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A Central American country situated between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, Guatemala borders Mexico, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. Its recent history is plagued by a succession of military coups and a brutal civil war that lasted 36 years until 1996. With the subsequent transition to democracy, Guatemala has taken steps towards addressing historic human rights abuses, most notably placing its former president on trial on genocide charges. Other enduring human rights issues include discrimination against indigenous and minority groups and extrajudicial executions of children which largely remain in impunity.
The Republic of Guatemala is located in Central America and borders Mexico to the north and west, Belize and the Gulf of Honduras to the east, Honduras and El Salvador to the southeast and the Pacific Ocean to the south. The exact origin of the country's name is not known, but one theory holds that it comes from the expression 'land of the trees' in the Mayan-Toltec language.
The country's capital is Guatemala City.
Population and language
Guatemala is the most populous country in Central America, with 13,686,000 inhabitants, of whom 6,834,000 are under 18. Guatemala has a diverse racial and cultural heritage and is home to many indigenous peoples, including some 21 different Mayan groups, which collectively make up more than 50 per cent of the population. . Spanish is the main official language and is spoken by the majority (60 per cent). However, 23 Mayan languages are also officially recognised and commonly spoken by 40 per cent of the population.
History and Politics
Guatemala came under the control of the Spanish Crown from 1523 until the Declaration of Independence in 1821. However, the United States has a history of exerting political influence in Guatemala, primarily through the United Fruit Company (today known as Chiquita Brands International).
The Company backed a military coup in 1952, stoking fears of communism in the country, to oust Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, whose agrarian reform programme threatened the Company's economic dominance. The programme aimed to redistribute wealth and end semi-feudal practices, proposing to expropriate any uncultivated land, including 40 per cent of that owned by the United Fruit Company.
Following the coup, Guatemala suffered a string of authoritarian governments and social and military revolutions, culminating in a 36-year internal armed conflict in which approximately 40-50,000 people disappeared and 250,000 were killed.
One of the most brutal moments in the country's conflict was the massacre of 200 people in the village of Dos Erres by counter-insurgents who claimed villagers were harbouring insurgents. In a landmark trial, four former army officers trained by the CIA were sentenced for their role in the atrocity in August 2011.
The 1996 Peace Accords marked an end to the conflict and delivered a package of agreements on agrarian reform and human rights, including to bolster the rights of indigenous peoples.
The Peace Accords created a more favourable climate for foreign direct investment, although a significant divide persists between rich and poor as a consequence of unequal distribution of wealth.
The country's main agricultural exports are coffee, sugar and bananas. Industrial activities include sugar processing, tobacco and textile manufacturing. Exports are geared primarily to the US and other Central American markets. Remittances from migrant workers in the US make up about 10 per cent of GDP.
Guatemala is part of the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR).
Media and civil society
Guatemala has a strong civil society movement which has grown as a result of the nation's turbulent history and in response to disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes to which it is prone.
However, Reporters Without Borders has noted that the country is a dangerous place for journalists to look into cases of corruption or links to the civil war, and highlights that the murders of journalists generally pass without investigation.Guatemala ranks 77 out of 178 in Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index 2010, with one being the most free.
Human rights and children's rights
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has noted that chronic malnutrition affects some 80 per cent of the indigenous population of Guatemala (paragraph 40), and reiterated concerns expressed by other UN treaty bodies about the 'alarming' level of discrimination against indigenous peoples.The UN body has also expressed particular concern about violence against children, in particular the high number of extrajudicial executions of children and the lack of investigation into such cases by the authorities.
In addition, the country has come under international criticism in the past for widespread illegal inter-country adoptions in which members of the judiciary were complicit, leading to the suspension of such adoptions until laws were tightened in 2007.
- Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Guatemala: Maya, July 2008
- Reporters Without Borders, Guatemala page
- UNICEF, Guatemala country page
- UN Data: Guatemala
- World Food Programme, "La desnutrición infantil en América Latina y el Caribe
- Proyecto Latinoamericana, Wikispaces, Guatemala: Grupos étnicos
- BBC Country profile: Guatemala
- Minority Rights Group International,World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Guatemala: Maya, July 2008 [accessed 1 August 2011]
- Hauser Global Law School Program, Guide to Legal Research in Guatemala