A Central American country characterized by the strength of its indigenous culture, and the continuing influence of the armed forces.
Contemporary history (up to 1993)
Independent from Spain since 1821 and an independent republic since 1839, Guatemela was governed by a host of liberal populist dictatorships from 1871. These were supported by an alliance of local coffee and banana plantation owners and the powerful US-owned United Fruit Company (UFC). Economic difficulties during World War II weakened the authority of the dictatorial system. A military rising of 20 October 1944 was followed by a brief period of democratization which reached its climax during the presidency of Colonel Arbenz Guzmán (1951–4). He carried out a much-needed land reform which included the nationalization, with compensation, of 15 per cent of UFC-owned lands.
Arbenz Guzmán's overthrow by a US-backed military coup restored the alliance between the military and the agrarian elite, which became determined to preserve the social and economic status quo at all costs. In response, guerrilla groups emerged in 1960 to start a civil war. In 1965, a new Constitution was adopted in a decade marked by a series of military coups and counter-coups. Guatemala finally returned to civilian government, but political domination continued to be exercised by the military until 1986. Given continued widespread poverty, illiteracy, and ill health among the population, growing popular dissatisfaction could only be met by severe repression. The acts of violence committed during the 25 years of the civil war cost the lives of an estimated 200,000 people. The social and political turmoil also affected the economy, with 72 per cent of the mainly indigenous rural population living below the poverty line in 1989.
Contemporary politics (since 1993)
Peace negotiations were begun in May 1993 and were concluded in 1996. On 7 January 1996, Alvaro Arzu of the National Advancement Party was elected President with 52.3 per cent of the popular vote, against Alfonso Portillo, who was backed by the former military dictator, General Efrain Rios Montt. Nevertheless, the army remained the real power behind the scenes, and Portillo was elected in 1999, with Montt becoming parliamentary president. Politics and society continued to be extremely fragile, as army atrocities committed during the civil war—such as the murder in 1982 of 3,000 indigenous Maya people—came to light. Given the continued political power of the army, which was responsible for 93 per cent of the murders committed in the civil war, it proved extremely difficult to realize effective reconciliation. Montt's immunity was lifted in 2004 and he was put under house arrest. In 2004, Óscar Berger was elected President, after his predecessor, Portillo, left the country on charges of corruption.