New Internationalist


July 2003

‘Peace is not just something that you sign on paper: it needs to be built,’ is a frequent comment by Guatemalan human-rights activists. Although it is nearly seven years since peace accords were signed, officially ending 36 years of armed conflict, life is not much improved for most Guatemalans.

The war began with a guerrilla uprising in 1960 – six years after a CIA-backed coup deposed the democratically elected government which had confiscated lands for redistribution from a US fruit company. The economic and social discrimination in which the insurgency was rooted has not been resolved. About 60 per cent of the population is indigenous but political power, wealth and land is firmly concentrated in the hands of people who proudly trace their roots to Germany or Spain.

The conflict – one of the most brutal in the hemisphere – was deeply influenced by the Cold War. A UN-sponsored truth commission reported in 1999 that about 200,000 people were killed – 80 per cent of them unarmed civilians. It also established that government forces were guilty of genocide.

The worst violence in the countryside took place in the early 1980s, and yet the dictator of that time – retired General Efraín Ríos Montt – is now president of Congress, and his party – the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) – is in government. Ríos Montt is constitutionally barred from the presidency because he previously came to power through a coup, but he is the party’s preferred candidate and many people say they would vote for him.

The FRG – traditionally on the far Right of the spectrum – initially co-opted many formerly well-respected figures of the Left, but soon gained a reputation for corruption and has generally failed to implement the recommendations of the peace accords or the truth commission.

 Photo: Peter Stalker
Photo: Peter Stalker

Some communities have better access to telephones, electricity, roads and schools since the conflict ended, but violent crime has soared. Former military figures have been implicated in drug trafficking and kidnappings by organized criminal gangs.

The rule of law is clearly weak, and there are constant rumours of an imminent coup, but human-rights activists say there would be little benefit for the army, since it already enjoys extensive power and impunity. They suggest that the spectre of a coup provides the perfect pretext for delaying demilitarization.

Political violence has increased in the last two years, with threats, abductions, assassinations and violent robberies directed against human-rights organizations, campaigners for land and indigenous rights, women’s groups, journalists, academics, students, lawyers and judges.

Several groups – including one led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú – are pursuing prosecutions against former dictators. Few prosecutions for political crimes have been successful, though, and most of these have been later overturned. There have been small victories at a local level, with villages achieving exhumations of mass graves, reburying their dead and erecting monuments.

Natural disasters, war, poverty and the hope of earning large amounts of money have led thousands of Guatemalans to make the trip north through Mexico to the United States – usually illegally – and everyone has an uncle or a brother there. Most migrants work for several years before coming back.

More than a million people were displaced during the armed conflict. Groups of refugees returned from Mexico between 1993 and 1999, but many remained.

Guatemalans are largely pessimistic about the future, and yet face life day-to-day without despairing. This attitude is reflected in a phrase you hear in the countryside as encouragement from one peasant to another carrying an enormous bundle of wood up a steep hill – ‘poco a poco’ , which roughly translates as ‘one step at a time’.

Ruth Gidley

Guatemala Fact File
Leader President Alfonso Portillo
Economy Gross national income (GNI) per capita $1,670 (Honduras $900, United States $34,870).
Monetary unit Quetzal.
Main exports Coffee, sugar, bananas. Low coffee prices have increased rural unemployment and led to severe food shortages in some areas.
People 12.0 million. People per square km 111 (Britain 238).
Health Infant mortality 43 per 1,000 live births (Honduras 31, US 7). Many people have no access to health services, although there has been a revitalization of traditional Mayan medicine, especially midwifery. There are 93 physicians for every 100,000 people. Environment: Deforestation has been accelerated by controversial oil exploration, mostly in the northern departments.
Culture Around 90% of people have Mayan descent, though non-indigenous Guatemalans, including people of Mayan heritage who do not perceive themselves as culturally indigenous, are known as ladinos. There are black indigenous people – the Garífuna – on the Atlantic coast.
Religion Mainly Catholic, often combined with older spiritual practices. Fundamentalist Protestant churches, usually financed from the US, have won over up to a third of the population and were actively encouraged by the military in the 1980s.
Language There are 21 Mayan languages – some of the largest groups being Ixil, Kaqchikel, Mam, Quiché and Tzutujil – and two other indigenous languages, Garífuna and Xinca.
Sources World Guide 2003/2004, State of the World’s Children 2003, Amnesty International, Inforpress Centroamericana, UNDP Development Report 2002.
Guatemala ratings in detail
Income distribution
Despite a stipulation in the peace accords, income-tax collection is minimal. Instead, governments resort to increasing value-added tax, which hits the poorest hardest. About 56% live below the poverty line.
Self Reliance
Tourism and family remittances have overtaken traditional exports as the country’s prime earners. Imports of cheap foreign corn, including GM-modified grain from the US, have undercut local production of the staple food.
Position of women
A deeply sexist society, although there are women leaders in indigenous politics and human rights. Less than 10% of congressional representatives are women.
Literacy is 69% overall, but only 61% for women. Many indigenous women – especially older generations – speak little Spanish and cannot read and write in any language. Under half the population completes secondary school.
Widespread fear of political violence. The media is self-censoring under government pressure, though more open than in wartime. Police and vigilantes attack street children and sex workers. Very little tolerance of homosexuality, despite brave gay and lesbian organizations.
Life expectancy
65 years (Honduras 66, US 77)
NI Assessment (Politics)
Tentative peacetime developments in infrastructure have been overshadowed by violent crime, political intimidation, rising unemployment and the absence of any strong national-level left-wing opposition to landowners, business leaders and the military.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 358 This column was published in the July 2003 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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Country ratings (details)
Income distribution1
Self Reliance1
Position of women2
Life expectancy3
NI Assessment (Politics)2

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This article was originally published in issue 358

New Internationalist Magazine issue 358
Issue 358

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