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A Brief History of Guatemala

Guatemala is the most populous and the most industrialized country in Central America. It is also by far the country with the highest percentage of indigenous population. A New York Times editorial in the early 1980s said that over the last 30 years no country in Latin America has suffered as much repression and human rights abuse as Guatemala. Sadly, a similar statement could still be made.

Guatemala was at the center of the great Mayan civilization that flourished from A.D. 300 to 900 and featured highly developed architecture, music, mathematics (including the use of the zero), a 365-day calendar, and an extensive trade network. The descendants of the Mayas offered resistance to the conquistadores for several decades after the initial invasion in 1524. During the colonial period Guatemala was an agricultural region in which the Mayan majority served the colonial estate owners. Until independence in 1821 Guatemala was the Spanish empire’s regional capital for all of Central America.

For most of its history Guatemala has been ruled by the military. A significant exception was the government of José Arévalo, elected in 1944, and his successor, Jacobo Árbenz. When Árbenz expropriated land from the huge United Fruit Co., the U.S. alleged Communist influence. A U.S.–backed invasion in 1954 by Guatemalan exiles toppled Árbenz, and the military rule that began then continued until 1985. The intense concentration of wealth and land has left the indigenous population and other rural poor almost totally disenfranchised. This is the principal cause of the civil war, which in 34 years has displaced three-quarters of a million and killed 100,000 civilians and 20,000 soldiers.

After the failed coup in 1994 by the elected president, Serrano, two elections were held: one to reform the constitution and one to elect a new congress. In both elections, 80 percent of the voters abstained. In this sense, the government is legal, but not legitimate. Only 12 percent of voters were affiliated with recognized political parties. The biggest single challenge Guatemalans face today is to control and conquer the “culture of impunity,” which protects the army, drug traffickers, corrupt officials, and other organized crime that debilitates the judiciary and executive branches.

Hope for an end to the war was reborn in March 1996 when the guerrillas declared an indefinite cease-fire, and for the first time a Guatemalan president sat down to talk with the armed opposition. Four main points still need to be resolved: land reform; the role of the army in a democratic society; constitutional reforms; and mechanisms for demobilizing combatants and reintegrating them into civilian society.

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