are provided for sickness and maternity for employees of firms with more than five workers. Free medical care is provided for those receiving pensions. A grant for funeral expenses is provided.

Despite legal equality, women are paid significantly less than their male counterparts and are generally employed in low-wage jobs. Some domestic laws also discriminate against women. Women can be charged with adultery, while men can only be charged with a lesser crime. Sexual violence, including domestic violence, is widespread, and most cases go unreported. However, the number of complaints for both rape and spousal abuse has risen in recent years due to the nationwide educational program that has encouraged women to seek help. The police have little training to assist victims of sexual crimes. Sexual harassment is not illegal.

The constitution provides that all persons are free and equal in dignity and rights, and that the government must protect the life, liberty, justice, security, and peace of all citizens. Due to inadequate resources and corruption, however, the government is unable to enforce these provisions.


Guatemala's health care system consists of three sectors: public, private nonprofit, and private for-profit. Health coverage has been estimated to be low, with more than 40% of the population receiving no access to health care services. As of 2004, there were an estimated 89 physicians, 404 nurses, and 18 dentists per 100,000 people. Approximately 4.3% of GDP went to health expenditures. Among the chief causes of death are heart disease, intestinal parasites, bronchitis, influenza, and tuberculosis. Other major causes of death were perinatal conditions, intestinal infectious diseases, and nutritional deficiencies. Malnutrition, alcoholism, and inadequate sanitation and housing also pose serious health problems. Approximately 92% of the population had access to safe drinking water and 85% had adequate sanitation. Malaria rates are high. Guatemala does attempt to vaccinate its children and all routine vaccinations are paid for by the government. It is estimated that the poorest half of the population gets only 60% of the minimum daily caloric requirement. Some steps have been taken to fortify foods with daily vitamin requirements. Currently, sugar is being fortified with vitamin A and wheat flour will be fortified with iron.

The total fertility rate was 4.6 in 2000, a dramatic reduction from 6.5 in 1980. By 2000 the maternal mortality rate had fallen to 55 deaths per 1,000 live births, down from 200 in 1990. In 2005, the infant mortality rate was 32 per 1,000 live births and the overall mortality rate was an estimated 6.7 per 1,000 people as of 2002. The average life expectancy was 69.06 years in 2005. From 1966 to 1992 there were about 140,000 war-related deaths.

The HIV/AIDS prevalence was 1.10 per 100 adults in 2003. As of 2004, there were approximately 78,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in the country. There were an estimated 5,800 deaths from AIDS in 2003.

Political violence and problems associated with poverty have left more than 200,000 Guatemalan children orphaned. Many suffer from psychological problems and malnutrition.


Many of the nation's urban housing units and most of its rural dwellings have serious structural defects and lack electricity and potable water. In 2002, there were about 2,483,458 housing units in the country. Most dwellings were detached houses. Over 50% of all housing are owner occupied. About 24% of all houses are of adobe walls; 50% use concrete blocks. Metal sheeting is the most common material for roofing. Most apartment buildings are made of cement block. The housing need in 2005 stood at about 1.6 million houses and overcrowding, especially in rural area hut dwellings and urban rented rooms, was prevalent.

As of 1995, there were about 205 "squatter" settlements inhabited by homeless or displaced persons. In these settlements, shelters are made of wood, cardboard, or mud, with zinc sheet roofs. A public housing program is supervised by the National Housing Bank. The Ministry of Public Health and Welfare is charged with the improvement of rural dwellings.


Elementary education is free and compulsory for nine years although enforcement is lax in rural areas. Primary school covers six years of study, followed by three years of basic secondary school. Students may then choose a two-year diversified secondary program or a three-year technical school program.

In 2001, about 55% of children between the ages of five and six were enrolled in some type of preschool program. Primary school enrollment in 2003 was estimated at about 87% of age-eligible students. The same year, secondary school enrollment was about 30% of age-eligible students. It is estimated that about 66.5% of all students complete their primary education. The student-to-teacher ratio for primary school was at about 30:1 in 2003; the ratio for secondary school was about 14:1. In 2003, private schools accounted for about 12% of primary school enrollment and 74% of secondary enrollment.

Among Guatemala's six main universities, the Universidad de San Carlos, in Guatemala City, is the most important center of higher learning. The others include Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, Universidad Francisco Marroquin, Universidad Mariano Galvez, Universidad Rafael Landivar, and Universidad Rural. In 2003, about 9% of the tertiary age population were enrolled in some type of higher education program. The adult literacy rate for 2004 was estimated at about 69.1%, with 75.4% for men and 63.3% for women.

As of 1995, public expenditure on education was estimated at 1.7% of GDP.


There are three notable libraries in Guatemala City. The National Library, with about over 350,000 volumes, has collections of Guatemalan and other Central American books and newspapers. The General Archives of Central America has a 100,000-item collection of documents for the three-century colonial period, when Guatemala was the administrative center for the Central American area. The library of the Geographical and Historical Academy of Guatemala (30,000 volumes) is of special value to researchers. The Central American Industrial Research Institute maintains the largest technical library in Central America (36,000 volumes). The Institute of Nutrition in Central American and Panama in Guatemala City maintains an important collection of public health documents. The University of San Carlos library has 205,000 volumes. There are about 64 public libraries that are supervised through the National Library. Another 29 public libraries are sponsored by the Bank of Guatemala.

The Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (1948) in the capital has an excellent collection of Mayan artifacts, and the Colonial Museum in Antigua contains colonial paintings, woodcarvings, iron and leatherwork, and sculpture. Also in the capital are the National Museum of Fine Arts, the National Museum of History, the Museum of the National Palace, the Popol Vuh Archaeological Museum, and the Center for Conservation Studies, founded in 1981.


Except for a few privately controlled facilities, the government owns and operates the postal, telephone, and telegraph services. The Guatemalan Telecommunications Enterprise provides international radiotelegraph and radiotelephone service. In 2003, there were an estimated 71 mainline telephones for every 1,000 people. The same year, there were approximately 131 mobile phones in use for every 1,000 people.

As of 2000 there were 130 AM and 487 FM radio stations. In 2001, four of the most prominent television stations were all owned by the same Mexican citizen, who has a political preference for the FRG. In 2003, there were an estimated 79 radios and 145 television sets for every 1,000 people. The same year, there were 14.4 personal computers for every 1,000 people and 33 of every 1,000 people had access to the Internet. There were 50 secure Internet servers in the country in 2004.

There were three major daily newspapers in 2004, all published in Guatemala City. They were (with orientation and 2004 circulations): Prensa Libre (moderate liberal, 110,000), Siglo Veintiuno (moderate, 56,000), and La Hora (moderate liberal, 18,000).

The constitution provides for free speech and a free press, though journalists admit that in certain cases fear of reprisals or government pressure leads to self-censorship.


Artisans', consumers', service, and savings and credit cooperatives are grouped in four federations. The major employers' organizations are the General Farmers' Association, the Chamber of Commerce, the Chamber of Industry, and the National Coffee Association.

The Academy of Geography and History of Guatemala promotes the study of Guatemalan history, geography, and culture. There are several associations dedicated to research and education for specific fields of medicine and particular diseases and conditions.

National youth organizations include the Association of University Students, associations of Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, youth rotary clubs, and Junior Achievement of Guatemala. Sports associations promote amateur competition in such pastimes as hiking, football (soccer), tae kwon do, and squash. Volunteer service organizations, such as the Lions Clubs and Kiwanis International, are also present. The Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity are active in Guatemala.


All visitors need a passport and may need a visa depending on nationality. Tourism has rebounded since Guatemala's return to civilian rule in 1986. In 2003, approximately 880,223 tourists arrived in Guatemala. There were 17,519 hotel rooms in 2002 with 44,579 beds and an occupancy rate of 47%. Guatemala's main tourist attractions are the Mayan ruins, such as Tikal; the numerous colonial churches in Guatemala City, Antigua Guatemala, and other towns and villages; and the colorful markets and fiestas.

In 2005, the US Department of State estimated the daily expenses of staying in Guatemala City at $200. Other areas were estimated at $156 per day.


The Rusticatio Mexicana, by Rafael Landívar (173193), represents the height of colonial Guatemalan poetry. Outstanding figures of the romantic period were philologist Antonio José de Irisarri (17861868); José Batres y Montúfar (180944), the author of Tradiciones de Guatemala and many poetical works; and José Milla y Vidaurre (182282), a historian and novelist and the creator of the national peasant prototype, Juan Chapin. Justo Rufino Barrios (183585) became a national hero for his liberal, far-reaching reforms between 1871 and 1885. Enrique Gómez Carillo (18731927), a novelist and essayist, was perhaps better known to non-Spanish readers during his lifetime than any other Guatemalan author. Twentieth-century novelists include Rafael Arévalo Martínez (18841975), Carlos Wyld Ospina (18911956), and Flavio Herrera (18951968). The novelist and diplomat Miguel Ángel Asturias (18991974) was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1967.

Mario Cardinal Casariego (b.Spain, 190983) became the first Central American cardinal in 1969. Among the better-known Guatemalan political personalities of the 20th century are Col. Jácobo Árbenz Guzmán (191371), president during 195154, and Gen. Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes (18961982), president during 195863. Alfonso Portillo Cabrera (b.1951) served as president from 2000 to 2004. Óscar Berger (b.1946) succeeded him. Rigoberta Menchú (b.1959) won the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize for her campaign against human rights violations and for the rights of indigenous peoples.


Guatemala has no territories or colonies.


Calvert, Peter. A Political and Economic Dictionary of Latin America. Philadelphia: Routledge/Taylor and Francis, 2004.

Dosal, Paul J. Power in Transition: The Rise of Guatemala's Industrial Oligarchy, 18711994. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1995.

Giannakos, S.A. (ed.). Ethnic Conflict: Religion, Identity, and Politics. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2002.

Health in the Americas, 2002 edition. Washington, D.C.: Pan American Health Organization, Pan American Sanitary Bureau, Regional Office of the World Health Organization, 2002.

Hendrickson, Carol Elaine. Weaving Identities: Construction of Dress and Self in a Highland Guatemala Town. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.

Jones, Oakah L. Guatemala in the Spanish Colonial Period. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

Maya Cultural Activism in Guatemala. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.

Perera, Victor. Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Poverty in Guatemala. Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2004.

Stoll, David. Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

VanKirk, Jacques. Remarkable Remains of the Ancient Peoples of Guatemala. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.

Woodward, Ralph Lee. Guatemala. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Clio, 1992.

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Republic of Guatemala

Major Cities:
Guatemala City, Antigua

Other Cities:
Amatitlán, Chichicastenango, Chimaltenango, Chiquimula, Cobán, Esquipulas, Flores, Huehuetenango, Mazatenango, Puerto Barrios, Quezaltenango, San José, Zacapa


This chapter was adapted from the Department of State Post Report dated June 1996. Supplemental material has been added to increase coverage of minor cities, facts have been updated, and some material has been condensed. Readers are encouraged to visit the Department of State's web site at for the most recent information available on travel to this country.


GUATEMALA is one of the most diverse countries in the world. Its more than nine million inhabitants live in the highlands, the tropics, and the central plateau. Almost half of them are pure-blooded descendants of the Maya Indians, whose civilization flourished throughout much of Guatemala before the Spanish conquest in 1523.

Modern, comfortable Guatemala City, the capital, contrasts sharply with the rural interior. That area is characterized by Mayan ruins, mile-high Lake Atitlán, the ancient Indian cultures of Chichicastenango and Huehuetenango, and colonial Antigua, the proud capital of the country until it was leveled by two disastrous earthquakes in 1773. Guatemala has survived a turbulent history of dictatorships, political unrest, and economic instability, and is now pursuing a comprehensive plan for national development.


Guatemala City

Guatemala City, the capital, is a busy metropolis, and despite air pollution, dust in the dry season, and mud during the wet season, it is a fairly clean place. The colorful native dress of the large Indian population adds charm and uniqueness to this interesting city. Guatemala City (its full name is Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala la Nueva) is located slightly southwest of the country's geographical center at an altitude of about 5,000 feet, and is built on a long, narrow plain completely surrounded by hills and mountains. It is the largest city in Central America, with a population of 2.7 million (2000 est.).

The older buildings are Spanish-style, but starkly modern structures are rising rapidly. Residential districts are spreading beyond the town's outskirts, with newer homes either modern or Spanish colonial in design. Downtown Guatemala City's streets are narrow and, despite one-way traffic, congestion is bad and parking difficult. Several new shopping centers away from the city's center are gaining rapid popularity. Streets in the newer residential and business sections are relatively wide, attractive, and less congested.

The city has a number of interesting old churches. Large daily markets, the main source of fresh fruits and vegetables, are also centers for a variety of native textiles, blankets, and some pottery. The large block-size relief map of Guatemala, the National Palace, the Archeological Museum, and the Mayan ruins on the outskirts of the city are sightseeing attractions. Parks are always full, especially on Sundays and holidays. Aurora Zoo is small, but worth seeing.

In spite of the thousands of foreign tourists who stream through the city every month and the multinational, intercultural mix of residents, the city maintains a calm tolerant aura of well-being. Although some nightlife is available, Guatemala City is not a nighttime city, and quietly finishes most days well before midnight.

The present city is the third permanent capital of Guatemala. It was founded in 1776 after Antigua was destroyed by earthquakes. An earthquake destroyed Guatemala City in 1917, but it was rebuilt on the same site. Guatemala City suffered less than did the countryside from the February 4, 1976 earthquake which killed 27,000, injured 76,000, and left more than one million homeless.

The level of living for Americans in Guatemala City is generally equal to that of a small U.S. city, but the cost of living is similar to that in Washington, DC. The American community, comprising some 6,500 persons in the capital and perhaps 1,000 elsewhere, is the largest single foreign group. The foreign community also includes much smaller German and British colonies.

Religious Activities

Roman Catholicism is the principal religion, and Catholic churches in the capital and throughout the country are staffed by native and foreign clergy in about equal numbers. Two of the churches, Villa Guadalupe and San Agustin are run by the American Maryknoll and Franciscan Fathers. Protestant services in English are offered by the interdenominational Union Church in Guatemala City and also by Episcopal, Lutheran, and Church of Christ congregations. Three Jewish congregations, the Sephardic, Orthodox Ashkenazi, and a Reform group, hold regular services.


The private educational system in Guatemala City is considered fairly good. Most schools require a birth certificate, a certification of good health, a vaccination certificate, and a transcript of education records. Although many private elementary and secondary schools operate in Guatemala, most American children attend the American or the Mayan School. Calvert System materials are not necessary, since these materials are provided by those schools using the system.

The American School (Colegio Americano) offers kindergarten through secondary school instruction. Despite its name, it is a private Guatemalan school with American administrators and some American teachers (the enrollment in 1991 was 1,600, of which 160 were American children). Accelerated courses are available in all grades for students planning to enter university or who will be transferred to other areas in the fall. Classes are conducted in both English and Spanish and students can elect to be taught in either language. Quality of instruction at all grade levels is considered adequate.

The secondary school is accredited by the U.S. Southern Association of Schools and Colleges. The number of American teachers usually averages 25% of the total faculty. Athletic activities consist of softball, water polo, track and field, basketball, baseball, soccer, volleyball, and swimming. Other extracurricular activities include drama, dance, choral and instrumental music, yearbook, newspaper, literary magazine, computers, and field trips. An intramural and playground recreational program is stressed. Bus transportation to and from school is provided at nominal cost.

The school year runs from mid-January through mid-October, with vacations during Holy Week and at midyear. The school is located on 52 acres of land in a residential area just outside the city. Facilities include an audiovisual room, auditorium, science labs, two computer labs, cafeteria, covered play area, gymnasium, swimming pool, and a 28,000-volume library. The mailing address is Apartado Postal 83, Guatemala City, Guatemala. U.S. mail may be sent in care of the U.S. Embassy, Guatemala, APO Miami, Florida 34024-5000.

The Mayan School (Colegio Maya) offers instruction for nursery through grade 12. It is a cooperative school sponsored by parents, administered by an elected board of directors, and fully accredited under the U.S. Southern Association of Schools and Colleges. The director and principal are American, as are at least 50% of the teachers and staff. The enrollment in 1991 was 340, almost equally divided among American, Guatemalan, and third-country nationals. General curriculum is taught in English with one class period daily in Spanish. Instruction provided in all grades is considered adequate. Art, physical education, and computer science may be elected. Extracurricular activities include drama, computers, yearbook, newspaper, field trips, and photography. Athletic activities comprise basketball, volleyball, baseball, and other organized sports. Playground equipment is also available for smaller children. Bus transportation is provided by the school.

The school year runs from the end of August to the beginning of June, with vacations at Christmas and Easter. The school is located on 12 acres of land about six miles from the city. Facilities include an audio-visual room, science and language labs, infirmary, cafeteria, a computer room, and a 10,200-volume library. The mailing address is Apartado Postal 2-C, Guatemala City, Guatemala. U.S. mail may be sent to APO 34024, Miami, Florida.


Spectator events include frequent national and international soccer matches, bicycle and car races, and local wrestling. Baseball and softball are increasing in popularity and can be played year round. Joggers can be seen often here, and several organizations sponsor races throughout the year. Although Guatemala City has only two facilities, bowling is popular, with several regular city leagues and frequent national and Central American tournaments.

Golf courses and tennis courts are available for either membership or public use, as are several outdoor and indoor pools. About two hours from Guatemala City, on the Pacific coast near the port of San José, is a large hotel with both fresh and salt-water pools. Ocean swimming on this coast, unfortunately, is not only dangerous because of strong under-currents and occasional sharks, but also rather unpleasant because of the rough black sand, rocks, and narrow, limited "beach" areas. Caribbean beaches are lovely, almost virginal, territory, but not easily accessible.

Surf and deep-sea fishing are enjoyed on either coast where tarpon, barracuda, shark, sailfish, giant ray, red snapper, bonito, and jackfish are common. Lakes and rivers provide freshwater fishing.

Near Guatemala City, the volcanos Pacaya (8,345 feet), Fuego (12,851 feet), and Agua (12,307 feet) attract climbers and offer a rewarding view of both coasts on clear days. Pacaya, which is gently active much of the year, provides the unique opportunity for climbers to stand on one peak and view close at hand the lava activity on another. Climbing parties are organized during the dry season.

Wild game, such as deer, wild turkey, dove, geese, pheasant, duck, jaguar, and boar, is still plentiful in various parts of the country. Hunting is prohibited in most of Guatemala and hunters should obtain permission to hunt on private land.

Guatemala offers many opportunities for sight-seeing, as well as for sport. Lake Atitlán is two-and-a-half hours from Guatemala City by car over a good but winding road. Atitlán is generally considered the most beautiful lake in the country and is visited as part of the "must" excursion to Solola and Chichicastenango. Three large volcanos are nearby. Encircling the shores of the lake, 5,500 feet above sea level, are 12 Indian villages named after the Twelve Apostles. These villages can be reached by launch from the hotel area. Several good tourist hotels are located on the lakeshore in the town of Panajachel. Swimming and boating are pleasant pastimes.

Tikal, largest and one of the oldest of the ancient Mayan cities, is located in the midst of a dense tropical rain forest in the Department of Petén, in the northeast section of Guatemala. Due to daily flights and occasional special tourist or charter flights, these magnificent ruins, formerly almost inaccessible to the traveler, are now within a short flying time of Guatemala City. Overnight accommodations with meals are available at either of two adequate but non-luxury hotels.

The highland and northern jungle regions of Guatemala, difficult to reach because of poor or no roads, offer a complete change of scene and atmosphere. The towns of Flores and Sayaxche are the jumping-off points for jungle trips. Trips can be arranged by air and jeep to the sites of Mayan ruins, and bus service is usually available to many remote villages. Airline service is furnished to about 20 points within Guatemala. The road-building program is gradually opening up previously inaccessible regions, and tourist traffic is increasing.

Visiting Indian communities throughout the country during their various patron saint festivals offers unique opportunities to experience the flavor of the Guatemalan heart-land and its hospitable people. These fiestas, which usually begin a few days before the actual patron saint's day, are usually characterized by special dances, processions, and a profusion of decorations, as well as firecrackers, native marimba or other instrumental music, and often a lively market. There are no limits, outside those of good taste, to taking photographs.

For those who want to become acquainted with Guatemala, the country, and its customs, the Trekkers Club offers frequent group trips at minimum cost. The club is international in membership. Meetings are held one evening a month at the Union Church with featured speakers, movies, and/or slide showings. Trips are usually planned for weekends. Members share the responsibilities for organizing and leading the excursions, as well as serving on the board of directors.

Guatemala is a friendly country, and most Americans establish fine and lasting friendships with Guatemalans. Many Guatemalans speak excellent English, having been educated in the U.S., and many others are studying English at the Instituto Guatemalteco-Americano de Cultura (IGA) and other institutions. Americans usually find ample opportunity for social contacts, both private and official, with Guatemalans. Social contacts between the American colony and other foreign colonies are frequent and interesting.

The American Society is an organization of U.S. citizens living in Guatemala. Membership includes official personnel, members of the business community, and others. The society endeavors to improve Guatemalan-American relations on the local level and performs an important welfare function. The group also sponsors several social functions each year, including an annual Fourth of July picnic and a children's Christmas Party, and holds bridge and craft classes for members. Other clubs include a Rotary Club, Lion's Club, an English-speaking Masonic Lodge, an American Legion post, and a Toastmasters International Club.

While the primary aims of the American Chamber of Commerce of Guatemala are business and investment-oriented, the group has a large and active membership of firms and individuals who maintain a high community visibility. Their monthly luncheon meetings are frequently open to the public and their programs and service activities promote excellent, broad-based relationships. Membership fees are reasonable.


Entertainment is widely available in Guatemala City, and the scope is quite ambitious. Guatemala City boasts a 2,000-seat National Theater that hosts plays, dance performances, and concerts. The National Symphony Orchestra and the National Ballet each have a wide repertoire that is expanding each year. Several small city theater groups perform everything from musical comedy to serious drama. Guest artists and performers, often traveling under the sponsorship of the U.S. Government, are consistently well received, and add further dimension to the performing arts in Guatemala.

Recent U.S. films are shown at a number of theaters in Guatemala City, usually with Spanish subtitles. Mexican, Italian, French, and Argentine films are also featured, although less frequently. Guatemala City has several motion picture theaters, some of which are clean, modern, and as pleasant as any in the U.S.

Guatemala's art world is lively, especially the painting and sculpting. The binational center has at least one monthly exhibit, and frequent exhibits are held in the National Bank Building and smaller city galleries. Prices for art works, however, are comparable to those in the U.S. The National Palace displays examples of Spanish colonial art, and is decorated with vivid murals depicting the area's pre-colonial and Hispanic history. Several newer government buildings are decorated with facades of attractive modern sculpture.

One of the best sources of reading material is the IGA (the binational center) library, which has a collection of over 8,000 volumes in English and Spanish, and a bookstore offering current material. The American Club provides its members with a lending library of fiction and nonfiction best-sellers, and the Union Church maintains a library. Books are also available in commercial bookstores at import prices.

In addition to the first-class dining rooms of the major hotels, numerous good restaurants offer specialties ranging from typical dishes to French cuisine and Chinese food. Several popular restaurants specialize in "Argentine-style" beef. Many of the American fast food chains are represented in Guatemala.


Antigua, previously named Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala, and sometimes called Antigua Guatemala, is located in the south-central part of the country, less than an hour by car from Guatemala City over a good road. Once a metropolis rich in beauty and culture, its mossy arches, well-preserved architectural ruins, and quiet parks and gardens are reminders of the magnificence of a bygone era.

Antigua was founded in 1542 by survivors of nearby Ciudad Vieja, which was destroyed by an earthquake and a flood. The city became the capital of Spanish Guatemala and, by the 17th century, was flourishing as one of the richest capitals of the New World, rivaling Lima and Mexico City. By the 18th century, Antigua's population was over 100,000; the university was the center of the arts and learning and the churches, convents, monasteries, public buildings, and houses were characterized by extreme luxury. Situated amongst three volcanoes (Agua, Acatenango, and Fuego), Antigua was destroyed by two earthquakes in 1773. The capital was moved to Guatemala City a few years later.

Today, Antigua is a picturesque city of ruins and old, restored homes. Buildings are characterized by Spanish facades, patios, and arcades. With a population over to 30,000, it is also a commercial center in a rich coffee-growing region. Now a major tourist center, Antigua has good, attractive hotels, one with a swimming pool, and all well-geared to tourist traffic. Shopping in Antigua is considered delightful. Spectacular festivities are held here during Holy Week. Those planning to visit during this period should make hotel reservations well in advance.

Visitors to Antigua will delight in its many interesting churches and landmarks. The Cathedral of San José, built between 1543 and 1680, was a magnificent structure, featuring 16 chapels, 60 cupolas, vaulted archways, high naves, and excellent paintings and sculptures. The facade and much of the wall structure stand today, along with the ruins of several domes. Excavation in 1935 revealed crypts beneath the cathedral. One is open to visitors and contains an altar, crucifix, and statues of saints. The conquistador of Guatemala, Don Pedro de Alvarado, is buried beneath the cathedral in an unidentified tomb. The present Church of San José was made from two of the original 16 chapels, which were restored in 1854. The cathedral was damaged in the 1976 earthquake, but has been reconstructed. Other interesting churches include La Merced Church, with lacy white stonework on its facade; and San Francisco, covering two square blocks, with its huge bell that tolls annually one stroke for each year of Guatemala's independence.

A few mansions, built during the colonial era, have been restored. Casa Popenoe, the House of Bells (converted into a shop), and the House of Lions all feature an austere outside wall encircling patios that contain fountains and gardens.

Ciudad Vieja (Old City) is about four miles from Antigua's central plaza, near the base of the volcano. The city was destroyed when it was engulfed by the eruptions of the volcano, Agua, in 1541. Parts of the city have been excavated. The church, built in 1534, was excavated intact; the third story of the governor's palace, built in 1527, has been exposed, but the first two floors remain buried.

There are several interesting Indian villages in the Antigua area that are accessible by car. Santa María de Jesús is less than seven miles from the foot of Agua volcano. Horseback and hiking expeditions to the volcano originate here. Just below Santa María de Jesús on the mountain slope is San Juan del Obispo. It is the site of the palace and former retreat of Antigua's colonial bishop; the palace is currently being rebuilt. Known for its hand-woven textiles, the village of San Antonio Aguas Calientes is five miles from Antigua.


Situated in the mountains of southeast Guatemala, the city of AMATITLÁN lies on the shores of Lake Amatitlán, 12 miles southwest of Guatemala City. The lake is badly polluted, however, and swimming is no longer safe. With a municipal population over 33,000, Amatitlán is the center of a popular weekend resort area for Guatemala City residents, and is particularly noted for its scenery. Beautiful vacation homes are built around the lake-shore and hot springs may be found throughout the region. Coffee and sugar plantations are also located in the area. Native skin divers find well-preserved relics of Mayan religious ceremonies that took place at the natural hot springs that empty into the lake. Fragments of pottery discovered on the bottom of the lake indicate that a cemetery of an ancient city could be buried in the silt.

CHICHICASTENANGO , about 90 miles west of Guatemala City, is the center of the Quiche Indian culture and a principal sight-seeing attraction. Located in the heart of the highlands at about 7,000 feet above sea level, Chichicastenango became the spiritual center of the Quiche following their defeat by Pedro de Alvarado in 1524. Often called Santo Tomás, the town is quaint and charming, with a main plaza connected by a maze of winding streets. It is the site of one of the most colorful markets in Central America. On market days, Thursday and Sunday, Chichicastenango is crowded with Indians in their colorful clothing. On Sundays especially, they practice their semipagan religious rites in the two ancient Roman Catholic churches on the main plaza. In the Dominican monastery, the famous PopulVuh manuscript of Maya-Quiche mythology was discovered. There are also several excellent collections of Indian relics, many of which are carved in jade.

CHIMALTENANGO is located 30 miles west of Guatemala City in the central highlands. This market center of over 30,000 was founded in 1526; today, its residents grow grains, sugarcane, and livestock. Brick-making is an important industry. Chimaltenango is noted for its church built on the Continental Divide, where water flows around the foundationhalf to the Pacific and half to the Atlantic.

CHIQUIMULA lies 70 miles east of Guatemala City on the Río San José. The city has been ravaged by earthquakes, especially in the late 1700s during the colonial period. A colonial church remains, in ruins. Chiquimula's hinterland produces fruit, tobacco, sugarcane, and cattle. The city is linked to the capital by road and railroad and has a population of approximately 42,600.

COBÁN is situated in a rich coffee-growing area about 60 miles north of Guatemala City. Although an all-weather road connects the city to the capital, it is more easily accessible by plane. The hillside church, El Calvario, built in 1559, is located just outside of Cobán. Indian villages are also nearby and are known for their silverwork. Tourist attractions near the city include ancient Mayan pyramids and the Lanquin Caves, a series of underground grottoes stretching nearly 250 miles. The population of Cobán is approximately 23,000 (1989 estimate).

The town of ESQUIPULAS , located 75 miles east of Guatemala City, is known for its church that contains the figure of the Black Christ, revered by the Indians. Each year, more than one million pilgrims from Central America and Mexico visit the Black Christ. The six-foot image of Christ, completed in 1594, is made of balsa wood. The population of municipal Esquipulas is about 18,800.

Once a stronghold of the Itzá Indians, FLORES is located in a vast tropical jungle area in northern Guatemala. The town, with a population of about 14,000, is on an island in Lake Petén Itzá and is an export center for chicle, rubber, sugarcane, and lumber. It is accessible by road or plane but, during the rainy season, mud and flooding make driving hazardous.

HUEHUETENANGO is an old mining city on the slopes of the Altos Cuchumatanes Mountains, 75 miles northwest of Guatemala City. The name means Place of the Ancients, and ruins of an ancient Indian settlement called Zaculeu are located nearby. Lead, copper, and silver are mined in this city, which is also a major trading area for the local Maya Indians. Corns, beans, and potatoes are grown near the city. The estimated population of Huehuetenango is 37,200. The main Pan-American Highway is close by.

In the southwest, 60 miles southwest of Guatemala City, lies MAZATENANGO. This commercial and manufacturing city provides a link between Pacific ports and the interior. Coffee, sugarcane, cacao, fruits and, especially cotton, are major crops. Mazatenango is connected to Guatemala City by road and railway.

PUERTO BARRIOS is located in eastern Guatemala, about 150 miles northeast of Guatemala City on the Bay of Amatique, an arm of the Caribbean's Gulf of Honduras. Named for Guatemalan politician Justo Rufina Barrios, Puerto Barrios is the capital of Izabel Department and the country's major port. Leading exports are coffee and bananas. Puerto Barrios had a population of 38,000 (1989 est.), is the terminus of the International Railways of Central America, and also is the eastern seaport for El Salvador. The city sustained heavy damage from the earthquake of 1976.

QUEZALTENANGO is Guatemala's second largest city, located in the western highlands about 75 miles west of Guatemala City. It can be reached in about three-and-a-half hours by highland route over the Pan-American Highway, which is paved all the way and generally in good condition. A mountain town at about 7,600 feet, it has a cool, invigorating climate and clean air. Its interesting old market offers excellent textiles and handicrafts. The city also has a multilevel shopping center. The development of hydro-electric power has helped Quezaltenango become one of the Central America's leading industrial cities. Principal industries in the city include mills, breweries, and textile factories. As the site of the ancient Quiche kingdom of Xelaju, Quezaltenango is also noteworthy for its hot sulfur baths and mineral springs. Many of Guatemala's best-known scholars, musicians, and writers have lived in the city. The population is approximately 90,000.

SAN JOSÉ , a commercial port on the Pacific Coast, is two hours from Guatemala City over a paved road. The nearby beaches of Chulamar, Likin, and Iztapa offer surf bathinglimited, however, by a strong undertow at certain hours, and occasional sharks. The beaches are black volcanic ash, which is extremely hot in direct sun. Water-skiing, swimming, and fishing are possible on the canal and river that empty into the Pacific near Iztapa. Deep-sea fishing excursions can be arranged. Deer, wild pig, duck, and dove are also hunted in this area. The population is about 18,000.

ZACAPA is the capital of Zacapa Department in the eastern region, 25 miles from the Honduras border. This old community grew fast in the late 19th century with the completion of the Puerto Barrios-Guatemala City railroad. It now has approximately 34,000 residents. A principal railway junction, Zacapa is known for its cheese and cigars. Growers from the hinterland ship their products to the city; yields include corn, beans, sugarcane, and livestock. The 1976 earthquake caused extensive property damage.


Geography and Climate

Guatemala is the most northern and populous of the five Central American countries. Occupying 42,042 square miles, it is about the size of Tennessee. It is bordered on the north and west by Mexico, on the southeast by Honduras and El Salvador, on the east by Belize and the Caribbean Sea, and on the south by the Pacific Ocean. Guatemalan coastlines cover about 200 miles on the Pacific Ocean and 70 miles on the Caribbean.

The country is roughly divided into four geographic regions: the central-western highlands, the low northern plateau which is largely jungle, the southern volcanic regions of the Sierra Madre, and tropical coastal lowlands. The temperate mountain regions are the most densely populated.

Guatemala City's rainy season is May through October and its dry season, November through April. Temperatures are generally moderate during both seasons, ranging from an average low of 53°F in January to 60°F-85°F in April. Frost and snow are unknown, and flowers bloom year round.

Rainfall is heaviest from June through October; the annual average is approximately 52 inches. The wet months can cause mildew damage to clothing, shoes, luggage, and upholstered furniture. Frequent airing and the use of heating units in closets helps to prevent mildew. Long-stay travellers should consider bringing portable dehumidifiers. During the dry season, days are clear, and the sun is hot at midday with chilly to cold mornings and evenings. During these months it is dusty, foliage turns brown, grass and shrubs wither, and gardens must be watered.

Guatemala has 33 volcanoes, 4 within view of the city. Although most are inactive, Pacaya, about 27 miles south of Guatemala City, erupts occasionally with lava flows to nearby localities. Fuego, about 30 miles from the city, periodically produces impressive displays visible from Guatemala City.

Earth tremors are common. In 1976, a devastating earthquake struck Guatemala. Some 27,000 people were killed and over 1 million left homeless. Damage was greatest in areas with adobe housing. The modern sections of Guatemala City suffered light-to-moderate damage, but most of the city has been repaired. Before 1976, the last major earthquake to cause considerable damage occurred in 1917.


The 2000 estimated population was 12.7 millionsome 3 million of whom live in the capital and its suburbs. The annual population growth rate is about 3%. An estimated 43% of the nation's population is culturally Indian. The remainder, which includes Caucasians and people of mixed descent, speak Spanish and wear Western dress. Most of the small black population lives in the Caribbean coastal area.

Spanish is the principal urban language. It is necessary to have at least a basic knowledge of Spanish for day-to-day living. At least four major Indian languages and over 20 dialects are predominant in the villages where Spanish is not widely spoken. Many Indians, descendants of the Mayans, maintain ancin art and Indian culture is the profusion of native textiles. Guatemala's 23 ethnolinguistic groupings exhibit their different roots by distinctive costumes. The intricately hand-woven or embroidered women's "huipiles," or blouses, are famous among textile connoisseurs throughout the world. Many are trying to protect both family/community weaving enterprises and this dying art itself from machines churning out lesser quality tourist wares. The modern Ixchel Museum, built according to U.S. specifications, on the campus of Francisco Marroquin University, not only engages in this endeavor, it houses permanent and changing exhibits of indigenous textiles, and conducts educational programs.

Although many village men have adopted Western dress, interesting men's costumes can still be seen in the Lake Atitlan region, Chichicastenango, and in the Province of Huehuetenango.

Theater consists mainly of semiprofessional organizations whose performances follow no regular season. Productions are held in small theaters, the Binational Center, or the city's modern, attractive National Theater complex. The School of Theater at the Universidad Popular and the Teatro de Arte Universitario at San Carlos University also offer performances throughout the year.

The Guatemalan scientific community is based in the universities, the National Meteorological Service, and the Academia de Geografia e Historia. Several research centers formed under the auspices of the Central American Common Market, including the Central American Nutritional Research Center, are also headquartered in Guatemala City. Most scientific effort is directed toward economic development.

The San Carlos University, the national campus that enrolls upwards of 70,000 students for minimal fees, was founded in 1676. All lectures are in Spanish. The Faculty of Humanities corresponds to a school of liberal arts in the U.S., offering courses in philosophy, education, and literature. Courses in the sciences, engineering, medicine, and law are also available. Beginning in the 1960s, four smaller private universities, Rafael Landivar, Mariano Galvez, Francisco Marroquin, and Del Valle, opened their doors to students and have continued to grow: the four universities sponsor 20-odd "extension" campuses across Guatemala's departments.

For decades, scholars, researchers, students, and culturally oriented tourists have been lured to Guatemala for its rich anthropological and archeological attractions. Epigraphers stand awed before the secrets of Tikal, now a national park; historians delightedly burrow through the treasures of the Archivo General de Centro America and the Centro de Investigaciones de Mesoamerica (CIRMA) in Antigua.

Commerce and Industry

Guatemala's GDP for 2001 was estimated at $20.0 billion, with real growth slowing to approximately 2.3%. After the signing of the final peace accord in December 1996, Guatemala was well-positioned for rapid economic growth over the next several years, though a financial crisis in 1998 limited its ability to achieve its potential growth rates.

Guatemala's economy is dominated by the private sector, which generates about 85% of GDP. Agriculture contributes 23% of GDP and accounts for 75% of exports. Most manufacturing is light assembly and food processing, geared to the domestic, U.S., and Central American markets. Over the past several years, tourism and exports of textiles, apparel, and nontraditional agricultural products such as winter vegetables, fruit, and cut flowers have boomed, while more traditional exports such as sugar, bananas, and coffee continue to represent a large share of the export market. Because of Guatemala's continued reliance on coffee exports, the recent downturn in world prices has contributed to Guatemala's relatively slow growth over the past 2 years.

The United States is the country's largest trading partner, providing 35% of Guatemala's imports and receiving 27% of its exports. The government sector is small and shrinking, with its business activities limited to public utilities--some of which have been privatized--ports and airports and several development-oriented financial institutions.

Guatemala was certified to receive export trade benefits under the United States' Caribbean Basic Trade and Partnership Act (CBTPA) in October 2000, and enjoys access to U.S. Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) benefits. Due to concerns over serious worker rights protection issues Guatemala's benefits under both the CBTPA and GSP were reviewed in 2001. After passage of labor code reforms in May 2001, and the successful prosecution of labor rights violations against banana union workers dating to 1999, the review was lifted.

Current economic priorities include: Liberalizing the trade regime; Financial services sector reform; Overhauling Guatemala's public finances; Simplifying the tax structure, enhancing tax compliance, and broadening the tax base.

With 60% of all Guatemalans living in poverty, the country suffers from some of the worst mortality, illiteracy, malnutrition, and other social indicators in the hemisphere region. Providing $30-$50 million in annual assistance, USAID is working to address key constraints to Guatemalan development through the promotion of sustainable resource management, smaller and healthier families, improved basic education, enhanced trade and labor rights, and the sustained exercise of inalienable rights.

The headquarters for USAID's regional programs is also located in Guatemala. Through its regional programs, USAID promotes sustainable development throughout Central America, working with the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, the Nutrition Institute for Central America, the Central American Commission for Environment and Development, the Permanent Secretariat of Central American Economic Integration, the Tropical Agricultural Center for Research and Education, the Inter-American Institute for Agricultural Cooperation, and a wide variety of nongovernmental organizations.



Buses, all private and independent, are the primary mode of public transportation within and between Guatemalan cities. In the capital, service is frequent, but most of the buses are old, smoke spewing, and noisy, and their drivers careless. Because of controversial increased prices and severe overcrowding on private buses, the city has recently inaugurated the use of converted semitrailers, with a capacity of 200 passengers, to offer express service along specified routes. Few buses are scheduled after 9 pm or 10 pm.; "ruleteros" (minibuses) pick up and discharge passengers along major streets until midnight. Taxis are available on a 24-hour basis, but are expensive and must be called by telephone or picked up at one of the several stations throughout the city. Use only recommended taxi companies such as those contracted by hotels. Since taxis are not metered, the cost should be settled before any trip. Tipping, though not expected, is always appreciated.


Interurban bus lines connect most towns and villages within the country. Although serviceable, these buses are often crowded and uncomfortable. Numerous tour agencies are available that offer comfortable transportation and guides at a reasonable cost; however, large-capacity rented vehicles and travel agency vans have been targeted by armed highway bandits.

Guatemala is a country brimming with natural beauty and color, and travel into the countryside is a welcome respite from city living. Much of the country cannot be visited safely by surface transportation. Roadblocks are occasionally set up by thieves posing as military or police officers, and travel after sunset anywhere in Guatemala is extremely dangerous.

All-weather paved highways traverse the country between Mexico, El Salvador, and both seacoasts. Other roads, which are gradually being improved, vary from two-lane, gravel topped hard bed to single-lane dirt. During the dry season, most unpaved roads are passable, though often dusty and rough. In the rainy season mountain roads are treacherous because of poor markings, frequent landslides, and washouts. Driving to Mexico City takes about 3 days via the coastal route entering Mexico at Tapachula. San Salvador is about 4 1/2 hours by car from Guatemala City.

Drivers in Guatemala take more risks than those in the U.S.; one must drive defensively whether within the city and faced with cars coming in the opposite direction on a one-way street or along the highways where large semitrailers will pass on a blind curve at high speed. Guatemalan law is strict with all parties in an accident, and cars are often impounded.

Infrastructure problems common to many Third World countries are present in Guatemala. Main roads to the larger towns and cities are paved and generally fair though plagued by deep potholes, washed-out bridges, and, during the long, rainy season, sometimes impassable because of mudslides and large fallen boulders. The major road to El Salvador, along which is located one of the schools attended by Mission children, suffers from erosion and is continually undergoing construction efforts.

Bus service is available twice daily between Guatemala and El Salvador. Bus companies offer service from Guatemala to Mexico and Honduras but may require a bus transfer at the borders. Travelers are urged to check with the Regional Security Office regarding guerrilla and criminal activity in the areas through which they plan to drive before planning any international travel. When traveling from El Salvador, the border crossing at Las Chinamas, El Salvador/Valle Nuevo, Guatemala, is preferred. When entering Guatemala from Honduras, the border crossings are at either El Florido or Agua Caliente. With all cross-border travel, travelers need plenty of time to complete border crossing formalities, which can be lengthy, in order to travel to a major town before dark. For group trips, chartered buses are available and border crossings are expedited.

Major car rental agencies, in convenient locations, offer car rental options, but rates are high, between $35-$50 a day for subcompact models. Insurance, both collision and liability, is required.

Tourism has recently increased between Guatemala and Costa Rica, with both the Costa Rican airline, LACSA, and Colombian airline, SAM, offering daily flights.

American Airlines provides three daily flights to and from Miami and one flight to and from Dallas each day. United offers daily service to and from Los Angeles, and Continental has one flight per day to and from Houston. The national airline, AVIATECA, has daily service between Guatemala City and Miami and Guatemala City and Los Angeles, and four flights per week to and from New Orleans, via El Salvador. AVIATECA also provides connections to Belize. TACA airlines offers a flight to Washington, D.C., and New York on a daily basis and provides connections to other Central American capitals. KLM, Iberia, and several other Latin American carriers also provide international connections.


Telephone and Telegraph

GUATEL, the government-owned and operated communications facility, provides internal and worldwide telephone service. Domestic rates are reasonable with the monthly usage rate averaging Q5. In 1995, a residential long-distance night call to Washington, D.C., cost $8 for 3 minutes and $2 for each additional minute. Direct-dialing is available 24 hours daily although service may be intermittent. An AT&T telephone calling card is useful in Guatemala. AT&T offers a more favorable rate on long-distance calling when the AT&T network is utilized. MCI and Sprint accounts also are operable in Guatemala City. The demand for new telephone lines and installations throughout the city has increased dramatically. GUATEL is currently in the process of modernizing their telephone network, which should facilitate the installation of new residential lines.

Telegraph service is also available through GUATEL to all worldwide locations. Internal usage is popular and fairly reliable. Western Union also provides a money transfer service to and from Guatemala.

Radio and TV

Guatemala City has over 65 Spanish radio stations. Thirty-four AM and 31 FM stations feature U.S.-style music, mostly of the pop hit parade variety. Some classical and jazz music programs are also available. News broadcasts can be heard three times daily on approximately 10 stations. Shortwave reception of VOA is good during the early morning or late evening hours. BBC programs (in English or Spanish) are also heard.

Five color TV channels, one government owned, broadcast a daily menu of mixed programs, including Spanish-dubbed U.S. series shows, feature films, Mexican soaps ("Telenovelas"), and music revues. Two channels provide regular news programs in Spanish three times daily, at 1 pm, 6:30 pm, and 9:45 pm, and one channel offers an early morning news broadcast from 7 am to 8 am. More than two dozen cable TV operators serve Guatemala City and offer a full range of U.S. programming in English. All major networks, with the exception of PBS, are available through cable, many transmitting 24 hours.

Newspapers, Magazines, and Technical Journals

Four morning and one afternoon papers are published daily in Spanish, including one official gazette. The two largest circulating dailies are Prensa Libre and El Grafico, both with ample international wire service news coverage. A weekly news magazine, Cronica, covers Guatemalan economic, political, and cultural news. English-language air express editions of the Miami Herald, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today circulate at major hotels and newsstands. Latin American editions of Newsweek and Time appear promptly, and many popular English-language magazines and books are available throughout the city, although prices are double the U.S. price. Two locally published English-language news weeklies, Central American Report and This Week, contain regional political analyses. They are available only by subscription. Two, more widely distributed, weekly newspapers published locally, the Guatemala News and Guatemala Weekly, provide additional current event coverage for the English-speaking community.

Health and Medicine

Medical Facilities

Good, reliable medical services are available in Guatemala City. Competent and reputable doctors, dentists, ophthalmologists, and veterinarians are available. Most have studied or been trained in the U.S. or Europe and speak English. Specialization is common in most major fields and one or more physicians are available in each.

The major hospitals, clinics, and diagnostic laboratories are adequately equipped. The local supply of medicines, which can usually be bought without prescription, is adequate, but some may be difficult to obtain. If you take prescription drugs, bring a supply with you and arrange to have them sent to you as needed. If special medication is needed, bring a supply and a copy of the prescription.

Community Health

Guatemala City is about 5,000 feet above sea level. Healthy individuals rarely suffer ill effects from the altitude, though precautions must necessarily be taken to guard against overexposure to the sun's harmful rays. Guatemala's standards of sanitation are fair. Generally, health conditions in Guatemala City are good.

Diarrhea and amoebic and bacillary dysentery are not uncommon. These illnesses, as well as paratyphoid and typhoid fever, can be contracted from unpurified water and uncleaned vegetables. Hepatitis is endemic to the region. Safe drinking water remains a problem, but many Guatemalan communities are developing adequate supply and purification systems. Tuberculosis is the most serious contagious endemic disease and is prevalent in a large percentage of the Indian population. Although sanitariums exist, control of those infected with tuberculosis is inadequate, and the annual death rate from the disease is high. Smallpox has been eradicated.

In the coastal and other lowland areas of Guatemala, as well as nearby Lake Amatitlan, malaria is prevalent. Although a malaria eradication program is in operation, the incidence of the disease has increased significantly in the past few years. When traveling to these areas, appropriate prophylactic medication should be taken.

It is important to have window screens in residences to keep out disease-carrying mosquitoes and houseflies, and to eliminate or minimize breeding places in the immediate vicinity. The use of insect repellant is also recommended during times of the year when mosquitoes are more prevalent, and when traveling to lowlands and coastal areas.

Preventive Measures

Guatemala City's water supply is sporadic. During the dry season, water pressure occasionally drops so low that there is little or no water in many homes; in some instances, city water is turned off completely. Processed drinking water is delivered to the door and may be purchased in 5-gallon bottles for Q7.50. Most Americans use this or boil tap water to make it safe for drinking.

Although several dairies deliver pasteurized milk to homes, for consistency in quality and freshness, powdered or long-life shelf milk is recommended.

Locally purchased fresh fruits and vegetables should not be eaten raw, unless they can be peeled. Cooking is the only sure way to disinfect fresh fruits and vegetables. Another effective method is to immerse them in actively boiling water for one minute. Leafy vegetables treated in this manner will show only slight wilting on the outermost leaves, and the palatability of other sturdier vegetables and fruits will not be affected. An alternative method is to use a Clorox bleach solution for soaking fruit and vegetables.


Passage, Customs & Duties

Flights to Guatemala can be arranged from the U.S. on the Guatemalan government-owned airline, AVIATECA, or on TACA. In February 1991, a new Guatemalan airline, Aeroquetzal, began U.S. service between Los Angeles and Guatemala City. Good connections also are provided by other carriers. Some expatriates drive to Guatemala from the U.S. if they have the time and stamina. Drivers are cautioned that during the rainy months (May-October) the roads in Guatemala can be treacherous because of washouts, landslides, and earth tremors that create temporary impasses. No American passenger ships come to Guatemala, and travel by ship via Panama and air to Guatemala is not a commonly used route.

A valid U.S. passport is required to enter and depart Guatemala, even though many people, including some U.S.-based airline employees, mistakenly believe otherwise. U.S. citizens returning to the United States from Guatemala are not allowed to board their flights without a valid U.S. passport. Therefore, U.S. citizens are strongly advised to obtain a U.S. passport before departing the United States. Certificates of Naturalization, birth certificates, driver's licenses, and photocopies are not considered acceptable alternative travel documents. While in Guatemala, U.S. citizens should carry their passports, or photocopies of their passports, with them at all times. Minors (under 18) traveling with a valid U.S. passport need no special permission from their parents to enter or leave Guatemala. U.S. citizens do not need a visa for a stay of 90 days or less (that period can be extended upon application). An exit tax must be paid when departing Guatemala.

U.S. citizens living in or visiting Guatemala are encouraged to register at the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City and obtain updated information on travel and security in Guatemala. You may now informally register with the American Citizen Services Section via e-mail to [email protected]. Your registry information should include your complete name, date and place of birth, U.S. passport number, itinerary, contact information in both the United States and Guatemala. You may wish to attach a scanned copy of your U.S. passport and/or e-mail it to your own address or to someone in the United States. This will enable you to easily retrieve a copy of your passport to facilitate a replacement.

The latest security information is available from the Embassy, including its website (see below). The Consular Section is open for citizens services, including registration, from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon and 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. weekdays, excluding U.S. and Guatemalan holidays. The U.S. Embassy is located at Avenida La Reforma 7-01, Zone 10; telephone (502) 331-1541 during business hours (8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.), or (502) 331-8904 for emergencies during non-business hours; fax (502) 331-0564; Internet web site-


All pets must be covered by certification of rabies inoculation. In addition, an import license issued by Guatemalan authorities is required for any pet arriving in Guatemala.

Currency, Banking, and Weights and Measures

The time in Guatemala is Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) minus six (or equivalent to Central Time in the U.S.).

The Guatemalan unit of currency is the quetzalq, which is on a par with the U.S. dollar. U.S. paper currency is widely accepted.

Various systems of weights and measures are used in Guatemala. Pounds and kilograms (2.2046 pounds) are the most common weight units, but more exotic units such as the quintal (100 pounds) are also used frequently. Gasoline is sold by the gallon (U.S.), but milk is sold by the liter. Common units of distance include centimeter, inch, foot, yard, vara, meter, kilometer, mile, and legua.

Disaster Preparedness

Guatemala is a geologically active country. Therefore, visitors should be aware of the possibility of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and the need for contingency measures. Occasional eruptions, such as those in January-February 2000 of Pacaya Volcano near Guatemala City, have forced evacuations of nearby villages and briefly closed Guatemala City's international airport. The major earthquakes in El Salvador in early 2001 caused damage, injuries, and deaths in Guatemala, albeit to a much lesser extent than her neighbor to the east. Both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts of Guatemala are vulnerable to hurricanes and tropical storms from June through November. Mudslides and flooding during the May to November rainy season often kill dozens of people and close roads. General information about natural disaster preparedness is available via the Internet from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at


Jan. 1 New Year's Day

Mar/Apr. Holy Thursday*

Mar/Apr. Good Friday*

Mar/Apr. Holy Saturday*

Mar/Apr. Easter Sunday*

May 1 Labor Day

June 30 Army Day

Aug. 15 Feast of the Assumption

Sept. 15 Guatemala Independence Day

Oct. 20 Revolution Day

Nov. 1 All Saints' Day

Dec. 24 (from noon) Christmas Eve

Dec. 25 Christmas Day

Dec. 31 (from noon) New Year's Eve



The following titles are provided as a general indication of the material published on this country:

Barry, Tom. Guatemala: A Country Guide. Albuquerque, NM: Inter-Hemispheric Education Resource Center, 1990.

Brosnahan, Tom. La Ruta Maya: A Travel Survival Kit. Oakland, CA: Lonely Planet, 1991.

Canby, Peter. The Heart of the Sky: Travel Among the Maya. New York: Harper Collins Publications, 1992.

Cummins, Ronald. Guatemala. Milwaukee, WI: Gareth Stevens Children's Books, 1990.

Fauriol, Georges A., and Eva Loser. Guatemala: A Political Puzzle. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publications, 1988.

Frommer's Budget Travel Guide Series. Costa Rica, Guatemala, & Belize on 25 Dollars-a-Day, 1991-92. New York: Prentice-Hall General Reference & Travel, 1991.

Greenberg, Arnold, and Diana Wells. Guatemala Alive. 2nd ed., New York: Alive Publications, 1990.

Harvard Student Agencies, Inc. Staff. Let's Go, 1992: The Budget Guide to Mexico Including Belize & Guatemala. Rev. ed., New York: St. Martin Press, 1991.

Jonas, Susanne. The Battle for Guatemala: Rebels, Death Squads, and U.S. Power. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991.

Smith, Carol A., ed. Guatemalan Indians & the State: 1540 to 1988. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1990.

Vlach, Norita. The Quetzal in Flight: Guatemalan Immigrant Families in the United States. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1992.

Wright, Ronald. Time Along the Maya: Travels in Belize, Guatemala, & Mexico. New York: Grove Press, 1989.

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Republic of Guatemala

República de Guatemala



Located in Central America at the southern tip of Mexico between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, Guatemala has a total area of 108,890 square kilometers (42,042 square miles), slightly smaller than that of the state of Tennessee. Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico all share land boundaries with Guatemala that total 1,687 kilometers (1,048 miles) in length, while Guatemala's coastline along the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea totals 400 kilometers (249 miles). Guatemala City, the national capital and home to 2 million Guatemalans, is located in south-central Guatemala, less than 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the Pacific Ocean.


As of July 2000, Guatemala's population was estimated at 12,639,939. There are approximately 484 persons to every square kilometer of the country (1,253 persons per square mile), making Guatemala the second most densely populated nation in Central and South America. (El Salvador is the only nation in the region with a higher population density.) Guatemala also has an extremely high rate of population growth; if the population were to continue at its current growth rate of 2.9 percent per year, the total number of people living in the nation would double in 24 years. Population projections estimate that Guatemala's population will reach 16,295,000 by 2010. The fertility rate in Guatemala is the highest in Latin America, with an average of 5 children born to each Guatemalan woman during her lifetime. Although the Guatemalan government has officially recognized that the national birth rate is high, it has done little to encourage family planning or birth control among its populace. The reluctance of the Guatemalan government to institute population control policies can be partly attributed to its strong ties with the Catholic Church, while resistance to family planning among the general populace can be partially imputed to the civil unrest of the 1980s, which provoked a distrust of foreign-initiated programs (including family planning programs).

In stark contrast to most Latin American countries, Guatemala has a populace that is concentrated mainly in rural areas. Only 39 percent of its population is urban (though urbanization is accelerating). The sizeable rural population is linked to the large indigenous (Amerindian) presence in Guatemala; persons descended from the Mayan Indians account for 56 percent of the nation's total population, making Guatemala the Latin American nation with the largest indigenous population relative to total population. The other 44 percent of the national population is mestizo (of mixed Amerindian-Spanish descent, also called ladino in local Spanish). Despite the concentration of the population in rural areas, close to 80 percent of physicians are located in the metropolitan area, making health care difficult to access for rural inhabitants. Additionally, water supply and sanitation services reach 92 percent and 72 percent of the urban population respectively, while in rural areas they reach marginally more than 50 percent of the population. These facts betray a broader phenomenon of rural disadvantage that extends to the economic, political, and social realms of Guatemalan life.


Known for its varied landscape, fertile soil, and tropical climate, Guatemala has its economic roots in the coffee and banana plantations that started up around 1860 and remained the major focus of economic activity for almost a century. Until 1950, coffee and bananas alone accounted for 90 percent of the value of Guatemala's total exports. After World War II, the practice of commercial farming spread, and the production of cotton, sugar, and livestock became an integral part of the national economy. Augmented by mining and manufacturing activity, the economy continued to expand and diversify during the 1960s and 1970s. The debt crisis of the 1980s led to sinking export prices, inflation , and declining product values, but the Guatemalan economy gained new life in the 1990s, particularly after the signing of the 1996 Peace Accords that put an end to Guatemala's 36-year internal conflict. Currently, Guatemala has the highest GDP in Central America and continues to enjoy strong growth rates. The major forces acting upon Guatemala's economy at present are the fluctuating international demand for primary resources, the actions of political elites, and the implementation of liberalization measures (including privatizations , trade and investment reforms, and tax reform).

Guatemala has achieved a fairly good balance between the agricultural, manufacturing, and service sectors of its economy. In agriculture, it is the third largest exporter of coffee in the world and a major exporter of bananas and sugar, while its manufacturing sector depends chiefly on the apparel, construction, mining, and energy industries. The service sector, which composes the largest segment of Guatemala's GDP, embraces telecommunications, tourism, and other technological enterprises. Guatemala, though not a net exporter of petroleum, is the only oil-producing nation in Central America, and the possibility of investing more intensively in oil and natural gas in the future is a viable one. Unfortunately, the infrastructure needed to develop Guatemala's natural resources is sorely lacking at present, with low telephone density, scarce access to electricity, and poor road networks outside of Guatemala City posing impediments to entrepreneurial investments.

The macroeconomic indicators often used to measure a nation's economic status speak well of Guatemala's economy. Inflation and currency devaluation have remained steady (excepting the debt crisis of the 1980s, when they were pushed beyond acceptable levels), the foreign debt of US$4.4 billion is manageable, and the GDP has grown steadily for the last decade, following a period of stunted growth during the 1980s. The political climate is also ripe for foreign investment, as the war between the Guatemalan government and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) guerrilla group came to an end in 1996. Recent privatizations have lessened the role of the government in the Guatemalan economy, easing the financial burden on the state and providing an immediate source of income from the sale of the previously state-owned enterprises. Furthermore, the government has adopted plans to dollarize its economy, following the path taken by other Latin American countries, including Ecuador, El Salvador, and Panama. Dollarization (the adoption of the U.S. dollar as the official monetary unit by another country) is generally viewed in a positive light by foreign investors, as it holds interest rates to lower levels and promises to eliminate devaluation.

While macroeconomic indicators paint a hopeful picture of Guatemala's economic situation, the conditions that exist within the nation provide far less cause for optimism. Poverty and inequality are endemic in Guatemala and are linked to the nation's other socio-economic problems, which include an inadequate education system, widespread health and sanitation deficiencies, and high rates of crime and violence. These issues have contributed to political turmoil in the past, and while Guatemala is no longer plagued by civil war, there is still great unrest and tension within the nation that could threaten political and economic stability in the future. International agencies and foreign governments are dispensing aid to Guatemala more willingly now than during the nation's civil war, but these funds are not large enough to promote change in a system that is deeply rooted in unequal distribution of land and wealth.


Guatemala is a constitutional democratic republic that is divided into 22 departments and governed by a 3-branch system, consisting of the executive, legislative, and judicial. The legislative branch consists of the National Congress, a 1-house legislature composed of 116 members, while the judicial branch is headed by the Supreme Court of Justice. The president serves as both the chief of state and the head of government and has the authority to appoint departmental governors and cabinet members.

Current president Alfonso Portillo of the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) was elected by a landslide victory in his December 1999 campaign against candidate Oscar Berger of the National Advancement Party (PAN). The FRG and the PAN are the 2 major political parties active in Guatemala today; a third party, the New Nation Alliance (ANN), plays a minor role in the nation's political races. The PAN (the party to which Portillo's predecessor Alvaro Arzú belonged) is conservative and business-oriented while the FRG is conservative and populist, at least according to the platform Portillo used to win the presidency. Both parties support rigorous economic programs that put emphasis on fiscal discipline and macroeconomic stability, but Portillo and the FRG also support policies that work to the benefit of economically disadvantaged Guatemalans. Among the policies proposed by Portillo during his first year as president were a hike in the minimum wage, the decentralization of political power, and others with similar populist themes. However, Portillo's proposals were not met with a spirit of cooperation in Congress, and little has been done to better the situation of the poor since he took office in early 2000.

The Guatemalan government traditionally has not exerted a great amount of control on the economy through regulations or other interventionist measures, preferring to keep its involvement minimal, as evident in the fact that the private sector generates more than 85 percent of the GDP. This hands-off approach has been bolstered by recent decisions to privatize the state telecommunications, electric generation, and electric distribution companies, as well as by new policies that lift restrictions and regulations on trade and investment in Guatemala. The government has also been frugal in its support of public and social programs; Guatemala's education and health systems leave much to be desired, often to the detriment of disadvantaged Guatemalans.

The tax system is currently undergoing reform as the Guatemalan government attempts to make taxation a more lucrative tool. In 1996, Guatemala's tax revenue accounted for just 8 percent of its GDP, putting it at the second lowest rate in the Western hemisphere. The peace accords signed in 1996 called for an increase that would bring tax revenues up to 12 percent of the GDP by 2000, providing greater funding for social programs. Unfortunately, the parties who signed on to this fiscal pact (government, social organizations, and business leaders) have not all given it their steadfast support, and tax revenues for 2000 only amounted to slightly more than 10 percent of the GDP. Among the taxes on which Guatemala relies for revenue are customs duties , sales taxes, and excises on liquor and tobacco. Additional taxes under discussion for reform or implementation in Guatemala currently include the value-added tax and new taxes to be applied to a variety of industries.


An underdeveloped infrastructure is one of the main obstacles to investment and economic development in Guatemala. Public and private investment is disproportionately concentrated around Guatemala City because of the lack of infrastructure connecting the capital to other regions of the country. Not only is much of Guatemala's 12,795 kilometer (3,519 mile) highway network in poor condition, its electricity and telephone density is low, and all of its television stations and newspapers are concentrated in Guatemala City. Additionally, 3 ports (Champerico, Puerto Barrios, and San Jose) handle the bulk of Guatemalan exports, and La Aurora Airport is the only national airport with full capacity for both freight and passengers. These facilities are approaching their breaking points and will need to be expanded soon in order to keep up with growing trade and travel. Overall, major renovation of the country's infrastructure is necessary if trade is to continue uninterrupted.

Telephones are not as available in Guatemala as would be desirable for the purposes of business and general efficient communication. There were 430,000 main telephone lines installed in Guatemala in 1997, but this number still left Guatemala trailing several Central American countries in proportionate terms. Use of cell phones is growing at a remarkable rate, having increased by 2,047 percent between 1993 and 1997, while the number of regular phone lines in the nation increased by only 86.1 percent during the same span of time. In 1998, the government decided to privatize the state telephone company along with several other enterprises. So far, the privatization has not brought about as much progress in infrastructure as outside investors had hoped; the U.S. Department of State's FY 2000 Country Commercial Guide: Guatemala states, "It is not clear that the new owners of the recently privatized telephone company will undertake the investment needed to extend basic telephony to those areas currently underserved."

Electricity has also undergone significant changes due to recent privatizations. Both the major state electricity distribution company and selected assets of the state-owned electricity production company were auctioned off to private bidders in 1998, provoking anticipation of higher electricity prices but also feeding hopes of improved service, mainly among businesses and professionals.


Guatemala's economy, while still largely dependent on the income and employment provided by the agricultural sector, has been successful in developing its manufacturing and service sectors, thereby remaining competitive within the global market. Among the products and

Country Newspapers Radios TV Sets a Cable subscribers a Mobile Phones a Fax Machines a Personal Computers a Internet Hosts b Internet Users b
1996 1997 1998 1998 1998 1998 1998 1999 1999
Guatemala 33 79 126 28.5 10 N/A 8.3 1.26 65
United States 215 2,146 847 244.3 256 78.4 458.6 1,508.77 74,100
Mexico 97 325 261 15.7 35 3.0 47.0 23.02 1,822
El Salvador 48 464 675 N/A 18 N/A N/A 1.17 40
aData are from International Telecommunication Union, World Telecommunication Development Report 1999 and are per 1,000 people.
bData are from the Internet Software Consortium ( and are per 10,000 people.
SOURCE: World Bank. World Development Indicators 2000.

services most important to Guatemala's economy are coffee, sugar, cotton, bananas, apparel, food processing, and tourism. Some of these industries date back to the early post-independence era, while others are just beginning to blossom. Tourism, for instance, was severely impeded until recently, when the Guatemalan peace accords were signed and the process of demilitarization commenced.

A look at Guatemala's economic sectors over the past thirty years shows that while there has been movement between the agricultural, industrial, and service sectors, that movement has not been uni-directional. Instead, the only well-established pattern seems to be the gradual decrease in agriculture's contribution to the GDP. This trend away from agriculture is generally viewed by development economists as a positive occurrence, since prices of agricultural products on the international market are subject to sharp, sudden declines and can create economic instability. Overall, the structure of Guatemala's economy is stable and fairly well balanced, providing it with a necessary foundation for expansion in the future.


Although Guatemala is trying to expand its manufacturing activities to reduce economic dependence on agriculture, the agricultural sector is a crucial component of Guatemala's export and domestic economies, accounting for 23 percent of GDP (US$11 billion) in 1999 and employing 50 percent of the labor force (1.7 million workers).


One of Guatemala's original commercial developments in the 19th century, coffee production is still of vital importance to the national economy. In 1998, coffee exports brought in US$586.3 million, almost double the amount of sugar, the next most profitable agricultural export. Guatemala's production of coffee is equally important in the global economy, as Guatemala is the world's third largest exporter of coffee. Because large-scale operations are needed to produce vast quantities of coffee for export, most Guatemalan coffee is harvested at large plantations along the southern border of the highlands.


After coffee, sugar is Guatemala's most profitable crop, earning US$315.3 million on the world market in 1998. Sugar has also shown promise as an expanding industry in Guatemala, particularly because it can be produced in raw form or processed within the country prior to export, augmenting its value.


Bananas remain one of Guatemala's top agricultural exports, grabbing US$190.4 million in revenue in 1998. Like other developing countries that export bananas, Guatemala has recently encountered problems on the international market, including declining prices and a European Union policy that places new restrictions on its imports of bananas. Additionally, conflicts between Guatemalan banana workers and the companies that contract them have led international fruit companies to move their headquarters from Guatemala to Ecuador, where labor is unorganized and therefore cheaper. All of these factors have contributed to the recent decline of the banana industry in Guatemala.


Industry in Guatemala, which includes food processing, publishing, mining, and the manufacture of textiles, clothing, cement, tires, and pharmaceuticals, comprises 20 percent of the GDP (US$9.6 billion) and employs about 15 percent of the total workforce (500,000 workers). After growing steadily during the 1960s and 1970s, manufacturing slowed during the debt crisis of the 1980s but picked up again during the 1990s.


More than 80,000 Guatemalans are currently employed by the apparel industry, most of whom are young women. The apparel industry has experienced growth over the past decade, but international attention directed to the poor working conditions within apparel-for-export factories or maquilas has resulted in the closing of some major plants, including the Phillips-Van Heusen factory that used to be located in Guatemala. So long as labor remains cheap and accessible in Guatemala, the apparel industry is likely to continue expanding. The United States provides a sizeable market for Guatemala's apparel exports, importing more than US$1 billion worth of apparel in 1998 alone.


Combined with production of energy (mainly from petroleum), mining contributes roughly 3 percent of Guatemala's GDP. Antimony, copper, nickel, iron, and tungsten are all mined in Guatemala, though not in great quantities. Surveys of Guatemala's subsurface have revealed that the nation has a wealth of mineral resources, indicating that, given the right investment interest, mining could become a more prominent part of Guatemala's economy in the future. Guatemala, the only oil-producing country in Central America, has been extracting oil from its Petén Basin since the early 1980s, though it does not extract nearly enough to be a net exporter of petroleum.



The service industry contributes the largest segment of Guatemala's GDP (57 percent, or US$27.3 billion) and employs about 35 percent of the nation's total workforce (1.2 million workers). While the service sector encompasses several different industries like retail , financial services, transportation, and computer services, the most profitable component is tourism. Because of its agreeable climate and diverse landscape, as well as its Mayan ruins, Guatemala is becoming a popular travel destination in the post-conflict period. In light of the high profit margins associated with tourism receipts, the government is making solid efforts to expand tourism and attract more foreign visitors to Guatemala.


The United States, Latin America, and Europe are the most frequent destinations for Guatemala's exports, composing 51.5 percent, 26.6 percent and 11.3 percent

Trade (expressed in billions of US$): Guatemala
Exports Imports
1975 .624 .733
1980 1.520 1.598
1985 1.057 1.175
1990 1.163 1.649
1995 2.156 3.293
1998 2.582 4.651
SOURCE: International Monetary Fund. International Financial Statistics Yearbook 1999.

of the export market respectively in 1998. In addition to its membership in the Central American Common Market trade group, Guatemala also holds free trade agreements with Panama, Chile and the Dominican Republic. Guatemala exports a wide variety of products with a mainly agricultural base, while it imports goods of an industrial nature, including machinery, road vehicles and apparel. This combination of exports and imports reflects Guatemala's position as a developing country that must rely partially on outside advancements to sustain and promote industrial activities within its own economy. As Guatemala becomes more developed and expands its manufacturing sector, it should depend less on industrial imports from the United States and other developed nations.

Guatemala has consistently imported more than it has exported over the past 25 years, but this trend has sharpened over the past 5 years or so, with imports surpassing exports by significant margins and resulting in a considerable trade deficit . In 1998, Guatemala exported only US$2.582 billion worth of goods while importing US$4.651 billion worth. Increasing imports can be a sign that the Guatemalan economy is strong enough to afford large quantities of goods from abroad, but they can also throw off the stability of the nation's trade regime if not matched by growth in exports.

The unprecedented level of Guatemala's imports in 1998 might also be a result of the end of la violencia, or the civil war, in 1996. The political space created by the peace agreement may have encouraged deeper interaction between Guatemala and the global market and may have opened up new trade opportunities with economic players who had previously withheld their trade partnership as a political gesture.


Despite its 36-year internal conflict (1960-96) that was characterized by political instability and mass killings, Guatemala maintained a functional economy throughout the second half of the 20th century. The

Exchange rates: Guatemala
quetzales (Q) per US$1
Jan 2001 7.8020
2000 7.7632
1999 7.3856
1998 6.3947
1997 6.0653
1996 6.0495
SOURCE: CIA World Factbook 2001 [ONLINE].

1960s and 1970s brought a healthy dose of economic development to Guatemala, resulting in impressive economic growth figures (average annual growth totaled 5.5 percent over the 20-year span of time). The 1970s in particular proved to be very important economic years, as Guatemala focused its attention on expanding the manufacturing sector in order to soften its dependence on agricultural exports. As a result, manufacturing expanded at an annual rate of more than 6 percent from 1970 to 1979. Like other Latin American countries, Guatemala was adversely affected by the foreign debt crisis of the 1980s; inflation grew to an average annual rate of 16.5 percent, and the nation's foreign debt tripled to more than US$4.7 billion. Nonetheless, Guatemala's economy staged a recovery in the 1990s that brought back healthy rates of growth and inflation. In 1999, the country experienced a mild recession , but the effects are expected to be temporary and surmountable.

The Guatemalan quetzal has never experienced a period of hyperinflation or intensive devaluation like many other Latin American currencies have encountered. Instead, the devaluation of the quetzal in respect to the U.S. dollar has occurred gradually; from 1983 to 2000, for example, the value of the quetzal dropped 70 percent, an average annual rate of slightly more than 4 percent. Despite the relative consistency the quetzal has experienced on the world market, Guatemalan officials are planning to dollarize the economy, eventually eliminating the quetzal in order to implement the U.S. dollar as the official national currency. The first step of the dollarization process took place on 1 May 2001, when the U.S. dollar was first allowed to circulate as legal tender. Guatemalan economists and government officials hope that by adopting the U.S. dollar, they can make Guatemala more attractive to foreign investors and effectively eliminate the phenomenon of currency devaluation. Dollarization should also encourage discipline within the banking sector, which, under the jurisdiction of the Superintendency of Banks, currently functions according to rather loose regulations and has encountered several bankruptcies.


Although Guatemala enjoys the highest GDP in Central America, unequal distribution of wealth and rapid population growth within the nation have given Guatemala one of the highest poverty rates in Latin America. More than 75 percent of the national population lives below the poverty line, and the extent of poverty is even more severe among the rural and indigenous populations. In 1989, about 93 percent of the indigenous population in Guatemala were living in poverty and 91 percent in extreme poverty, whereas only 66 percent and 45 percent of the non-indigenous population were living in those respective conditions. Guatemala's income distribution is among the most unequal in the world, with the wealthiest 10 percent of the population owning nearly 50 percent of the national wealth and the poorest 10 percent owning less than 1 percent. As a result, there is a very small middle class in Guatemala, and political power rests almost exclusively with elite groups. Land, just like monetary wealth, is concentrated in the hands of the few, making it very difficult for poor rural workers to improve their financial situation, as the amount of land they own or have access to is minimal.

While the economic policies implemented during the 1990s in Guatemala produced manageable inflation rates and healthy economic growth, they did not bring about greater economic equality or help to reduce poverty. Economic reforms in Guatemala have been aimed at improving macroeconomic indicators, sometimes to the disadvantage of social spending, as with the reduction of the public sector deficit from 1990 to 1996, which was accomplished through spending cuts. Although some government leaders (such as current president Alfonso Portillo) have run for office on populist platforms, little has been done to improve the situation of the poorest segments of the population.

The poor in Guatemala do not have easy access to good health care, particularly because health-care facilities and experts are focused in metropolitan areas. This factor, combined with the negative health effects of pesticides and the low availability of drinking water and waste disposal services in rural areas, results in a higher

GDP per Capita (US$)
Country 1975 1980 1985 1990 1998
Guatemala 1,371 1,598 1,330 1,358 1,533
United States 19,364 21,529 23,200 25,363 29,683
Mexico 3,380 4,167 4,106 4,046 4,459
El Salvador 1,779 1,596 1,333 1,378 1,716
SOURCE: United Nations. Human Development Report 2000; Trends in human development and per capita income.
Distribution of Income or Consumption by Percentage
Share: Guatemala
Lowest 10% 0.6
Lowest 20% 2.1
Second 20% 5.8
Third 20% 10.5
Fourth 20% 18.6
Highest 20% 63.0
Highest 10% 46.6
Survey year: 1989
Note: This information refers to income shares by percentiles of the population and is ranked by per capita income.
SOURCE: 2000 World Development Indicators [CD-ROM].

occurrence of health problems in rural areas than in urban centers. There are signs that the issue of health care has started to receive greater political and social attention in Guatemala. In 1996, about 13 percent of the government's budget was devoted to health, whereas in 1992 the amount allocated for health care was only 6.6 percent of the overall budget. Additionally, the government recently initiated a health sector reform to provide health services to all Guatemalans who currently lack access to health care; the minimum health services available under this plan include care of pregnant women, child health care, and emergency and disease care.

Education presents another problem for poor Guatemalans, as some parents call on their children to work long hours to contribute to the family income, preventing them from attending school. This phenomenon occurs most often in rural areas, where families engage in subsistence farming or work for larger landowners, and the amount of manual labor available determines a family's total income. Unfortunately, children who have to work instead of attending school miss out on the education that is almost always necessary for economic advancement. Although school attendance is compulsory for 6 years by government mandate, only 41 percent of school-aged children in Guatemala attend classes, and only 55.6 percent of the total population are literate.


The conditions under which most Guatemalans work are less than desirable and often in violation of Guatemalan law. According to the nation's labor laws, the minimum daily wage is US$3.00 for agricultural workers, US$3.30 for workers in commerce, US$3.38 for construction workers, and US$6.00 for specialized labor. The workweek consists of 44 hours for day-shift workers and 36 hours for night-shift workers. Overtime work is to be compensated with time-and-a-half pay, and children under the age of 18 are not to work overtime. In terms of workplace conditions, employers are to ensure healthy and safe environments for their workers by providing adequate bathroom facilities and on-hand medical care. If 25 percent of the employees at a given workplace request to organize a trade union, they have the right to do so freely.

Work conditions in Guatemala's agricultural and industrial sectors often fail to meet the government's specified requirements. More than 80,000 Guatemalans, most of them young women, work at maquilas (apparel-for-export factories), often in unsafe and unhealthy (not to mention illegal) conditions. Among the labor law violations common to maquilas are forced overtime, employment of children as young as 13 years old, and bathrooms that remain locked for most of the workday. Equally poor conditions exist for workers in the agricultural sector, where the need to meet daily quotas leads to the coercive employment of children as young as 6 years old by their parents, who do not receive compensation unless they reach the fixed quota. Much agricultural employment is seasonal and occurs at off-site locations, where housing facilities are generally poor; at some cotton plantations, the housing provided for workers consists of bare wooden constructions without bedding or furniture. Wages for agricultural and industrial workers often fail to meet minimum wage requirements, and average income is sometimes less than the cost of a basic food basket for a family of 5, meaning that wages are set at starvation levels.

Despite the treacherous conditions that exist for unskilled workers, fewer than 15 percent of all workers are unionized. This fact has much to do with the abuses that have been committed against trade union members and leaders over the past half-century. Military and civilian governments since the 1950s have held union organizations in contempt and have committed serious human rights abuses and "disappearances" against union leaders. Amnesty International has documented that between 1976 and 1996 (the final 20 years of Guatemala's internal war), thousands of trade unionists were tortured and killed, or "disappeared," because of their union activities. This hostile attitude towards labor organizations continues today and acts as a significant deterrent to trade union mobilization.

One major reason that work conditions are so poor and unions so weak is that work is hard to come by in Guatemala. While open unemployment affects about 7 percent of the population, total unemployment lingers around 37 percent; as a result, close to 1 million Guatemalans work in the informal economy , augmenting the formal economy's workforce of 3.5 million. Additionally, the culture of violence that developed during Guatemala's civil war has not yet been eliminated, so threats and coercion are common workplace elements. Not all forms of employment in Guatemala are undesirable; jobs in urban areas and in the service sector provide stable and healthy conditions and livable wages. Too often, however, working conditions do not correspond to the standards set by the Guatemalan government, and of the groups impacted by this disregard for labor laws, unskilled, rural workers suffer the gravest consequences.


1524. Pedro de Alvarado of Spain invades Guatemala.

1528. Alvarado defeats Guatemalans, and Spanish rule begins.

1786. Spaniards separate Chiapas, Honduras, and Nicaragua from the province of Guatemala.

1821. Guatemala, along with Central America, declares its independence from Spain.

1823. Guatemala joins with other nations to form the United Provinces of Central America.

1840. Guerilla group led by Rafael Carrera overthrows president of United Provinces, resulting in the abolition of the federation.

1850s. Guatemala embarks upon a long period of un-democratic rule, marked by a series of dictatorships, military governments, coups, and insurgencies that continue until the mid-1980s.

1901. United Fruit Company establishes itself in Guatemala, becoming the first transnational corporation in the country.

1944. The "October Revolutionaries," a group of students, liberal professionals, and military dissidents, overthrow General Jorge Ubico's dictatorship.

1945. Guatemala joins the United Nations.

1948. Guatemala joins the Organization of American States.

1952. Communist Guatemalan Labor Party gains legal status and institutes agrarian reforms that distribute unused lands to peasants.

1954. U.S. CIA deploys "Operation Success" with help from domestic forces, invading Guatemala and overthrowing President Jacobo Arbenz.

1960. Rebel Armed Forces (FAR) forms; civil war over economic and land issues commences.

1966. United States sends in Green Berets and directs counterinsurgency campaign in Guatemala; Mano Blanca and other Guatemalan death squads form.

1970s. Manufacturing expands markedly in Guatemala, growing at an annual rate of 6.2 percent.

1978. United States bans the sale of arms to Guatemalan government.

1980. Spain breaks off diplomatic relations with Guatemala after a government massacre in which Indian protestors were burned inside of the Spanish Embassy. Debt crisis strikes Guatemala; high inflation and foreign debt accumulation ensue.

1981. Guatemalan army initiates counteroffensive, destroys over 400 Indian villages in 2 years.

1982. Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP), Organization of Armed People (ORPA), and Rebel Armed Forces (FAR) combine to form the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit (URNG). Efrain Rios Montt overthrows General Angel Anibal Guevara presidency.

1983. Military overthrows Rios Montt. United States resumes sale of arms to Guatemala.

1985. Marco Vinicio Cerezo is elected, becoming the first civilian president in 15 years. United States reinstates official economic and military aid to Guatemala.

1987. Central American Peace Accord is signed.

1990. United States again cuts off military aid and arms sales to Guatemala.

1991. Economic recovery begins; Guatemala regains healthy inflation rates and experiences consistent growth.

1994. Guatemalan government and guerrillas sign agreements on human rights, resettlement, historical clarification, and indigenous rights. United Nations Human Rights Verification Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA) is formed.

1996. Alvaro Arzú, member of National Advancement Party, is elected president. Guatemalan government and guerillas sign peace accord, ending 36-year conflict.

1997. URNG demobilizes and becomes political party.

1999. Alfonso Portillo, member of Guatemalan Republican Front, is elected president.


Having finally negotiated an end to its decades-long civil war in December of 1996, Guatemala is currently attempting to construct a peaceful and democratic political environment that will foster greater economic growth and prosperity. This task has proven more difficult than anticipated, partly due to the vestiges of violence and distrust left over from the war and partly because of continuing problems with corruption, a weak justice system, and poor political representation. If such obstacles to functional democratic governance can be overcome and Guatemala can develop a stable and more attractive atmosphere for investment, diversification of exports and economic growth should follow. Even during the period of internal political turmoil from 1960-96, Guatemala's economy experienced growth and manageable inflation rates, suggesting that the opportunities proffered by peace and demilitarization could provide the necessary impetus for economic progress.

Even so, sustaining a healthy and growing economy will require more than the absence of internal conflict and the presence of a more democratic political culture. To achieve the economic stability necessary to be competitive within the global economy, Guatemala will have to exercise fiscal discipline, privatize some of its state-owned companies, liberalize its trade regime, reform its banking sector, and explore new options for production and export. A series of economic liberalization measures initiated under the Arzú administration (1996-99) introduced privatization and lifted restrictions on trade and investment, but the process of liberalization must be embraced and continued by current and future administrations in order to bring about economic stability and progress. In respect to new production and export options, the most promising prospects for economic expansion in Guatemala are the textile and apparel industries, as well as the non-traditional export industries of shrimp farming and cut flowers. Guatemala also has proven natural gas and oil reserves that could attract substantial amounts of capital from foreign or domestic investors.

Poverty and deep-seated inequality have been the most stubborn and devastating economic problems for Guatemala in the past, and they will likely continue to afflict Guatemala, even assuming economic growth and expansion on the national level. Unequal distribution of wealth and land within the country over time has led to the present dire scenario, in which more than 60 percent of the Guatemalan population subsist on less than US$2.00 a day. Because the current political system lacks representation on the left and is dominated by 2 conservative parties (PAN and FRG), the interests of the poor and underprivileged are not likely to receive due attention in the political arena until a viable left-of-center party forms. While some of the policies proposed by President Alfonso Portillo at the beginning of his term (2000-present) would have benefited the working class, they have not been passed into law because of lack of support in Congress. International agencies and foreign governments continue to provide aid to Guatemala for poverty relief and other development initiatives, but these funds are not large enough to significantly mitigate the effects of widespread poverty, unequal distribution of wealth, and a rapidly growing population. Unless Guatemala gives serious political attention to the issues of inequality and population growth, the economic future of Guatemalans will be bleak.


Guatemala has no territories or colonies.


Banco de Guatemala. "Guatemala: Algunas variables macroeconomicas, años 1950-1999." <'/indicadores/hist03>. Accessed March 2001.

BASICS/USAID. "Guatemala: Country Achievement Summary."<>. Accessed January 2001.

Canadian Foundation for the Americas. "Guatemala Under the FRG: Peace at a Crossroads." <>. Accessed March 2001.

Country Watch. "Guatemala: Economy." < &TP=ECO>. Accessed March 2001.

Pan American Health Organization. "Guatemala: Basic CountryHealth profiles, Summaries 1999." <>. Accessed February 2001.

Population Reference Bureau. "2000 World Population DataSheet: Central America." <>. Accessed March 2001.

USAID Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean. Latin America and the Caribbean: Selected Economic and Social Data. Washington, D.C.: USAID, 1999.

U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. "The World Factbook: Guatemala." <>. Accessed February 2001.

U.S. Department of State. "Background Notes: Guatemala." <>. Accessed March 2001.

Heidi Jugenitz


Guatemala City.


Quetzal (Q). One quetzal is equal to 100 centavos. There are coins of 1, 5, 10, and 25 centavos, as well as paper bills in the amounts of 50 centavos and 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100 quetzals.


Coffee, sugar, bananas, fruits and vegetables, meat, apparel, petroleum, electricity.


Fuels, machinery and transport equipment, construction materials, grain, fertilizers, electricity.


US$47.9 billion (purchasing power parity, 1999 est.).


Exports: US$2.4 billion (f.o.b., 1999). Imports: US$4.5 billion (c.i.f., 1999).

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Basic Data

Official Country Name: Republic of Guatemala
Region (Map name): North & Central America
Population: 12,974,361
Language(s): Spanish, Amerindian languages
Literacy rate: 63.6%
Area: 108,890 sq km
GDP: 18,988 (US$ millions)
Number of Television Stations: 26
Number of Television Sets: 1,323,000
Television Sets per 1,000: 102.0
Number of Radio Stations: 632
Number of Radio Receivers: 835,000
Radio Receivers per 1,000: 64.4
Number of Individuals with Computers: 130,000
Computers per 1,000: 10.0
Number of Individuals with Internet Access: 80,000
Internet Access per 1,000: 6.2

Background & General Characteristics

In 2002, Guatemala boasted around 13 million people, more than half of whom are full-blooded Mayan Indians, many of whom could not speak Spanish, the official tongue. Two other groups included the ladinos (of European and Indian blood), and those of unmixed European origin, the latter controlling most of the country. Roughly two-thirds of the country is literate, with 60 percent speaking Spanish, and the remaining 40 percent one of the Amerind tongues, principally Kíché, Kaqchikel, Q'eqchi and Mam. Its religions included Roman Catholic, Protestant and traditional Mayan. Just to the south of Mexico, Guatemala occupies an area of 108,890 square kilometers (41,801 square miles).

The country is divided into a fertile coastal plain and the altiplano or highlands, where reside the majority of non-Spanish speaking Mayans. In 1996, a 36-year civil war between the Mayas and the government ended. In 2002, relationships between that government and its people, including the press, were still being adjusted.

Guatemala has four major daily Spanish language newspapers: Prensa Libre, El Periódico, Siglo XXI, all morning publicationsand La Hora, an afternoon paper. Also publishing are one minor daily tabloid, the somewhat sensational Nuestro Diario, as well as two weekly periodicals, Critica and Crónica. All exceptandCrónica are independent. The major independent newspapers regularly criticize the government and military as well as other powerful segments of Guatemalan society. They have published reports on alleged government corruption and/or drug trafficking, using sources such as human rights groups, clandestine intelligence, or left-leaning organizations like the news agency CERIGUA, which had to operate in Mexico for most of the guerrilla war, or the Centro para la Defensa de la Libertad de Expresión (Center for the Defense of Freedom of Speech). Both Critica and Crónica had been equally independent, but the latter was the target of an advertising boycott in 1998 and was forced to sell to a conservative owner. In 2002, Crónica reflected the new owner's right-wing philosophy, while Critica continued to be critical of the government.

Additionally, there was the English-language daily The Guatemalan Post, as well as the oldest surviving newspaper in Central America, the Diario de Centro America. However, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, Diario de Centro America was a semi-official paper that reported legal news only, and has lacked the readership of many other papers.

The relationship between press and state in the first decade of the twenty-first century came about as a result of a history in which journalists usually wrote what the party wanted. Journalists' independence was, in 2002, less than a decade old.

Historical Background

The first "journalists" in what is now known as Guatemala were Mayan dispatch runners, but the glory days of the Maya were long past when the Conquistadores arrived in the early sixteenth century. For reasons which have never been entirely clear, Mayan cities and temples were unoccupied, crumbling into decay and covered with jungle vegetation at Pedro de Alvarado's arrival.

In the post-conquest period, almost all Central America was controlled from Guatemala. In 1729, Gazeta de Goatemala became Guatemala's first newspaper, and only the second in the New World. It was little more than a propaganda sheet, allowed to express only opinions pleasing to governors, clergy, and crown. The press confined itself to official or Catholic pronouncements, local items, and information about Spain, with the journal's license dependent upon cooperation with the authorities. This began a history of cooperation between press and state in Guatemala, examples of which remain in recent times.

Guatemala City became the capital in 1776, and the nation gained independence from Spain on September 15, 1821. The early nation was an essentially feudal society, one in which the press continued primarily to serve the state, which was in effect a succession of large landowners, known as caudillos, or "old families."

In 1880 Diario de Centro America was founded, it is the oldest surviving newspaper in Central America. June 1922 saw the birth of El Imparcial, different from other papers in that it took an independent stance for many years, eventually drifting to the right until finally becoming a pro-government and anti-Communist organ as the Cold War heated up.

In the 1940s, events took a turn which had a decided impact upon the development of Guatemalan journalism. Revolution, political turmoil and mounting discontent in 1944 ushered in the era of Juan José Arévalo, a liberal president, and a freely elected government. Several newspapers from both sides of the political fence came into being, two of which still exist today, La Hora, which came into being in 1944, and Prensa Libre (1951). Something close to true freedom of the press prevailed and earned applause from many places. In the 1950 elections, Jacob Arbenz Guzmán won election as the country's president.

In 1953-54 the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency helped train and back an invasion of Guatemala launched from Honduras by a mercenary army. Although Guatemalans did not take up arms, the government lost the backing of the military and this led to Arbenz's relinquishing his office, which was seized by Castillo Armas. Guatemala gained a reputation as one of the world's worst human rights violators, and freedom of the press became non-existent.

The struggle became a 36-year-long civil war, and people who worked for newspapers were often caught in the crossfirein some cases, quite literallybetween government right-wing army troops and Mayan and/or communist guerrillas. Right-wing death squads killed or threatened to kill journalists; left-wing terror groups did the same. As an example of the entire war's effect upon the civilian population, consider the brief presidency of Jose Efraín Ríos Montt, whose counter-insurgency campaign resulted in about 200,000 deaths of mostly unarmed indigenous civilians. The military carried out many of these missions, according to the Historical Clarification Commission (CED), which estimated that government forces were responsible for 93 percent of the violations. The Archbishop's Office for Human Rights said that the military was responsible for around 80 percent of violations.

"During the long period of armed confrontation, even thinking critically was a dangerous act in Guatemala, and to write about political and social realities, events or ideas meant running the risk of threats, torture, disappearance and death," said the Historical Clarification Committee. La Nación reporter Irma Flaquer Azurdia and her son died during an ambush in 1980. Right-wing squads also have been blamed for the 1985 disappearance of U.S. journalists Griffith Davis and Nicholas Chapman Blake; in 1993, the founder and editor of El Gráfico, Jorge Carpio Nicolle, was ambushed and murdered by more than 30 hooded men. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has said that more than 29 journalists were killed for doing their jobs during the conflict. In 1995, the Inter-American Press Association reported that evidence from the crime scene of the Jorge Carpio Nicolle assassination had disappeared, further hampering the investigation. In another instance, Siglio XXI columnist Hugo Arce's criticism of the president allegedly caused Arce to be arrested and charged with possession of dynamite and drugs. In 1993, Robert Brown summed up the position of the press with these words: "Death threats, physical attacks with armed thugs, the burning of newspapers are done with total impunity."

The lines between journalism and politics in Guatemala often were blurred. For example, the assassinated Jorge Carpio Nicolle was not only a newspaper publisher but a candidate for several important political offices, and the same was true of his brother, Roberto. The Carpio and Marroquín families owned four of the eight dailies in 1982; Clemente Marroquín not only founded La Hora and was arguably the best-known journalist in the country, but also was vice president from 1966 to 1970. The founder of La Nación, Roberto Giron Lemus, was a presidential press secretary; General Manager Mario Ribas Montes of El Imparcial, who was assassinated in 1980, had been ambassador to Honduras.

During the guerilla war, several attempts to publish a paper with an anti-government point of view were made, perhaps the most typical of which was Nuevo Diario in the late 1970s. Not overtly seditious, it quietly attempted to investigate the government. The Secret Anti-Communist Army allegedly made death threats against Editor Mario Solorzano, causing him to flee the country. Allegations also were made that staff members were threatened, and reporters mugged or kidnapped; advertisers refused to contribute, and the newspaper collapsed in 1980.

Journalists were poorly paid. In 1975, monthly pay was supposed to range from U.S. $152 for a photographer to $253 for a reporter/editor, but very few journalists received that much. Most working reporters came from the lower middle class, with little or no trainingjournalism being considered a low-prestige occupationwere willing to accept the low pay in exchange for a chance to get to know the right people in politics and business and perhaps get a better job. Such reporters were not likely to be critical, and indeed, rarely were. In addition, allegations of money offered under the table for favorable reporting were often present, a form of bribery known as fafa. What it amounted to was that the press had a decidedly conservative bias and a strong desire to not rock the government boat.

With no redress seen for the conditions that had confined a majority of the indigenous population to the highlands attempting to live off plots of land so small they could not feed even the people who farmed them, guerrilla military activity began and reached its peak in 1980-81. The guerilla army numbered 6,000 to 8,000 armed irregulars and between 250,000 and 500,000 supporters throughout the country. In 1982, the insurgents came together to form the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG), thus creating a viable military and political entity which concerned the government's generals. Members of the ruling class coupled fear of a successful Castro-like revolution with the irregularities that characterized elections and began to question the generals' governing ability. Although the military continued to refuse to negotiate with the rebels, outside pressures came to bear in the form of peace treaties being negotiated in El Salvador and Nicaragua, as well as the ending of the Cold War.

In 1987, peace-seeking Guatemalans formed the National Reconciliation Commission (CNR) chaired by Msgr. Rodolfo Quezada Toruño of the Catholic Church Bishops' Conference. NCR began a "Dialogo Nacional" calling for a political settlement of the civil war. Although the military and other members of the ruling class ignored them, the CNR met with the URNG in Oslo and Madrid. After an agreement in principle was reached, the guerillas agreed not to disrupt the 1990 elections, which saw Jorge Serrano elected president.

Serrano began to negotiate directly with the URNG, involving the rebels in the political process for the first time.

Serrano's record was spotty; he had some success in reducing the influence of the military and persuaded military officials to talk to the rebels directly, but in 1993 he illegally dissolved Guatemala's Supreme Court and Congress, as well as restricted civil rights and freedoms in a self-initiated coup or autogolpe. Faced with united opposition he fled the state, and Guatemala's Congress elected Human Rights Ombudsman Ramiro De León Carpio to complete the presidential term. Under the new president, peace negotiations intensified and a number of pacts with the rebelsfor resettlement of refugees, indigenous rights, and historical clarificationwere signed.

In 1995 center-right National Advancement Party (PAN) candidate Alvaro Arzú was elected to the presidency. In December 1996 Arzú signed a peace treaty with the guerrillas, ending the 36-year civil war. Along with peace came changes to the press.

Economic Framework

In 2000, agriculture accounted for 25 percent of the gross national product and employed more than half the labor force, a staggering 60 percent of whom were below the poverty line. About 2 percent of the population owned around 70 percent of Guatemala's land, with the remainder mostly not arable. Almost one-third of the population is illiterate, but that figure is much higher among the impoverished who, by and large, are Mayan. Although the four major daily newspapers are privately owned and independent, their audiences primarily consist of the relatively well off.

Although the signing of the peace accords had the further effect of diminishing violence against journalists, there are other pressures on the press. Marylene Smeets of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said that, "Guatemalan journalists have compared this to a spigot. If they print good news, money flows in. If they print bad news, the money dries up." She also pointed out that "problems with advertisers also arise without government instigation. To write that a particular brand of automobile is the one most frequently stolen is to lose that brand's advertising."

Reporters are not without fault. Fafa continued to exist, albeit somewhat less frequently.

Press Laws

In 2000, the U.S. Department of State reported that the Guatemala Constitution provided for freedom of speech, including the press. By 2002, the letter of the law remained unchanged, and the government claimed to be working to improve its implementation of the law.

In addition to the Peace Accords of 1996 settling the civil war, the Accords pledged to enact reforms to the Radio Communication Law to make radio frequencies available for the indigenous Mayan communities, a matter of importance since most of that population could not speak Spanish. However, the government instead passed a law creating a public auction for radio frequencies and the resultant high cost proved an "effective barrier to rural indigenous access to radio frequencies," according to the U.S. Department of State. As of 2000, there were no radio stations solely for Mayans, although occasional broadcasts, speeches, and Spanish-language instruction was broadcast in the various indigenous tongues.


In 2000, the U.S. Department of State found that the Guatemalan government usually respected the rights granted the press in its constitution, adding, however, that journalists had been threatened and intimidated, and finding at least two examples of "government-connected censorship." The government developed public information programs that radio and television stations had to broadcast. The government owned seven nationwide television channels; in 2002, one was being used by a Protestant group and the other by the military, with plans pending to sell the military channel to the Catholic Church. President Alfonso Antonio Portillo said the sale would provide competition for the four major stations that were monopolized by one man, Angel González of Mexico, a close friend and financial supporter of the president.

State-Press Relations

In May 2002, CPJ's Smeets reported that the press was showing signs of independence. CPJ said that "the virtual halt of violence against journalists suggests how dramatically conditions have improved for the Guatemalan press." However, that observation proved somewhat sanguine.

On June 5, 1997, a few months after the signing of the peace treaty, Jorge Luis Marroquín Sagastume, founder of the monthly Sol Chortí, which was investigating alleged corruption in the mayor's office of the town of Jocotaan, was murdered by two killers who, when apprehended, said they had been hired by the mayor. In November 1997, the head of the weekend section of Prensa Libre was stabbed by an unknown assailant, dying three hours later in the hospital.

The CPJ said that in 1997 the press had become more pluralistic and professional, but was "still hindered in its work by a climate of violence and growing tensions with the government of President Alvaro Arzú Irigoyen." It added that at least one other journalist had been killed in that year, "but against a backdrop of growing crime it was impossible to determine if the killings were motivated by their reporting."

Despite the apparent risks, journalists have reported aggressively on once-taboo subjects such as alleged government corruption, the drug trade, and possible human rights abuses by the military. Indigenous issues also have received increasing attention, not only from regional newspapers, but from Guatemala City dailies like Siglo Vientiuno.

President Arzú surprised everyone when he said publications were exaggerating violence in order to sell newspapers. Smeets described a publicly-funded television news show, Avances, supposedly in existence to inform the public about the government, but actually being used to promote the party in power.

Writing in 1998, Smeets saw violence diminishing against journalists, but felt that Arzú presented a new threat to freedom of the press. Although journalists tried to report objectively on a rising crime wave, the president felt that such reporting discouraged tourists. He continued to criticize newspapers for exaggeration and negativity, using his influence to try to deprive them of needed advertising revenue. For example, owners of the independent weekly Crónica felt forced to sell the magazine when all official agencies were forbidden to advertise in it. The new owners appointed right-wing and presidential friend Mario Davis García as editor, after which most of the publication's reporters promptly quit in protest.

Some Guatemalans said the well-known radio program Guatemala Flash changed hands from an owner who criticized the government freely to a pro-government investor because of similar pressure. Journalists were denied access to official information, on the grounds that it was privileged. It was alleged that the presidential spokesman, Ricardo de la Torre, regularly met with officials and urged them to ignore publications that were critical or negative, especially of the government. Eduardo Villatoro, ex-president of the Guatemala Journalists Association and a columnist for Prensa Libre, said that the "government does not realize that political space and freedom of expression are not gracious concessions of the government, but hard fought gains."

Although the CPJ found the same pressures on a free press in Guatemala in 1998, it also saw reason for encouragement. Of the three reported cases of press harassment, only one could be documented and the police officer involved was fired. Although under some financial pressure, El Periódico continued to improve its investigative reporting while maintaining its independence. (The newspaper had been purchased in 1997 by the same publisher who owned the independent Prensa Libre. ) Despite government interference, the Guatemalan press as a whole became increasingly independent and professional in 1998. The CPJ said that the Asociación de Periodistas de Guatemala (APG) joined the International Freedom of Expression Exchange Clearing House.

Arzú's hostility toward the press abated in 1999 but not for ideological reasonsit was an election year. The results ended his four-year term. Arzú may have lowered his criticism but he continued to work against journalism in other ways. For instance, a radio program devoted to discrediting print journalists and opposition members was found to be run by a special advisor to the ex-president.

It had only been three years since the cessation of the guerrilla war, yet reporters often tiptoed gingerly around sensitive areas, such as any alleged links between the drug trade and the generals. Journalists were still threatened, though not as often. In May 1998 El Periódico revealed that two of its reporters were trailed by members of the presidential security detail. In the past, it was likely the paper would not have reported on a matter like this, so many felt progress had been made. In addition, the two brothers accused of murdering Sol Chortí founder and director Jorge Luis Marroquín were tried, found guilty, and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

In April 1998, a radio program called Hoy por Hoy (Day by Day) broadcast a series of indictments aimed at print journalists; in particular, Prensa Libre owner Dina García and editor Dina Fernández were singled out as incompetent reporters and immoral women, although they were neither. The staff of El Periódico suspected Arzú, and an investigation found a link. On June 17, headlines trumpeted: "Who's Behind Hoy por Hoy ?" The answer: Mariano Rayo, special adviser to the Arzú. Called before a congressional hearing, Rayo offered to resign, but Arzú refused to hear of it. Eventually, Rayo was elected a deputy to the Legislative Assembly. Fernández summed up the affair: "In any other country this would have destroyed [him] Here they reward him "

Attempts to improve the quality of journalism were made in 1999. Media organizations tried to end fafa, al-though they were not completely successful. The APG began a dialogue about the need for a professional code of ethics.

Under the presidency of Alfonso Portillo Cabrera, and despite frequent but somewhat diminished intimidation and threats, the press continued to pursue risky activities such as investigating the military, politicians and the Guatemalan equivalent of the CIA. Former President Ríos Montt re-surfaced as president of congress and ally of the incoming president, and a target of a journalistic investigation into a conspiracy to reduce taxes on alcohol. Prensa Libre broke the story; editor and columnist Dina Fernández said, "Unlike in the past, we did our job and didn't remain silent."

On May 15, 2000, El Periódico accused the Estado Mayor Presidencial, or Presidential High Command, of running a clandestine intelligence agency, the director of which was an ex-military official. The previous day, a reporter for that paper had been followed by an unmarked car with concealed license plates; several other journalists on the case were either followed or received intimidating phone calls. Eight days after the story broke, Siglo Veintinuno said a journalist from Nuestro Diario was threatened during a phone call, a staffer for the radio show Guatemala Flash was faxed a death threat, and two reporters from Siglo Vientiuno itself were threatened. CERIGUA, the left-leaning news agency that had recently arrived from Mexico, also reported being threatened more than once over this case. On May 19, the CPJ sent a letter to Attorney General Adolfo González Rodas, detailing and protesting the intimidation, and calling for him to "take adequate measures to ensure that journalists working in Guatemala are able to work safely, without threats or intimidation."

In July, "An Open Letter from the pro-Army Patriots to the People of Guatemala" was paid for and appeared in Siglo Vientiuno. In it, El Periódico publisher José Rubén Zamoro was identified as one of those "seeking to destroy the army," and it added that from "now on [our intention] must be made firm and clear [it is]to defend the institutionality of the army and our sovereignty."

All of the journalists threatened in 2000 were not harmed, but some were. Prensa Libre photographer Roberto Martínez was shot and killed by private security guards while covering a demonstration against an increase in bus fares. The guards opened fire on the demonstrators, hitting Martínez despite his clearly being a journalist and his camera being visible. Two bystanders also were killed, and Julio Cruz, a reporter from Siglo Vientiuno, as well as Christian Alejandro García, a cameraman from the television news show Notisiete were hospitalized. Other journalists surrounded and detained the two security guards until police arrived and arrested them. The two were awaiting trial as the year ended. Centro para la Defensa de la Libertad de Expresión, or CEDEX, a newly created organization, issued a communiqué condemning the killing.

In 2001, freedom of the press somewhat deteriorated in Guatemala, as did the political stability of President Portillo's nation. In February, the staffers of El Periódico were threatened by a mob whose members claimed to be protesting that newspaper's investigation of corruption on the part of governmental minister Luis Rabbé. The CPJ's protest letter to Portillo said the mob tried "to force the daily's doors open and threw burning copies of the newspaper into the building," additionally burning an effigy of publisher José Rubén Zamora. The police took 40 minutes to arrive and arrested nobody when they did. Portillo denounced the attack but did nothing to prevent further protests. The following month, four reporters from the paper were attacked and threatened after investigating a bank under state control. Crédito Hipotecario Nacional was revealed by Silvia Gereda and Luis Escobar to have loaned huge amounts of money to friends of the bank's stockholders and the president, José Armando Llort, who responded by taking out newspaper ads threatening libel suits against the journalists. In March, an anonymous man told Gereda that she and her friends were being filmed, and that the bank president wanted them killed. Later she was followed by an unmarked car and threatened several times. A colleague had a gun pointed to his head and was told if the investigation continued, all would die. Portillo, in the face of mounting national and international pressure, is believed to have personally asked the bank president to resign.

In April, the president of congress, Ríos Montt, whose presidency and anti-insurgency policies had resulted in the deaths of more than 200,000 mostly innocent Guatemalans, complained that the earlier investigation into the taxation of alcohol was part of a hidden agenda to discredit him and guarantee his "political lynching." Seven months later, according to CPJ, the investigation "was shelved after a highly controversial court ruling."

In June, the Centro para la Defensa de la Libertitad de Expresión, a Guatemalan freedom of the press group, had its inaugural seminar. In November, ironically voting on Guatemalan Journalists Day, the congress required all college graduates, including journalism students, to register with colegios or trade associations. Portillo was asked to veto the new law by many press freedom organizationsincluding some international organizations and the APGand said he would do so if he felt the bill could damage journalists.

A penalty for the murder of a journalist was carried out in February 2001 when the security guard who killed Roberto Martínez was sentenced to 15 years in the penitentiary and his company ordered to pay damages equivalent to U.S. $20,000 to his family.

As 2002 enfolded, at least one more case of journalistic intimidation had already taken place. On April 10 in downtown Guatemala City, David Herrera, a freelance reporter working for Enlaces, a group of journalists, was kidnapped and threatened with death. Herrera, working on a story recounting alleged government-sanctioned killing, was manhandled by four unknown men brandishing handguns. The men apparently wanted to know where Herrera had the notes he and a colleague had collected concerning the case. The men had searched Herrera's truck, but apparently did not find what they were looking for. The men told Herrera they were going to kill him, and when one cocked a gun, Herrera jumped from the moving vehicle and fled back to his office. Herrera required medical attention for shock. CPJ sent a letter of protest to Portillo, but three months later he had not yet answered.

Despite the arrival of peace in Guatemala, violence against journalists lingered, but at a significantly reduced pace when compared to earlier years. Although the government still did not seem willing to allow a totally free press to exist, the press itself showed great improvement in directly confronting the government, something it would not have dreamed of just a decade earlier.

Attitude Toward Foreign Media

In a nation where right-wing death squads were blamed for the 1985 disappearance of U.S. journalists Griffith Davis and Nicholas Chapman Blake, conditions towards foreign journalists in post-Peace Accords Guatemala were greatly improved. Since 1996, there have been no instances of hostility reported towards reporters from other nations. The Inter-American Press was allowed to hold its "Unpublished Crimes against Journalists" conference in Guatemala City in 1997, which focused attention on cases such as the 1980 murders of journalists Irma Flaquer and Jorge Carpio Nicolle.

News Agencies

In 2002, foreign news agencies included Reuters and the Associated Press, as well as agencies from Spain, Germany, France, Mexico, the United States and Canada. Domestic agencies included ACAN-EFE, Agencia Cimak.

The news agency CERIGUA, which had had to operate in Mexico for most of the guerrilla war due to its left-leaning philosophy, opened an office in Guatemala's capital in 1994. It provides news from a leftist perspective, and in 2002, was continuing to function as independently as possible, including reporting on attempted intimidation. During 2000, CERIGUA helped reveal the existence of a clandestine governmental intelligence agency, despite numerous anonymous threats being made to it by fax and telephone.

Broadcast Media

In 2000, there are 26 stations, with all content emanating from one of four major outlets: Canal 3, Canal 7 /Televisiete, Canal 11, and Canal 13. All are located in Guatemala City, from where all mediaprint and electronic originates. The government also owns other channels, two of which were allowed to be used by an Evangelical Protestant group (Canal 21) and the military (Canal 5). In June 2002 plans were being made to allocate a channel to the Roman Catholic Church.

Radio broadcasters numbered 632 stations. The content of both radio and television was determined by the government.

Although print journalists continued to grow into their roles as investigative reporters during the postwar period, those working in radio and television were, for the most part, stagnant. Part of the problem was money; small cooperative radio stations could not afford to bid on frequencies offered at public auction. In a land where radio is the dominant medium, larger stations had more money to bid than did Mayan groups, which demanded improved media access but did not get it despite the 1996 peace accords call for specific indigenous language radio frequencies.

Violence was not limited to members of the print press. On June 16, 1997, a news reader at Radio Campesina in Tiquisate, Herández Pérez, was shot and killed while leaving the station. Also killed was a station messenger, Haroldo Escobar Noriega. In 2000, Christian Alejandro Garcia, a cameraman from the television news show Notisiete, was shot by security guards while covering a demonstration against higher bus fares and had to be hospitalized. In the same year, a staffer for radio show Guatemala Flash was faxed a death threat over that station's investigation of the government's unofficial intelligence agency. Finally, less than two years later, the murder of another journalist took place when Linea Directa radio call-in talk-show host Jorge Mynor Alegría Armendáriz was killed just outside his home near the Caribbean coast. Some of Linea Directa's favorite topics had been government corruption and mismanagement; a colleague said that Alegría had been threatened and offered bribes. Another journalist from the same station, Enrique Aceituno, resigned in the face of threats stemming from his discussions of similar problems. The Ombudsman's Office for Human Rights decided the assassination was politically motivated, but a local prosecutor was less certain.

Governmental pressure of a subtler sort also could be seen at times. Some Guatemalans said that Guatemala Flash changed hands from an owner who criticized the government freely to a pro-government investor because of government pressure aimed at advertisers. A publicly-funded television news show, Avances, was supposed to inform the public about the government but spent most of its time criticizing the print press. The radio program Hoy por Hoy broadcast indictments aimed at Prensa Libre owner Dina García and editor Dina Fernández. President Arzú was found to be behind the false allegations.

Charges were made that it is impossible for an independent radio and television media to emerge in Guatemala because so many stations were owned by so few of the people. It has been pointed out that a Mexican national, Angel González, owns all four of the private Guatemalan television stations as of June 2002, despite laws against both monopolies and foreign ownership. Many felt that Portillo, despite his protests to the contrary, was behind González's closing of an occasionally controversial news show known as T-Mas de Noche. Portillo denied any involvement and invited the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to investigate, which it did. The result was that the investigator urged the government to look into González's holdings, as well as recommending the suspension of the public auction of broadcast radio frequencies in order to make at least some of them available to the indigenous population in appropriate languages. Shortly thereafter the auctions were suspended. But in mid-2002, there were no indigenous broadcast channels for either radio or television. However, occasional broadcasts and speeches were given in Mayan tongues.

Electronic News Media

In the year 2000, there were five Internet service providers. The number of Internet users is rapidly increasing, especially among journalists who use it for both information and training purposes. The Internet functions government interference. Smeets said the Internet opened the eyes of Guatemalan journalists and exposed them to a more professional, better-finished, more ingenious and creative press.

In 2002, four major dailies are available on-line: Prensa Libre at; Siglo XXI at; La Hora at, and El Periódico at Four television stations also are online: Canal 3 at; Canal 7 / Televisiete at; Canal 11 at, and Canal 13 at Also online is the radio group Emisoras Unidas at

Education and Training

In 1998, the Asociación de Periodistas de Guatemala began work with San Carlos University to develop journalism workshops. By mid-2002, there were individual journalism classes at that university, but no degree program. The Internet supplied some journalistic training. Regarding journalism training in Guatemala, Smeets said Guatemalan journalists need better education opportunities to learn the skills necessary to analyze current events, and that better reporting will raise reader expectations, which "opens more space for independent journalism."


Before the Peace Accords, journalists were murdered, threatened, kidnapped, and were actually in the pay of the ruling classes, as were their newspapers. The print media, in particular, had become both more pluralistic and professional, as the CPJ observed in 1997. The same organization in 1998 referred to "the virtual halt of violence against journalists this year," so the profession has become safer. Although violence has escalated in recent years, it is still nowhere near what it had been. The government does try to influence newspapers, for instance, by encouraging the withholding of advertising revenue.

In the case of television and radio, there is less reason for optimism. The government's virtual monopoly over television, coupled with its control over radio channels, is a threat to freedom of the press, especially in a nation where nearly one-third of the population is illiterate. Control of these media outlets has dire consequences for the Mayan-speaking majority of Guatemalan Indians, whose primary access to the news is radio and television. In the first two years of the twenty-first century, there is neither a television nor radio station for these people, although there is an occasional radio program or speech in an indigenous language.

By the halfway point of 2002, it is not yet clear if either President Portillo or any members of the power structure he represents, including the generals, has intentions of democratization. Guatemala was brought to the Peace Accords by a combination of external pressure and the internal recognition that the war was basically unwinnable. Portillo and his backers may have intended to implement the Peace Accords and were perhaps slowly, but inevitably, progressing towards this goal. Or they may have regarded the peace process as an extension of the civil war, one in which they worked their hardest to keep the status quo while giving the illusion that they intended to become more democratic. Ultimate freedom of the Guatemalan press is dependent upon the freedom of the Guatemalan state.

One thing, however, seems evident: The full participation of the highland-dwelling indigenous people of Guatemala will be necessary before there is any sort of democracy or true freedom of the press. There is a synergistic relationship between a free press and a free and literate people; when people cannot read or at least hear and see for themselves what their government is doing, that synergy cannot exist. In Guatemala, it has never had a chance to develop.

Too many Guatemalans remain incapable of taking part in a democracy; they cannot understand the Spanish of the press, or they cannot read at all. Until they can fully participate, their nation's press continues to exist only for its literate and Spanish speaking members.


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"Station May Go Catholic." In Chicago Sun-Times, June 14, 2002, p. 43.

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Von Hagen, Victor W. World of the Maya. New York, New York: The New American Library, 1960.

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Zur, Judith N. Violent Memories: Mayan War Widows in Guatemala. Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, a member of HarperCollins Publishers, 1998.

Ronald E. Sheasby, Ph. D.

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Basic Data
Official Country Name: Republic of Guatemala
Region: North & Central America
Population: 12,639,939
Language(s): Spanish, Quiche, Cakchiquel, Kekchi, Mam, Garifuna, Xinca
Literacy Rate: 55.6%
Number of Primary Schools: 12,409
Compulsory Schooling: 6 years
Public Expenditure on Education: 1.7%
Educational Enrollment: Primary: 1,510,811
  Secondary: 375,528
  Higher: 80,228
Educational Enrollment Rate: Primary: 88%
  Secondary: 26%
Teachers: Primary: 43,403
  Secondary: 22,624
Student-Teacher Ratio: Primary: 35:1
Female Enrollment Rate: Primary: 82%
  Secondary: 25%

History & Background

The Republic of Guatemala is one of seven countries located in Central America. Bordered by Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, and the Pacific Ocean, Guatemala has a land area of 108,430 square kilometers (41,865 square miles or approximately the size of Tennessee) and a population of 13 million, representing over one third of Central America's entire population. The climate of Guatemala is primarily tropical, although it contains cool highlands in the north and tropical jungles in the south. The central terrain is largely mountainous, while the coastal region is bordered by plains. There are many active volcanoes in the country, and the area is also subject to hurricanes and earthquakes.

Approximately 40 percent of the population of Guatemala is urban. The most populated area is the country's capital, Guatemala City, which boasts a metropolitan population of over two million people. Guatemala is a leader in Central American's commerce and manufacturing. It produces and exports petroleum, minerals, tobacco, electrical goods, pharmaceuticals, food, and textiles. Tourism in Guatemala also thrives, particularly in Antigua, which is a major cultural center of Guatemala City. Agriculture represents about 25 percent of the Guatemala's income, and farming accounts for nearly half of the nation's workforce. Approximately 36 percent of the country's exports go to the United States, which in turn comprises about 40 percent of Guatemala's imports. Guatemala also exports to other Central American countries, as well as to Japan and Germany.

Guatemala has a rich and culturally distinctive history. More than 50 percent of Guatemala's population descended from Mayan ancestry. Historians believe that the region, which now comprises Guatemala, contained a series of small kingdoms and city-states during whose existence architectural accomplishments, many representations of which can still be found in Guatemala, flourished. In 1521, the area was claimed by Spain, under whose rule the Mayan Indians were suppressed. During the 300 year period which followed, the Mayan Culture diminished, although today it is a celebrated part of Guatemala's heritage. People of Mayan-Spanish descent today are referred to as Ladinos.

After winning its independence from Spain in 1821, Guatemala briefly became part of Mexico and later a member of the United Provinces of Central America. From that time until 1944, it was governed by a series of dictatorships until its first civilian president, Juan José Arevalo, was elected and promised to bring democratic political reform. The new form of government, however, was short-lived; many of Arevalo's successors returned the country to a series of dictatorships, military rule, and civil wars until 1985 when Vinico Cerezo was elected to the presidency. Under Cerezo's leadership, the new 1985 Constitution (which was temporarily suspended and amended in 1993) provided for the separation of governmental powers and included provisions for the protection of human rights. Entering the twenty-first century, Guatemala enjoyed a progressive, human rights-oriented government that sought to provide for the protection, education, and cultural advancements of its people. Among the country's agendas in 2000 were the perpetuation of human rights within its borders, the modernization of its schools, and its diplomatic relations with other world governments.

Constitutional & Legal Foundations

Like the United States, Guatemala's government is comprised of three branches: the Congreso de la Republica or Legislative Branch, a unicameral national congress made up of 110 deputies who serve 4 year terms; the Executive Branch, comprised of the president, vice president, and the Council of Ministers, who are appointed by the president; and the Judicial Branch, a hierarchical series of upper and lower courts over which the 13 member Corte Surpema de Justicia (Supreme Court) presides. Members of the Supreme Court serve five-year terms, and the president, who acts as both chief of state and as head of government, serves a four-year term.

Guatemala is divided into 22 states or departmentos, under which 331 municipos (townships) handle local affairs. Each departmento is headed by a governor. Under the current constitution, the president and vice president are elected by national vote and may serve only one term. Voting is compulsory for citizens 18 years or older.

Educational SystemOverview

Similar to the United States, the educational system in Guatemala is divided into three levels: primary (elementary), secondary (high school), and university. Education in Guatemala is free and compulsory through sixth grade, or between the ages of 7 and 14. Because public schools are often located sparsely in the rural areas of the country, there is an abundance of private schools in Guatemala. Many of these institutions are Marist or Jesuit. In total, there are approximately 9,300 primary schools, which are attended by 1.3 million students. More than 290,000 students attend private secondary schools, and the total university enrollment in Guatemala is approximately 88,000.

Language of Instruction: Although Spanish is the official language spoken in Guatemala, not all of its citizens are fluent in Spanish. Spoken among the nation's high Indian population are over 20 indigenous Mayan Indian languages, including K'iche', Kakchiquel, K'ekchi, Mam, and Quiche, which are used primarily in the rural areas of the country. In fact, only 60 percent of Guatemala's population speaks Spanish; the remaining 40 percent speak indigenous Mayan languages. These dialects are spoken in many of the country's rural schools. One of Guatemala's educational goals is to become uni-lingual, which means that ideally all Guatemalans would be able to speak Spanish. However, students who complete all 6 years of primary school and all 5 years of secondary may have as many as 11 years of English instruction, a trend which began around the time of Guatemala's break from dictatorship in the late 1940s. Since that time, school children, at least in the larger cities, may have also received training in other languages, especially French, German, and Italian.

Instructional Technology (Computers): Lack of adequate educational technology remains a problem for the Guatemalan classroom, especially in the mountainous, rural areas. Absence of funding, limited technical access, and lack of operator expertise prevent all schools from being equipped with state-of-the-art computers and distance learning technology. However, these commodities are making their entrance into the universities, particularly the University of San Carlos, which boasts a fully updated website, student access to the Internet, and other interactive features. Students who can afford the required technology and tuition may participate in online education courses offered outside of the country.

CurriculumDevelopment: The Guatemalan Ministry of Education supports a progressive, globalized curriculum. One of the country's major educational achievements is its focus on globalization and multicultural affairs. Starting in secondary school, students learn about other cultures and nations, including their Latin American neighbors, other Western-hemisphere countries, and countries all over the world. This attention to multiculturalism aids in Guatemala's presence in international affairs, global commerce, and social development. Curriculum in Guatemala also gives attention to the social issues the country faces and encourages its students to be active in helping solve these problems.

Preprimary & Primary Education

A child's first year in school is pre-kindergarten. Primary or elementary school comprises the next six years. Students must pass a general examination at each grade level in order to pass to the subsequent level. Students who fail any part of the year-end examination must repeat that entire year. Examinations are prepared under the supervision of Guatemala's Minister of Education, who also presides over the curriculum and administrative functions of the country's public schools.

Students receive instruction in all the "basic" areas, including language, science, mathematics, and history. In most city schools, both Spanish and English are taught at all primary levels, although in more remote areas, indigenous Mayan languages are used exclusively. In some larger urban schools, courses in German, French, Italian, Arabic and Chinese may also be offered. French, German, and English-run schools teach a combination of the national curriculum and their respective country's curriculum.

Secondary Education

Most secondary schools are located in the urban areas of Guatemala and are affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church (Catholicism is the predominant religion of Guatemala, although there are many Protestants and Mayan religions practiced). Several German, French, and American schools also exist. Teachers at these schools use English, rather than Spanish, to deliver instruction.

Since compulsory education ends at the sixth grade, many Guatemalan children do not attend secondary school. In fact, recent estimates hold that only one third of all children continue their education beyond primary school, a problem that may contribute to a high level of illiteracy in adults over age 15. Children may not have easy access to a secondary school, or, if they come from agricultural communities, they are unable to attend because they must work to support their families' farms.

At the secondary level, students receive three years of general education, called Ciclo Prevocacional, followed by two years of vocational training, called Ciclo Diversifacado, which allows students to "specialize" in one of several professional areas such as education, agriculture, and business. Students who complete the final three years of study receive a Bachillerato, the equivalent of a high school diploma, and are eligible to be admitted to university. Instead of attending Ciclo Diversifcado, students may opt to devote their following three years of study to specialized studies, resulting in a certificates in perito (certification) in industria (industry), agricola (agriculture), or contador (law).

Guatemala faces a rather hefty illiteracy problem with as many as 50 percent of the entire population, especially rural women, being functionally illiterate. To combat this problem and to improve the quality of education, Guatemala implemented a requirement into the secondary education requirements for its senior students. Before completing the curriculum necessary for receiving a diploma, secondary students are now required to teach five people to read. This mandate, which went into effect in 2001, seeks to increase citizens' awareness of the need to educate the populace, while simultaneously combating illiteracy. Although this measure was met with some initial resistance by the schools, it has so far proven to be an effective means of reducing the widespread effects of illiteracy in the country.

Higher Education

There are five institutions of higher learning in Guatemala, all located in the capital city. The most prominent of these is the Universidad de San Carlos (USC), the country's largest institution of higher education (and the largest in Central America) with an enrollment of over 60,000 students. As the only public university in Guatemala, USC offers a comprehensive list of degree options in business, education, the arts, medicine, law, agriculture, veterinary, and in other disciplines. The university also operates a number of satellite or complimentary campuses located throughout the country.

The remainder of Guatemala's universities are private: the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, the Universidad Rafael Landivar, the University of Francis Marroquin, the University of Mariano Galvez, and the University of Galileo, the country's youngest university. Many of the private universities in Guatemala are linked to the Roman Catholic Church (la Universidad de Francis Marroquin was established by an Archbishop, for example), although the la Universidad de Mariano Galvez is a Protestant church-governed institution. All institutions offer a variety of degree and certificate programs in all areas of study, including arts and letters, business, medicine, law, engineering, and agriculture.

Admission to universities in Guatemala is based on applicants' holding of the bachillerato (equivalent to a high school diploma), a knowledge of Spanish, and, in the case of the private schools, a satisfactory grade on the appropriate Examen de Admision (entrance examination). Once enrolled, students must obtain a minimum grade of 51 percent to pass coursework; at some private institutions, a minimum grade of 61 percent is required. When students complete their programs of study, they are issued a diploma by Guatemala's Minister of Education, not by the individual institution. Students from other countries may enter Guatemala's universities provided they have credentials similar to the bachillerato and a knowledge of Spanish.

Students may complete many different types of programs at the university level. The first stage is known as the licenciatura. This is equivalent to a bachelor's degree in the United States. A student receives this credential after three to seven years of study, depending on the subject area: a technical certificate (tecnico ) requires three years of study, a degree in Arts and Sciences requires four years; a degree in ingeniero (engineering), requires five to six years; and a degree in medicine requires seven years. Usually each degree is accompanied by some type of professional certification. Also as part of their mandatory curriculum, students must complete a seminar in Social Issues, which requires them to write about a significant problem facing Guatemalan society, such as the illiteracy rate. The school year lasts from January to October.

Beyond the licenciatura is the maestrado (master's degree), which requires two years of additional study and a thesis, and the doctorado (doctoral degree), which requires two years' study in addition to the time required for the maestrado. Doctoral students must also complete a thesis in one of the following areas: law, humanities, education, economics, or social sciences. To combat the illiteracy problem, each graduating university student must complete an internship which requires them to teach five Guatemalans how to read and write as part of his/her program of academic study.

Administration, Finance, & Educational Research

National policies related to education in Guatemala are handled through the Ministerio de Educacion (the Ministry of Education), presided over by the national Minister of Education. The ministry's sphere of influence covers predominantly, but not exclusively, primary (compulsory) schools. The Minister is responsible for such matters as developing proficiency examinations that students are required to pass in order to move from one grade level to the next; ensuring that state curriculum is observed fully in public schools and at least partially in private schools; and managing finances allocated to education, which is approximately 1.8 percent of the country's GDP (Gross Domestic Product). All diplomas are issued to students by the Ministry, not by the individual schools or programs of study. Additionally, programs for non-traditional (older) learners are offered, especially for semi-qualified workers in the agricultural and health sectors.

Educational research in Guatemala covers a spectrum of academic disciplines, including agriculture, business, arts and sciences, social work, engineering, law, and medicine. Each university maintains active research programs in many of these areas, and there are several Guatemalan organizations that support faculty research, including the Centro de Estudios de Guatemala (The Center for the Study of Guatemala), the Centro de Investigaciónes Económicas Nacionales (The Center for Economic Investigation), and Facultad Lationamericana de Ciencias Sociales (Latin American Faculty of Science and Society). Each university also contains a host of institutes which support different research projects, such as la Universidad de Valle's Centro de Estudios en Salud (Center for Health Studies), Centro de Investigaciónes en Ingenieria Civil y Ciencias de la Tierra (Center for Research in Civil Engineering and Earth Sciences), and Centro de Investigaciónes Arqueologicas y Anthropologicas (Center for Archeological and Anthropological Research) to name a few. Additionally, many institutions in other countries work jointly with counterparts in Guatemala to conduct academic research, including the Kaqchikel Resource Center at the University of Kansas, the Programa Cooperativo para el Desarrollo Sostenible de los Recursos Naturales y la Conservación del Medio Ambiente (the Cooperative Program for the Continued Development of Natural Resources and the Conservation of the Atmosphere) between the Universidad del Valle and Texas A & M University and the Instituto de Nutrición de Centro America y Panama (Central America and Panama Institute for Nutrition). As the effects of globalization continue to impact Guatemala and the surrounding area, the number of collaborative projects will likely increase.

Each university in Guatemala offers a series of conferences, symposia, or other events that allow scholars from within and outside of the country to share insights on problems affecting the region. Seminars related to matters of health, medicine, technology, and natural disasters (particularly earthquakes) can be found at the universities. Moreover, the country's rich Mayan heritage allows for many research projects related to anthropology, archaeology, and cultural studies, which attract researchers from all over the world. The Office of the Ministry of Education also works with institutions from other countries to offer different types of teaching and research exchange programs through its Departmento de Coordinación con Organismos Internaciónales (Department of Coordination with International Organizations).

In addition to research and teaching programs which exist primarily for the benefit of citizens in Guatemala, many Spanish language-intensive schools exist, particularly in the capital city. Adult students from the United States, Europe, Asia, and other countries find Guatemala an excellent place to learn or refine their Spanish language skills. Most of these schools, some of which are coordinated through programs in other countries, provide students with immersion in Latin American culture, the opportunity to live with a Guatemalan family, and an excellent way to learn conversational and business Spanish. As of 2000 there were at least five such programs located in Guatemala.

Teaching Profession

Like the United States and most other progressive countries, Guatemala recognizes the importance of preparing good teachers for the classroom. However, because teachers' salaries in the country are not good, and since teaching conditions are often difficult due to lack of physical resources, the teaching profession does not always attract enough well qualified educators. This problem is also exacerbated by the linguistic differences found in the far northern and southern areas of the country.

All prospective teachers must obtain the bacherilloto, with an emphasis on teaching, to enter the classroom. Teachers in Guatemala are referred to as profesors.


Education in Guatemala has undergone much transformation since the ratification of the constitution in 1986. Increased attention to curriculum, multiculturalism, and social responsibility has strengthened the quality of education in Guatemala substantially. However, several future challenges still remain.

First, the government of Guatemala is committed to reducing illiteracy among its populace. Efforts to unify the nation in a common language, Spanish, is part of this directive. Not only does the Ministry of Education seek to improve Guatemalans' reading ability, but it remains determined to enhance students' background in other basics such as mathematics and foreign language.

Second, the government of Guatemala identifies the need to move its schools further into the information age by strengthening instruction in topics related to globalization and multiculturalism. Thanks to the Peace Accord Agreement of 1996 and a constitutional mandate to promote pluralism, the schools in Guatemala are making noteworthy progress toward this goal. Guatemala can continue to move forward by building and maintaining close educational ties with the United States and other countries in the Central America, Europe, and Asia.

Finally, Guatemala recognizes the importance of devoting more resources to its educational endeavors. Like many other countries, teachers in Guatemala are not highly paid, and technological innovations are slow to move into the country's rural schools. The current educational budget is inadequate for advancing widespread educational programs in the smaller cities and mountain areas. Increased internal funding, more participation from parents, more support from the private sector, and continued alliances with other countries will help bring about an even stronger commitment to moving all Guatemalan classrooms into the twenty-first century.

The government and people of Guatemala represent a strong commitment to learning, teaching, and developing. Guatemala's partnership with the United States and the world community at large demonstrate an exceptional willingness to assertively improve the quality of its education. With hard work, ingenuity, and continued support from its neighbors, Guatemala promises to take the lead in educational reform in Central and Latin America.


Embassy of Guatemala to the United States. Culture and Education, 2001. Available from

Guatemala's Country Profile, 2001. Available from

The Latin America Alliance. Guatemala, 2001. Available from

Latin America Network Information Center, the University of Texas. Guatemala, 2001.Available from

Universidad de Valle de Guatemala, 2001. Available from

U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. Background Notes: Guatemala, 2001. Available from

William J. Wardrope

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Picado de Rabano (Radish Salad)................................. 33
Frijoles Negros Volteados (Fried Black Bean Paste)....... 33
Guacamole.................................................................. 33
Spanish Tortilla ........................................................... 33
Arroz Guatemalteco (Guatemalan-Style Rice) .............. 34
Cucumber Soup.......................................................... 34
Bunuelos (Fried Fritters)............................................... 35
Hot Christmas Punch .................................................. 36
Pepinos Rellenos (Stuffed Cucumbers)......................... 36
Mantequilla de ajo casera (Garlic Butter) ..................... 37
Pan de Banano (Banana Bread) ................................... 37


Guatemala is located in Central America. It has an area of 108,890 square kilometers (42,043 square miles), slightly smaller than the state of Tennessee. Because of its consistently temperate climate, Guatemala has been called the "Land of Eternal Spring." Crops such as coffee, sugar, bananas, and cocoa are grown both for consumption in Guatemala and for export. Guatemala, with parts of Mexico and Honduras, occupies the Yucatán peninsula, where the lowland forest of Petén, once the home of the Mayas, is found. Guatemala's main environmental problems are caused by deforestationmore than 50 percent of the nation's forests have been destroyed since 1890. The nation's water supply is also at risk due to industrial and agricultural pollutants.


The history of Guatemala is often recognized in three stages: the Mayan Empire, Spanish rule, and the modern republic (which is in existence today). All three have had an influence on Guatemalan cuisine. The ancient Mayan civilization lasted for about six hundred years before collapsing around 900 A.D. These ancient natives lived throughout Central America and grew maize (corn) as their staple crop. In addition, the Maya ate amaranth, a breakfast cereal similar to modern day cereals.

Guatemala remained under Spanish rule from 1524 to 1821. Typical Spanish dishes, such as enchiladas, guacamole, tamales, and tortillas, began making their way into the Guatemalan diet. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, an empanada (meat turnover) could be purchased for about twenty-five cents, chicken tortillas for fifty cents each, and a hot beef sandwich for about seventy-five cents. Other countries and their cultures have also affected the Guatemalan diet, including the Chinese. Most Guatemalan cities and towns have at least one Chinese restaurant.

Guatemala became independent from Spain in 1821, and continues to remain independent. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, banana and coffee plantations were established. Sugarcane became another successful agricultural crop by the end of World War II (19391945).


Guatemala does not have a national dish, but there are many foods that have become a part of the everyday diet. Just as during the time of the Mayans, corn continues to be a staple food. It is most often eaten in the form of a tortilla (a thin corn pancake). These are usually served warm and wrapped in cloth. Black beans (frijoles), another Mayan staple, are eaten at almost every meal. They are usually refried (volteados ), mashed, or simply eaten whole (parados ). Rice, eggs, and cheese are also widely consumed.

Chicken, turkey, and beef (roasted, grilled, or fried) are the country's most popular meats and are normally accompanied by beans and rice (frijoles con arroz ). Meats are often served in stews (caldos ) or cooked in a spicy chili sauce, though whole chickens may occasionally be served with the feet still attached. Pepián, a thick meat and vegetable stew, is a common dish in the area of Antigua (a town just outside of Guatemala City, the country's capital). Seafood is most common along the coasts, and is usually prepared with various spices.

Other popular dishes are bistec (grilled or fried beef), guacamole (mashed avocado with onions and spices), mosh (porridge), churrasco (charcoal-grilled steak), and chiles rellenos (chiles stuffed with meat and vegetables). Fresh fruits and vegetables, such as yucca, carrots, plantains, celery, cucumbers, and radishes, help to keep the Guatemalan diet healthy. However, snacks, such as doughnuts (donas ), are also widely popular.

Guatemalan coffee, which is most often exported, is considered some of the best in the world. Most Guatemalans, however, tend to drink weak coffee loaded with plenty of sugar. Rich, savory coffee is more commonly found in tourist areas. Aguas, soft drinks, are also abundant. Sweetened fruit juice mixed with either water or milk, called licuado, is a refreshing alternative.

Picado de Rabano (Radish Salad)


  • ½ pound radishes (about 20)
  • 12 fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
  • Salt, to taste
  • ¼ cup of a mix containing orange juice and lemon juice


  1. Trim the ends and slice the radishes.
  2. Combine sliced radishes with mint leaves, salt, and orange and lemon juice mix in a bowl and serve as a salad.

Serves 2 to 4.

Frijoles Negros Volteados (Fried Black Bean Paste)


  • 2 cups black bean puree (canned refried black beans)
  • 1 Tablespoon oil


  1. Heat oil over moderate heat in a skillet.
  2. Add bean puree and mix well with a wooden spoon.
  3. Stir until the puree thickens and the liquid evaporates.
  4. Continue until mix begins to come away from skillet and can be formed by shaking the skillet to give a sausage shape.
  5. Serve warm with tortillas, cheese, sour cream, or bread.



  • 1 ripe avocado
  • 1 teaspoon chicken bouillon (or 1 cube chicken bouillon)
  • 1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • Tomatoes and onions, chopped, to taste (optional)


  1. Peel, remove the pit, and thoroughly mash the avocado.
  2. Add the bouillon and the minced garlic. Mix well.
  3. Add chopped tomatoes and onions, if desired.

Serve with tortilla chips.

Spanish Tortilla


  • 3 large, white potatoes, thinly sliced
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 small red pepper, seeded and sliced
  • Flat-leaf parsley, minced


  1. Skins may be left on the potatoes, if preferred. Slice the potatoes very thin.
  2. Heat 2 Tablespoons of the oil in a 9- or 10-inch skillet and sauté the potatoes and onion, stirring, until golden brown.
  3. Season with salt and pepper.
  4. Beat the eggs and gently mix the potatoes with the eggs.
  5. In another frying pan, heat the remaining oil and pour in the potato and egg mixture.
  6. Cook over medium heat without stirring until set.
  7. With a plate, flip over and cook on the other side until browned. Garnish with pepper and parsley.

Arroz Guatemalteco (Guatemalan-Style Rice)


  • 2 cups long grain rice
  • 2 Tablespoons oil
  • 1 cup mixed vegetables (carrots, celery, sweet red peppers, green peas), finely chopped
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 4 cups chicken stock


  1. Heat the oil in a heavy saucepan and add rice.
  2. Sauté lightly until the rice has absorbed the oil, being careful not to let it change color.
  3. Add the mixed vegetables, salt, pepper, and chicken stock.
  4. Bring to a boil, cover, and reduce heat to low.
  5. Cool for about 20 minutes until rice is tender and the liquid has been absorbed.

Serves 6 to 8.

Cucumber Soup


  • 1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 pound pickling cucumbers (peel off skin, if waxed), chopped
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 medium red bell pepper, chopped
  • 3 cups low sodium chicken broth
  • Ground pepper, to taste
  • Pinch of salt (optional)
  • ¼ cup plain, nonfat yogurt
  • 1 Tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped


  1. In a large saucepan, warm the oil over medium heat.
  2. Add the cucumbers, onions, and red pepper.
  3. Cook until all the vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes.
  4. Stir in the chicken broth and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  5. Remove from heat.
  6. In a blender or food processor, puree the soup until very smooth, and then return it to the saucepan.
  7. Bring to a simmer and season to taste with salt (optional) and pepper.
  8. Serve hot, topped with a Tablespoon of yogurt and a sprinkling of parsley.

Makes 4 servings.


The majority of Guatemalans (approximately 60 percent) are Roman Catholic. The traditional Mayan religion, however, still exists and is widely popular throughout the country. Both religions have holiday and festival celebrations, although there are several special days throughout the year that are observed by everyone. The country is also home to several minority groups.

Christmas and Easter are two of the most widely celebrated holidays in Guatemala. The days before Christmas are filled with parties and various festivities, including decorating homes with manzanillas (small, yellow fruits) and watching fireworks. Tamales and punch are often served on Christmas Eve.

Holy Week, also known as Semana Santa, is celebrated the week before Easter. Guatemalans dress in colorful costumes to celebrate the week of festivities, which includes floats, music, and all types of food. Fish, chickpeas, torrejas (pastries similar to French toast), encurtidos (spicy vegetables with vinegar), and candied fruits are popular foods during this time. Those of Mayan descent often feast on tobic (vegetable, beef, and cabbage soup), kilim (chicken in a seasoned sauce, served with rice and potatoes), joch (a hot drink made of ground corn, barley, cinnamon, and brown sugar), and cooked fresh fruit, such as peaches or pears. Small doughnuts glazed with honey and cinnamon, called bunuelos (boon-WAY-lows), are popular holiday treats.

The first day of November marks All Saints Day, also known as the "Day of the Dead." Rather than a day of mourning, it is a time to celebrate the lives of loved ones that have passed away. To feel close to the dead, families often have a picnic on top of a loved one's grave.

Children's parties frequently feature pinatas, hollow decorations filled with toys and treats. Blindfolded children attempt to break open the pinata with a stick to release the treats inside. Weddings in Guatemala often feature bell-shaped pinatas that are filled with raw beans, rice, and confetti.

Bunuelos (Fried Fritters)


  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 cup water
  • ¼ pound butter
  • 3 eggs
  • Vegetable oil, for deep-frying


  1. Stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt.
  2. Combine the water and butter in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil.
  3. Remove from heat, and use a wooden spoon to mix in the flour mixture.
  4. Mix in the eggs, 1 at a time.
  5. Heat the oil in a deep skillet over medium to high heat.
  6. Shape the batter into balls about the size of a golf ball.
  7. Carefully slip them into the oil.
  8. Be sure not to crowd the skillet (cook separate batches, if necessary).
  9. Using the wooden spoon, keep moving the bunuelos around so they will puff up and brown evenly.
  10. When golden brown, remove them to a plate lined with paper towels.
  11. Top with cinnamon sugar or powdered sugar, or serve with a side of honey.
  12. Serve warm.

Makes about 30 bunuelos.

Hot Christmas Punch


  • 8 cups apple juice
  • 8 cups cranberry juice
  • 5 cinnamon sticks, broken
  • 5 oranges, sliced ¼-inch thick


  1. Place all ingredients into a large, stainless kettle and bring to a boil.
  2. Reduce heat and simmer 45 minutes to 1 hour.
  3. Strain and serve hot.

Serves 8.


Guatemalans who live in urban areas generally eat three meals a day. Breakfast most often consists of coffee, eggs, beans, or toast with marmalade. Lunch is traditionally the largest meal. Soup is often served, followed by meat, rice, vegetables, and a simple salad. Fresh fruit or pudding may follow the meal. Dinner, eaten around 7 or 8 P.M., usually includes such foods as sweet bread, beans, artichokes, rice, lamb, or grilled snapper. Fried plantains, flan (caramel custard), or fresh fruit are popular desserts.

A rural diet normally contains more simple ingredients. The day may begin with coffee, black beans, and tortillas. A midmorning snack around 10 A .M. may be atole, a sweet corn drink. Following a traditionally large lunch, another snack, such as coffee and a sweet pastry, is usually enjoyed around 4 P.M. Eggs and vegetables often accompany black beans and tortillas (often made by combining ground cornmeal with lime juice) for dinner. Extremely poor Guatemalans sometimes eat little more than corn, beans, and fruit.

When guests are invited for dinner in a Guatemalan home, it is polite to bring a small gift to the hosts, such as candy or flowers, but most people prefer that the guest simply bring dessert.

Those dining at a restaurant will have several options for international cuisine: Spanish, Mexican, French, Italian, Chinese, Caribbean, and Mediterranean, to name a few. A 10 percent tip is suggested at most restaurants.

As an alternative to traditional food, American fast food chains have established themselves throughout the country. They provide quickly prepared meals and are relatively inexpensive. As of 2001, several of the most popular American chain restaurants existed in Guatemala, in addition to other chains.

Pepinos Rellenos (Stuffed Cucumbers)


  • 2 to 3 cucumbers
  • ½ lime
  • 1 red pimiento chile (red pepper)
  • 1 small (3-ounce) package of cream cheese
  • 1 Tablespoon cream
  • 1 Tablespoon basil
  • 1 Tablespoon green onions, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • Salt and pepper
  • Pinch of paprika


  1. Cut the cucumbers down the middle, lengthwise, peel and remove the seeds.
  2. Rub the cucumbers with lime juice, and salt and pepper.
  3. Cut the red pepper down the middle, remove the seeds, and dice into small pieces.
  4. Combine the cream cheese and cream together with the remaining ingredients and mix well.
  5. Fill the cucumbers with the mix and refrigerate for 2 hours.
  6. Cut into slices and serve. (May be served on a bed of lettuce leaves.)

Serves 6 to 10.

Mantequilla de ajo casera (Garlic Butter)


  • ½ pound unsalted butter, softened
  • 6 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon parsley, chopped
  • 1 Tablespoon lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper, to taste


  1. Mix the ingredients in a bowl using a wooden spoon.
  2. When well mixed, place on aluminum foil and form into a ball.
  3. Refrigerate and use as desired.

Pan de Banano (Banana Bread)


  • ½ cup butter
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 pound ripe bananas (about 2 or 3 large)
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon, ground
  • 1 Tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 egg, beaten well
  • 1½ cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder


  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Soften the butter to room temperature and mix it with the sugar in a mixing bowl until light and fluffy.
  3. Mash the bananas and add it to the butter and sugar mixture.
  4. Add the salt, lemon juice, cinnamon, and egg.
  5. Sift the flour with the baking powder and slowly add it to the liquid mixture.
  6. Pour the batter into a greased loaf pan, approximately 9 x 5 inches.
  7. Bake in oven for 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
  8. Serve with honey as a cake bread, or as a dessert with cream or ice cream.


About 17 percent of the population of Guatemala is classified as undernourished by the World Bank. This means they do not receive adequate nutrition in their diet. Of children under the age of five, about 27 percent are underweight, and more than 50 percent are stunted (short for their age).

It is estimated that the poorest half of the population gets only 60 percent of the minimum daily caloric requirement. Malnutrition, alcoholism, and inadequate housing and sanitation pose serious health problems.



Fodor's Travel Publications, Inc. Fodor's Upclose Central America. New York: Fodor's Travel Publications, 1999.

Footprint Handbooks Ltd. Mexico & Central America Handbook 2001, 11th ed. England: Footprint Handbooks, 2001.

Let's Go Publications. Let's Go: Central America. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Lonely Planet. Lonely Planet Central America. 3rd ed. Victoria, Australia: Lonely Planet Publications, 1997.

Web Sites [Online] Available (accessed February 23, 2001).

Guatemala. [Online] Available (accessed February 23, 2001).

Guatemala. [Online] Available (accessed February 23, 2001).

Guatemala Cultural Tour. [Online] Available (accessed February 27, 2001).

Guatemalan Food. [Online] Available (accessed February 23, 2001).

Latin American Recipes. [Online] Available (accessed February 23, 2001).

Sally's Place for Food, Wine, and Travel. [Online] Available (accessed February 23, 2001).

Semana Santa. [Online] Available (accessed February 27, 2001).

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Guatemala (country, Central America)

Guatemala (gwätəmä´lə), officially Republic of Guatemala, republic (2005 est. pop. 14,655,000), 42,042 sq mi (108,889 sq km), Central America. The country is bounded on the north and west by Mexico, on the east by Belize and the Caribbean Sea, on the southeast by Honduras and El Salvador, and on the southwest by the Pacific Ocean. The capital and largest city is Guatemala City. In addition to the capital, important cities include Puerto Barrios, San José, Quezaltenango, and Antigua Guatemala.

Land and People

A highland region, where most of the population lives, cuts across the country from west to east. The rugged main range includes the inactive volcano Tajumulco, which is the highest point in Central America (13,816 ft/4,211 m). The range is flanked on the Pacific side by a string of volcanoes (some active), including Tacaná, Santa María, Acatenango, Fuego, and Agua. Volcanic eruptions, floods, and hurricanes have plagued Guatemala throughout history. In the center of the range is Lake Atitlán, and south of the highlands is the Pacific coastal lowland. North of them are the Caribbean lowland and the vast tropical forest known as Petén. Lake Petén Itzá is in N central Guatemala. The largest river is the Motagua, which flows into the Caribbean at the port of Puerto Barrios. North of the Motagua is the Lake Izabal–Río Dulce system, which was a major waterway in colonial times.

About 60% of the population is of mixed Mayan and Spanish descent (Ladinos) and about 40% are of purely Mayan origin. The latter have historically suffered from discrimination, poverty, and relative geographical isolation. Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion, and there are also Protestant and traditional Mayan minorities. Spanish is the language of about 60% of the people; the balance speak several indigenous dialects.


Coffee, sugar, and bananas are the leading commercial and export crops in Guatemala's mainly agricultural economy. There is some manufacturing, primarily of refined sugar, textiles and clothing for the U.S. market, furniture, and chemicals. Zinc and lead concentrates are mined. There are nickel and petroleum deposits in the north, and a petroleum industry has developed, although it has been limited by political unrest and environmentalist opposition. Extensive jade deposits are found in E central Guatemala. The Mayan town of Chichicastenango is a popular site for the nation's tourist industry. The leading imports include fuel, machinery, transportation equipment, construction materials, grain, fertilizers, and electricity. The United States, El Salvador, and Mexico are the major trading partners.


Guatemala is governed under the constitution of 1986 as amended. It provides for a president who is popularly elected for four years and may not serve consecutive terms. The president is both head of state and head of government. Members of the 158-member, unicameral Congress of the Republic are also elected for four-year terms. Guatemala is divided administratively into 22 departments.


The Maya-Quiché (see Quiché) inhabited Guatemala long before the arrival of the Spanish. They were defeated (1523–24) by the Spaniard Pedro de Alvarado, who became captain general of Guatemala. The conquerors found little of the gold they sought, but cocoa and indigo were raised with forced labor. The first colonial capital, Santiago de Guatemala (Tecpán), was replaced in 1527 by Ciudad Vieja. A volcanic mud and debris flow destroyed the capital in 1541, and Antigua Guatemala was founded to replace it. After a series of earthquakes destroyed Antigua Guatemala in 1773, the capital was moved to its current location at Guatemala City. Central America became independent from Spain in 1821. Guatemala was first a part of the Mexican Empire of Agustín de Iturbide and then became a nucleus of the Central American Federation. After the federation collapsed, Guatemala became a separate nation (1839).

Guatemalan interference in the affairs of other Central American republics during the 19th and early 20th cent., under the conservative dictatorships of Rafael Carrera and Manuel Estrada Cabrera and under the liberal, Justo Ruffino Barrios, caused intense hostility and finally led to the Washington Conference of 1907, which established the Central American Court of Justice. Jorge Ubico became president in 1931, and his tenure was marked by repressive rule and an improvement in the nation's finances.

After Guatemala declared war on the Axis powers in 1941, the large German-owned coffee holdings were expropriated. Popular discontent led to Ubico's overthrow in 1944 and his replacement by Juan José Arévalo. Arévalo launched a series of labor and agrarian reforms that were continued by Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, who succeeded him in 1951. A law expropriating large estates angered foreign plantation owners, particularly the United Fruit Company. As Communist influence in the Arbenz government increased, relations with the United States deteriorated. In 1954 the United States aided the anti-Arbenz military force that placed Col. Carlos Castillo Armas in power. When Castillo Armas was assassinated three years later, Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes became president. Guatemalan bases were used to train anti-Castro guerrillas in the early 1960s; around the same time, dissident leftist military officers and students combined to form a guerrilla movement.

In 1963 the prospect of the return to power of Arévalo led to a military coup under the defense minister, Enrique Peralta Azurdia. However, leftist guerrilla activity and terrorism mounted, in turn provoking rightist repression. In 1966 the moderate leftist Julio César Méndez Montenegro was elected president; he allowed the army to conduct a major anti-insurgency campaign against the guerrillas in which thousands were killed. In Aug., 1968, in the continuing violence, the U.S. ambassador was assassinated.

In the 1970 election, Col. Carlos Arana Osorio, an extreme conservative, was chosen president. He imposed a one-year state of siege in an attempt to end the violence. In the early 1970s many labor and political leaders were killed and several foreign diplomats were kidnapped. When no candidate received an absolute majority in the presidential election of 1974, the legislature declared Gen. Kjell Laugerud García the winner, even though Gen. José Efraín Ríos Montt, the antigovernment candidate, had allegedly won a plurality.

Violence continued in the 1970s and 1980s, with reports that anti-insurgency campaigns were destroying Indian villages and killing tens of thousands. In 1977 the United States cut off military aid to Guatemala. After three elections widely regarded as fraudulent, Gen. Ríos Montt took power in a 1982 coup and ruled by decree; he was deposed the next year by another strongman, Gen. Óscar Mejía Victores. During the early 1980s leftist guerrillas formed what became known as the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union (URNG) and began an insurgency against the government.

A civilian reformist, Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo, became president in 1985, after elections held under a new constitution, but his government did not seem to pose a substantial challenge to the power of the military. He was succeeded in 1990 by Jorge Serrano Elías, a right-wing businessman; Serrano adopted unpopular austerity measures, and in 1993, when he attempted to institute rule by decree, he was forced by the army to resign. Ramiro de León Carpio, the attorney general for human rights, was elected by the congress to succeed Serrano and won passage of anticorruption reforms.

In 1996, Álvaro Arzú Irigoyen, a former mayor of Guatemala City and foreign minister, won the presidency. He conducted a purge of top military officers and, in Dec., 1996, his government signed a UN-supervised peace accord with the URNG guerrillas, who subsequently regrouped as a political party. An estimated 200,000 persons died during the 36-year conflict. The 1999 presidential elections were won by Alfonso Portillo Cabrera, a lawyer and rightist associated with former dictator Ríos Montt and backed by the Guatemalan Republican Front. A draft settlement reached in 2002 with Belize concerning their disputed border contained maritime, but not land, concessions by Belize; the agreement must be approved by national referendums in both nations. In July, 2003, the government established a national compensation program to pay victims of human-rights violations that occurred during the civil war.

Óscar Berger Perdomo, a conservative former mayor of Guatemala City and the leader of the Grand National Alliance, won the presidency in Dec., 2003, after a runoff election. In the first round of voting in November, Ríos Montt made a bid for the presidency despite a ban on candidates who had overthrown a government. He came in third, and the November vote was marred by violence and intimidation that was largely blamed on his supporters.

In early 2004 former President Portillo was implicated in a corruption scandal, and he fled to Mexico; he was ultimately extradited to Guatemala in 2008. Some 10,000 soldiers were demobilized in May–June, 2004. UN supervision of the peace process ended in Dec., 2004.

Rains from Tropical Storm Stan caused flooding and mudslides in Oct., 2005, that resulted in hundreds of deaths in Guatemala. In 2006, the United Nations and Guatemala agreed to create the independent International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) to investigate and prosecute illegal groups responsible for corruption, organized crime, and political violence. Established in 2007, CICIG was designed to handle cases that might avoid prosecution due to the pervasiveness of organized crime and its ability to intimidate and corrupt law enforcement; it subsequently was responsible for prosecuting former President Portillo, two former national police chiefs, and other high ranking former officials. The case against Portillo and two of his ministers was dismissed in 2011, but in 2013 he was extradited to the United States on money-laundering charges and subsequently (2014) pleaded guilty.

In Nov., 2007, Álvaro Colom, a center-left business executive running as the National Union for Hope (UNE) candidate, won the presidency after a runoff. The presidential campaign was again marred by violence. In May, 2009, the murder of a lawyer, Rodrigo Rosenberg, created a political crisis when it was revealed he had made a video recording in which he accused the Colom administration of money-laundering drug money and said that if he was killed the president was to blame. The opposition called for Colom to resign; Colom denied the charges and suggested the recording was a right-wing attempt to destabilize his government. Both opponents and supporters of Colom mounted large demonstrations in the capital. Colom was cleared in Jan., 2010, by a CICIG investigation that determined that the lawyer surreptitiously contracted his own murder in an attempt to bring the government down.

In Dec., 2010, the government declared a state of siege in Alta Verapaz dept., in the N central part of the country, in order to regain control over the area's cities from a Mexican drug gang that had been operating there since 2008. A state of siege later (May, 2011) was declared in Petén dept. to the north after a drug-trafficking-related massacre there. President Colom and his wife, Sandra Torres, were divorced in May, 2011, in an attempt to circumvent the country's constitutional prohibition on the election of the president or a close relative to consecutive terms. Torres, who supervised the government's antipoverty efforts under her husband, was expected to be the UNE presidential candidate, but the courts rejected her candidacy. In the election, Otto Pérez Molina, a retired general running as the conservative Patriotic party candidate, won (November) after a runoff. In 2015, corruption investigations led to the resignation of the vice president (whose private secretary was accused of taking bribes) and led to calls that the president be investigated.


See R. N. Adams, Crucifixion by Power: Essays on Guatemalan National Social Structure, 1944–1966 (1970); T. Melville and M. Melville, Guatemala: The Politics of Land Ownership (1971); R. E. Moore, Historical Dictionary of Guatemala (rev. ed. 1973); J. Handy, Gift of the Devil: A History of Guatemala (1984); R. Nyrop, ed., Guatemala, a Country Study (1984); G. Grandin et al., ed., The Guatemala Reader (2011).

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Official name: Republic of Guatemala

Area: 108,890 square kilometers (42,042 square miles)

Highest point on mainland: Tajumulco Volcano (4,211 meters/13,830 feet)

Lowest point on land: Sea level

Hemispheres: Northern and Western

Time zone: 7 a.m. = noon GMT

Longest distances: 457 kilometers (284 miles) from south-southeast to north-northwest; 428 kilometers (266 miles) from east-northeast to west-southwest

Land boundaries: 1,687 kilometers (1,046 miles) total boundary length; Belize 266 kilometers (165 miles); El Salvador 203 kilometers (126 miles); Honduras 256 kilometers (159 miles); Mexico 962 kilometers (597 miles)

Coastline: 205 miles (330 kilometers)

Territorial sea limits: 22 kilometers (12 nautical miles)


Guatemala is located at the northwestern end of Central America and is bordered by Belize to the northeast, Honduras and El Salvador to the east, and Mexico to the north and west. Guatemala covers an area of 108,890 square kilometers (42,042 square miles), or slightly less than the state of Tennessee.


Guatemala has no territories or dependencies.


The climate ranges from hot and humid in parts of the lowlands to very cold in the highlands, where frosts are common in some months and snow falls occasionally. Average annual temperatures at the coast range from 25°C to 30°C (77°F to 86°F); in the central highlands, they average 20°C (68°F); and in the higher mountain areas, they average 11°C (59°F). The rainy season lasts from May through October inland, and into December along the coast; the dry season thus extends from November (or January) to April. Annual rainfall is heavy in the El Petén, the largest geographic region, averaging 203 centimeters (80 inches) in the north and 441 centimeters (150 inches) in the south.


Most of the southern half of Guatemala consists of an interior upland region that includes high mountains and some thirty active volcanoes, as well as the plateaus and hills where the great majority of people live. There is a coastal plain to the south and swampy lowlands to the north.


In the east, Guatemala borders on the Caribbean Sea at the Gulf of Honduras. To the south lies the Pacific Ocean.

Sea Inlets and Straits

Amatique Bay, in the Gulf of Honduras, is 16 kilometers (10 miles) wide and 40 kilometers (25 miles) long.

Coastal Features

Guatemala's Pacific coast is straight and open, with no natural harbors and relatively shallow offshore waters. Long stretches of black sand line the coast, flanked by mangrove swamps and a coastal plain farther inland. The coast along the Gulf of Honduras is flat and open to Caribbean storms.


There are two important lakes of volcanic origin in the Sierra Madre highlands. Lake Atitlán is said to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. The volcanoes Atitlán, San Pedro, and Toliman line its shores. The lake is over 304 meters (1,000 feet) deep in places. Lake Amatitlán, just south of Guatemala City, is smaller and less spectacular. Steam rises from this warm-water lake, and medicinal sulfur springs are found along its banks. In the east is Lake Izabal, the largest lake in the country (43 kilometers/27 miles long and 19 kilometers/12 miles wide). Lake Petén Itzá is in the north.


Guatemala's eighteen principal rivers, which flow from the mountains to the Pacific Ocean, are relatively short. The Motagua River, flowing east for about 402 kilometers (250 miles), serves as part of the boundary between Guatemala and Honduras. The Polochic River empties into Lake Izabal, the largest lake in the country. The outlet of Lake Izabal is the Dulce River, which flows into Amatique Bay. The Sarstún River, to the south, serves as the boundary between Belize and Guatemala and links the El Petén region with the coast. Farther to the north, the Usumacinta River flows northeast along the Mexican border before continuing into that country. The Belize River and the Azul River both rise in El Petén and empty into the Caribbean.


There are no deserts in Guatemala.


The swampy Polochic River-Lake Izabal lowland lies north of the Sierra de las Minas and the Mico Mountains. The Pacific coastal plain is predominantly savannah.


The Sierra Madre system extends from Mexico, through Guatemala, to El Salvador and Honduras; it includes several active volcanoes. The country's highest peak, Tajumulco, is part of this system. The Sierra de Chuacús branches due east from the Sierra Madre in the central part of the country. To the east-northeast lie the Sierra de las Minas and the Mico Mountains. The Sierra de los Cuchumatanes, a great limestone massif that enters Guatemala from Mexico in the northwest, ranges from 2,743 to 3,352 meters (9,000 to 11,000 feet). To the east lie the Sierra de Chama and the Sierra de Santa Cruz.


Deep ravines often separate the lava plateaus and ash-filled basins of the mountains; these can be difficult to cross, even on foot.


The vast area of El Petén, comprising about one-third of Guatemala, extends to the north of the mountain ranges into the Yucatan Peninsula at elevations between 152 and 213 meters (500 and 700 feet). Other smaller plateaus to the south reach elevations of 2,438 meters (8,000 feet).


The Chiquimulilla Canal, which runs 112 kilometers (70 miles) from the port of San Jose to the Salvadoran border, is part of the coastal lagoon but has been dredged to allow river traffic.


Tikal National Park contains a major center of the native Mayan civilization, which was inhabited from the sixth century b.c. to the tenth century a.d.



Barry, Tom. Guatemala: A Country Guide. Albuquerque, NM: Inter-Hemispheric Education Resource Center, 1989.

Cummins, Ronnie. Guatemala. Milwaukee, WI: G. Stevens Children's Books, 1990.

Perl, Lila. Guatemala, Central America's Living Past. New York: Morrow, 1982.

Web Sites

Guatemala Online. (accessed June 17, 2003).

Lonely Planet Destination Guide. (accessed June 17, 2003).

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Country statistics


108,890sq km (42,042sq mi) 11,237,196

capital (population):

Guatemala City (823,301)


Multi-party republic

ethnic groups:

Ladino (mixed Hispanic and Native American) 45%, Mayan 43%, White 5%, Black 2%, others (including Chinese) 3%


Spanish (official)


Roman Catholic 73%, Protestant 25%, indigenous beliefs 2%


Guatemalan quetzal = 100 centavos

Republic in Central America. The Central American republic of Guatemala contains a densely populated fertile mountain region. The capital, Guatemala City, is situated here. The highlands run in an ew direction and contain many volcanoes. Guatemala is subject to frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Tajmulco, an inactive volcano, is the highest peak in Central America, at 4211m (13,816ft).

South of the highlands lie the Pacific coastal lowlands. North of the highlands is the thinly populated Caribbean plain and the vast Petén tropical forest. Guatemala's largest lake, Izabal, drains into the Caribbean Sea.


Guatemala lies in the tropics and the lowlands are hot and rainy. The central mountain region is more temperate. Guatemala City, at c.1500m (5000ft) above sea level, has a pleasant, warm climate, with a marked dry season between November and April.


Hardwoods, such as mahogany, rubber, palm, and chicozapote (from which chicle, used in chewing gum, is obtained), grow in the tropical forests in the n, with mangrove swamps on the coast. Oak and willow grow in the highlands, with fir and pine at higher levels. Much of the Pacific plains is farmland.

History and Politics

Between ad 300 and 900, the Quiché branch of the Maya ruled much of Guatemala, but inexplicably abandoned their cities on the n plains. The Quiché ruins at Tikal are the tallest temple pyramids in the Americas. In 1523–24, the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado defeated the native tribes. In 1821, Guatemala became independent. From 1823–39, it formed part of the Central American Federation. Various dictatorial regimes interfered in the politics of other Central American states, arousing resentment and leading to the creation of the Central American Court of Justice. In 1941, Guatemala nationalized the German-owned coffee plantations. After World War 2, Guatemala embarked on further nationalization of plantations. In 1960, the mainly Quiché Guatemalan Revolutionary National Unity Movement (URNG) began a guerrilla war that claimed more than 200,000 lives. During the 1960s and 1970s, terrorism and political assassinations beset Guatemala. In 1976, an earthquake devastated Guatemala City, killing more than 22,000 people.

In 1983, Guatemala reduced its claims to Belize. In 1985, Guatemala elected its first civilian president for 15 years. Alvaro Arzú Irigoyen became president in 1996 elections, and a peace agreement with the URNG ended 35 years of civil war. Alfonso Portillo became president in 1999 elections, despite admitting to killing two men. In 2003, Oscar Berger became president.


Guatemala is a lower-middle-income developing nation (2000 GDP per capita, US$3700). Agriculture employs 50% of the workforce. Coffee, sugar, bananas and beef are leading exports. Other important crops are cardamom and cotton. Maize is the chief food crop, but Guatemala has to import food. Forestry is a major activity. Tourism and manufacturing are growing in importance. Manufacture: processed farm products, textiles, wood products, handicrafts.

Political map

Physical map


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Culture Name


Alternative Name



Identification. The name Guatemala, meaning "land of forests," was derived from one of the Mayan dialects spoken by the indigenous people at the time of the Spanish conquest in 1523. It is used today by outsiders, as well as by most citizens, although for many purposes the descendants of the original inhabitants still prefer to identify themselves by the names of their specific language dialects, which reflect political divisions from the sixteenth century. The pejorative terms indio and natural have been replaced in polite conversation and publication by Indígena. Persons of mixed or non-indigenous race and heritage may be called Ladino, a term that today indicates adherence to Western, as opposed to indigenous, culture patterns, and may be applied to acculturated Indians, as well as others. A small group of AfricanAmericans, known as Garifuna, lives on the Atlantic coast, but their culture is more closely related to those found in other Caribbean nations than to the cultures of Guatemala itself.

The national culture also was influenced by the arrival of other Europeans, especially Germans, in the second half of the nineteenth century, as well as by the more recent movement of thousands of Guatemalans to and from the United States. There has been increased immigration from China, Japan, Korea, and the Middle East, although those groups, while increasingly visible, have not contributed to the national culture, nor have many of them adopted it as their own.

Within Central America the citizens of each country are affectionately known by a nickname of which they are proud, but which is sometimes used disparagingly by others, much like the term "Yankee." The term "Chapín" (plural, "Chapines"), the origin of which is unknown, denotes anyone from Guatemala. When traveling outside of Guatemala, all its citizens define themselves as Guatemalans and/or Chapines. While at home, however, there is little sense that they share a common culture. The most important split is between Ladinos and Indians. Garifuna are hardly known away from the Atlantic coast and, like most Indians, identify themselves in terms of their own language and culture.

Location and Geography. Guatemala covers an area of 42,042 square miles (108,889 square kilometers) and is bounded on the west and north by Mexico; on the east by Belize, the Caribbean Sea, Honduras and El Salvador; and on the south by the Pacific Ocean. The three principal regions are the northern lowland plains of the Petén and the adjacent Atlantic littoral; the volcanic highlands of the Sierra Madre, cutting across the country from northwest to southeast; and the Pacific lowlands, a coastal plain stretching along the entire southern boundary. The country has a total of 205 miles (330 kilometers) of coastline. Between the Motagua River and the Honduran border on the southeast there is a dry flat corridor that receives less than forty inches (one hundred centimeters) of rain per year. Although the country lies within the tropics, its climate varies considerably, depending on altitude and rainfall patterns. The northern lowlands and the Atlantic coastal area are very warm and experience rain throughout much of the year. The Pacific lowlands are drier, and because they are at or near sea level, remain warm. The highlands are temperate. The coolest weather there (locally called "winter") occurs during the rainy season from May or June to November, with daily temperatures ranging from 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit in the higher altitudes, and from 60 to 70 degrees in Guatemala City, which is about a mile above sea level. "Summer" denotes the period between February and May, when the temperature during the day in Guatemala City often reaches into the 80s.

The Spanish conquerors preferred the highlands, despite a difficult journey from the Atlantic coast, and that is where they placed their primary settlements. The present capital, Guatemala City, was founded in 1776 after a flood and an earthquake had destroyed two earlier sites. Although the Maya had earlier inhabited the lowlands of the Petén and the lower Motagua River, by the time the first Spaniards arrived, they lived primarily in the Pacific lowlands and western highlands. The highlands are still largely populated by their descendants. The eastern Motagua corridor was settled by Spaniards and is still inhabited primarily by Ladinos. Large plantations of coffee, sugarcane, bananas, and cardamom, all grown primarily for export, cover much of the Pacific lowlands. These are owned by large, usually nonresident, landholders and are worked by local Ladinos and Indians who journey to the coast from highland villages for the harvest.

Demography. The 1994 census showed a total of 9,462,000 people, but estimates for 1999 reached twelve million, with more than 50 percent living in urban areas. The forty-year period of social unrest, violence, and civil war (19561996) resulted in massive emigration to Mexico and the United States and has been estimated to have resulted in one million dead, disappeared, and emigrated. Some of the displaced have returned from United Nations refugee camps in Mexico, as have many undocumented emigrants to the United States.

The determination of ethnicity for demographic purposes depends primarily on language, yet some scholars and government officials use other criteria, such as dress patterns and life style. Thus, estimates of the size of the Indian population vary from 35 percent to more than 50 percentthe latter figure probably being more reliable. The numbers of the non-Mayan indigenous peoples such as the Garifuna and the Xinca have been dwindling. Those two groups now probably number less than five thousand as many of their young people become Ladinoized or leave for better opportunities in the United States.

Linguistic Affiliation. Spanish is the official language, but since the end of the civil war in December 1996, twenty-two indigenous languages, mostly dialects of the Mayan linguistic family, have been recognized. The most widely spoken are Ki'che', Kaqchikel, Kekchi, and Mam. A bilingual program for beginning primary students has been in place since the late 1980s, and there are plans to make it available in all Indian communities. Constitutional amendments are being considered to recognize some of those languages for official purposes.

Many Indians, especially women and those in the most remote areas of the western highlands, speak no Spanish, yet many Indian families are abandoning their own language to ensure that their children become fluent in Spanish, which is recognized as a necessity for living in the modern world, and even for travel outside one's village. Since the various indigenous languages are not all mutually intelligible, Spanish is increasingly important as a lingua franca. The Academy of Mayan Languages, completely staffed by Maya scholars, hopes its research will promote a return to Proto-Maya, the language from which all the various dialects descended, which is totally unknown today. Ladinos who grow up in an Indian area may learn the local language, but bilingualism among Ladinos is rare.

In the cities, especially the capital, there are private primary and secondary schools where foreign languages are taught and used along with Spanish, especially English, German, and French.

Symbolism. Independence Day (15 September) and 15 August, the day of the national patron saint, María, are the most important national holidays, and together reflect the European origin of the nationstate, as does the national anthem, "Guatemala Felíz" ("Happy Guatemala"). However, many of the motifs used on the flag (the quetzal bird and the ceiba tree); in public monuments and other artwork (the figure of the Indian hero Tecún Umán, the pyramids and stelae of the abandoned and ruined Mayan city of Tikal, the colorful motifs on indigenous textiles, scenes from villages surrounding Lake Atitlán); in literature (the novels of Nobel laureate Miguel Angel Asturias) and in music (the marimba, the dance called son) are associated with the Indian culture, even when some of their elements originated in Europe or in precolonial Mexico. Miss Guatemala, almost always a Ladina, wears Indian dress in her public appearances. Black beans, guacamole, tortillas, chili, and tamales, all of which were eaten before the coming of the Spaniards, are now part of the national culture, and have come to symbolize it for both residents and expatriates, regardless of ethnicity or class.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. Guatemala, along with other Central American Spanish colonies, declared its independence on 15 September 1821. Until 1839, it belonged first to Mexico and then to a federation known as the United Provinces of Central America. It was not until 1945 that a constitution guaranteeing civil and political rights for all people, including women and Indians, was adopted. However, Indians continued to be exploited and disparaged until recently, when international opinion forced Ladino elites to modify their attitudes and behavior. This shift was furthered by the selection of Rigoberta Menchú, a young Maya woman, for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.

Severe repression and violence during the late 1970s and 1980s was followed by a Mayan revitalization movement that has gained strength since the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996. While Mayan languages, dress, and religious practices have been reintroduced or strengthened, acculturation to the national culture has continued. Today more Indians are becoming educated at all levels, including postgraduate university training. A few have become professionals in medicine, engineering, journalism, law, and social work. Population pressure has forced many others out of agriculture and into cottage industries, factory work, merchandising, teaching, clerical work, and various white-collar positions in the towns and cities. Ironically, after the long period of violence and forced enlistment, many now volunteer for the armed forces.

Ethnic Relations. Some Ladinos see the Indian revitalization movement as a threat to their hegemony and fear that they will eventually suffer violence at Indian hands. There is little concrete evidence to support those fears. Because the national culture is composed of a blend of European and indigenous traits and is largely shared by Maya, Ladinos, and many newer immigrants, it is likely that the future will bring greater consolidation, and that social class, rather than ethnic background, will determine social interactions.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

The Spanish imposed a gridiron pattern on communities of all sizes, which included a central plaza, generally with a public water fountain known as a "pila," around which were situated a Catholic church, government offices, and the homes of high-ranking persons. Colonial homes included a central patio with living, dining, and sleeping rooms lined up off the surrounding corridors. A service patio with a pila and a kitchen with an open fireplace under a large chimney was located behind the general living area. Entrances were directly off the street, and gardens were limited to the interior patios.

Those town and house plans persist, except that homes of the elite now tend to be placed on the periphery of the town or city and have modified internal space arrangements, including second stories. An open internal patio is still popular, but gardens now surround the house, with the whole being enclosed behind high walls. The older, centrally located colonial houses are now occupied by offices or have been turned into rooming houses or hotels.

Indian towns retain these characteristics, but many of the smaller hamlets exhibit little patterning. The housesmostly made of sun-dried bricks (adobe) and roofed with corrugated aluminum or ceramic tilesmay stretch out along a path or be located on small parcels of arable land. The poorest houses often have only one large room containing a hearth; perhaps a bed, table and chairs or stools; a large ceramic water jug and other ceramic storage jars; a wooden chest for clothes and valuables; and sometimes a cabinet for dishes and utensils. Other implements may be tied or perched on open rafters in baskets. The oldest resident couple occupies the bed, with children and younger adults sleeping on reed mats (petates ) on the floor; the mats are rolled up when not in use. Running water in the home or yard is a luxury that only some villages enjoy. Electricity is widely available except in the most remote areas. Its primary use is for light, followed by refrigeration and television.

The central plazas of smaller towns and villages are used for a variety of purposes. On market days, they are filled with vendors and their wares; in the heat of the day people will rest on whatever benches may be provided; in early evening young people may congregate and parade, seeking partners of the opposite sex, flirting, and generally having a good time. In Guatemala City, the central plaza has become the preferred site for political demonstrations.

The national palace faces this central plaza; although it once was a residence for the president, today it is used only for official receptions and meetings with dignitaries. More than any other building, it is a symbol of governmental authority and power. The walls of its entryway have murals depicting scenes honoring the Spanish and Mayan heritages. Other government buildings are scattered throughout the central part of Guatemala City; some occupy former residences, others are in a newer complex characterized by modern, massive, high-rising buildings of seven or eight floors. Some of these structures are adorned on the outside with murals depicting both Mayan and European symbols.

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. Corn made into tortillas or tamales, black beans, rice, and wheat in the form of bread or pasta are staples eaten by nearly all Guatemalans. Depending on their degree of affluence, people also consume chicken, pork, and beef, and those living near bodies of water also eat fish and shellfish. With improvements in refrigeration and transport, seafood is becoming increasingly popular in Guatemala City. The country has long been known for vegetables and fruits, including avocados, radishes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, carrots, beets, onions, and tomatoes. Lettuce, snow peas, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, artichokes, and turnips are grown for export and are also available in local markets; they are eaten more by Ladinos than by Indians. Fruits include pineapples, papayas, mangoes, a variety of melons, citrus fruits, peaches, pears, plums, guavas, and many others of both native and foreign origin. Fruit is eaten as dessert, or as a snack in-between meals.

Three meals per day are the general rule, with the largest eaten at noon. Until recently, most stores and businesses in the urban areas closed for two to three hours to allow employees time to eat at home and rest before returning to work. Transportation problems due to increased traffic, both on buses and in private vehicles, are bringing rapid change to this custom. In rural areas women take the noon meal to the men in the fields, often accompanied by their children so that the family can eat as a group. Tortillas are eaten by everyone but are especially important for the Indians, who may consume up to a dozen at a time, usually with chili, sometimes with beans and/or stews made with or flavored with meat or dried shrimp.

Breakfast for the well to do may be large, including fruit, cereal, eggs, bread, and coffee; the poor may drink only an atol, a thin gruel made with any one of several thickenersoatmeal, cornstarch, cornmeal, or even ground fresh corn. Others may only have coffee with sweet bread. All drinks are heavily sweetened with refined or brown sugar. The evening meal is always lighter than that at noon.

Although there are no food taboos, many people believe that specific foods are classified as "hot" or "cold" by nature, and there may be temporary prohibitions on eating them, depending upon age, the condition of one's body, the time of day, or other factors.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. The ceremonial year is largely determined by the Roman Catholic Church, even for those who do not profess that faith. Thus, the Christmas period, including Advent and the Day of the Kings on 6 January, and Easter week are major holidays for everyone. The patron saints of each village, town or city are honored on their respective days. The cofradia organization, imposed by the colonial Spanish Catholic Church, is less important now, but where it persists, special foods are prepared. Tamales are the most important ceremonial food. They are eaten on all special occasions, including private parties and celebrations, and on weekends, which are special because Sunday is recognized as being a holy day, as well as a holiday. A special vegetable and meat salad called fiambre is eaten on 1 November, the Day of the Dead, when families congregate in the cemeteries to honor, placate, and share food with deceased relatives. Codfish cooked in various forms is eaten at Easter, and Christmas is again a time for gourmet tamales and ponche, a rum-based drink containing spices and fruits. Beer and rum, including a fairly raw variety known as aguardiente are the most popular alcoholic drinks, although urban elites prefer Scotch whisky.

Basic Economy. Guatemala's most important resource is its fertile land, although only 12 percent of the total landmass is arable. In 1990, 52 percent of the labor force was engaged in agriculture, which contributed 24 percent of the gross domestic product. Although both Ladinos and Indians farm, 68 percent of the agricultural labor force was Indian in 1989. Forty-seven percent of Indian men were self-employed as farmers, artisans, or merchants; the average income for this group was only about a third of that for Ladino men. Agriculture accounts for about one-fourth of the gross domestic product.

The country has traditionally produced many agricultural products for export, including coffee, sugar, cardamom, bananas, and cotton. In recent years flowers and vegetables have become important. However, Guatemala is not self-sufficient in basic grains such as wheat, rice, and even maize, which are imported from the United States. Many small farmers, both Indian and Ladino, have replaced traditional subsistence crops with those grown for export. Although their cash income may be enhanced, they are forced to buy more foods. These include not only the basic staples, but also locally produced "junk" foods such as potato chips and cupcakes as well as condiments such as mayonnaise.

Affluent city dwellers and returning expatriates increasingly buy imported fruits, vegetables, and specialty items, both raw and processed. Those items come from neighboring countries such as Mexico and El Salvador as well as from the United States and Europe, especially Spain, Italy, and France.

Land Tenure and Property. The concept of private property in land, houses, tools, and machinery is well established even though most Indian communities have long held some lands as communal property that is allotted as needed. Unfortunately, many rural people have not registered their property, and many swindles occur, leading to lengthy and expensive lawsuits. As long as owners occupied their land and passed it on to their children or other heirs, there were few problems, but as the population has become more mobile, the number of disputes has escalated. Disputes occur within villages and even within families as individuals move onto lands apparently abandoned while the owners are absent. Sometimes the same piece of land is sold two or more times to different outside persons, often speculators from urban areas who discover the fraud only when they find another person occupying the land. Some land disputes have occurred when agents of the government have illegally confiscated property belonging to Indian communities. In other cases, homeless peasants have taken over unused land on large private plantations and government reserves.

Commercial Activities. Agricultural products are the goods most commonly produced for sale within the country and for export. Handicrafts have been produced and widely traded since precolonial times and are in great demand by tourists, museums, and collectors, and are increasingly exported through middlemen. The most sought after items include hand woven cotton and woolen textiles and clothing items made from them; baskets; ceramics; carved wooden furniture, containers, utensils and decorative items; beaded and silver jewelry; and hand-blown glassware. These items are made in urban and rural areas by both Ladinos and Indians in small workshops and by individuals in their own homes.

Assembly plants known as maquilas produce clothing and other items for export, using imported materials and semiskilled labor. Despite criticisms of this type of enterprise in the United States, many Guatemalans find it a welcome source of employment with relatively high wages.

Major Industries. Guatemala has many light industries, most of which involve the processing of locally grown products such as chicken, beef, pork, coffee, wheat, corn, sugar, cotton, cacao, vegetables and fruits, and spices such as cinnamon and cardamom. Beer and rum are major industries, as is the production of paper goods. A large plastics industry produces a wide variety of products for home and industrial use. Several factories produce cloth from domestic and imported cotton. Some of these products are important import substitutes, and others are exported to other Central American countries and the United States.

Division of Labor. In the Ladino sector, upper-class men and women work in business, academia, and the major professions. Older Ladino and Indian teenagers of both sexes are the primary workers in maquilas, a form of employment that increasingly is preferred to working as a domestic. Children as young as four or five years work at household tasks and in the fields in farming families. In the cities, they may sell candies or other small products on the streets or "watch" parked cars. Although by law all children must attend school between ages seven and thirteen, many do not, sometimes because there is no school nearby, because the child's services are needed at home, or because the family is too poor to provide transportation, clothing, and supplies. The situation is improving; in 1996, 88 percent of all children of primary age were enrolled in school, although only 26 percent of those of high school age were enrolled.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. Social class based on wealth, education, and family prestige operates as a sorting mechanism among both Indians and Ladinos. Race is also clearly a component, but may be less important than culture and lifestyle, except in the case of the black Garifuna, who are shunned by all other groups. Individual people of Indian background may be accepted in Ladino society if they are well educated and have the resources to live in a Western style. However, Indians as a group are poorer and less educated than are non-Indians. In the 1980s, illiteracy among Indians was 79 percent, compared with 40 percent among Ladinos. In 1989, 60 percent of Indians had no formal education, compared with 26 percent of Ladinos. Indians with thirteen or more years of education earned about one-third less than did Ladinos with a comparable level of education.

Symbols of Social Stratification. Dress varies significantly by class and caste. Professional and white-collar male workers in the cities usually wear suits, dress shirts, and neckties, and women in comparable pursuits dress fashionably, including stockings and high-heeled shoes. Nonemployed upper-class women dress more casually, often in blue jeans and T-shirts or blouses. They frequent beauty salons since personal appearance is considered an important indicator of class.

Poorer Ladinos, whether urban or rural, buy secondhand clothing from the United States that is sold at low prices in the streets and marketplaces. T-shirts and sweatshirts with English slogans are ubiquitous.

Many Mayan women, regardless of wealth, education, or residence, continue to wear their distinctive clothing: a wraparound or gathered, nearly ankle-length skirt woven with tie-dyed threads that produce interesting designs, topped with a cotton or rayon blouse embroidered with flower motifs about the neck, or a more traditional huipil. The huipil is hand woven on a backstrap loom and consists of two panels sewn together on the sides, leaving openings for the arms and head. It usually is embroidered with traditional designs. Shoes or sandals are almost universal, especially in towns and cities. Earrings, necklaces, and rings are their only jewelry.

Indian men are more likely to dress in a Western style. Today's fashions dictate "cowboy" hats, boots, and shirts for them and for lower-class rural Ladinos. In the more remote highland areas, many men continue to wear the clothing of their ancestors. The revitalization movement has reinforced the use of traditional clothing as a means of asserting one's identity.

Political Life

Government. As of 1993, the president and vice-president and sixteen members of the eighty-member congress are elected by the nation as a whole for non-renewable four-year terms, while the remaining sixty-four members of the unicameral legislature are popularly elected by the constituents of their locales. Despite universal suffrage, only a small percentage of citizens vote.

There are twenty-two departments under governors appointed by the president. Municipalities are autonomous, with locally elected officials, and are funded by the central government budget. In areas with a large Mayan population, there have been two sets of local government leaders, one Ladino and one Mayan, with the former taking precedence. In 1996, however, many official or "Ladino" offices were won by Maya.

Leadership and Political Officials. Political parties range from the extreme right to the left and represent varying interests. Thus, their numbers, size, and electoral success change over time. It generally is believed that most elected officials use their short periods in office to aggrandize their prestige and line their pockets. Most take office amid cheering and accolades but leave under a cloud, and many are forced to leave the country or choose to do so. While in office, they are able to bend the law and do favors for their constituents or for foreigners who wish to invest or do business in the country. Some national business gets accomplished, but only after lengthy delays, debate, and procrastination.

Social Problems and Control. Since the signing of the Peace Accords in December 1996, there has been continued social unrest and a general breakdown in the system of justice. Poverty, land pressure, unemployment, and a pervasive climate of enmity toward all "others" have left even rural communities in a state of disorganization. In many Maya communities, their traditional social organization having been disrupted or destroyed by the years of violence, the people now take the law into their own hands. Tired of petty crime, kidnappings, rapes, and murders and with no adequate governmental relief, they frequently lynch suspected criminals. In the cities, accused criminals frequently are set free for lack of evidence, since the police and judges are poorly trained, underpaid, and often corrupt. Many crimes are thought to have been committed by the army or by underground vigilante groups unhappy with the Peace Accords and efforts to end the impunity granted to those who committed atrocities against dissidents.

Military Activity. In 1997, the army numbered 38,500. In addition, there is a paramilitary national police force of 9,800, a territorial militia of about 300,000, and a small navy and air force.

Social Welfare and Change Programs

Guatemala has governmental and nongovernmental agencies that promote change in agriculture, taxes, banking, manufacturing, environmental protection, health, education, and human and civil rights.

Since 1945 the government has provided social security plans for workers, but only a small percentage of the populace has received these health and retirement benefits. There are free hospitals and clinics throughout the country, although many have inadequate equipment, medicines, and personnel. Free or inexpensive health services are offered as charities through various churches and by private individuals.

Gender Roles and Statuses

Division of Labor by Gender. Among both Maya and Ladinos, women are associated primarily with the domestic world and men work in agriculture, business, and manufacturing. However, well-educated professional women are accepted and often highly respected; many are owners and managers of businesses. More of these women are Ladinas than Mayas. Statistically, women are less educated and lower paid than their male counterparts. Their numbers exceed those of males in nursing, secretarial, and clerical jobs. The teaching force at all levels has attracted women as well as men, but men predominate.

In rural areas, Maya women and men may engage in agriculture, but the crops they grow are different. Men tend to grow basic grains such as corn and beans as well as export crops such as green beans and snow peas. Women grow vegetables and fruits for local consumption and sale, as well as herbs and spices.

Handicrafts also tend to be assigned according to gender. Pottery is most often made by Indian women and Ladino men. Similarly, Indian women are the only ones who weave on backstrap or stick looms, while both Indian and Ladino men weave on foot looms. Indian men knit woolen shoulder bags for their own use and for sale. Men of both ethnicities do woodwork and carpentry, bricklaying, and upholstering. Indian men carve images of saints, masks, slingshots, and decorative items for their own use or for sale. Men and boys fish, while women and girls as well as small boys gather wild foods and firewood. Women and children also tend sheep and goats.

Rural Ladinas do not often engage in agriculture. They concentrate on domestic work and cottage industries, especially those involving sewing, cooking, and processing of foods such as cheese, breads, and candies for sale along the highways or in the markets.

The Relative Status of Men and Women. Indian and poor Ladino women (as well as children) are often browbeaten and physically mistreated by men. Their only recourse is to return to their parents' home, but frequently are rejected by the parents for various reasons. A woman from a higher-status family is less likely to suffer in this way, especially if her marriage has been arranged by her parents. While walking, a Maya woman traditionally trails her husband; if he falls drunk by the wayside, she dutifully waits to care for him until he wakes up.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

Marriage. Marriages are sometimes arranged in Maya communities, although most couples choose each other and often elope. Membership in private clubs and attendance at private schools provides a way for middle-class and upper-class young people to meet prospective mates. Parents may disapprove of a selection, but their children are likely able to persuade them. Marriages are celebrated in a civil ceremony that may be followed by a religious rite. Monogamy is the rule, although many men have a mistress as well as a wife. Among the poorer classes, both Mayan and Ladino, unions are free and ties are brittle; many children do not know, nor are they recognized by their fathers. Formal divorces are more common than many people believe, despite the disapproval of the Catholic Church. Until recently, a divorced woman did not have the right to retain her husband's surname; but she may sue for a share of his property to support herself and her minor children.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family is the preferred and most common domestic unit. Among both Ladinos and Maya, a young couple may live at first in the home of the man's parents, or if that is inconvenient or overcrowded, with the parents of the woman. Wealthy Ladinos often provide elaborate houses close to their own homes as wedding presents for their sons and daughters.

Inheritance. Inheritance depends on a witnessed written or oral testament of the deceased, and since many people die without indicating their preferences, family disputes after death are very common among both Mayas and Ladinos. Land, houses, and personal belongings may be inherited by either sex, and claims may be contested in the courts and in intrafamily bickering.


Infant Care. The children of middle-class and upper-class Ladinos are cared for by their mothers, grandmothers, and young women, often from the rural areas, hired as nannies. They tend to be indulged by their caretakers. They may be breastfed for a few months but then are given bottles, which they may continue using until four or five years. To keep children from crying or complaining to their parents, nannies quickly give them whatever they demand.

Maya women in the rural areas depend upon their older children to help care for the younger ones. Babies are breastfed longer, but seldom after two years of age. They are always close to their mothers during this period, sleeping next to them and carried in shawls on their backs wherever they go. They are nursed frequently on demand wherever the mother may be. Little girls of five or six years may be seen carrying tiny babies in the same way in order to help out, but seldom are they out of sight of the mother. This practice may be seen as education for the child as well as caretaking for the infant. Indian children are socialized to take part in all the activities of the family as soon as they are physically and mentally capable.

Child Rearing and Education. Middle-class and upper-class Ladino children, especially in urban areas, are not expected to do any work until they are teenagers or beyond. They may attend a private preschool, sometimes as early as eighteen months, but formal education begins at age seven. Higher education is respected as a means of rising socially and economically. Children are educated to the highest level of which they are capable, depending on the finances of the family.

Higher Education. The national university, San Carlos, has until recently had free tuition, and is still the least expensive. As a result, it is overcrowded, but graduates many students who would not otherwise be able to attain an education. There are six other private universities, several with branches in secondary cities. They grant undergraduate and advanced degrees in the arts, humanities, and sciences, as well as medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, law, engineering, and architecture. Postgraduate work is often pursued abroad by the better and more affluent students, especially in the United States, Spain, Mexico, and some other Latin American countries.


Etiquette varies considerably according to ethnicity. In the past, Indians were expected to defer to Ladinos, and in general they showed them respect and subservience at all times. In turn, they were treated by Ladinos as children or as persons of little worth. Some of those modes of behavior carried over into their own society, especially within the cofradia organization, where deliberate rudeness is considered appropriate on the part of the highest-ranking officers. Today there is a more egalitarian attitude on both sides, and in some cases younger Maya may openly show contempt for non-indigenous people. Maya children greet adults by bowing their heads and sometimes folding their hands before them, as in prayer. Adults greet other adults verbally, asking about one's health and that of one's family. They are not physically demonstrative.

Among Ladino urban women, greetings and farewells call for handshakes, arm or shoulder patting, embraces, and even cheek kissing, almost from first acquaintance. Men embrace and cheek kiss women friends of the family, and embrace but do not kiss each other. Children are taught to kiss all adult relatives and close acquaintances of their parents hello and goodbye.

In the smaller towns and until recently in the cities, if eye contact is made with strangers on the street, a verbal "good morning" or "good afternoon" is customary.


Religious Beliefs. Roman Catholicism, which was introduced by the Spanish and modified by Maya interpretations and syncretism, was almost universal in Guatemala until the early part of the twentieth century, when Protestantism began to make significant headway among both Ladinos and Maya. Today it has been estimated that perhaps 40 percent or more adhere to a Protestant church or sect ranging from established churches with international membership to small local groups celebrating their own set of beliefs under the leadership of lay pastors.

Many Maya combine membership in a Christian fellowship with a continued set of beliefs and practices inherited from their ancient ancestors. Rituals may still be performed to ensure agricultural success, easy childbirth, recovery from illness, and protection from the elements (including eclipses) and to honor and remember the dead. The Garifuna still practice an Afro-Caribbean form of ancestor worship that helps to meld together families broken by migration, plural marriages, and a social environment hostile to people of their race and culture.

Many of the indigenous people believe in spirits of nature, especially of specific caves, mountains, and bodies of water, and their religious leaders regularly perform ceremonies connected with these sites. The Catholic Church has generally been more lenient in allowing or ignoring dual allegiances than have Protestants, who tend to insist on strict adherence to doctrine and an abandonment of all "non-Christian" beliefs and practices, including Catholicism.

Medicine and Health Care

Although excellent modern medical care is available in the capital city for those who can afford it and even for the indigent, millions of people in the rural areas lack adequate health care and health education. The medical training at San Carlos University includes a field stint for advanced students in rural areas, and often these are the only well-trained medical personnel on duty at village-level government-run health clinics.

The less well educated have a variety of folk explanations and cures for disease and mental illnesses, including herbal remedies, dietary adjustments, magical formulas, and prayers to Christian saints, local gods, and deceased relatives.

Most births in the city occur in hospitals, but some are attended at home by midwives, as is more usual in rural areas. These practitioners learn their skills from other midwives and through government-run courses.

For many minor problems, local pharmacists may diagnose, prescribe, and administer remedies, including antibiotics.

The Arts and Humanities

Support for the Arts. The Ministry of Culture provides moral and some economic support for the arts, but most artists are self-supporting. Arts and handicrafts are important to all sectors of the population; artists are respected and patronized, especially in the cities where there are numerous art galleries. Even some of the smaller towns, such as Tecpán, Comalapa and Santiago de Atitlán offer paintings by local artists for sale to both foreign and Guatemalan visitors. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of indigenous "primitive" painters, some of whom are known internationally. Their products form an important part of the wares offered to tourists and local collectors. Non-indigenous painters are exhibited primarily in the capital city; these include many foreign artists as well as Guatemalans.

Graphic Arts. Textiles, especially those woven by women on the indigenous backstrap loom, are of such fine quality as to have been the object of scholarly study. The Ixchel Museum of Indian Textiles, located in Guatemala City at the Francisco Marroquín University, archives, preserves, studies, and displays textiles from all parts of the country.

Pottery ranges from utilitarian to ritual wares and often is associated with specific communities, such as Chinautla and Rabinal, where it has been a local craft for centuries. There are several museums, both government and private, where the most exquisite ancient and modern pieces are displayed.

Performance Arts. Music has been important in Guatemala since colonial times, when the Catholic Church used it to teach Christian doctrine. Both the doctrine and the musical styles were adopted at an early date. The work of Maya who composed European-style classical music in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has been revived and is performed by several local performance groups, some using replicas of early instruments. William Orbaugh, a Guatemalan of Swiss ancestry, is known internationally for performances of classical and popular guitar music. Garifuna music, especially that of Caribbean origin, is popular in both Guatemala and in the United States, which has a large expatriate Garifuna population. Other popular music derives from Mexico, Argentina, and especially the United States. The marimba is the popular favorite instrument, in both the city and in the countryside.

There is a national symphony as well as a ballet, national chorus, and an opera company, all of which perform at the National Theater, a large imposing structure built on the site of an ancient fort near the city center.

Theater is less developed, although several private semiprofessional and amateur groups perform in both Spanish and English. The city of Antigua Guatemala is a major center for the arts, along with the cities of Guatemala and Quetzaltenango.

The State of the Physical and Social Sciences

Although the country boasts six universities, none is really comprehensive. All of the sciences are taught in one or another of these, and some research is done by professors and advanced students especially in fields serving health and agricultural interests, such as biology, botany, and agronomy. Various government agencies also conduct research in these fields. However, most of those doing advanced research have higher degrees from foreign universities. The professional schools such as Dentistry, Nutrition, and Medicine keep abreast of modern developments in their fields, and offer continuing short courses to their graduates.

Anthropology and archaeology are considered very important for understanding and preserving the national cultural patrimony, and a good bit of research in these fields is done, both by national and visiting scholars. One of the universities has a linguistics institute where research is done on indigenous languages. Political science, sociology, and international relations are taught at still another, and a master's degree program in development, depending on all of the social sciences, has recently been inaugurated at still a third of the universities. Most of the funding available for such research comes from Europe and the United States, although some local industries provide small grants to assist specific projects.


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Nancie L. GonzÁlez

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The people of Guatemala are called Guatemalans. The population has a larger proportion of Amerindians (native people) than any other country in Central America. Amerindians are estimated to be more than 50 percent of the total. Persons of mixed Amerindian and white ancestry, called mestizos, constitute about 42 percent. Blacks and mulattoes (mixed race) make up another 4 percent. The white population is estimated at about 1 percent.

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SeeLatin America

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GuatemalaAllah, calla, Caracalla, Haller, inshallah, pallor, Valhalla, valour (US valor), Whyalla •gabbler, tabla •ambler, gambler, rambler, scrambler •Adler, saddler •handler •angler, dangler, strangler, wrangler •tackler • trampler • antler • dazzler •Carla, challah, Douala, gala, Guatemala, Gujranwala, impala, kabbala, Kampala, koala, La Scala, Lingala, Mahler, Marsala, masala, nyala, parlour (US parlor), Sinhala, snarler, tala, tambala, Uppsala •garbler • chandler • sparkler •sampler •a cappella, Arabella, Bella, bestseller, Capella, cellar, Cinderella, citronella, Clarabella, corella, Daniela, Della, dispeller, dweller, Ella, expeller, favela, fella, fellah, feller, Fenella, Floella, foreteller, Heller, impeller, interstellar, Keller, Louella, Mandela, mortadella, mozzarella, Nigella, novella, paella, panatella, patella, predella, propeller, queller, quinella, repeller, rosella, rubella, salmonella, Santiago de Compostela, seller, smeller, speller, Stella, stellar, tarantella, teller, umbrella, Viyella •Puebla •assembler, dissembler, trembler •medlar, pedlar •ländler •fin de siècle, Hekla •Kepler •exempla, exemplar, Templar •tesla, wrestler •embezzler • Rockefeller •knee-trembler • saltcellar •bookseller • storyteller

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