Developments in Guatemala

Published: 3 June 2009 Updated: 4 August 2015

In Guatemala, democracy is young. 36 years of civil war have left their marks and many of the social and economic gaps that were a main cause of the war are still there. Women, children and indigenous people are the worst affected.

Guatemala is a post-conflict country with large problems and characterized by widespread violence, lack of confidence in the state and weak legal systems. The low tax levy results in limited public resources. Also, many of the root causes of the conflict remain, and the state has difficulties to ensure the safety of citizens.

The cradle of Mayan culture lay in the mountainous land between the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. The rich heritage of the ancient Mayan civilizations has survived colonization, military regimes and 36 years of armed internal conflict. Half of the Guatemalan population today is Mayan people, who still keep their culture very much alive. Some 20 Mayan languages are spoken in the country.

Non-democracy, oppression and unfair distribution of land led in the early 1960s to an armed revolt and an internal armed  conflict that lasted for 36 years , with over 200 000 people – mostly civilians – killed or "disappeared ".

For decades, Guatemala has been ruled by different military regimes. This has severely marked the society. Since 1985, the country has a democratic system, but there are still major shortcomings. The peace agreement in 1996 mapped out a possible way for necessary political, social and economic reforms.

Widespread poverty, but some progress can be seen

More than 50 percent of Guatemala's population is living in poverty; one fifth out of them in extreme poverty. Nearly half of all children suffer from chronic malnutrition and the levels for maternal and child mortality rates are similar to the ones in the poorest countries in the world.

There are significant opportunities for economic development that include all citizens, if only democracy, rule of law, social investment and government institutions can be strengthened and developed. Some progress and improvements can be seen thanks to the efforts of individual actors.

Far from true democracy

Racism and discrimination are serious structural problems that limit the indigenous people’s political and economic influence. Informal power groups have a great influence in the machinery of government, including the judicial system, and corruption is widespread. Women and girls are being oppressed by an embedded machismo culture.

In Parliament, thirteen percent are women, which is far below the average in Latin America.

The years of authoritarian military dictatorships have weakened civil society. This also applies to the judiciary, where the overwhelming majority of all crimes are never solved, which also applies to the violations committed during the internal armed conflict. The lack of a well-functioning judicial system and the increase of drug-related organised crime have contributed to widespread violence, which is a major challenge for the state. The battle against crime risks taking resources from other important areas, such as improving schools and access to health care.

Sweden's focus areas in Guatemala:

  • Democratic governance and human rights
  • Sustainable economic growth related to poverty in poor regions
  • Health

 Read more about Sida’s work in Guatemala

Page owner: Department for Europe and Latin America

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