Background Notes: Guatemala

PA/PC Source: Office of Public Communication, Bureau of Public Affairs Date: Apr 15, 19924/15/92 Category: Country Data Region: Central America Country: Guatemala Subject: Military Affairs, Cultural Exchange, Travel, History, International Organizations [TEXT] Official Name: Republic of Guatemala


Area: 108,780 sq. km. (42,000 sq. mi.); about the size of Tennessee. Cities: Capital--Guatemala City (pop. 1.9 million). Other major cities--Quezaltenango (72,000 est.), Escuintla (87,000 est.). Terrain: Mountainous, with fertile coastal plain. Climate: Temperate in highlands; semitropical on coasts.
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Guatemalan(s). Population (1990 est.): 9 million. Annual population growth rate: 3%. Ethnic groups: Mestizo (mixed Spanish-Indian), Indian. Religions: Roman Catholic, Protestant, traditional Mayan. Languages: Spanish, 23 Indian languages (Quiche, Cakchiquel, Kekchi). Education: Years compulsory--6. Attendance--35%. Literacy--52%. Health: Infant mortality rate--73/1,000. Life expectancy--60 yrs., 44 yrs. (Indian pop.). Work force: Agriculture--36%. Industry and commerce--24%. Services--34%. Construction, mining, utilities-- 4%.
Type: Constitutional democratic republic. Independence: September 15, 1821. Branches: Executive--president. Legislative--Congress. Judiciary--Supreme Court of Justice (9 members). Subdivisions: 22 departments and Guatemala City. Political parties: Christian Democratic Party (DCG), Union of the National Center (UCN), National Liberation Movement (MLN), Nationalist Authentic Central (CAN), Democratic Institutional Party (PID), Democratic Party of National Cooperation (PDCN), National Renewal Party (PNR), Revolutionary Party (PR), Social Democratic Party (PSD), National United Front (FUN), Organized Nationalistic Unity (UNO), Solidarity Action Movement (MAS), Popular Alliance 5 (AP5), and Emerging Movement for Harmony (MEC). Central government budget (1990 est.): $1.1 billion (10% of GDP). Flag: Blue and white vertical stripes. Centered is a coat of arms with a green and scarlet quetzal bird perched on a scroll framed by a wreath.
GDP (1990 est.): $10 billion. Annual growth rate (1990): 3%. Per capita GDP: $1,300. Natural resources: Oil, nickel, timber. Agriculture (23% of GDP): Products--corn, beans, coffee, cotton, cattle, sugar, bananas, timber, rice, cardamom. Manufacturing (13% of GDP): Types--prepared food, textiles, construction materials, tires, pharmaceuticals. Trade (19% of 1990 GDP): Exports--$1.1 billion: coffee, cotton, sugar, meat, cardamom, bananas, petroleum. Major markets- -US 39%, Central American Common Market (CACM) 25%, Germany 5%, Japan 3%. Imports--$1.6 billion: fuels and lubricants, industrial machinery, motor vehicles, iron and steel. Major markets--US 40%, CACM, and Europe. Major suppliers--US 39% of imports, CACM, Mexico, Europe, Venezuela, Japan. Exchange rate (1991): US$1= 5.10 quetzals. US assistance: Bilateral official development assistance FY 1990: economic $118 million; military $3.3 million (suspended December 1990).


More than half of Guatemala's population are descendants of Maya Indians. Ladinos--Westernized Mayans and mestizos (Spanish- Indian)--live in a crescent-shaped area running from the northern border on the Pacific, along the coastal plains, and up through Guatemala City to the Caribbean. Most of Guatemala's population is rural, although urbanization is accelerating. The predominant religion is Roman Catholicism, which many Indians have superimposed onto their traditional forms of worship. Protestantism and traditional Mayan religious practices account for an estimated 30% of the population. Although the official language is Spanish, it is not universally understood by the Indians.


The great Mayan civilization flourished throughout much of Guatemala and surrounding territories before the Spanish conquest. In 1523-24, the Mayans were defeated by Pedro de Alvarado. Under Spanish colonial rule the Captaincy-General of Guatemala extended throughout Central America. The first colonial capital, Ciudad Vieja, was ruined by flood and earthquake in 1542. Survivors founded Antigua, the second capital, in 1543. In the 17th century, it became one of the richest capitals in the New World. Always vulnerable to volcanic eruptions, floods, and earthquakes, it was destroyed by two earthquakes in 1773, but the remnants of its magnificent Spanish colonial architecture have been preserved as a national monument. The third capital, Guatemala City, was founded in 1776, after Antigua was abandoned. Since gaining independence from Spain on September 15, 1821, first as part of the Mexican Empire and then as part of the American Federation, Guatemala has had a turbulent history. After the federation's dissolution in 1840, the country passed through a series of dictatorships broken only by short periods of representative government. With the overthrow of Gen. Jorge Ubico's dictatorship in 1944 by the "October Revolutionaries"--dissident military officers, students, and liberal professionals--Guatemalans set about modernizing the society. Social reforms begun under President Juan Jose Arevalo (1945-50) were continued by his successor, Col. Jacobo Arbenz. Col. Arbenz permitted a communist party (Guatemalan Labor Party) to gain legal status in 1952. By the mid-point of Arbenz's term, communists controlled key peasant organizations, labor unions, and the governing political party, holding some key government positions. Despite most Guatemalans' attachment to the ideals of the 1944 revolution, with which Arbenz identified his administration, key segments of society and the military viewed his policies as a menace. The army refused to defend the government when a group led by Col. Carlos Castillo Armas invaded the country from Honduras in 1954 and eventually took over the government. The assassination of President Castillo in 1957 precipitated a period of confusion from which Gen. Miguel Ydigoras Fuentes emerged as president in 1958. A 1960 revolt by junior military officers failed, and some of the participants went into hiding, creating the nucleus of a guerrilla movement which established close ties with Cuba. In early 1963, a new military group, headed by Col. Enrique Peralta Azurdia, restored order. However, the unconstitutional nature of the regime created disaffection, played upon by the guerrillas, especially among students. A Constituent Assembly drafted a new constitution, promulgated in September 1965. The moderate Revolutionary Party won the presidency by a plurality in the 1966 elections. Shortly after President Julio Cesar Mendez Montenegro took office, the army launched a major counter insurgency campaign that largely broke up the guerrilla movement in the countryside. The guerrillas concentrated their attacks in Guatemala City, where they assassinated many leading figures, including US Ambassador John Gordon Mein, in 1968. The new president, Gen. Carlos Arana (1970- 74), declared a state of siege, and an intense anti-terrorist campaign forced terrorist groups to reduce their activity markedly. Gen. Kjell Laugerud Garcia was declared winner of the disputed 1974 elections. During his administration, political violence decreased, and there was greater freedom of expression. Gen. Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia was inaugurated on July 1, 1978, and promised to attack vigorously Guatemala's socioeconomic problems; however, political violence increased. Three principal left-wing guerrilla groups--the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP), the Revolutionary Organization of Armed People (ORPA), and the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR)--conducted economic sabotage and targeted government installations and members of government security forces in armed attacks. These three organizations have since combined with a fourth guerrilla organization, the outlawed communist party (PGT), to form the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). At the same time, extreme right-wing groups of self-appointed vigilantes, such as the Secret Anti- Communist Army (ESA) and the White Hand, tortured and murdered students, professionals, and peasants, whom they suspected were involved in leftist activities. As the March 7, 1982, elections approached, political violence steadily increased as guerrillas sought to disrupt the electoral process. The winner by plurality was former Defense Minister Gen. Anibal Guevara. Opposition parties, however, claimed electoral fraud. On the morning of March 23, 1982, the National Palace in Guatemala City was surrounded by army troops commanded by junior officers. The coup leaders asked Brig. Gen. Efrain Jose Rios Mont to negotiate the departure of Gen. Lucas. Rios Mont had been the candidate of the Christian Democratic Party in the 1974 presidential elections and was widely believed to have lost by fraud. Rios Mont headed a junta that canceled the 1965 constitution, dissolved the Congress, suspended political parties, and canceled the election law. On June 9, Rios Mont accepted the resignations of the two other junta members and assumed the title of President of the Republic. The Rios Mont Government imposed a state of siege on July 1, 1982, severely restricting civil liberties, and created a system of special courts, which were completely independent of the regular judiciary. Politically, Rios Mont formed an advisory Council of State to assist him in returning the nation to democracy. In 1983, a series of electoral laws was promulgated, the state of siege was lifted, and political activity was once again allowed. The Rios Mont Government scheduled Constituent Assembly elections for July 1, 1984. Guerrilla forces denounced the new government and stepped up their attacks. Rios Mont sought to combat them through military actions and economic reforms, or, in his words, through "rifles and beans." The government also formed civilian defense forces and achieved success in containing the insurgency. Disturbances occurred within the government on June 29, leading to the imposition of a state of alarm and a shake-up of Rios Mont's advisers. Coup rumors continued, and on August 8, 1983, Rios Mont was deposed by the Guatemalan Army. The Minister of Defense, Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores, was proclaimed head of state on August 8. Gen. Mejia claimed that a group of "religious fanatics" was abusing their positions in the government and that corruption had to be weeded out. The Mejia Government quickly abolished the controversial courts of special jurisdiction. Constituent Assembly elections were held on July 1, 1984. On May 30, 1985, after 9 months of debate, the Constituent Assembly finished drafting a new constitution which went into effect on January 14, 1986. Chief of State Mejia called general elections--president, congress, mayor, and city councils--for November 3, 1985. A run-off election was held on December 8. The Christian Democratic Party of Guatemala (DCG) candidate, Vinicio Cerezo, won the presidency, receiving almost 70% of the vote. The DCG won 51 of the 100 seats in the national congress. The first 2 years of Cerezo's administration were characterized by a stable economy and a marked decrease in the level of politically motivated violence. The Cerezo Government was able to withstand two attempted coups (May 1988 and May 1989) that marked the onset of renewed political and general violence. The Cerezo Administration was heavily criticized for its lack of willingness to investigate or prosecute cases of human rights violations. The final 2 years of Cerezo's Government were also marked by a failing economy, strikes, protest marches, and allegations of widespread corruption. The government's inability to deal with many of the nation's problems--infant mortality, illiteracy, deficient health and social services, and rising levels of violence--contributed to a sense of discontent among the population. Presidential and congressional elections were held on November 11, 1990, and Jorge Serrano was inaugurated on January 14, 1991. These elections marked the first transition from one democratically elected civilian government to another in modern times.
Current Political Situation
In his inaugural speech, Serrano announced an ambitious human rights program with its centerpiece being an end to immunity from prosecution for human rights violations. He also made clear his intention to control the army. Serrano announced that his government, with the support of the army, would meet with the guerrillas to negotiate an end to the 30-year-long insurgency. Serrano's first 6 months as president saw continuing violence and an elevated crime rate, but the administration kept its promise and initiated a series of serious negotiations with the URNG. Serrano's Government also prosecuted corrupt government officials and has arrested the former heads of the national electrical utility and the head of the national telephone company. The government has also begun to serve warrants against members of the para-military civil patrols accused of serious human rights violations, including murder, and has prosecuted and convicted police officers accused of beating and, in some cases, murdering street children.
Principal Government Officials
President--Jorge SERRANO Elias Vice President--Gustavo ESPINA Salguero Minister of Foreign Affairs--Gonzalo MENENDEZ Park Ambassador to the US--Juan Jose CASO-FANJUL Ambassador to the UN--Francisco VILLAGRAN de Leon Ambassador to the OAS --Vacant Guatemala maintains an embassy in the United States at 2220 R Street, NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-745-4952), and consulates in New York, Miami, Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles, as well as an honorary consul in New Orleans.


Upon its inauguration in January 1986, the new civilian government announced that ending political violence and establishing the rule of law would be its top priorities. To that end the President undertook a reorganization of the police forces and disbanded the Department of Technical Investigations (DIT), the plain-clothes arm of the National Police widely acknowledged to have engaged in extortion, robbery, and political kidnappings and assassinations. The Supreme court also embarked on a series of reforms designed to end corruption and improve the efficiency of the legal system. New laws of habeas corpus and "amparo," or court ordered protection, are designed to give citizens legal recourse when they feel their rights are threatened by the government. The Congress, in accordance with the constitution, has established a legislative human rights committee, and in 1987 approved the establishment of a Human Rights Ombudsman. The number of politically motivated deaths and kidnappings is substantially lower than in the early 1980s, but important human rights problems remain, involving the use of force and abuses by political extremists and some individual and former members of the security forces. These problems are aggravated by a legacy of violence, vigilante justice, and common crime, with which the judiciary and democratic institutions have thus far developed only limited capacity to cope. In the waning days of the Cerezo administration, the US Government took several actions to signal official displeasure over the lack of progress in investigation of several notorious human rights abuse cases. In December of 1990, the US suspended military assistance to Guatemala until the army personnel involved in the June 1990 murder of American citizen Michael Devine were brought to justice. The Serrano Government is on record as being unwilling to tolerate human rights abuses. The nomination of a former human rights deputy ombudsman as Minister of Interior, with responsibility for the police, and a cabinet-level commission to ensure the prosecution of human rights cases are hopeful signs that the Serrano Administration is fully committed to establishing civilian authority over security forces and instituting broad respect for human rights and the rule of law.


The mission of the Guatemalan armed forces is defense against external threats, internal security, and national development. The president as commander in chief acts through his minister of defense. Day-to-day operations are run by the chief of staff and the national defense staff. The Guatemalan army has a total strength of some 43,000, with subordinate air force (700) and navy (1,300) elements. The army is operationally organized into 19 military zones and 3 strategic brigades. The air force operates three air bases, the navy has two. When the army divested itself of its governing role through democratic elections, it rededicated itself to the professionalization of its forces and combat against the insurgents. The armed forces are equipped with armaments and materiel from the United States, Israel, Yugoslavia, Taiwan, Argentina, Spain, and France. Guatemala is a signatory to the Rio Pact and is a member of the Central American Defense Council (CONDECA). Since the early 1960s, the military has been engaged in counter insurgency operations against Marxist-Leninist guerrillas. The army has witnessed considerable progress since 1982 and has reduced the insurgency to a point that it does not currently threaten national stability. In March 1990, the National Reconciliation Commission (NRC), formed under the Esquipulas II process, and the guerrilla umbrella organization (URNG) met in Oslo, Norway, to negotiate a framework for achieving a negotiated political settlement to the 30-year internal conflict. The agreement called for a series of meetings, chaired by the NRC, between URNG representatives, political parties, business leaders, Christian and popular groups, and the government. This process was designed to build a consensus for dialogue within Guatemalan society and hope for achieving a negotiated solution to one of the world's oldest continuous insurgencies. Such a solution would greatly contribute to an improvement in Guatemala's human rights and economic situation.


Guatemala's return to civilian democratic rule in 1986 spurred a reversal of the steep economic decline that had reduced real per capita income by nearly 20% in the first half of the 1980s. It also marked the beginning of a trend toward economic diversification and improved international competitiveness. These improvements were made possible by economic policies that promoted financial stability and growth through exports. These policies have included: raising taxes and reducing the fiscal deficit (Guatemala's tax burden is still among the lowest in the world); restraining growth of domestic credit, especially to the public sector; eliminating most price controls (only basic staples remain subject to controls); and unifying the (previously multi-tiered) exchange rate. In November 1989, the government completely freed the exchange rate, after having freed interest rates in August. The changes in the exchange rate and interest rate systems in particular are far- reaching reforms that should make the economy more resilient. Assuming continuing political stability, Guatemala is well- positioned for rapid economic growth over the next few years. Responding to Guatemala's dramatically changed political and economic policy environment, the international community has mobilized substantial resources to support the country's economic and social development objectives. The United States, in particular, and West Germany, to a lesser extent, have provided significant amounts of balance-of-payments assistance. Together with other donor countries (especially France, Italy, Spain, and Japan), they have also stepped up considerably development project financing. US official assistance to Guatemala since 1986 totals some $800 million--doubling the total of all US assistance to Guatemala in the preceding 40 years. Guatemala's economy is dominated by the private sector, which generates nearly 90% of gross domestic product (GDP). The government's participation in the productive process is limited largely to public utilities and several development oriented financial institutions. The government, however, continues to exercise a significant regulatory role. Agriculture is the dominant economic activity, contributing about a quarter of GDP and accounting for more than 75% of exports. There is no heavy industry. Most manufacturing is devoted to light assembly and food processing operations and is still geared mainly toward the domestic and Central American markets. However, a marked trend toward diversification, both of products and exports, has emerged since 1986. In particular, textile and apparel exports to industrialized country markets (especially the United States) and non-traditional agricultural exports (NTAE) are booming. (NTAEs are essentially all agricultural products other than coffee, cotton, sugar, and meat. Some NTAEs already being exported in significant volume include winter vegetables, fruits, and cut flowers). Problems hindering economic growth include illiteracy and low levels of education among the population, an inadequate capital market, and infrastructure constraints particularly in the transportation and economic sectors.


Guatemala's major diplomatic interests are related to regional security issues and, increasingly, to regional development and economic integration issues. Guatemala has been an active participant in the Contadora and Esquipulas processes. It recently hosted the June 1990 Central American Economic Summit, attended by the Presidents of El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and for the first time, Panama. It also originated the idea of, and has been the strongest advocate for, a Central American Parliament. Its long-standing claim to Belize caused a dispute with the United Kingdom. On September 21, 1981, the UK granted Belize its independence. In 1986, Guatemala and the UK re-established commercial and consular relations, and in July 1987, they re- established full diplomatic relations. Guatemalan President Cerezo and Belizean Prime Minister Price met twice in 1990 to discuss bilateral relations, and in December 1989 Guatemala sponsored Belize for permanent observer status in the OAS. In September 1991, Guatemala recognized Belize's independence and established diplomatic ties.


Relations between the United States and Guatemala traditionally have been good. United States policy in Guatemala includes: -- Supporting the institutionalization of democracy; -- Supporting broad-based economic growth; -- Encouraging Guatemalan respect for human rights and the rule of law; -- Cooperating with the Guatemalan Government to combat narcotics trafficking; -- Supporting Central American integration and regional peace efforts, including the dialogue process with the Guatemalan insurgency; -- Maintaining mutually beneficial trade relations; and -- Supporting a solution of the Belize dispute acceptable to the parties involved.
Principal US Officials
Ambassador--Thomas F. Stroock Deputy Chief of Mission--Philip B. Taylor III The US Embassy in Guatemala is at Avenida la Reforma 7-01, Zone 10, Guatemala City (tel. 31-15-41).


Travel advisory
The Department of State recommends that travellers to Guatemala exercise caution when travelling in certain areas of conflict or frequent common crime. Travellers are also advised to register with the Embassy upon arrival in Guatemala City. Clothing: Spring or summer-weight clothing is needed most of the year; woolens are practical November through February. Customs: Visas are easily obtainable at the Guatemalan Embassy in Washington, DC and at consulates in six US cities are required for stays of more than 30 days. For shorter visits, purchase tourist cards at ticket counters of airlines serving Guatemala. Health: Good medical services are available in Guatemala City. There has been an outbreak of cholera in Guatemala, mainly located in the western departments that border with Mexico. Because of altitude, however, the capital is free of most tropical diseases. There is a risk, however, of malaria in rural areas, except in the central highlands. Tap water is not potable, and fruits and vegetables should be prepared carefully. Although not required for entry, immunizations against hepatitis, typhoid, polio, and tetanus are recommended for extended stays. Travelers should consult a physician for most recent information. Published by the United States Department of State -- Bureau of Public Affairs -- Office of Public Communication -- Washington, DC -- April 1992 -- Editor: Peter A. Knecht. Department of State Publication 7798. Background Notes Series -- This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without permission; citation of this source is appreciated. For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, US Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402.(###)