Historical Causes of Poverty in Guatemala

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GUATEMALA CITY — Guatemala is a nation that is characterized by its rich, diverse culture. However, it is equally characterized by severe inequality and poverty. Despite significant progress in the last two decades, Guatemala’s poverty rate was still 59.3 percent in 2014.

Ironically, Guatemala boasts the highest GDP in Central America, yet still has some of the highest malnutrition and mother-child mortality rates in the region. The primary causes of poverty in Guatemala are its economic, social and land inequality rates, which are among the highest in the world.

It is estimated that the top 5 percent controls or owns more than 85 percent of the wealth in Guatemala. In turn, Guatemala has no real middle class and poverty in overwhelmingly concentrated in rural areas with indigenous populations. More than 75 percent of Guatemala’s indigenous population lives in extreme poverty.

Guatemala’s current situation of inequality and poverty is hundreds of years in the making. Guatemala, home to the ethnic Maya, was first conquered by Spain in the sixteenth century. After gaining independence in 1821, the state never achieved true stability. The end of the decade-long Guatemalan Revolution in 1954 was only met with the beginning of a 36-year civil war between 1960 and 1996.

The indigenous population was never actively involved in Guatemala’s conflicts until the third and most devastating phase of the civil war. Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, a U.S.-backed counterinsurgency effort destroyed 600 indigenous villages, murdered more than 200,000 people, and displaced one million more.

Yet, the events of the twentieth century are not the root causes of poverty in Guatemala and did not create the nation’s inequality. The strife greatly hindered the state’s ability to develop into a modern nation and therefore worsened pre-existing conditions. In reality the country’s historical pattern of exclusion dates back to the 1800s.

Unlike its landscape and peoples, Guatemala’s economy is rather singular and has always been dominated by agriculture, particularly coffee. When the market for coffee emerged in the late 1800s, the economic elite (primarily of European origin) utilized old Spanish legislation to claim and privatize large amounts of land to use for plantations. This not only destroyed the tradition of communal lands, but also forced indigenous people to move to higher altitudes with less fertile land for their subsistence farming.

During the civil war, the number of families with too little land to support themselves increased by 37 percent and the rate of landless peasants reached one-quarter of the workforce. In 1979 less than 2 percent of the population controlled more than two-thirds of the land, and it is estimated that the situation has not significantly changed since.

Furthermore, the indigenous population was legally exploited for forced labor until the mid-1900s. In 1873, the government required that all male citizens provide free labor on public works projects to build roads; in reality, only indigenous males were forced to do so and it was the plantation owners that benefited. In 1934, the government decreed that all landless peasants must work 150 days a year on a plantation. Indentured servitude was also common among workers whose debts were piled so high that they essentially belonged to the wealthy landowners.

Fortunately, Guatemala has made great progress since the 1996 Peace Accords that emphasize human and sustainable development, the re-integration of indigenous people and the strengthening of an inclusive democracy. In the past 25 years, the country has increased tax revenues and public spending as well as improved access to basic utility services.

The causes of poverty in Guatemala are heavily rooted in its history of inequality and exclusivity. However, going forward Guatemala has the strong potential to reach its social objectives and alleviate poverty through economic growth, development and equality.

Catherine Fredette

Photo: Flickr

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About Author

Catherine Fredette

Catherine writes for The Borgen Project from Kansas City. Her academic interests include International Relations and History, and she goes to the University in Scotland.

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