The Republic of Guatemala is a small but beautiful nation that borders Mexico to the south in Central America. Guatemala City serves as its capital, and geographically it is mountainous and tropical, sharing the largest uninterrupted rainforest north of the Amazon, The Maya Forest, with its neighboring countries. Guatemala enjoys a vivid and diverse culture that is rooted back to the ancient Maya along with a turbulent history; both of which continue to influence the nation’s worldview today.
Let’s start with the basics. Below are some demographic facts about Guatemala based on information from the CIA World Fact Book:
- Population: 14,099,032 total with 49% living in urban areas and 1.075 million living in the capital city
- Languages: 60% Spanish; 40% various indigenous languages with Spanish being the only official language
- Ethnic Groups: 59.4% mestizos and European groups; 40.6% indigenous groups, the majority of which are of Mayan descent
- Government type: Constitutional democratic republic
- Current President: Otto Perez Molina
- Products: agricultural items such as coffee, sugarcane, corn, and bananas along with products such as textiles, petroleum, metals, and rubber.
Guatemala is the home of some of the best examples of ancient Mayan ruins including Tikal, a city that housed a population of 90,000 from AD 700 to AD 800 and includes over 3,000 separate buildings.
Although the site wasn’t inhabited after AD 900, the Mayan people didn’t disappear from the area. As you saw in the demographics, they still make up about half of the population. Despite a long history of oppression they’ve managed to maintain many of their traditional ways of life including food preparation, crafts, celebration, and religion. Here is a 25 second sample of Mayan music in Guatemala being played on traditional instruments of wood and tortoise shells:
While Guatemala boasts a number of cultural and environmental gems, it is a nation in recovery. 1996 marked the end of the country’s brutal 36-year civil war which, according to the BBC, “…pitted leftist, mostly Mayan insurgents against the army, which – backed by the US – waged a vicious campaign to eliminate the guerrillas.” During this war more than 200,000 people were killed or disappeared, with the majority of the victims having been civilians and “…93% of all atrocities carried out during the war had been committed by the security forces.”
Even today, many Guatemalans sense that justice for these crimes has not and will not be served. Here is a telling quote from The Guatemala Times:
There is also a sad and bitter reality that the current dialogue about amnesty in Guatemala has missed: To a great extent, former Guatemalan security personnel have already won. In Guatemala, one rarely sees justice of any kind. About two months ago, a court ruled that erstwhile Guatemalan dictator Óscar Mejía was “too sick” to face charges of war crimes. Similar judicial decisions would not be surprising.
Guatemala’s civil war has left the nation saddled with poverty, violence, malnutrition, and corruption. And increasingly, drug traffickers transport their product from Columbia through Guatemala on the way to the United States, thereby exacerbating all these problems.
The average American would have great difficulty understanding the Guatemalan worldview. It is a dynamic mix of great cultural and historical pride along with a slight (although valid) governmental distrust and lingering insecurity. It will be interesting to follow this country over the next few months, to learn more about the perspectives of its people, and to gain a greater understanding of La Vida Guatemalteca.