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Monday, July 8, 2013

Guatemala: Political, Security, and Socio- Economic Conditions and U.S. Relations

Maureen Taft-Morales
Specialist in Latin American Affairs

Since the 1980s, Guatemala, the most populous country in Central America with a population just over 14 million, has continued its transition from a centuries-long tradition of mostly autocratic rule toward representative government. A democratic constitution was adopted in 1985, and a democratically elected government was inaugurated in 1986. A 36-year civil war that ravaged Guatemala ended in 1996.

This report provides an overview of Guatemala’s current political and economic conditions, relations with the United States, and several issues likely to figure in future decisions by Congress and the Administration regarding Guatemala. With respect to continued cooperation and foreign assistance, these issues include security and governance; protection of human rights and human rights conditions on some U.S. military aid to Guatemala; support for the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala; combating narcotics trafficking and organized crime; trade relations; and intercountry adoption.

In November 2011, Otto Pérez Molina won the second-round presidential election run-off with 53.8% of the vote. He took office, along with the 158-member Congress, in January 2012. A former military commander who served during the civil war period, Pérez Molina faces concerns from some regarding his role in the human rights abuses committed during that period. In a landmark case, a Guatemalan court found former dictator Efrain Rios Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity on May 10, 2013, but another court overturned his conviction days later. The process remains suspended until the Constitutional Court fully resolves the appeal.

Guatemala continues to be plagued by security issues related to narcotics trafficking and the rise of organized crime, social inequality, and poverty. Upon taking office Pérez Molina announced a controversial position to decriminalize drugs as one policy initiative to address Guatemala’s many problems. Pérez Molina's proposal has failed to garner the support of other Central American leaders, but he seems willing to continue pushing the debate forward. In his view, decriminalization has to be gradual and strongly regulated, and it has to take place in the whole region, including producer and consumer countries. In the meantime, Pérez Molina vows to continue prosecuting and jailing drug-traffickers.

Economic growth fell in 2009, to 0.5%, as export demand from U.S. and other Central American markets declined and foreign investment slowed amid the global recession. The economy gradually recovered, up to 2.8% in 2010, and 3.8% in 2011, though this is expected to taper off slightly in 2012. Agriculture contributes 13% of GDP and accounts for 26% of exports from Guatemala. According to the World Bank, Guatemala has one of the most unequal income distributions in the hemisphere. Guatemala is part of the U.S.-Central America-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR).

Relations between Guatemala and the United States have traditionally been close, but they have been strained at times by human rights and civil-military issues, long of interest to the U.S. Congress. U.S. policy objectives in Guatemala include strengthening democratic institutions; encouraging respect for human rights and the rule of law; supporting broad-based economic growth, sustainable development, and mutually beneficial trade relations; combating drug trafficking; and supporting continued Central American integration.

Date of Report: June 13, 2013
Number of Pages: 22
Order Number: R42580
Price: $29.95

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