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History & Background

The Republic of Guatemala is one of seven countries located in Central America. Bordered by Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, and the Pacific Ocean, Guatemala has a land area of 108,430 square kilometers (41,865 square miles or approximately the size of Tennessee) and a population of 13 million, representing over one third of Central America's entire population. The climate of Guatemala is primarily tropical, although it contains cool highlands in the north and tropical jungles in the south. The central terrain is largely mountainous, while the coastal region is bordered by plains. There are many active volcanoes in the country, and the area is also subject to hurricanes and earthquakes.

Approximately 40 percent of the population of Guatemala is urban. The most populated area is the country's capital, Guatemala City, which boasts a metropolitan population of over two million people. Guatemala is a leader in Central American's commerce and manufacturing. It produces and exports petroleum, minerals, tobacco, electrical goods, pharmaceuticals, food, and textiles. Tourism in Guatemala also thrives, particularly in Antigua, which is a major cultural center of Guatemala City. Agriculture represents about 25 percent of the Guatemala's income, and farming accounts for nearly half of the nation's workforce. Approximately 36 percent of the country's exports go to the United States, which in turn comprises about 40 percent of Guatemala's imports. Guatemala also exports to other Central American countries, as well as to Japan and Germany.

Guatemala has a rich and culturally distinctive history. More than 50 percent of Guatemala's population descended from Mayan ancestry. Historians believe that the region, which now comprises Guatemala, contained a series of small kingdoms and city-states during whose existence architectural accomplishments, many representations of which can still be found in Guatemala, flourished. In 1521, the area was claimed by Spain, under whose rule the Mayan Indians were suppressed. During the 300 year period which followed, the Mayan Culture diminished, although today it is a celebrated part of Guatemala's heritage. People of Mayan-Spanish descent today are referred to as Ladinos.

After winning its independence from Spain in 1821, Guatemala briefly became part of Mexico and later a member of the United Provinces of Central America. From that time until 1944, it was governed by a series of dictatorships until its first civilian president, Juan José Arevalo, was elected and promised to bring democratic political reform. The new form of government, however, was short-lived; many of Arevalo's successors returned the country to a series of dictatorships, military rule, and civil wars until 1985 when Vinico Cerezo was elected to the presidency. Under Cerezo's leadership, the new 1985 Constitution (which was temporarily suspended and amended in 1993) provided for the separation of governmental powers and included provisions for the protection of human rights. Entering the twenty-first century, Guatemala enjoyed a progressive, human rights-oriented government that sought to provide for the protection, education, and cultural advancements of its people. Among the country's agendas in 2000 were the perpetuation of human rights within its borders, the modernization of its schools, and its diplomatic relations with other world governments.

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