Guatemala Country Profile

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Guatemala Country Profile

Pionero Philanthropy was founded in Guatemala due to its need for exterior credibility and support for the interior network of nonprofits. However, this need does not diminish the beautiful and storied nature of the country itself, nor does this need occur in a context-less vacuum. Read on to discover more about Guatemala’s geography, history and more!

Guatemala’s Geography

One of the keys to Guatemala’s story is its geography. The physical landscape of Guatemala is astounding – the country is home to 37 different volcanoes that extend from the northwest corner of the country down along the west to its border with El Salvador, a range called the Sierra Madre del Sur. This includes the highest point in Central America, Volcan Tajumulco. Between this mountain range and the Pacific Ocean there is a flat plain, home to the majority of Guatemala’s agricultural production (mostly coffee, sugar, and bananas) and the deepest lake in Central America, Lake Atitlan.

Lake Atitlan in Guatemala
Lake Atitlan, located in central Guatemala, is the deepest lake in Central America.

In the northeast of the country is the Peten region, which is a part of a limestone platform that extends from Mexico to Belize. It is also the least populated region of the country due to its thick tropical rainforests. However, its population has increased from less than 20,000 to over 100,000 from the 20th to 21st century. Why? People are leaving the overworked southern farmland to cultivate sugarcane, fruit, cacao and work in the commercial logging and tourism industries. Guatemala’s abundant natural resources have made it an attractive destination throughout history, but they have also played a significant role in the country’s exploitation.

Key Facts

  • Formal Name: Republic of Guatemala
  • Capital: Guatemala City
  • Administrative Divisions: 22 departments (Alta Verapaz, Baja Verapaz, Chimaltenango, Chiquimula, El Progreso, Escuintla, Guatemala, Huehuetenango, Izabal, Jalapa, Jutiapa, Peten, Quetzaltenango, Quiche, Retalhuleu, Sacatepequez, San Marcos, Santa Rosa, Solola, Suchitepequez, Totonicapan, Zacapa)
  • Area: 108,889 sq km
  • Bordering Countries: Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico
  • Climate: Tropical

History of Guatemala

So what is the social history that has transpired on this terrain? From archeological findings, we know that people started coming through the region from Alaska about 12,000 years ago, and that agricultural production began around 3500 BC. 

Towns and cities were then constructed, and a series of civilizations came and went. First the Olmecs were in power (2000 BC to 250 BC), then the Mayans (about 250 AD to 900 AD). The latter group was composed of a number of interconnected city states that built magnificent temples such as Tikal. The civilization collapsed for reasons unknown to us today, and the descendants of the Mayas continued to work the land until the 1500s. 

Tikal Mayan Ruins
Tikal Mayan Ruins, located in Guatemala’s Peten department.

This century, spanning 1500 to 1600, rapidly redirected the course of Guatemalan history. Spanish conquistadors soon arrived and violently took over the indigenous population. Pedro Alvarado conquered the Maya descendants and established what is now the city of Antigua between 1523 and 1524, and control over the area which would later become Guatemala was solidified by the 1540s. It was a part of New Spain, the central American conglomeration of Spanish colonies, until 1821, when it joined Mexico to overthrow Spanish rule. A couple years later, in 1823, it threw off Mexican rule to join the United Provinces of Central America. 

A rural uprising led by Rafael Carrera led to an independent Guatemala starting in 1829. Carrera led the country under a conservative dictatorship until 1865. A revolution led by Justo Rufino Barrios overthrew the conservative government in 1871, and a series of liberal governments were in control until 1944. Foreign investment and economic growth increased during this time, but the jagged upward trajectory of reform did not last long.

Jacobo Arbenz, became president in 1951 and made agrarian reform his central project. This negatively impacted the United Fruit Company, who owned large swathes of Guatemalan land. The company’s pressure and the U.S. government’s concern about communism soon led to a CIA-initiated overthrow of Arbenz’s government. The military leader that emerged, Castillo Armas, was assassinated in 1957, and the country fell into a cycle of military control and repressive violence worsened by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes that the country’s infrastructure was ill-equipped to withstand. After 36 years and over 200,000 state-backed murders, newly elected President Arzu signed a peace treaty with the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit in 1996, and UN-backed peace processes began.

Guatemala still struggles to maintain all of the characteristics of a healthy democracy. Violence, drug-trafficking, corruption, and a lack of jobs continue to motivate people to uproot their lives and seek asylum in other countries, primarily Mexico and the United States.

Guatemala’s People & Demographics

Who exactly are Guatemalans? The general facts below provide a broad overview.

The two major ethnic groups are the Ladinos and the Maya. Ladino is another name for mestizo, meaning a mix of hispanic and Maya ancestry. They make up about 3/5s of the population, while the Maya make up about 2/5s of the population. Ladinos make up the majority of the wealthier, urban population.  The Mayas, who also speak 20 different Maya dialects, make up the poorer, rural population. Nearly 60 percent of the population is Roman Catholic (with indigenous customs and culture mixed in), and the other 40 percent is protestant Christian. As of 2017, the overwhelming majority of Guatemala’s population is young with 67.4 under the age of 29.

Mayan women of Guatemala
Maya make up about 40% of Guatemala’s population.

Key Facts

  • Population: 17,422,821 (July 2021 est.)
  • Religions: Roman Catholic, Protestant, indigenous Maya
  • Languages: Spanish (official), Q’eqchi’, K’iche, Mam, Kaqchikel, Q’anjob’al, Poqomchi’, Tz’utujil, Achí, Ixil, Akatek, Jakaltek, Chuj, Poqomam, Ch’orti’, Awakatek, Sakapultek, Sipakapa, Uspantek, Tektitek, Mopan, Itza, Xinca and Garifuna

Politics & Government of Guatemala

Guatemala is a democratic republic with power divided between a legislative body, a supreme court, and a president. The Constitutional Court consists of five judges elected every five years, and the president is only allowed to serve a single four year term.

The current president, Alejandro Giammattei, assumed his role in January 2020 after defeating his main opponent, former First Lady Sandra Torres. He entered the position after a long string of political scandals in the Guatemalan presidency. Freedom House, a democracy watchdog organization, gave Guatemala a score of 52/100, or the classification of “partly free,” in 2019. Corruption scandals, death threats to academics and journalists, and high levels of kidnapping and extortion contribute to this rating.

Key Facts

  • Government Type: Presidential Republic
  • Current Leader: President Alejandro Giammattei (since 14 January 2020)
  • Independence: 15 September 1821 (from Spain)

Guatemala’s Economy

About 40 percent of the Guatemalan workforce is employed in agriculture, 40 percent in tourism and 20 percent in the industrial sector. Remittances from abroad make up about 11 percent of its GDP, which, as can be seen from the graphic below, has been steadily growing since 2000. However, foreign investment has been limited, as investment levels in Guatemala are lower as a percentage of GDP (less than 15%) than in Latin American economies (22%) or emerging economies (33%) in general. Political instability, high crime rates, and low quality infrastructure (among other factors) contribute to lack of investor confidence.

Key Facts

  • Currency: Quetzal
  • GDP: $76.678 billion (2019 est.)
  • Main Industries: tourism, agriculture, sugar, textiles/clothing, furniture, chemicals, petroleum, metals, rubber
man biking in front of Antigua Guatemala's Santa Catalina arch
The tourism industry greatly contributes to Guatemala’s economy with popular destinations including Antigua Guatemala.

Get More Data On Guatemala From Pionero Philanthropy

Now that you have an overview about the political, economic, social and geographic environment in Guatemala, you may want to delve deeper into the details. 

Pionero Philanthropy has gathered over 65 demographic indicators on its free interactive map that range from Poverty Rates to Home Water Access across all 22 regions of the country. The map not only shows demographic information, but also detailed information on over 8000 nonprofits that operate nationwide.

If you feel inspired to support a nonprofit’s work in a specific region or cause area, we recommend checking out our highlighted partner nonprofits on the map. These grassroots organizations have been vetted by Pionero Philanthropy against a 5 Pillar Evaluation Assessment and have earned the Pionero Philanthropy Partner Seal.

For more information, contact us!