Guatemala borders Mexico, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. It lies between Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. Its land area is 42,042 square miles or 108,890 square kilometers, about the size of Tennessee. Dominant features of the country are mountains, volcanoes, broad basins, plateaus, and valleys. The climate is fairly constant throughout the year. There are lush tropical rain forests in the Atlantic lowland and in Petén. The country has a great variety of animal and plant life.
Guatemala’s climate and lush land make it conducive to agriculture. It has vast coastline which makes it susceptible to fishing. However, the nutritional benefits of these great physical attributes of the country are unrealized by rural indigenous children. Although agriculture is a foundation of the economy having a land that abundantly produces crops of sugarcane, banana, corn, coffee, and beans, large part of the land is only owned by 2-3% of the population. There is an inequitable distribution of the land which is essentially tied to a history of repression. Upon the arrival of conquistadors in 16th century, indigenous people were forced into servitude. When Guatemala became independent from Spain in 1844, the country was ruled by powerful dictators in 19th and 20th centuries. Displacement and repression of indigenous people persisted. The long history of displacement and repression contributes as a factor in malnourishment among Guatemalans that are limited to being peasant farmers, migrant workers, and squatters.
This repression and displacement also force the small Guatemalan farmers to invade the lands, disrespecting the land tenure institutions. The lack of respect to land tenure institutions would soon lead to spontaneous colonization and rapid deforestation of the lands. According to Charles Clark, “In a country whose landed elite enforced property ownership with the cruel disposition of tenurial injustice since colonial times, campesinos gather collective strength at last only to become the major force destroying the habitat on which they survive.” The campesinos (small farmers) then tend to invade the land to use as their own. This manifests a lack of legitimacy of land tenure institutions in Guatemala, particularly in Petén. The absence of legitimacy in the land tenure would soon lead to the deterioration of the land as this would encourage rapid colonization and deforestation of the land. Clark suggests that in order to prevent invasion of lands, and to promote the legitimacy of land tenure institutions, the campesinos or the small farmers should be given a role in the policy-making decisions.
In Central America, Guatemala is the least urbanized having only 39% living in urban areas. It is also the most populous in Central America, and faces great difficulties for being socially, economically and politically excluded. Poverty in Guatemala increases malnutrition as it reduces people’s access to food, thereby increasing the people’s exposure and susceptibility to disease. But poverty is not only a cause of malnutrition; it is also the latter’s effect. Malnutrition contributes to poverty by reducing the physical as well as the intellectual potential of the individual, thereby jeopardizing future economic growth.
The chronic child malnutrition in Guatemala is very persistent. It has strong geographic and ethnic dimensions. The country has, and continues to have, the highest rate of chronic malnutrition, about 49% nationally, which is even higher than countries in Africa. About 69% of the malnourished are from the indigenous people. According to USAID, it would take 83 years to eliminate stunting among the indigenous and 20 years among the non-indigenous.
The food insecurity in Guatemala has increased, and this is due to a combination of sanitary and climatic economic factors. This also leads to an increase in the number of malnutrition cases, especially to children below five years of age, especially in dry corridor. In 2008, there was an excessive rainfall that caused pests and diseases, and an increase in the cost of agricultural supplies like fertilizers, as well as the delay in the delivery of the products subsidized by Guatemalan government. This caused the decrease in the harvest of farmers. The decrease in harvest also produced an impact on the amount of grains that are available for consumption in 2009. There was an increase in the prices of food, thereby reducing the population’s purchasing power. As a result, there is a difficulty in the economic access to food.
Guatemala Civil War (1960-1996)
The Guatemalan Civil War is the longest in the Latin American History. The war was predominantly a fight between the Government of Guatemala and the insurgents. Despite the cessation of the 36-year civil war, however, there are still problems of poverty, particularly in the rural areas. There are reports stating that more than ninety percent of the human rights abuses were caused by the government in their campaigns against insurgency. The acts of Guatemalan military or military-dominated governments in the past were criticized worldwide. In the same vein, the United States was likewise criticized for having supported counterinsurgency campaigns by the Guatemalan government, which led to the death of thousands of civilians.
In 1944, the “October Revolutionaries,” an alliance of liberals, students, and dissident members of the army, forced Jorge Ubico out of office, and seized control of the country. During the reign of Presidents Juan Jose Arevalo (1945-1951) and Jacobo Arbenz Guzman (1951-1954), Communist influence began to grow. When Arbenz encouraged the growth of labor unions and introduced land reforms, his opponents claimed that he was being under Communist control. In 1954, the democratically-elected Arbenz was overthrown by the army that was backed up by United States. The Communist party was then outlawed. This was followed by three decades of military-led governments.
In 1961, the Government suppressed rebellion by military officers, who then fled to the mountains. A year later, two guerilla coups were formed after failed coup attempt by dissident army officers. Colonel Enrique Peralta Azurdia led a successful revolt in 1963. Azurdia governed by decree, and promised to hold elections after the enactment of a new constitution. A new constitution was enacted and became effective in 1965. This was followed by the election of a civilian government. The new government attempted economic and social reforms but the programs were blocked by the opposition from wealthy landowners and businessmen.
In 1966, after President Julio Mendez Montenegro assumed office, the army, which was supported by U.S. Special Forces, launched a major counterinsurgency campaign that broke up the guerilla movement. More than 8,000 were killed. There was an emergence of right-wing death squads that were blamed for the death of about 3,000 people in the next seven years. From 1966 to 1982, the government was military-dominated.
In 1968, the guerillas assassinated United States Ambassador John Gordon Mein. Two years later, they assassinated the West German ambassador. Two more guerilla groups were formed in this period.
In 1977, Guatemala rejected aid from the United States because of human rights stipulations. When General Romeo Lucas Garcia was elected as the president in 1978, he systematically assassinated union leaders. The United States then banned arm sales to Guatemala.
Two years later, 31 January 1980, a group of protesters, mainly peasant famers, occupied the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City and protested the murder of peasants by the Guatemalan army. The police raid resulted in a fire that destroyed the embassy, leaving 36 dead. The father of Nobel Peace Price Winner Rigoberta Menchu also died. This made the Spain sever its diplomatic relations with Guatemala for four years.
The army initiated massive counter-insurgency campaigns against actual and even potential guerilla supporters. This resulted to the wipe-out of villages off the map. On 23 March 1982, the army staged another coup, preventing General Angel Anibal Guevara to assume power. Guevara was the hand-picked candidate of then outgoing President Garcia. Retired General Rios Montt negotiated the departure of Lucas and Guevara. During Rios Montt’s time, he formed a military junta composed of three members to annul the 1965 Constitution, suspend political parties, dissolve the Congress, and cancel the electoral law. He assumed the position of a de facto “President of the Republic.” Rios Montt was one quoted in the New York Times speaking to indigenous Guatemalans that “if you are with us, we’ll feed you; if not, we’ll kill you".
About 200,000 people, mostly unarmed indigenous civilians, died during Rios Montt’s presidency. In 1983, he was deposed by General Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores, his own Minister of Defense. Mejia then became the de facto president. Mejia allowd the return to democracy, starting from the election for a Constituent Assembly to draft a new democratic constitution. In 1985, the new constitution took effect. The United States government also resumed its economic and military aid. A civilian politician, Vinicio Cerezo emerged as the winner in the Presidential election in 1986. However, it took ten years before the violence ended.
The military moved away from governing when Cerezo won in the election. The military assumed its traditional role. There were two coup attempts, but the same had failed. Cerezo’s presidency was criticized for apparent unwillingness to prosecute human rights violations.
On 11 November 1990, Presidential and Congressional elections were held. Jorge Serrano won and was inaugurated as the president on 14 January 1981. Serrano tried to have dictatorial powers, but he was later on ousted, and replaced by President Ramiro de Leon Carpio. When President Alvaro Arzu took power in 1996, peace talks accelerated. URNG (Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit) declared ceasefire. The government likewise suspended the counterinsurgency campaigns. In December 1996, the government and the URNG signed agreements leading to peace treaty.
Certain CIA documents prove that the United States had an important role in funding, organizing, and even equipping the 1954 coup that toppled the democratically elected government of Guatemala.
Stephen Rabe, a professor of History, noted that “in destroying the popularly elected government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman (1950-1954), the United States initiated a nearly four-decade long cycle of terror and repression.”
Another university professor, Patrice Mcsherry alleged that the U.S. government militarized Guatemala immediately. After the covert support of the United States in a successful coup attempt in 1963, the United States advisors worked with Colonel Arana Osorio in order to defeat the guerillas. About 8,000 peasants were killed by U.S. trained military forces of Arana Osorio between 1966-1968 alone.
When the former U.S. President Ronald Reagan visited Rios Montt in Hoduras and dismissed reports of various human rights abuses, he was highly criticized. The Human Rights Watch claimed that the Reagan Administration was partly responsible for the human rights abuses in Guatemala.
In 1999, former U.S. President Clinton announced that he regret the role of the United States in the longest civil war in Latin America. He said that it was wrong to support the Guatemalan security forces in what he called “brutal” counterinsurgency campaigns that killed thousands of civilians. He further noted that the United States must not repeat the same mistake, and instead support the reconciliation process in Guatemala. Moreover, he told the leaders of Central America that their newly democratized region deserves to be an equal partner with the United States. He even pledged several immigration and trade changes that the leaders sought.