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Central America, Guatemala

Guatemala, republic in Central America with the largest population in the region. A rugged land of mountains and volcanoes, beautiful lakes, and lush vegetation, Guatemala is the third largest nation in Central America. Guatemala City is the capital and largest city.

Guatemala's culture is a unique product of Native American ways and a strong Spanish colonial heritage. About half of Guatemala's population is mestizo (known in Guatemala as ladino), people of mixed European and indigenous ancestry. Ladino culture is dominant in urban areas and is heavily influenced by European and North American trends. But unlike many Latin American countries, Guatemala still has a large indigenous population, the Maya, that has retained a distinct identity. Deeply rooted in the rural highlands of Guatemala, many indigenous people speak a Mayan language, follow traditional religious and village customs, and continue a rich tradition in textiles and other crafts. The two cultures have made Guatemala a complex society that is deeply divided between rich and poor. This division has produced much of the tension and violence that have marked Guatemala's history.

Guatemala's economy traditionally has been based on exports of coffee, bananas, sugar, and other tropical crops. This focus on export agriculture has enriched the country's small wealthy class, but a large segment of the population remains very poor, especially the native people who supply much of the agricultural labor. Since Guatemala gained independence from Spain in 1821, its politics have often been dominated by military dictatorships. Social and economic inequities, compounded by government repression, led to a civil war beginning in 1960. The late 1980s saw movement toward more democratic, civilian rule. In December 1996 a peace accord was signed to end the 36-year conflict, the longest civil war in the region, in which more than 200,000 Guatemalans were killed or disappeared.

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