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on the road

Jan 31, 2016 | 14:02 GMT

6 mins read

Guatemala: A Country of Contrasts

Senior Eurasia Analyst, Stratfor
Eugene Chausovsky
Senior Eurasia Analyst, Stratfor
A journey to Guatemala reveals the country's stark geographic -- and cultural -- divisions.
Guatemala is a country of radical divisions. With the exception of small pockets of indigenous and Afro-descendent populations in Honduras and Nicaragua, most of Central America is relatively homogenous. Guatemala, by contrast, is divided among dozens of indigenous groups, which constitute around 40 percent of the population. The country sits in a region once ruled by the Mayan civilization, and today many refer to Guatemala as the "heart of the Mayan world."

Indigenous groups still dominate the country's central and northwestern highlands, which for a brief period in the 19th century was its own separate nation called Los Altos. Guatemala's majority mestizo population, by contrast, dominates the sierras of the east, Guatemala City, the coastal lowlands and rainforest regions. Partly as a result of this heterogeneity, Guatemala's history has been one of ruptures and restorations, cycling through a succession of strongmen, military leaders and the occasional leftist.


Guatemala City

The new year will bring a new leader to Guatemala City.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the end of Guatemala's epochal civil war, which lasted from 1960 to 1996 and pitted the government against a variety of leftist militants supported by the rural indigenous population. Today, Guatemala faces another juncture. 2015 ended with a change in leadership. Major protests against president and former brigadier general, Otto Perez Molina. culminated in his resignation Sept. 3, and a day later his arrest on corruption charges. Two days after that, Guatemala held general elections, which led to a runoff in late October. Out of this chaos, former television comedian and political novice Jimmy Morales won. Pre-election opinion polls had put Morales significantly behind the more experienced candidates, Manuel Baldizon and Sandra Torres, but because of the Molina scandals, many Guatemalans became disillusioned with the establishment and switched their loyalties to the newcomer.

When I traveled through Guatemala in early January, the country was buzzing over Morales' coming inauguration. The detritus of the recent elections was still scattered everywhere, and images of the competing candidates plastered the walls from the sooty outskirts of Guatemala City along the mountain roads to Chichicastenango. The new president was the topic of conversation among people of all stations, rural agricultural workers and urban professionals alike. With the civil war still a recent memory, people could not believe that months of peaceful protest involving cross-generational and intercultural support led to the ouster and arrest of a sitting president. The people I spoke with were optimistic about Morales but made it clear that if he did not deliver, protests would resume.

One of Guatemala's 37 volcanoes, which help draw tourists and their dollars.

Despite the ongoing political volatility, Guatemala is something of an economic success story. Over the past five years, gross domestic product has grown steadily at an average of 3.5 percent and, in a year of volatility, its currency has remained steady. The country also receives more foreign direct investment than most of its Central American and Caribbean neighbors. Guatemala is reliant on exports of bananas, coffee and sugar. But this has been a boon in many ways. Because 40 percent of its exports go to a secure buyer, the United States, Guatemala has been able to rely on steady revenue even as its political system undergoes massive change.

Tourism, too, has helped buoy Guatemala amid uncertainty. The country is within easy reach for U.S. tourists drawn by the country's 37 volcanoes and its Pacific and Atlantic coasts. It also draws people from farther afield — Europe, Australia and Canada — and most shops accept U.S. dollars. The immaculately preserved colonial town of Antigua, about 40 kilometers (28 miles) from Guatemala City, is a testament to the country's prestigious role in the Spanish colonial empire as home to the capital of the Captaincy General in Central America. For a brief period after independence in 1821, Guatemala was also the center of the Federal Republic of Central America, which encompassed Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Today, Antigua testifies to a new U.S.-centric political order, and it has become the center of gringo capitalism in the country, boasting hipster coffee shops and Texas-style barbecue restaurants amid ruins and colorful cathedrals.

But even with its success, Guatemala has visibly failed to sustain parts of its population. Not far from Guatemala City's U.S.-style shopping malls are the sprawling slums that house the urban poor. This proximity is made evident by the numerous guards carrying automatic rifles posted outside storefronts. And, in the city, even the middle class find it hard to get by. I spoke with a manager at a pharmacy who told me he earns about $1,000 month, placing him firmly in the middle income bracket. But he said that this salary is barely enough to cover living expenses for his family of four when rent, food and private school for his two children are factored in. Many Guatemalans fare much worse, which drives migrants north into Mexico and the United States, where even menial jobs offer substantially higher wages. The risks, of course, are massive, and being caught en route or being deported leaves many with high debts to smugglers. With few job prospects at home, many are unable to pay off their debts and so try again to make the journey north. Low wages and a lack of jobs for young men in particular feed the country's growing gang problem. The organized violence and intimidation, in turn, drives more people to migrate.

A market in Chichicastenango, a city known for its Maya culture located in El Quiché department.


But those in Guatemala City at least live close to potential jobs, even if they are difficult to get and low-paying. Outside of the city, the stunning mountainous and volcanic landscape that draws Western tourists has been a major liability for those who live there. Infrastructure from the capital to the highlands is poor, and it can take hours to cover distances of under 100 kilometers, with vehicles driving up potholes in the switchbacks in and out of mountain valleys. This is the reality for most Guatemalans. The country is still overwhelmingly rural and has one of the largest indigenous populations in Latin America. Many indigenous people live in accordance with traditional customs, wearing native dress and speaking Mayan languages such as K'iche' and Kaqchikel. But this vibrant culture hides deep poverty, and many Mayas eke out a living from subsistence agriculture. It was this stark geographic and cultural divide that fed Guatemala's decadeslong civil war.

But over the past two centuries Guatemalans have proved to be hardy, surviving amid the legacies of Spanish colonization, Cold War meddling and, of course, the latest corruption scandals. The protest movement that ended Molina's presidency was sparked by the frustration of a people living on the edge, appalled that funds from already stressed government healthcare, education and tax collection were being misappropriated for private gain. Guatemala's new president started his term supported — or burdened — by these high expectations, but in a nation of sharp divides, he will find it difficult to meet them.

Eugene Chausovsky focuses on political, economic and security issues pertaining to the former Soviet Union, Europe and Latin America. He was previously a researcher at the University of Texas, where he focused on Russian demographic trends and their impact on the country's political and electoral systems. He also holds a degree in international relations from the same university.

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