Guatemala endured 36 years of civil war. But the injustices that led to the war remain unresolved
Guatemala is one of the most picturesque countries in Central America. The northern, sparsely inhabited part juts out between Mexico and Belize. But around 60% of the population live either on the narrow Pacific coastal plain or in the mountainous areas of the south and west that are studded with spectacular lakes and volcanoes.
Guatemala's population distribution still reflects the legacy of the Spanish conquest. The invaders seized the most fertile soil on the plains and lower slopes, driving the Indian population up to the steeper, less valuable land—where their descendants largely remain.
Today more than half of the population would consider themselves ‘ladinos’—though the term is more social and cultural than racial: apart from Spanish descendants it also includes Amerindians who have adopted Spanish language and culture.
Most of the rest of the population consist of 23 Mayan indigenous groups, whose women are particularly noticeable because of their unique and colourful form of dress. The majority are Roman Catholics but Protestant evangelical groups have been making increasing inroads.
Around 40% of the population make their living from agriculture. But this covers vast disparities. Guatemala has probably the most unequal land distribution in Latin America. The most recent data refer to 1979, when 3% of farms had 65% of the land, and 88% of farms had only 16%, and since then the situation has probably deteriorated.
The larger holdings mostly grow export crops such as sugar and bananas on the coastal plantations, while on the lower mountain slopes they grow coffee and cardamom. The poorest farmers concentrate on corn, rice, and beans, but as many as 650,000 have to make the annual pilgrimage to work on the plantations.
Industry accounts for only 20% of employment, mostly concentrated around Guatemala City. Some efforts have been made to expand simple assembly work for export to the USA, with Korean-owned plants making T-shirts and underwear. But competition from Mexico and elsewhere has been stiff and many factories have closed.
Agriculture also accounts for around one-third of export earnings, led by coffee, sugar, and bananas. But poor prices in the 1990s encouraged diversification into such crops as mange-tout, fruit, and flowers. The production of staple crops, like corn and beans, has also fallen as a result of, among other things, cheap imports and the high cost of inputs.
Half the population live in poverty
More than half the population live below the poverty line. Almost half of children are chronically malnourished. This is partly because the government seems incapable of taxing the rich. Tax revenues amount to only 11% of GDP.
The lack of prospects at home has caused many people to migrate. Around 10% of Guatemalans are now thought to be living in the United States and many others work in Mexico. In 2007 their remittances were equivalent to 12% of GDP.
Tourism could provide an additional source of income and visitor numbers are now growing.