Country in Central America, bounded north and northwest by Mexico, east by Belize and the Caribbean Sea, southeast by Honduras and El Salvador, and southwest by the Pacific Ocean.
Government Guatemala has a multiparty political system, with a presidential political executive. Under its 1985 constitution, as amended in 1993, it has a single-chamber legislature, the congress of the republic, with 158 members elected by universal suffrage for a four-year term, partially from departmental constituencies and partially through nationwide proportional representation. The president and vice-president are directly elected for a four-year term. The president appoints a cabinet and is not eligible for re-election. There is a supreme court. The country has a large number of often short-lived political parties and no party has won the presidency more than once.
History Formerly part of the Maya empire, Guatemala became a Spanish colony in 1524. It declared its independent from Spain in 1821 and joined Mexico, before becoming independent in 1823. It was part of the United Provinces of Central America 1823–40.
Military dictatorship The military rebellion in 1838, led by José Rafael Carrera, set a pattern of long-term dictatorship in Guatemala. Thereafter, despite frequent ostentatious displays of constitutionalism, the country was ruled by a succession of personal or military dictators, backed by the country's large landowners and the church The Indian population, in particular, was ruthlessly exploited, while human rights were ignored or trampled upon.
The conservative Carrera dominated the country's politics until 1865. From 1871 to 1885 there was a ‘liberal revolution’ under Justo Rufino Barrios. Coffee was introduced as a new cash crop and the country's infrastructure was modernized. Barrios also had ambitions of reuniting Central America; he was killed in 1885 in a war against El Salvador.
First free elections Popular protests and a general strike in July 1944 forced from power the dictator Jorge Ubico Castaneda. His successor, Gen Juan Federico Ponce Valdes, was then ousted a few months later in a violent military coup by Major Francesco Javier Arana and Captain Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, which claimed 100 lives.
The new military junta called the country's first free presidential election, which was won by Juan José Arévalo Bermejo, a famous writer and teacher who had been exiled in Argentina. Arévalo pursued a centre-left Christian Socialist ecoomic programme, which was influenced by Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programme in the USA. Despite the concerns of the country's landholding elite, he completed his full term in office. In free elections, Jácobo Arbenz succeeded him as president.
Era of coups and military rule Arbenz sought to curb the power of the army, install political freedoms, expand health services and education, and introduce agrarian reforms. His nationalization of the United Fruit Company's plantations in 1954 so alarmed the US government that it sponsored a revolution, led by Col Carlos Castillo Armas, who then assumed the presidency. He was assassinated in 1957 by a member of his personal guard. After elections, Gen Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes became president, but was ousted in 1963 in a coup by defence minister Col Enrique Peralta Azurdia.
The period of army rule was broken in 1966 with the election as president of Julio César Méndez Montenegro, of the centre-left Revolutionary Party. But during this period there was increasing violence, with the formation of right-wing paramilitary groups who, along with the military, killed some 10,000 civilians, mostly Maya who were seen as insurgents.
During the 1970s, three military leaders were elected president: Col Carlos Manuel Arana Osorio, in 1970; Gen Kjell Lauguerud Garcia, in 1974; and Gen Romeo Lucas Garcia, in 1978. This was against a backcloth of intensifying violence in the country, with the formation of the Guerilla Army of the People (EGP) and Organization of the People in Arms (ORPA) urban and rural guerrilla movements. In 1979, the US president, Jimmy Carter, banned US military aid to Guatemala amid reports of army massacres in the countryside and human rights abuses. In 1982, the country's main guerrilla groups merged to form a united front, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union (URNG), against the government.
Mounting civil war In the 1982 presidential election the government candidate won, but opponents complained that the election had been rigged, and before he could take office there was a coup by a group of young right-wing officers, who installed Gen Efrain Rios Montt as head of a three-person junta.
Ríos Montt assumed the presidency and continued with repressive measures against the guerrilla movements, including torture, disappearances, and ‘scorched earth’ campaigns in the countryside, which led to tens of thousands fleeing to Mexico. The army, funded and trained by the USA, destroyed some 440 rural villages and killed tends of thousands of civilians.
By 1983, opposition to Rios Montt was widespread. After several unsuccessful attempts to remove him, a coup led by Gen Mejía Victores finally succeeded. Mejía Victores declared an amnesty for the guerrillas, the ending of press censorship, and the preparation of a new constitution in 1985. After its adoption and elections in 1986, the Guatemalan Christian Democratic Party (PDCG) won a majority in the congress as well as the presidency, and Vinicio Cerezo become president. An attempted coup against Cerezo that year was put down by the army.
Constitutional reform In presidential elections in 1991, Jorge Serrano Elías of the Solidarity Action Movement (MAS), an ally of Montt, received 68% of the vote. Diplomatic relations with Belize were established in September 1991. Serrano suspended the constitution in May 1993 after demonstrations against his economic policies, but was forced to step down by the military, who took control of government. The following month human-rights prosecutor Ramiro de Leon Carpio was elected president by the assembly. His constitutional reform package, aimed at stamping out corruption, received overwhelming support in a referendum in January 1994. In the same month talks began between the government and the rebel URNG.
In elections to a new congress in August 1994, right-wing parties, led by Montt's Guatemalan Republican Front, won an overall majority. Violence escalated and in March 1995 both the USA and United Nations publicly criticized the Guatemalan government for continued and widespread human rights abuses.
End of civil war In August 1995 guerrilla groups signed a ceasefire, the first in 30 years. In January 1996 Alvaro Arzú of the right-of-centre National Advancement Party (PAN) was elected president, defeating a Republican Front rival. A truce between the government and the rebel URNG was agreed in March 1996.
A peace treaty was signed between the rebels and the government in December 1996, officially ending Latin America's longest guerrilla war which had lasted 36 years. The guerrillas agreed to disarm and, in return, would receive land to work. During the conflict, which was at its worst in the 1980s, 100,000 people died, more than 450 Mayan villages were destroyed, 40,000 more ‘disappeared’ from military detention, and more than one million fled their homes and became internal and external refugees.
In a referendum notable for a low turnout, voters in May 1999 rejected 50 proposed reforms aimed at giving rights to indigenous people and curbing its security forces. Proponents of the reforms saw this result as a setback for the peace process.
Democratic change in power In free and fair elections in 1999, Arzú was replaced as president by right-wing Alfonso Portillo, who swore in his new government in January 2000. President Portillo astonished human rights activists in August 2000 by admitting government responsibility for atrocities committed during the country's 36-year civil war. He pledged to investigate the massacres, abduction of children, and murders, and to compensate victims' families. The gesture was seen as significant, as many Latin American regimes had taken decades to acknowledge the crimes of previous governments.
In June 2000, along with El Salvador and Honduras, Guatemala signed a free-trade agreement with Mexico, eliminating duties, on 65 % of Mexican exports and on 80% of the exports of the other three countries to Mexico, over 12 years. In December 2000, the US dollar was adopted as a second currency, alongside the quetzal.
Oscar Berger won the 2003 presidential elections and took over from Portillo in January 2004. His predecessor faced charges of embezzling public funds. Guatemala was unable to extradite him from Mexico, but, later, in 2014, Portillo pleaded guilty in a US court to accepting $2.5 million in bribes from Taiwan in exchange for diplomatic recognition. Berger sought to bring government closer to the people, instituting mobile cabinets which took him into the country with his ministers. He also signed free trade agreements with Central American partners.
Colom becomes Guatemala's first left-leaning president Alvaro Colom, leader of the centre-left National Unity of Hope party, won the November 2007 presidential elections to become, in January 2008, Guatemala's first left-leaning president. His presidency was marked by initiatives to improve the health, education, and social welfare support for the poor as part of a strategy aimed at reducing the country's high level of crime.
Pérez resigns as president over corruption allegations The November 2011 presidential elections saw a swing to the right, with victory for Otto Pérez Molina, of the right-wing Patriotic Party, who had lost to Colom in 2007. A former general and head of military intelligence until 2000, he was the first military man to become president since army rule ended in 1986.
Pérez became president in January 2012 and pledged an ‘iron fist’ against crime, corruption, and tax avoidance and to reduce the proportion of malnourished children under five from 50% to 40%. However, in September 2015 Pérez resigned as president over corruption allegations concerning an alleged bribery ring (‘La Linea’ – ‘The Line’) which companies had used to avoid import duties.
The La Linea scandal had earlier led to the resignation and arrest of Roxanna Baidetti, who was replaced as vice-president by Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre, a 79-year-old former judge. Maldonado took over as president in September 2015.
Guatemala has the most inequitable distribution of land in Latin America; 2% of the population own more than 70% of the land and 98% of indigenous families (1988) do not have enough land to be self-supporting.
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