Guatemala (republic), republic of Central America, bounded on the west and north by Mexico, on the east by Belize and the Gulf of Honduras (an arm of the Caribbean Sea), on the southeast by Honduras and El Salvador, and on the south by the Pacific Ocean. The country has a total area of 108,889 sq km (42,042 sq mi).
Roughly two-thirds of the total land area of Guatemala is made up of mountains, many of which are volcanic. The Sierra Madre system, traversing Guatemala from east to west, divides the country into two drainage areas of unequal extent. The Pacific slope, relatively narrow, is abundantly watered and fertile in its midregion, in which the greatest density of population occurs. The northern slope, notably the broad area around Lake Petén-Itzá, ranges from grazing land to tropical rain forest and is thinly populated. Most of the volcanoes of Guatemala are extinct; severe eruptions have been recorded, however, for Tacaná on the Mexican border. The country's highest point is Volcán Tajumulco (4220 m/13,845 ft). Earthquakes are frequent in the vicinity of the southern volcanic belt, where many towns have been destroyed.
The longest rivers of Guatemala are the Motagua; the Usumacinta, which forms part of the boundary with Mexico; the Chixoy; and the Sarstún, forming a section of the boundary with Belize.
Guatemala is one of the most diverse and delightful destinations in Latin America. The Mayan culture that thrived throughout the region for well over a thousand years, from before the time of Christ until the arrival of the Spanish in 1523, is still very much alive in Guatemala today. Over half of Guatemala's citizens are full-blooded Indians, the highest percentage in Central America. Another important period in Guatemalan history began with the arrival of conquistador, Pedro de Alvarado. In 1523 Alvarado founded the first capital of the kingdom of Guatemala which stretched from Yucatan to Panama. Finally, on September 15, 1821 Guatemala gained its independence from Spain.
Visitors to Guatemala are attracted by the country's tremendous cultural richness ranging from colorful Indian markets and crafts to the grandeur of her Mayan heritage of the mighty city of ancient Tikal in the north to carved stelae of Quirigua on the Honduran border to the charming colonial town of Antigua. An astonishing variety of natural landscapes ranges from the northern rainforest of El Peten to rugged mountains in the central region and lowland coffee, banana and sugar plantations. Charming Indian villages are differentiated by unique traditional crafts and garments that incorporate a bright symbol or geometric pattern.
Guatemala is a small country with a striking variety of topographic features. Nearly two-thirds of the country is mountainous and volcanic. Parallel to the Pacific lies the Sierra Madre mountain range, with peaks that rise to an elevation of up to 12,000 feet. 33 volcanoes dominate the landscape, and these, coupled with the lush tropical rain forests to the north, the fertile plains of the south and east, the beautiful lakes, and the wonderful rivers, make this a land of varied contrasts.
To this rich array of contrasts, one must add a major contributing factor to Guatemala's unique brand of beauty: its wealth of traditions, and the strking colors and patterns of the weavings of the Mayans. Noted for its lush colors and intricate design, the cloth is made into blouses called "huipiles", sashes, skirts and headdresses. Every group or town has its own particular native costume. Woven by its women, usually on a stick loom, its patterns feature the traditional symbolism that identifies their history and ancient gods.
Individuals such as Miguel Angel Asturias, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and Rigoberta Menchú, the Nobel Peace Price recipient, have brought Guatem ala international fame, but the country has given birth to many other great artists in all fields of art.
The marimba, which looks like a large xylophone and has a wooden keyboard which produces a unique sound, is the national instrument of Guatemala. Possibly of African origin, the Indians played a simplified version before the coming of the Spaniards. A large modern marimba requires up to nine players.
In the highland region of Cobán, very much in seclusion, lives a bird of rare beauty called the quetzal. If it is kept in captivity, the quetzal dies; hence, it has become the national emblem that symbolizes freedom.
The Mayan civilization flourished throughout much of Guatemala and the surrounding region long before the Spanish arrived, but it already was in decline when the Mayans were defeated by Pedro de Alvarado in 1523- 24. During Spanish colonial rule, most of Central America came under the control of the Captaincy General of Guatemala.
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 Spanish colonial architecture have been preserved as a national monument. The third capital, Guatemala City, was founded in 1776, after Antigua was abandoned.
The country has had a turbulent post-independence history. Guatemala gained independence from Spain on September 15, 1821; it briefly became part of the Mexican Empire and then for a period belonged to a federation called the United Provinces of Central America. From the mid-19th century until the mid-1980s, the country passed through a series of dictatorships, insurgencies (particularly beginning in the 1960s), coups, and stretches of military rule with only occasional periods of representative government.
From 1944 to 1986
In 1944, Gen. Jorge Ubico's dictatorship was overthrown by the "October Revolutionaries"--a group of dissident military officers, students, and liberal professionals. A civilian president, Juan Jose Arevalo, was elected in 1945; he held the presidency until 1951. Social reforms which were begun under him were continued by his successor, Col. Jacobo Arbenz. Colonel Arbenz permitted the communist 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 original ideals of the 1944 uprising, key segments of society and the military viewed Arbenz's 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. But 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 presidential candidate of the moderate Revolutionary Party won by a plurality in the 1966 elections, thus briefly returning the country to a civilian presidency. Shortly after President Julio Cesar Mendez Montenegro took office, the army launched a major counterinsurgency campaign that largely broke up the guerrilla movement in the countryside. The guerrillas then concentrated their attacks in Guatemala City, where they assassinated many leading figures, including U.S. Ambassador John Gordon Mein, in 1968.
The country again came under military rule in 1970. 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. He was followed by Gen. Kjell Laugerud Garcia, who was declared the winner in disputed 1974 presidential elections. His successor, Gen. Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia, was inaugurated on July 1, 1978; he promised to attack vigorously Guatemala's socioeconomic problems, but 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 governmentsecurity forces in armed attacks. These three organizations have since combined with a fourth guerrilla organization--the outlawed communist party, known as the 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 suspected of involvement in leftist activities. As the March 1982 elections approached, political violence steadily grew as guerrillas sought to disrupt the electoral process.
The winner by plurality of the March 7, 1982, elections was former Defense Minister Gen. Anibal Guevara. Opposition centrist parties, though, 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 who were opposed to General Guevara's attempted takeover of power by fraud. The coup leaders asked Brig. Gen. Efrain Jose Rios Montt to negotiate the departure of presidential incumbent General Lucas. Rios Montt had been the candidate of the Christian Democratic Party in the 1974 presidential elections and was widely believed to have lost by fraud.
Rios Montt formed a three-member junta that canceled the 1965 constitution, dissolved the Congress, suspended political parties, and canceled the election law. On June 9, Rios Montt accepted the resignations of the two other junta members and assumed the title of President of the Republic. Responding to a wave of violence, the Rios Montt government imposed a state of siege on July 1, 1982--severely restricting civil liberties--and created a system of special courts, which were independent of the regular judiciary. Politically, Rios Montt formed an advisory Council of State to assist him in returning the nation to democracy. In 1983, electoral laws were promulgated, the state of siege was lifted, and political activity was once again allowed. The Rios Montt government scheduled constituent assembly elections for July 1, 1984.
Guerrilla forces and their leftist allies denounced the new government and stepped up their attacks. Rios Montt sought to combat them through military actions and economic reforms--or, in his words, through "rifles and beans." The government formed civilian defense forces and achieved success in containing the insurgency. However, the economy suffered a severe setback, with per capita GDP dropping more than 10% in real terms during Rios Montt's presidency. Infighting within the military led to the imposition of a state of siege on June 29, 1983, a shake-up of Rios Montt's advisers, and continuing coup rumors.
On August 8, 1983, Rios Montt was deposed by the Guatemalan army. His ouster capped years of political violence in Guatemala from both right and left and continuing economic turmoil. The Minister of Defense, Gen. Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores, was proclaimed head of state the same day. General Mejia claimed that certain "religious fanatics" were 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 nine months of debate, the constituent assembly finished drafting a new constitution, which took immediate effect. Chief of State Mejia called general elections for president, congress, mayor, and city councils for November 3, 1985. A runoff election was held on December 8. The Christian Democratic Party of Guatemala (DCG) candidate, Vinicio Cerezo, won the presidency with almost 70% of the vote and took office in January 1986. The DCG also won 51 of the 100 seats in the national congress.
From 1986 to 1994
Upon its inauguration in January 1986, President Cerezo's new civilian government announced that its top priorities would be to end the political violence of insurgency and counterinsurgency actions and to establish the rule of law.
The army divested itself of its governing role and rededicated itself to the professionalization of its forces and combat against the insurgents. Guatemala's police forces were reorganized, including the dissolution of the Department of Technical Investigations (DIT), the plainclothes arm of the national police widely considered to have engaged in extortion, robbery, and political kidnapings and assassinations.
The Supreme Court embarked on a series of reforms designed to fight corruption and improve the efficiency of the legal system. Other reforms included new laws of habeas corpus and amparo, or court-ordered protection; the creation of a legislative human rights committee; and the establishment in 1987 of the office of Human Rights Ombudsman.
The first two years of Cerezo's administration were characterized by a stable economy and a marked decrease in the level of politically motivated violence. But two attempted coups in May 1988 and May 1989 marked the onset of renewed political and general violence. The Cerezo administration was heavily criticized for its unwillingness to investigate or prosecute cases of human rights violations. The final two years of Cerezo's government also were 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--such as infant mortality, illiteracy, deficient health and social services, and rising levels of violence--contributed to the population's discontent.
Presidential and congressional elections were held on November 11, 1990. Jorge Serrano was inaugurated on January 14, 1991, after a runoff ballot, thereby completing the transition from one democratically elected civilian government to another. From the beginning, however, Serrano was plagued by his weak political base. Because his ruling Movement of Solidarity Action (MAS) party had only 18 of 116 seats in Congress, Serrano had to enter into a sometimes tenuous alliance with the Christian Democrats and the Union of the National Center (UCN).
Overall, the Serrano administration's record was mixed. Serrano had some success in consolidating civilian control over the army high command. He replaced two defense ministers (required by the 1985 constitution to be active-duty army officers), two military chiefs of staff, and one chief of the air force. He also persuaded the military to participate in peace talks with the leftist URNG rebels.
The Serrano government did a credible job of reversing the economic slide it inherited, reducing inflation and boosting real growth from 3% in 1990 to almost 5% in 1992. It passed a sweeping tax reform package, concluded a standby agreement with the IMF, and cleared arrears with the international financial institutions--all achievements that had eluded the Cerezo administration.
On the international front, Guatemala under the Serrano administration increased cooperation in counternarcotics matters with the U.S. to eradicate opium poppy cultivation in Guatemala and to reduce Guatemala's growing role as a transit point for Colombian-produced cocaine destined for the U.S. market. As part of this effort, cooperation on extradition matters also increased.
Serrano strongly condemned human rights abuses, but enforcement was spotty. Initiatives to fight corruption met with some success; the Serrano administration prosecuted some corrupt government officials and arrested the former heads of the national electrical utility and the head of the national telephone company. However, as the administration wore on, many Guatemalans regarded Serrano as more interested in conducting "business as usual" than in bringing about lasting solutions to the country's chronic political, economic, and social problems.
On May 25, 1993, Serrano illegally dissolved Congress and the Supreme Court and tried to restrict civil freedoms, allegedly in an attempt to fight corruption. But the so-called autogolpe (autocoup) failed due to strong protests by many of the Guatemalan people, international pressure, and the army's role in enforcing the decisions of the Court of Constitutionality, which ruled against Serrano's and his Vice President's illegal takeover of power.
Serrano fled the country. On June 5, 1993, the Congress--pursuant to the 1985 constitution--elected Guatemala's Human Rights Ombudsman, Ramiro De Leon Carpio, to complete Serrano's presidential term. De Leon--not a member of any political party and with strong popular support--launched an ambitious anti-corruption campaign to "purify" Congress and the Supreme Court by demanding the resignations of all members of those two bodies. Despite considerable congressional resistance, presidential and popular pressure led to a November 1993 agreement brokered by the Catholic Church between the government and Congress on a package of constitutional reforms. These reforms were approved by popular referendum on January 30, 1994.