Guatemala is one of the largest, wealthiest, and most populous of the Central American nations. The size of the state of Ohio, located just south of Mexico, Guatemala shares its southern border with Honduras and El Salvador. The independent country of Belize, classed as a province of Guatemala, lies to its east. Like most Central American countries, it stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea.


Nearly 50% of Guatemala's eight million people are Indians who strive to maintain their distinctive way of life, language, and dress, despite the brutality of the conquest, the ravages of new diseases and forced labor during the Spanish colonial rule (1521-1821), pervasive discrimination, and intense repression during the last ten years.


Indians and other peasants and urban workers constitute the majority of Guatemalans. They live a life of poverty that contrasts starkly with the wealth and privilege of a small elite. The top 1.5% of the population owns 23% of the country's wealth while 70% of the people earn an annual income of US $74. Half of all Guatemalans are illiterate and life expectancy and infant mortality figures are dismal.


Some two-thirds of the labor force works in agriculture, yet land ownership is extremely concentrated: 70% of farm property is owned by just 2% of the population. more than 40% of the rural population owns no land at all. The landless and land-poor are forced to migrate for a part of each year in search of seasonal labor on coffee, cotton, and sugar cane plantations. Earning roughly US$1 per day, they harvest crops that bring in close to half of the country's billion-dollar plus annual export earnings. Plantation owners continue to form the core of Guatemala's economic elites.


For most of Guatemala's history, dictators have run the country, using the army to protect and enforce the established order. They often made use of sham elections to legitimize their hold on power. With or without elections, force remained the principal instrument of government. In general, there has been little opportunity for economic mobility or for meaningful political participation for the majority of the country's citizens. Those who have directly opposed the government or even attempted to organize labor unions, peasant cooperatives, or grassroots development projects have faced exile, violent repression, or assassination.


The only significant break in the 123-year pattern came after an urban-based popular uprising in 1944 that overthrew a fourteen-year dictatorship. From 1944-1954 freely elected presidents (Arevalo and Arbenz) implemented important political and economic reforms, including the legalization of political parties, protection of workers' rights, a social security system, and an agrarian reform that expropriated with compensation unused portions of large plantations and distributed them to landless peasants. Such measures angered large landowners who had fallow lands -- one of the most important of which was the U.S. owned Untied Fruit Company (UFCO). UFCO, disgruntled members of the Guatemalan wealthy elite, and important sectors of the army feared the reforms were the first steps on the road to communist takeover of Guatemala. They supported convert operations organized by the U.S. Government to forcibly unseat the government.


Under the "counter-revolution" of military rule, the reforms that had been enacted by Arbenz were dismantled and many activists or sympathizers of the government killed. The army assumed direct control of the government -- a role it was to play with but two exceptions until 1986.


The Guatemalan guerrilla movement was born in the 1960s by young officers sympathetic to the deposed president, Arbenz. If suffered its major defeat in the late 1960s when the U.S. aid helped to make Guatemala's army among the best trained and most professional in Central America. In the 1970s the movement for social change grew again as thousands of people became involved in unions, local coops, church-sponsored "Christian base communities," and peasant committees. New guerrilla organizations emerged, including for the first time large numbers of Indians in their ranks. By the end of the 1970s Guatemala seemed on the point of full-scale rebellion. But the army struck with a precision and brutality unknown even in the country's long history of military rule. by 1983 the mass movement had been destroyed and the guerrillas pushed back into remote mountain strongholds. In the period of peak repression (1978-83), tens of thousands were tortured or killed, the vast majority Indians. Guatemala became a international pariah, cut off from official U.S. aid because of its refusal to accept human rights conditions imposed by the Carter administration.


In the thirty year since the coup of 1954 there have been only two elected civilian governments: 1966 and 1985. The 1966 president agreed to military restrictions on his authority that made his rule indistinguishable from military governments. Faced with economic disaster and international isolation, the military decided to permit elections in 1985 and a survivor of past repressions, Vinicio Cerezo, was elected.


Hopes and expectations have been raised for a truly democratic government that can curb past abuses of authority and promote improvement in the lives of the poor and middle classes. However, the army and the wealth elite -- now supportive of a transition to limited democracy -- retain significant power. No one knows how much change they will tolerate.