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State

Capital

Guatemala

Guatemala City

Currency unit

Quetzal

Connections

Belize

Central

Military

Population

Poverty

Serfdom

Spanish Empire

 Torture

 Politics

 Economics

 Green

 Rights

 Climate

History

This was the heart of the area occupied by the Mayas, whose urban civilization collapsed between 800 and 1200, probably from soil exhaustion.

Guatemala is one of the best examples of the legacy of European occupation of an indigenous culture. There are several resemblances to South Africa and it could be considered to be another example of apartheid. It was a Spanish colony from 1524-1821. At independence it was a part of the Mexican Empire from 1822 to 1823. Then it was part of the attempted federation of the United Provinces of Central America from 1823 to 1847 and became independent on its own from 1847.

The most important historical event was the occupation of the Indian land by the Spanish settlers to grow coffee and sugar for export to Spain. The former owners of the land were used to cultivate the new estates at near slave wages. The instability of the country (as well as the neighbors) comes from the persistence of the land dispute in which the descendants of the previous owners are still trying to retrieve the land taken from their ancestors. It has been said that there has been on average an Indian revolt every 16 years since the Spaniards arrived in 1524. Serfdom grew up at first because the local people had no wish to leave their subsistence agriculture to work on the Spanish estates. Force was used therefore.

The colonial Spanish culture overlays an Indian culture which is still alive though not allowed much official expression. When the Spaniards arrived they found that the Mayan Indians were no longer city dwellers as their cities had decayed and become lost in the jungles. However, there were still Mayan kingdoms. Indian languages still spoken include varieties of Maya and Quiche.

Military governments and dictatorships were the norm in the first half of the 20th century.

Jacobo Arbenz Guzman was elected president in 1951 and led a moderate left wing government. He tried to implement agrarian reform including confiscation of unused land from US fruit companies and other landowners in order to provide land for the landless peasants (he offered to pay the companies' what they had claimed was the valuation for tax purposes). He was accused of Communist influence especially by the United States (and there were some communists in the country). A Coup in 1954 which ejected him from office is generally believed to have been organized by the US CIA. There followed a number of right wing military regimes, with death squads, torture, imprisonment without trial and so on. Guerrilla activities have been going on since the 1960s. Guatemala is said to be the country where "disappearances" first began in Latin America. Serious army massacres are reported as recently as December 1990.

Guatemala is the original Banana Republic, meaning that its main export is Bananas and that these are grown in large plantations owned by foreign companies, mostly owned by United States interests. The weight these companies have in the economy means that they influence the government in their favor for such things as corporation taxes and control of wages and suppression of trade unions.

Since the 1954 coup the military, backed by US aid and training, has continued to be the main force in the country. The guerrillas claim to want land reform and a greater say for local people. This includes official recognition of the rights of Indian culture. As with several other Central American countries life still retains elements of feudalism in that the landowners control what goes on in their own area with the employment of privately armed security guards.

Guatemala claims the former British colony of Belize, though there was a treaty in 1859 in which it renounced this claim. Later governments repudiated the treaty.

Paul Theroux, no Marxist, in "The Old Patagonian Express" observes that the people are told by the authorities that the system they live under - military and police brutality with manipulated elections - is democracy - "a bureaucracy run by crooks and trigger-happy vigilantes". Though they know nothing about communism (which would be no better) it is not surprising if they think it worth a try. This could apply to several other Central American countries and the Philippines too.

Languages

Amerindian langs.

Spanish
Greg Grandin et al - The Guatemala Reader



The Guatemala Reader: History, Culture, Politics (Latin America Readers)

 History

 Economics

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Politics

Elections were held twice after overt military rule ended in 1986. However, most observers believe that the military continued to be the dominant force in government and that the civilian officials, President and Congress are something of a veil for the real power.

As in Iran there is a restriction on who can stand for election. Only rightwing and extreme rightwing parties can in practice stand. The votes are therefore not proved to be the real wishes of the people. Many of the poorer people do not vote. The events of 1954 suggest that no change of government structure would be permitted by the landowners and their foreign backers even if people voted for it.

Landowners are believed to influence the results too and there are allegations of ballot box stuffing.

There is a persistent guerrilla movement which may or may not represent the wishes of the poorest indigenous people. There are death squads believed to be soldiers out of uniform.

52% of the people are illiterate as most of the government's revenue goes on the military.

By early 1992 there were signs that things might be improving. Talks with the guerrillas began.

As long as the 80% of the indigenous people are not represented, the system could not be described as democracy, but rather as an oligarchy similar to South African Apartheid .

In May 1993 the apparently civilian president suspended the constitution and announced that he wanted a new constitution. The fact that he also suspended the Human Rights Ombudsman suggested that he was not in favor of more democracy. In June the military ousted him. Later, the Human Rights ombudsman was appointed president by the assembly. Talks in Oslo under UN auspices in June 1994 may be leading to agreement on democracy.

Cautiously, there is reason to hope that since then things have improved. However, the situation of the Mayan speakers is still not good and the economic inequality has not improved much either.

Interesting reading

Try Paul Theroux-The Old Patagonian Express (Penguin 1980)




Michael D Coe - The Maya
the standard work

 History

 Politics

 Green

 Rights

 Climate

Economics

Feudal landholdings with peasant tenants. Large plantations growing mainly coffee and bananas are the largest part of the modern economy. Cotton and cattle are also exported. The social structure prevents economic growth, as ordinary people have no access to capital for investment in their own enterprises.

The banana industry was set up by giving tax exemption in 1901 to the exports of such companies as the United Fruit Company (which enjoyed a more or less monopoly position in respect of land and labor). These tax benefits continue until the present time.

Wages are kept low by preventing the formation of trade unions and by denying the use of land for peasant cultivation (much of the land owned by the plantations is left unused). Thus the rural population must work as seasonal and migrant laborers. There is a shortage of basic food stuffs which could be grown on the unused land.

As profits from these export industries are repatriated to the foreign owners and the government is not permitted to tax them adequately, investment in alternative industries and activities does not take place.

 History

 Politics

 Economics

 Rights

 Climate

Green/Ecology

The original inhabitants maintained a sustainable agriculture by leaving large areas fallow. The colonial system of agriculture has led to deforestation and erosion.

The new owners of the land regarded the fallow forest as undeveloped land to be "opened up" . This has caused desertification.

The disappearance of the Mayan city culture may have been caused by over-use of the forests (but this is disputed) or a prolonged drought. Research tends to suggest that soil exhaustion led to a collapse in crop yields. The city culture seems to have ended in about 800 but agriculture continued until about 1200. This may be a model for modern world conditions. Lets hope not.

 History

 Politics

 Economics

 Green

 Climate

Human Rights

Right wing death squads and veiled military rule. Absence of the rule of law.

Police are known to kill street children, as well as Indians in the rural areas. Serious political pathology amounting to Genocide .

What sort of a place is it? from the New Yorker.

Climate effects

Increased incidence of hurricanes as the Carbbean warms.

Last revised 5/05/11


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