A Not-So-Brief History of Guatemala

Although we work in one tiny corner of the country, Guatemalan life today is deeply influenced by their 36-year long civil war and and long history of exploitation by dictators, land-owning aristocrats, and foreign corporations.  We think that knowing some of this country’s extraordinary story will better help you understand how it came to the current state of affairs.  We have included some history below, which is followed by commentary on the current economic situation and then a description of the town where we work. 

Guatemala is a gorgeous, volcanic country with strong Spanish and Mayan influences.  It was at the center of Mayan civilization until the Spanish conquest in the 1500s, and then won its independence in 1821 after almost three centuries as a Spanish colony.

A series of brutal dictators followed, all of whom confiscated lands from the indigenous Mayan Indians and further increased the holdings of the landowning aristocracy.  Landowners were the extreme minority of the population that had descended from European immigrants, sometimes also intermarrying with the indigenous peoples.  Laws were also implemented that placed Indians at the complete disposal of the landlords for meeting the needs of their plantations.  They also created systems of debt slavery that resulted in the complete subjugation of the day laborers to the plantation owners.  These dictators especially catered to whims of the United Fruit Company, an American corporation that came to hold enormous swaths of Guatemalan banana plantations and became the dominant economic and political player in the country.

In 1944, these oppressive and inhumane policies led to a revolt known as the "October Revolution."  Soon after the military junta was ousted, the revolutionaries held Guatemala's first democratic elections which brought an educator, Juan José Arévalo Ph.D. to the presidency.  Arévalo and his successor both instituted multiple reforms which aimed to restore the rights of the Indian peasantry and limit the enormous political influence of foreign corporations, especially the United Fruit Company.  At the heart of these changes was a land reform bill which allowed peasants to farm land left fallow by the large plantations, giving the rural poor some measure of economic sustenance.  

Banana Plantation

Banana Plantation

In response, United Fruit lobbied the Eisenhower administration to launch a coup d'état to quell manufactured claims of communist influence in Guatemala.  This effort was especially buoyed by the brothers John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles, who held the fortuitous positions of Secretary of State and CIA Director at the time.  John Foster Dulles had previously been employed as a lawyer for United Fruit and continued to receive compensation from the company, while Allen Dulles was on its board of directors.  The subsequent coup deposed the democratically-elected president and installed a right-wing Guatemalan Army Colonel, Carlos Castillo Armas.  With the blessing of the United States, Armas began dissolving the social reforms instituted by the democratic government and returned all the lands and influence that the United Fruit Company had lost under the democratic presidencies.

Afterwards there were a series of military coups d’état.  The subsequent dictators continued to oppress the landless indigenous peasants and enrich the aristocratic landowners that helped them ascend to power, leading to increased social unrest.  This came to a head in the early 1960s when the revolutionary group Movimiento Revolucionario 13 Noviembre began an armed resistance against the dictators and began what would become the Guatemalan Civil War. 

For the next 36 years, the government waged war against the leftist rebels and the peasants sympathetic to their cause.  A reign of terror ensued as the military carried out mass atrocities against indigenous Indians, labor unions, critical journalists, and other dissidents.  These efforts were supported by military aid from the United States who was eager to maintain dictatorial regimes that would oppose any socialist or communist influence.  US Special Forces and the CIA were especially helpful in training the Guatemalan Army in anti-insurgency tactics that the US had learned in Vietnam.  An estimated 200,000 civilians were killed or "disappeared" during war, and only recently have some of the high-ranking military commanders that orchestrated these systematic killings been prosecuted in Guatemalan court.

In 1996, guerrilla groups and the government signed peace accords that breathed new hope into the future of Guatemala.  Although corruption remains rampant, political transitions since then have been peaceful and democratic.  In 2006, Guatemalan president Óscar Berger came to an agreement with the UN to create the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), whose purpose was to root out corruption and prosecute organized crime, especially that related to drug trafficking.  CICIG has since implicated multiple high-level governmental officials in numerous corruption scandals.  In April 2015, CICIG began releasing results from a year-long investigation into customs fraud and bribery in the Guatemalan government, implicating numerous high-level officials who then either stepped down or were arrested.  Thousands of Guatemalans took to the streets in peaceful protest to demand better representation.  On August 21, 2015 CICIG delivered the fatal blow to the corrupt administration - they released an investigation indicating that President Molina and Vice President Baldetti were both leading enormous networks of customs fraud and bribery.  Thousands of Guatemalans poured into the streets to demand their resignation, and in September the president finally resigned one day after he was impeached by congress.  The former president, vice president, and numerous other officials are currently jailed as legal proceedings unfold. 

In October 2015,  the former comedian Jimmy Morales was elected to the Guatemalan presidency.  His campaign was largely based on a anti-corruption and he gained significant traction as a political outsider.  It remains to be seen if he can confront the significant social and political issues facing the people of his country, but there is palpable excitement that his presidency could represent a departure from “business as usual” in Guatemala. 

Jimmy Morales

Jimmy Morales


Economic Progress

Since the end of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war in 1996, there has been a renewed effort to address the social and economic issues that have plagued the country for centuries.  Recently, Guatemala has been one of the strongest economic performers in Latin America, yet it remains tethered to its history of debt slavery and indentured servitude to the landowners and continues to have one of the greatest rates of inequality in Latin America.  Even with improving economic performance, the rates of poverty have actually increased from 51% in 2006 to 59.3% in 2014.  Guatemala continues to have some of the worst poverty, malnutrition, and maternal/child mortality rates in the region.

An improving economic picture will offer significant opportunities for the new government to foster inclusive economic growth and infrastructure improvement.  Investment in health and education continues to be hampered by the fact that Guatemala collects the lowest share of taxes of any country in the world relative to the size of its economy.  Rampant crime and violence also have significant economic costs and will need to be curtailed to foster private foreign investment. 

Guatemalans have also been migrating to the United States in record numbers, and more money is sent back to Guatemala from the United States than to any other Central American country.  These funds are crucial to their economy as they are equivalent to over one-half of the country's exports or one-tenth of its GDP.


Where we work

Jocotenango is a city of approximately 20,000 in the central highlands of Guatemala.  It is just north of the popular tourist destination of Antigua, but has a much more working-class population and significantly higher crime rates.  Most of the populace lives in an urban setting with the remainder scattered on the mountainsides surrounding the city.  Coffee production is one of main economic activities in the area, similar to much of the country.  The agricultural sector in general accounts for 31% of the Guatemalan labor force.  

Green coffee beans which will be harvested in November and December

Green coffee beans which will be harvested in November and December

Like most of Guatemala, Jocotenango is plagued by the dual issues of teenage pregnancy and fatherless homes.  Guatemala has the highest teen pregnancy rate in all of Latin America, so that almost a quarter of all births are to teenage mothers.  Oftentimes this results from rape by a family member which is almost never prosecuted.  The machismo culture is very accepting of sexual violence against women in general, especially in the indigenous Mayan culture.  The economic hardships of having a child during the teenage years is often compounded by absentee fathers.  Most of the children attending the El Buen Samaritano do not have fathers in the home and were enthralled to have attention from an adult male when we visited.  It was truly an eye-opening experience.