A Lesson in Guatemala’s Past, Present and Future
Located in Central America on the southeastern border of Mexico, Guatemala is home to lush rainforests, active volcanoes and stunningly preserved Mayan history and culture. Most of the population is Mayan descent. Twenty-one Mayan languages are spoken in the country, in addition to two other indigenous languages as well as Spanish.
While Guatemala is a major exporter of coffee, sugar, bananas and cattle, it also exports fresh vegetables to the United States and elsewhere, along with specialty crops such as cardamom and snow peas. Light industry and tourism are also major economic activities.
The Toll of Poverty
In spite of various economic strengths, Guatemalans are still struggling. Poverty, poor nutrition, sub-standard water and sanitation facilities, and low levels of formal education are facts of life for vast numbers of Guatemalans. According to UNICEF, 47% of children under 5 suffer from stunted growth, 19% of the population are illiterate, and the average income per capita is $8,310 (compared to $9,980 in Mexico and $47,580 in the United States).
Wars and Disasters
Guatemala suffered through 36 years of warfare between leftist guerrilla insurgents and the army and government security forces. This is said to be the longest civil war in the history of the western hemisphere. Largely as a result of this warfare, approximately one million Guatemalans live outside the country—mostly in the United States, Mexico, Canada and Belize. The war officially ended with a peace treaty signed in December 1996. The governments since 1986 have been democratically elected.
Because of its location between two oceans and along at the convergence of two tectonic places, Guatemala has suffered from numerous natural disasters. In recent decades alone, the country has dealt with:
- An earthquake in 1976, which killed over 23,000 people and left over 1 million homeless
- Massive flooding and devastation from Hurricane Stan in 2005
- Disastrous eruptions of the Pacaya and Fuego volcanoes in 2010 and 2018 respectively.