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ODECA, Guatemalan president, civil law system, United Nations University, underdeveloped countries

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Strong executives have characterized Guatemalan government historically, with the military often playing a major role. The country is divided into 22 departments, and departmental chiefs, appointed by the president, traditionally exercised great authority. The 1945 constitution, adopted during a revolutionary period of political and social reform, provided for greater local autonomy, but military domination of the country after 1954 curtailed democracy.

The constitution of May 31, 1985 (effective January 14, 1986) provides for a representative democracy with three independent branches: executive, legislative, and judicial, plus an autonomous Supreme Electoral Tribunal. It provides for universal suffrage (voting rights) for all citizens over age 18. Following the unsuccessful attempt of President Jorge Serrano Elias in May 1993 to assume dictatorial powers, several amendments were added to the constitution in 1994.


Under the 1994 amendments to the constitution, executive power in Guatemala is vested in a president, who is popularly elected to a four-year term and cannot be reelected. The Guatemalan president has great authority, although civilian presidents are in practice limited in their control of the armed forces. The president has the power to name his Council of Ministers and many other officials and is aided by a vice president.


The unicameral Congress had 158 members in 2004.


Guatemala has a civil law system with judicial review of legislative acts. The Supreme Court is the highest appeals court. The 1985 constitution also created a Court of Constitutionality, to decide questions of constitutional violations, and an Office of Human Rights Ombudsman. In addition, in what might be considered a fourth branch of government, it created the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, independent from the Supreme Court, which has jurisdiction over elections.

Local Government

Elected municipal councils have been incorporated into Guatemalan constitutions since 1812, but in practice centralized authority from Guatemala City and lack of local financial resources have limited local government. Departmental chiefs appointed by the president have exercised great authority, often becoming local dictators. The constitution of 1985 provides for municipal elections, and in Guatemala City and other larger urban centers, city government plays an important role.

Social Services

Guatemala established a social security program and labor code in 1946. Although the law provides for an extensive program of health care, old-age pensions, disability and accident insurance, in practice the shortage of health-care personnel and other resources has meant that social services for the poor are very inadequate. There are 1,116 Guatemalans for every doctor, and most doctors work in the Guatemala City area, making that ratio even higher in rural areas. In 1995 only 754,100 people, less than a quarter of the workforce, were registered for social security. These problems are responsible, in part, for Guatemala’s low life expectancy at birth, 70 years, one of the lowest in Latin America.

International Organizations

In addition to trade groups and other organizations previously mentioned, Guatemala belongs to the Organization of American States (OAS), Organization of Central American States (ODECA), and the United Nations and many of its subsidiary agencies, including the Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD); Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO); Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO); United Nations University (UNU); and World Health Organization (WHO). It is also affiliated with the Group of 24 and Group of 77 underdeveloped countries, and the Nonaligned Movement, representing nations that did not ally themselves with any large foreign powers.

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