The Mayan civilization flourished throughout much of Guatemala and the surrounding region long before the Spanish arrived, but it was already in decline when the Mayans were defeated by Pedro de Alvarado in 1523-24. During Spanish colonial rule, most of Central America came under the control of the Captaincy General of Guatemala.
The first colonial capital, Ciudad Vieja, was ruined by floods and an earthquake in 1542. Survivors founded Antigua, the second capital, in 1543. In the 17th century, Antigua became one of the richest capitals in the New World. Always vulnerable to volcanic eruptions, floods, and earthquakes, Antigua was destroyed by two earthquakes in 1773, but the remnants of its Spanish colonial architecture have been preserved as a national monument. The third capital, Guatemala City, was founded in 1776, after Antigua was abandoned.
Guatemala gained independence from Spain on September 15, 1821; it briefly became part of the Mexican Empire and then for a period belonged to a federation called the United Provinces of Central America. From the mid-19th century until the mid-1980s, the country passed through a series of dictatorships, insurgencies (particularly beginning in the 1960s), coups, and stretches of military rule with only occasional periods of representative government.
The president and vice president are directly elected through universal suffrage and limited to one term. A vice president can run for president after 4 years out of office. Supreme Court justices are elected by the Congress from a list submitted by the bar association, law school deans, a university rector, and appellate judges. The Supreme Court and local courts handle civil and criminal cases. There also is a Constitutional Court.
Guatemala has 22 administrative subdivisions (departments) administered by governors appointed by the president. Guatemala City and 330 other municipalities are governed by popularly elected mayors or councils.
The Arzu administration also began a series of actions to boost the economy, including a reform of the tax system and privatization of the electricity and telecommunication sectors. President Arzu strongly and publicly condemned human rights abuses. Positive political developments and the demobilization of 200,000 members of the Civilian Defense Patrols were major factors in the positive change. In contrast to past years, there was a marked decline in new cases of human rights abuse, but problems remain in some areas. Common crime, aggravated by a legacy of violence and vigilante justice, presents a serious challenge to the government. Impunity remains a major problem, primarily because democratic institutions, including those responsible for the administration of justice, have developed only a limited capacity to cope with this legacy. Although making some progress, the government has stated it will require 4 more years (to the year 2004) to meet the target of increasing its tax burden (currently at 10% of GDP, lowest in the hemisphere) to 12% of GDP. Fifty proposed constitutional amendments meant to institutionalize the peace process or otherwise make Guatemala a fairer and more open society were rejected in a May 1999 plebiscite, with voting following ethnic lines.
President Alfonso Portillo began his 4-year term of office on January 14, 2000. Portillo, who was elected to Congress as a member of the Christian Democratic Party in 1993, has only been a member of the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) since 1995. The FRG has diverse factions, unified primarily by populism. FRG founder Efrain Rios Montt serves as the President of Congress. With the continuing development of democracy and participation in Guatemala, President Portillo has shown more deference to Congress than have previous presidents. Under the Guatemalan Constitution of 1985, passage of many kinds of legislation requires a two-thirds vote. Passage of such legislation is not possible with FRG votes alone.
Guatemala participates in several regional groups, particularly those related to the environment and trade. For example, President Clinton and the Central American presidents signed the CONCAUSA (Conjunto Centroamerica-USA) agreement at the Summit of the Americas in December 1994. CONCAUSA is a cooperative plan of action to promote clean, efficient energy use; conserve the region's biodiversity; strengthen legal and institutional frameworks and compliance mechanisms; and improve and harmonize environmental protection standards.
Guatemala long laid claim to Belize; the territorial dispute caused problems with the United Kingdom and later with Belize following its 1981 independence from the U.K. Relations have had their ups and downs but are strained at present. In 1986, Guatemala and the U.K. re-established commercial and consular relations; in 1987, they re-established full diplomatic relations. In December 1989, Guatemala sponsored Belize for permanent observer status in the Organization of American States (OAS). In September 1991, Guatemala recognized Belize's independence and established diplomatic ties, while acknowledging that the boundaries remained in dispute. Although Belize has recognized Guatemalan diplomatic representation at the ambassadorial level for several years, the Guatemalan Government did not accredit the first ambassador from Belize until December 1996. In early 2000, the Guatemalan Foreign Ministry proposed a border settlement that would transfer more than half of Belize's territory to Guatemala.
While Belize continues to be a difficult domestic political issue in Guatemala, the two governments have quietly maintained constructive relations. The Portillo administration has indicated its intent to resolve the dispute with Belize, making it the number one priority now that the final peace accord has been signed. In anticipation of an effort to bring the border dispute to an end, in early 1996, the Guatemalan Congress ratified two long-pending international agreements governing frontier issues and maritime rights.
Supporting the institutionalization of democracy and implementation of the peace accords;
Encouraging respect for human rights and the rule of law;
Supporting broad-based economic growth and sustainable development and maintaining mutually beneficial trade and commercial relations;
Cooperating to combat narcotics trafficking; and
Supporting Central American integration.
The United States, as a member of "the Friends of Guatemala," along with Colombia, Mexico, Spain, Norway, and Venezuela, played an important role in the UN-moderated Peace Accords, providing public and behind-the-scenes support. The U.S. strongly supports the six substantive and three procedural accords, which, along with the signing of the December 29, 1996 final accord, form the blueprint for profound political, economic, and social change.
In Costa Rica in May 1997 and in Guatemala in 1999, President Clinton met with President Arzu and other Central American presidents, the President of the Dominican Republic, and the Prime Minister of Belize to celebrate the remarkable democratic transformation in the region and reaffirm support for strengthening democracy; good governance; and promoting prosperity through economic integration, free trade, and investment. The leaders also expressed their commitment to the continued development of just and equitable societies and responsible environmental policies as integral elements of sustainable development.
Although almost all of the 180,000 U.S. tourists who visit Guatemala annually do so without incident, in recent years, the number of violent crime reported by U.S. citizens has steadily increased. In 1997, 46 U.S. citizens reported to the U.S. Embassy that they were victims of violent crime. In 1998, the number climbed to 52 and in 1999 to 79. Increases in the number of Americans reported as victims of violent crime may be the result of any combination of factors: increased numbers of Americans traveling to Guatemala; increased accuracy in the embassy's reporting of crime; more Americans traveling to higher risk areas of Guatemala; or more crime.
Guatemala-Central American Program (USAID/G-CAP) plays a key role in implementing priority U.S. foreign policy objectives in Guatemala. USAID's program seeks to aid the financial stability and long-term growth of Guatemala, working primarily with the socially and economically disadvantaged persons living in poverty, with special emphasis on the rural indigenous poor whose lives have been most seriously affected by the internal civil conflict. In addition to low incomes, these populations have limited economic opportunities for economic advancement, lack access to social services, and have limited access to, or influence over, the policymaking processes.
Providing $60-$70 million in annual assistance, USAID/Guatemala is working to address limitations to Guatemalan development pursuing seven objectives. These are:
Support the implementation of the 1996 Peace Accords;
Provide agricultural recovery assistance to victims of Hurricane Mitch and help Guatemala prepare for future disasters;
Aid in the improvement of the legal system and assist citizens in its use;
Increase educational access and quality for all Guatemalans;
Improve the health of Guatemalan women, children, and rural families; and,
Increase the earning capacity of poor rural families; and
Expand natural resources management and conservation of biodiversity.
USAID/Guatemala's largest program is the support of the peace accords. The Guatemalan Peace Accords are more than a formal ending to 36 years of armed conflict. The accords require major investments in health, education, and other basic services to reach the rural indigenous poor and require the full participation of the indigenous people in local and national decisionmaking. In addition, the accords call for a profound restructuring of the state, affecting some of its most fundamental institutions--the military, the national police and the system of justice--in order to end impunity and confirm the rule of law. They also require basic changes in tax collection and expenditure and improved financial management.
In 1998, Hurricane Mitch caused human and property damage on a massive scale. In Guatemala vast economic and social damage diverted resources away from the implementation of the Peace Accords and development priorities. It is estimated that 1999 exports dropped $365 million, which translates into the loss of jobs for 35,000 people. USAID/Guatemala's Special Mitch Objective is helping agricultural productivity recover, improving disease control and community sanitation, and supporting national and community level disaster preparedness.
USAID's regional Central American Program is also based in Guatemala. Providing between $15-$20 million in annual assistance, USAID's regional program in coordination with the U.S. embassies in the region and bilateral USAID Missions in Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Panama supports four key objectives. These are:
Promotion of free trade;
Expansion of Central American natural resources management and conservation;
Advancement of regional HIV/AIDS services and information; and
Post-Mitch assistance for Central America in preparing for future weather-related disasters.
The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala is located at Avenida la Reforma 7-01, Zone 10, Guatemala City (tel.  331-1541); fax  331-8885)