Despite decades of upheaval in the struggle for independence and self-rule, Guatemala has survived as an independent nation and secured a unique place on the world stage thanks to abundant human capital and favorable geography. The work now is to develop a government and economy in which both Guatemalans and foreigners can feel confident.
The Republic of Guatemala is the most populous nation in Central America, with an estimated 16.25 million residents. At 2.8 percent a year, the country’s population growth rate surpasses its Latin American neighbors and doubles the population approximately every 25 years. The populace claims a diverse cultural heritage encompassing 25 sociolinguistic groups, and while the nation’s official language is Spanish, 23 Amerindian tongues are also recognized as national languages. Local currency is the quetzal and the exchange rate is approximately GTQ 7.66 per US $1.00.
The 2015 Heritage Economic Freedom Index rated Guatemala 60.4, exactly equal to the world average, reflecting improved labor freedom, better management of government spending, and reduced corruption.
The northernmost country in Central America, Guatemala is bordered by Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Belize. It boasts unique biodiversity, including the largest contiguous forest in Mesoamerica, wide-ranging mountains bounded by narrow coastal plains, and tropical, humid lowlands blanketed with rainforests, coffee estates, and banana plantations. Owing to average year-round temperatures of 72°F (22°C), Guatemala’s weather is eternally comfortable, neither too hot nor too cold, and varies principally between the dry and rainy seasons. It is a region well suited to human habitation and agricultural production.
HISTORY OF FOREIGN DOMINATION
For centuries, the territory that is modern-day Guatemala comprised the core of the ancient Maya civilization that extended across Mesoamerica. Most of the country was conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century, becoming part of the viceroyalty of New Spain—a colony made up of Spain’s possessions in the New World north of the Isthmus of Panama.
In 1821, with the Declaration of Independence of the Mexican Empire, Mexico and Central America asserted their freedom from three centuries of Spanish rule and formed the First Mexican Empire, though Central America soon rejected the union and seceded peacefully in 1823, forming the United Provinces of Central Constitution of 1824. Unfortunately, the Central American union dissolved in 1841, launching a period of instability and civil strife that continued through the end of the nineteenth century.
Beginning in the early 20th century, Guatemala fell under the rule of a series of dictators backed by the United Fruit Company and the United States government. These leaders dispossessed many indigenous people of their communal lands, imposed harsh labor regulations, and instituted a police state.
SEARCH FOR INDEPENDENCE
By the mid-20th century, Guatemalans had had enough of foreign-controlled dictators, and in 1944, authoritarian leader Jorge Ubico was overthrown by a pro-democracy military coup. This initiated the 10-year Guatemalan Revolution, also known as the Ten Years of Spring, which were the only years of representative democracy in Guatemala between 1930 and 1996. The nation embraced a program of sweeping social, economic, and agrarian reform that proved enormously influential both in Guatemala and across Latin America.
These transformations included an ambitious land-reform program, known as Decree 900, which redistributed uncultivated portions of large land holdings to poverty-stricken agricultural laborers. Approximately 500,000 people benefited from the decree, including many indigenous people whose forebears lost their land after the Spanish invasion.
However gratifying they may have been in Guatemala, these policies ran afoul of the powerful United Fruit Company. The U.S. responded by engineering a coup and installing a military junta, thus provoking the Guatemalan Civil War. This bloody conflict, fought between the new government and rebel, guerrilla forces, lasted nearly four decades, from 1960 to 1996, and left 200,000 citizens dead.
PEACE AT LAST
The Guatemalan Civil War ended in 1996 with a peace accord negotiated by the United Nations between rebel forces and the government. Both sides made concessions; the guerrilla fighters disarmed and were given land to work.
Since the end of the war, Guatemala has enjoyed economic growth and democratic elections, most recently in October 2015, when Jimmy Morales of the National Convergence Front was elected president in a run-off election. A newcomer and former comedy actor, Morales assumed office January 14, 2016, to serve a four-year term.
Morales’ predecessor, Otto Pérez Molina, resigned the presidency after having been charged with corruption and stripped of his immunity by Congress. He was arrested the day after leaving office. In the wake of this scandal, Guatemalans are likely to demand anti-corruption and governance reforms. Though President Morales ran on an anti-corruption platform, he faces a divided Congress, which could slow policy implementation and sustain fiscal concerns.