U.S. Department of State Background Note
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More than half of Guatemalans are descendants of indigenous Mayan peoples. Westernized Mayans and mestizos (mixed European and indigenous ancestry) are known as Ladinos. Most of Guatemala's population is rural, though urbanization is accelerating. The predominant religion is Roman Catholicism, into which many indigenous Guatemalans have incorporated traditional forms of worship. Protestantism and traditional Mayan religions are practiced by an estimated 40% and 1% of the population, respectively. Though the official language is Spanish, it is not universally understood among the indigenous population. The peace accords signed in December 1996 provide for the translation of some official documents and voting materials into several indigenous languages.
The Mayan civilization flourished throughout much of Guatemala and the surrounding region long before the Spanish arrived, but it was already in decline when the Mayans were defeated by Pedro de Alvarado in 1523-24. The first colonial capital, Ciudad Vieja, was ruined by floods and an earthquake in 1542. Survivors founded Antigua, the second capital, in 1543. Antigua was destroyed by two earthquakes in 1773. The remnants of its Spanish colonial architecture have been preserved as a national monument. The third capital, Guatemala City, was founded in 1776.
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.
1944 to 1986
In response to the increasingly autocratic rule of Ydigoras Fuentes, a group of junior military officers revolted in 1960. When they failed, several went into hiding and established close ties with Cuba. This group became the nucleus of the forces that were in armed insurrection against the government for the next 36 years. Four principal left-wing guerrilla groups--the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP), the Revolutionary Organization of Armed People (ORPA), the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR), and the Guatemalan Labor Party (PGT)--conducted economic sabotage and targeted government installations and members of government security forces in armed attacks. These organizations combined to form the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) in 1982.
Shortly after President Julio Cesar Mendez Montenegro took office in 1966, 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. Between 1966 and 1982, there was a series of military or military-dominated governments.
On March 23, 1982, army troops commanded by junior officers staged a coup to prevent the assumption of power by Gen. Angel Anibal Guevara, the hand-picked candidate of outgoing President and Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia. They denounced Guevara's electoral victory as fraudulent. The coup leaders asked retired Gen. Efrain Rios Montt to negotiate the departure of Lucas and Guevara.
Rios Montt was at this time a lay pastor in the evangelical protestant "Church of the Word." He formed a three-member military junta that annulled the 1965 constitution, dissolved Congress, suspended political parties, and canceled the electoral law. After a few months, Rios Montt dismissed his junta colleagues and assumed the de facto title of "President of the Republic."
Guerrilla forces and their leftist allies denounced Rios Montt. Rios Montt sought to defeat the guerrillas with military actions and economic reforms; in his words, "rifles and beans." The government began to form local civilian defense patrols (PACs). Participation was in theory voluntary, but in reality, many Guatemalans, especially in the heavily indigenous northwest, had no choice but to join either the PACs or the guerrillas. Rios Montt's conscript army and PACs recaptured essentially all guerrilla territory--guerrilla activity lessened and was largely limited to hit-and-run operations. However, Rios Montt won this partial victory at an enormous cost in civilian deaths, in what was probably the most violent period of the 36-year internal conflict, resulting in about 200,000 deaths of mostly unarmed indigenous civilians.
On August 8, 1983, Rios Montt was deposed by his own Minister of Defense, Gen. Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores, who succeeded him as de facto President of Guatemala. Rios Montt survived to found a political party (the Guatemalan Republic Front) and to be elected President of Congress in 1995 and 2000. Awareness in the United States of the conflict in Guatemala, and its ethnic dimension, increased with the 1983 publication of the book I, Rigoberta Menchu, An Indian Woman in Guatemala.
General Mejia allowed a managed return to democracy in Guatemala, starting with a July 1, 1984 election for a Constituent Assembly to draft a democratic constitution. On May 30, 1985, after 9 months of debate, the Constituent Assembly finished drafting a new constitution, which took effect immediately. Vinicio Cerezo, a civilian politician and the presidential candidate of the Christian Democracy Party, won the first election held under the new constitution with almost 70% of the vote, and took office on January 14, 1986.
1986 to 2003
Presidential and congressional elections were held on November 11, 1990. After a runoff ballot, Jorge Serrano was inaugurated on January 14, 1991, thus completing the first transition from one democratically elected civilian government to another.
The Serrano administration's record was mixed. It had some success in consolidating civilian control over the army, replacing a number of senior officers and persuading the military to participate in peace talks with the URNG. Serrano took the politically unpopular step of recognizing the sovereignty of Belize. The Serrano government reversed the economic slide it inherited, reducing inflation and boosting real growth.
On May 25, 1993, Serrano illegally dissolved Congress and the Supreme Court and tried to restrict civil freedoms, allegedly to fight corruption. The "autogolpe" (or self-initiated coup) failed due to unified, strong protests by most elements of Guatemalan society, international pressure, and the army's enforcement of the decisions of the Court of Constitutionality, which ruled against the attempted takeover. Serrano fled the country.
On June 5, 1993, the Congress, pursuant to the 1985 constitution, elected the Human Rights Ombudsman, Ramiro De Leon Carpio, to complete Serrano's presidential term. De Leon, not a member of any political party and lacking a political base but with strong popular support, launched an ambitious anticorruption campaign to "purify" Congress and the Supreme Court, demanding the resignations of all members of the two bodies.
Despite considerable congressional resistance, presidential and popular pressure led to a November 1993 agreement brokered by the Catholic Church between the administration and Congress. This package of constitutional reforms was approved by popular referendum on January 30, 1994. In August 1994, a new Congress was elected to complete the unexpired term.
Under De Leon, the peace process, now brokered by the United Nations, took on new life. The government and the URNG signed agreements on human rights (March 1994), resettlement of displaced persons (June 1994), historical clarification (June 1994), and indigenous rights (March 1995). They also made significant progress on a socioeconomic and agrarian agreement. National elections for president, the Congress, and municipal offices were held in November 1995. With almost 20 parties competing in the first round, the presidential election came down to a January 7, 1996 runoff in which National Advancement Party (PAN) candidate Alvaro Arzu defeated Alfonso Portillo of the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) by just over 2% of the vote. Under the Arzu administration, peace negotiations were concluded, and the government signed peace accords ending the 36-year internal conflict in December 1996. The human rights situation also improved during Arzu's tenure, and steps were taken to reduce the influence of the military in national affairs.
In a December 1999 presidential runoff, Alfonso Portillo (FRG) won 68% of the vote to 32% for Oscar Berger (PAN). Portillo's impressive electoral triumph, with two-thirds of the vote in the second round, gave him a claim to a mandate from the people to carry out his reform program.
Progress in carrying out Portillo's reform agenda was slow at best, with the notable exception of a series of reforms sponsored by the World Bank to modernize bank regulation and criminalize money laundering. The United States determined in April 2003 that Guatemala had failed to demonstrably adhere to its international counternarcotics commitments during the previous year.
A high crime rate and a serious and worsening public corruption problem were cause for concern for the Government of Guatemala. These problems, in addition to issues related to the often violent harassment and intimidation by unknown assailants of human rights activists, judicial workers, journalists, and witnesses in human rights trials, led the government to begin serious attempts in 2001 to open a national dialogue to discuss the considerable challenges facing the country.
National elections were held on November 9, 2003. Oscar Berger Perdomo of the Grand National Alliance (GANA) party won the election, receiving 54.1% of the vote. His opponent, Alvarado Colom Caballeros of the Nation Unity for Hope (UNE) party received 45.9% of the vote. The new government assumed office on January 14, 2004.
Guatemala's 1985 constitution provides for a separation of powers among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. The 1993 constitutional reforms included an increase in the number of Supreme Court justices from 9 to 13. The reforms reduced the terms of office for president, vice president, and congressional representatives from 5 years to 4 years, and for Supreme Court justices from 6 years to 5 years; they increased the terms of mayors and city councils from 2-1/2 years to 4 years.
The president and vice president are directly elected through universal suffrage and limited to one term. A vice president can run for president after 4 years out of office. Supreme Court justices are elected by the Congress from a list submitted by the bar association, law school deans, a university rector, and appellate judges. The Supreme Court and local courts handle civil and criminal cases. There also is a separate Constitutional Court.
Guatemala has 22 administrative subdivisions (departments) administered by governors appointed by the president. Guatemala City and 331 other municipalities are governed by popularly elected mayors or councils.
Principal Government Officials
The Guatemalan embassy is located at 2220 R Street, NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-745-4952; email: INFO@Guatemala-Embassy.org). Consulates are in Washington, New York, Miami, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, Denver, and Los Angeles, and honorary consuls in Montgomery, San Diego, Ft. Lauderdale, Atlanta, Leavenworth, Lafayette, New Orleans, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Juan, Providence, Memphis, San Antonio, and Seattle. See the State Department Web page: http://www.state.gov/s/cpr/rls/fco/
Presidential, congressional, and municipal elections will take place on September 9, 2007. If no presidential candidate obtains greater than 50% of the vote, a presidential run-off between the top two candidates will take place on November 4, 2007. Inauguration for the new president and the new Congress will take place on January 14, 2008.
Common and violent crime, aggravated by a legacy of violence and vigilante justice, presents a serious challenge. Impunity remained a major problem, primarily because democratic institutions, including those responsible for the administration of justice, have developed only a limited capacity to cope with this legacy. Guatemala's judiciary is independent; however, it suffers from inefficiency, corruption, and intimidation.
In early December 2006, the government and the UN agreed to the creation of the joint International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). On August 1, 2007, the Guatemalan Congress approved the agreement. An earlier Guatemala-UN agreement was ruled unconstitutional in 2004 before it was acted upon by the Guatemalan Congress. The UN Verification Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA) ceased its 10-year project of monitoring peace accord implementation and human rights problems in November 2004 with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan declaring Guatemala had made "enormous progress in managing the country's problems through dialogue and institutions".
Guatemala is a signatory to the Rio Pact and is a member of the Conference of Central American Armed Forces (CFAC). Guatemala has deployed its troops to UN peacekeeping operations in Haiti and the Congo and has observers in several other locations. The president is commander in chief. The defense minister is responsible for policy. Day-to-day operations are the responsibility of the military chief of staff and the national defense staff.
An agreement signed in September 1996, which is one of the substantive peace accords, mandated that the mission of the armed forces change to focus exclusively on external threats. However, President Berger as well as his predecessors Portillo and Arzu used a constitutional clause to order the army to temporarily support the police in response to a nationwide wave of violent crime.
The accord calls for a one-third reduction in the army's authorized strength and budget--achieved under President Berger--and for a constitutional amendment to permit the appointment of a civilian Minister of Defense. A constitutional amendment to this end was defeated as part of a May 1999 plebiscite, but discussions on how to achieve this objective continue between the executive and legislative branches.
The army has gone beyond its accord-mandated target of reducing its strength to 28,000 troops, and numbered 15,500 troops as of June 2004. Not only was this the most profound transformation of any Central American military in the last 50 years, it also illustrates the effective control the civilian government has over the military. President Berger has tasked the Defense Ministry with increasing the professional skills of all soldiers. As part of the army downsizing, the operational structure of 19 military zones and three strategic brigades were recast as several military zones are eliminated and their area of operations absorbed by others. The air force operates three air bases; the navy has two port bases. Additionally, recent steps have been taken to redefine the military's mission--the military doctrine has been rewritten, and there has been an increase in cooperation with civil society to help bring about this reform.
Guatemala's major diplomatic interests are regional security and, increasingly, regional development and economic integration. Guatemala participates in several regional groups, particularly those related to trade and the environment.
The Council of Central American Ministers of Trade meets on a regular basis to work on regional approaches to trade issues. The council signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) with the U.S. in 1998, and was part of the negotiations that led to the creation of CAFTA. Guatemala joined Honduras and El Salvador in signing a free trade agreement with Mexico in 2000, which went into effect the following year. Guatemala also originated the idea for, and is the seat of, the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN).
The U.S and Central American countries signed the CONCAUSA (Conjunto Centroamerica-USA) agreement at the Summit of the Americas in December 1994. CONCAUSA is a cooperative plan of action to promote clean, efficient energy use; conserve the region's biodiversity; strengthen legal and institutional frameworks and compliance mechanisms; and improve and harmonize environmental protection standards.
Guatemala has a long-standing claim to a large portion of Belize; the territorial dispute caused problems with the United Kingdom and later with Belize following its 1981 independence from the U.K. In December 1989, Guatemala sponsored Belize for permanent observer status in the Organization of American States (OAS). In September 1991, Guatemala recognized Belize's independence and established diplomatic ties, while acknowledging that the boundaries remained in dispute. In anticipation of an effort to bring the border dispute to an end in early 1996, the Guatemalan Congress ratified two long-pending international agreements governing frontier issues and maritime rights. In 2001, Guatemala and Belize agreed to a facilitation process led by the OAS to determine the land and maritime borders separating the two countries. National elections in Guatemala put a temporary halt to progress, but discussions resumed in November 2005. Since being named Foreign Minister in early August 2006, Gert Rosenthal has reinvigorated discussions with Belize.
Relations between the United States and Guatemala traditionally have been close, although at times strained by human rights and civil/military issues. U.S. policy objectives in Guatemala include:
The United States, as a member of "the Friends of Guatemala," along with Colombia, Mexico, Spain, Norway, and Venezuela, played an important role in the UN-moderated peace accords, providing public and behind-the-scenes support. The U.S. strongly supports the six substantive and three procedural accords, which, along with the signing of the December 29, 1996 final accord, form the blueprint for profound political, economic, and social change. To that end, the U.S. Government has committed over $400 million to support peace implementation since 1997.
Violent criminal activity continues to be a problem in Guatemala, including murder, rape, and armed assaults against persons of all nationalities. In recent years the number of violent crimes reported by U.S. citizens has steadily increased, though the number of Americans traveling to Guatemala has also increased.
Most U.S. assistance to Guatemala is provided through the U.S. Agency for International Development's (USAID) offices for Guatemala. USAID/Guatemala's current program builds on the gains of the peace process that followed the signing of the peace accords in December 1996, as well as on the achievements of the 1997-2004 peace program. The current program works to advance U.S. foreign policy objectives by focusing on Guatemala's potential as Central America's largest economy and trading partner of the United States, but also recognizes the country's lagging social indicators and high rate of poverty. The three areas of focus for USAID/Guatemala's program are modeled after the Millennium Challenge Account areas--ruling justly, economic freedom, and investing in people, and are as follows:
More responsive, transparent governance, through:
Open, diversified, and expanding economies, through:
Healthier, better educated people, through:
Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala is located at Avenida la Reforma 7-01, Zone 10, Guatemala City (tel.  2326-4000; fax  2334-8477).
Other Contact Information
American Chamber of Commerce in Guatemala
Caribbean/Latin American Action (C/LAA)
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Revised: Aug. 2007