Guatemala has had a tumultuous history of civil wars, government coups, and bureaucratic nightmares. For a country that once held some of the strongest Mayan city-states in the world, Guatemala struggled during the 20th century to establish a legitimate government and extend peace and prosperity to the people. The country doesn’t see violence like it did during the civil war, but there is still work to be done.
The evolution of Guatemala's government and economy has been a series of highs and lows, and the nation is finally beginning to find its way. Guatemala is the largest economy in Central America and is also the region’s most populous country. Since the peace accords of 1996, the economy has grown steadily, with moderate development accompanying this growth. That said, huge sections of Guatemalan population remain only minimally active in the economy. This is largely the case in rural areas where development has been slow and meager.
Tourism has played a big role in Guatemala’s economy in recent years — the service sector, much of it related to tourism, employs around 35 percent of the population. A significant amount of the money made by tourism stays in local communities, and this has helped achieve development in rural communities that would otherwise go largely unnoticed by the Guatemalan government.
Like other countries in Central America, Guatemala is trying to balance development and an increasing population with environmental protection. At the present moment, development is winning. It’s still common to clear tracts of forest for slash-and-burn agriculture, and the Guatemalan government has yet to set up clear ways of regulating water and air pollution.
An environmental movement has been battling with big agriculture, local farmers, and government officials to push for a greener agenda. Guatemala has established a fairly good national park and reserve system, but more work will need to be done before the streets and streams are litter free.
Guatemalans are a massive mixture of all sorts of people, including indigenous Mayans, Spanish descendants, Afro-Caribbean Garífuna, and various combinations of all of the above. It should come as littles surprise that much like the nation's people, its religious practices are diverse — another byproduct of Guatemala's historical roots.
Some Guatemalans are cosmopolitan urban dwellers, while others are poor rural farmers. There is a significant wealth gap and social stratification in Guatemala, which can be seen in places like Guatemala City — while here, you may pass slums while traveling to a fancy restaurant in a posh part of town. Many of the country’s elite are direct descendants of the Spanish colonial-era families.
In Guatemala, race and social standing are intimately linked, and the majority of the poor are of Mayan descent. Sadly, about 80 percent of Guatemala’s population lives in poverty. This can be seen in social indicators like literacy and infant mortality. Guatemala has an infant mortality rate of 23.5 deaths per 1,000 births (77th in the world), and a literacy rate of 75.9 percent.
Guatemalans have moderate access to healthy living standards. About 50 percent of the country has access to clean drinking water. There are hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies spread throughout the country, although the quality of care tends to be worse in rural areas.
HIV/AIDS is a concern in Guatemala. Malaria and dengue is transmitted by mosquitos in lowland areas, and cholera can sometimes be an issue in poor neighborhoods that lack real sanitation. The average life expectancy in Guatemala is 71.74 years.
Guatemala has faced hard times in the past and persisted. One hopes that the spirit of growth and development will continue to spread to the places where people need it most. The balancing act of decreasing the wealth gap, increasing the quality of life, and protecting natural resources is indescribably tough. Hopefully, little by little Guatemala will continue to put resources into honest endeavors and work to become a healthy and prosperous nation.
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