University of Minnesota

Fourth Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Guatemala, Inter-Am. C.H.R., OEA/Ser.L/V/II.83, Doc. 16 rev. (1993).







Guatemala is one of the four countries of the region that the United Nations[4] classifies as having the lowest human development. In other words, the indices of income distribution and services to the people are among the lowest,[5] even though Guatemala has a gross per capita product more typical of the median human development countries.[6]

Though conditions are bad in urban areas, they are even worse in rural areas, where opportunities for education, access to health services, etc., are approximately half what they are for the urban public. In 1989, official statistics showed that 77% of the families were below the poverty line, and that 94.4% of the unemployed lived in extreme poverty, as did 66.8% of those who said they were employed.

As for the health services:

- health programs cover 14% of the population;[7] infant mortality is 57%;[8]

- in 1987 33.5% of the overall population suffered from malnutrition, while 57.8% suffered from chronic malnutrition;[9]

As for educational services:[10]

- Along with Haiti and Paraguay, Guatemala has the lowest index in the region for educational spending as a percentage of GDP, at 1.8% in 1985.[11]

- With the exception of Haiti, it has the lowest rate of enrollment in primary and secondary education. For every 100 children between the ages of 6 and 11 (net rate), only 58% attended school in 1980. While the figures appear to show a nominal increase by 1990, the net and gross rates (enrollment for all ages) in primary education have remained virtually unchanged in the last ten years. However, from 1986-1988 the real per capita expenditure for education has increased significantly. During the Serrano Administration - according to information from the Government - the educational budget has doubled.

- Illiteracy among the population 15 years of age and older is the highest of all the countries of the region, with the exception of Haiti. In 1990, 45 of every 100 adults did not know how to read or write.

The latifundio-minifundio system is spreading and the disparity in the distribution of land is becoming greater. Some 2.1% of farm property owners have 72% of the farmland and receive 90% of the farm credit. On the other hand, there are 548,000 minifundios, averaging 1.77 manzanas[12] in size. They receive only 4% of all farm credit.

A major Maya-Quiche organization ( the "Comite de Unidad Campesina" C.U.C.) has stated that no legal initiatives have been promulgated to protect the peasants against the taking of their lands, nor to promote increased access to land ownership. The C.U.C. also stated that there exists no legal norm that recognizes rights originating in the possession and working of the land by generations of family members. They also indicate that the Law of Substitute Title ("Ley de Titulacion Supletoria") because of its complexity discriminates against the small producer. There is no legal instrument that provides for daily workers or farmworkers on big ranches to cultivate the unused lands to produce basic crops.

They also indicate that there exists an obsolete law that taxes idle land with de minimus payments. Further, they assert that Decree 11551 of Agrarian Transformation is used only for electoral reasons, and it pushes the peasants living in poverty, to deplete the country's forests. These lands are then quickly exhausted by erosion and overplanting, and turned into grazing lands for the large landowners.

The Government, to the contrary, maintains with respect to Decree 11551 that "it has been the vehicle for the majority of the people to gradually obtain access to land ownership, and that as a result of this law 16.101 property titles were issued, and that this Administration plans to issue titles to 10.755 families.[13]

The Guatemalan Bishops said in an Apostolic Letter:

... Because we are convinced that no situation is more painful and demands a more expeditious solution. Many are the problems that afflict our brothers of the countryside in their long calvary of suffering, but the lack of land should be consider as the fundamental nucleus of all the social problems of our country.

In his report on the first constitutional period 1987-1992,[14] the Attorney for Human Rights illustrates the dynamics of these socioeconomic conditions and their impact on the population:

The history of economic activity analyzed here and how it resulted in an economic, political and social crisis that surfaced early in the 1980s, shows that the development style implemented was very biased in favor of landowners and industrialists, while the other sectors of Guatemalan society saw no real gains.

This development style allowed economic growth in some productive sectors and in the economy overall, while postponing the structural changes needed for this process to bring about the kind of national development that would benefit all Guatemalans. The result has been that the latifundio-minifundio dichotomy has become even more pronounced.

The latifundio benefitted from the diversification and modernization of the farm sector, which in turn centralized the wealth generated during that period; at the same time, the minifundios increased in number but decreased in size. Whereas in 1950 there were some 300,000 peasant farms averaging 2.5 manzanas in size, by 1980 there were an estimated 548,000 peasant farms, averaging 1.77 manzanas. As a result, in 1982 86% of the poorest families in the country were living in rural areas. ...Over 60% of the country's population lives in this (rural) sector. By 1990, 83% did not have sufficient income to cover basic necessities.

Over half of the existing housing did not have water supply services, and 63% had no latrines. This is why cholera morbus may make serious inroads among Guatemala's poor and may even become endemic. In effect, there were almost 15,000 cases of cholera in 1992, double the number the previous year.[15]

This indicates that 80% of the population is living in poverty; in other words, 8 of the 10 million Guatemalans are unable to satisfy their basic needs and 5.1 million are indigent and living in subhuman conditions.


In early 1992, the present administration of President Jorge Serrano Elías prepared and published a plan of action for dealing with the country's socio-economic crisis. The plan of action put special emphasis on human development, children and youth.[16]

a) The Government lists the following as the main problems to be addressed and cites the related official statistics:

- The increase in poverty: From 63% in 1980 to 77% in 1989.

- The rise in open unemployment and underemployment: Formal employment dropped from 755,000 jobs in 1980 to 591,000 in 1989; the rate of total unemployment went from 31.2% in 1980 to 41% in 1990, paralleled by a decline in real wages. Some 41% of the economically active population does not have any education.

- Health problems: In 1989, mortality among children ages 5 years and under was 102 per thousand live births and the principal causes of death among children were diarrheic diseases, acute respiratory infections and malnutrition.

- Decline in nutrition: Malnutrition in children between the ages of 5 and 9 who attend school is 37%.

- Insufficient education: For every 100 children who began elementary school in 1978, 63 dropped out by 1984; that figure increases to 85 per 100 enrolled in rural areas.

- Women's marginal status: Because they have little opportunity to educate themselves (in rural areas only 49 of every 100 girls enroll in elementary school and most will drop out before completing it; they tend to marry early in life and to have many children (six on average), which is one of the reasons why infant and maternal mortality are so high.

- Children in especially difficult circumstances: At present, 1,600,000 children are working to earn an income and must support themselves and contribute to the family income. Their labor rights are constantly violated. The armed conflict has orphaned 150,000 children and widowed 50,000 women, and these victims of war are beset by every conceivable problem. The budgetary appropriation for social assistance and welfare programs in 1990 was less than $2 million, in other words 0.4% of total public spending or less than one quetzal per child per year.

- Degradation of natural resources: Guatemala is losing 153,000 hectares of forests each year.

b) With such enormous problems, the Serrano Administration's plan for the 1991-1996 period can be summarized as follows:

The Plan's social strategy: basic principles and objectives

In recent years, large segments of the Guatemalan population have found it increasingly difficult to get the basic goods and services that would afford them a decent existence and opportunities for social mobility. In that scenario, the Government's social policy faces the challenge of integrating Guatemalan society so that all citizens share more equally in the benefits of development.

One of the fundamental objectives of the economic strategy is to help create productive employment by maintaining the basic conditions of stability, with more open markets, proper incentives and institutional support arrangements. The goal of the social strategy is to make certain that the individual will be better off and better educated (education, nutrition for pregnant women and children, and public health care, including water supply and sewerage infrastructure) so that all Guatemalans might grow up in a just society.

And so, the policy on "human development, children and youth" is geared to the following objectives:

Improving the health of the population, with emphasis on children and women and preferential attention for groups that are at risk.

Promoting better nutrition and a healthier diet among the Guatemalan public.

Reducing to the maximum the shortfalls in education and illiteracy.

Strengthening the family as the basic unit of society.

Giving women better educational and cultural opportunities, safeguarding their health, incorporating them into the labor force on a fair and equal footing, dividing up family responsibilities and expanding services to provide support to groups of women who are particularly needy.

Providing protection and the assistance needed to young boys and girls whose circumstances are particularly difficult.

Providing immediate care to children and widows who suffered by the armed conflict, guaranteeing them food, medical attention, education, legal assistance and basic services.

Substantially improving environmental conditions as a means to ensure the survival and development of young children, especially in poor and poverty-stricken areas.

c. To push these policies, the Government of Guatemala will initially use the following programs:

National Peace Fund (FONAPAZ)

The effort is aimed at helping the people directly hurt by the armed conflict, which includes refugees, displaced persons, repatriated persons, the demobilized, those in settlements and other sectors of the population, among them people from the peace zone and families that, though they remained in their communities, are experiencing similar kinds of problems. FONAPAZ's target population is over 2,300,000 people.

National Microenterprise Support Program (SIMME)

For the 1992-96 five-year period, SIMME hopes to help no less than 150,000 microentrepreneurs by supplying individual loans averaging Q. 3,800, for a total of Q. 575 million.

Emergency and Social Solidarity Fund (FESS)

This fund serves local communities with populations of 5,000 or under by conducting projects in health, nutrition, education, agricultural development, textiles, crafts, roads, water supply systems and rehabilitation of public buildings. Estimates are that FESS will need Q. 170,000 during the 1992-1996 period for these activities. Of that total, 40% would be local funds and 60% grants and loans now being negotiated.

Integral development of rural communities

This plan covers the departments of El Quiché, Huehuetenango, San Marcos and El Progreso, and targets people living in villages and hamlets of under 2,000 inhabitants.

For each of its components, the Social Development Plan of Action has specific activities and goals for the 1992-1996 period and the 1997-2000 period. A few examples of the goals to be accomplished by 1996 are as follows: in health, infant mortality is to be cut to 42 per thousand and the budgetary appropriation for the health sector is to be increased to 2% of the GDP by 1996. In nutrition, one of the goals is to reduce the percentage of undernourished children to 24%. In education, some of the goals include increasing literacy among the adult population to 60%, getting 80% of all children enrolled in elementary education, increasing the percentage of those who complete their elementary education to 58% of original enrollment, and adding the concepts of peace, democracy and solidarity to school curricula. To strengthen the family, the goals are to create no less than 12,000 community day-care homes nationwide. As for children in difficult circumstances, the goal is to get 20% of the marginal children or children working in the street into technical or job-training programs. As for children hurt by the armed conflict, the goal is to provide up to 70% with food, educational, medical and legal assistance, and to document and legally certify the disappearance and death of parents. As for the environment, one of the many goals proposed for 1996 is to supply drinking water to 55% of rural communities.

These proposed goals will call for an overall investment over the four-year period of Q. 7.077 billion or US$1.4 billion (somewhere between 1.5% and 2.5% of real GDP for those four years); two thirds would be financed with public and private Guatemalan funds, and the

rest with external funds.


The Commission has analyzed this information, bearing in mind the provision of Chapter III of the American Convention on Human Rights, which concerns Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,[17] and the provisions of articles 1 and 24 of that Convention which concern respect for the rights and freedoms recognized therein, without discrimination, and the equality of all persons before the law and their right to equal protection of the law.

After reviewing the information supplied by the Government and by nongovernmental organizations, the Commission finds that the disparities in the actual enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights are abysmal and effectively discriminate against large sectors of the population, particularly the Guatemalan Maya-Quiché.

As for Article 26, The States Parties have undertaken to adopt measures to the extent of their resources to achieve progressively the effective realization of these rights. The Commission finds that the resources allocated to social problems represent a portion of GNP that is disproportionate to the magnitude of the inaqualities in internal distribution. Even assuming the goals proposed for the periods 1992-1996 and 1996-2000 are achieved, the social inequalities will remain and continue to be serious and discriminatory.

The figures on the distribution of domestic credit show that not only is investment in social programs insufficient, but access to credit is discriminatory. This merely exacerbates the inequality of opportunities and the attendant social tensions.




[4] The others are Haiti, Honduras and Bolivia.

[5] United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) "Human Development Report 1993" New York, 1993. pp. 135/136.

[6] ibidem, pp.135/136.

[7] Mesa Lago, Carmelo "Aspectos económicos financieros para la seguridad social en América Latina y el Caribe." Document prepared for the world Bank published in ECLAC Equidad y Transformación Productiva, Santiago, Chile, 1992; and "Analysis of Situation of Women and Children", by SEGEPLAN and UNICEF, Aug. 1991.

[8] Official figures. "Observaciones y Consideraciones del Gobierno de Guatemala al Proyecto de Informer de la CIDH 1991-1992" M. Relaciones Exteriores Guatemala, 1993.

[9] Pan American Health Organization: Health Conditions in Latin America. Washington, D.C. 1990. However, in its "Observations to the provisional version of the report" the government states that the population covered by health services reaches 54%, 14% by the private sector and 40% the public sector.

[10] Except where otherwise mentioned, the data come from the document titled Equidad y saber. ECLAC-UNESCO, Santiago, Chile, 1992.

[11] The most recent data. Later estimates do not seem to show any significant change.

[12] A manzana is roughly 2.2 acres.

[13] "Observations by the government . . . " 1993, p. 6.

[14] Attorney for human rights; "Los Derechos Humanos: un compromiso por la justicia y la paz" 1987-1992. Guatemala C.A. (no date).

[15] There were almost 15000 cases of cholera in 1992, twice as many from the year before. On February 1, 1993, the Central American Council for Housing stated that Guatemala is the country with the highest housing deficit in Central America, as more than 50% of the population lacks minimal quarters, 62% of all houses have dirt floors, and more than 50% have only one room for the whole family; according to official data.

[16] SEGEPLAN. op. cit. 1992.

[17] CHAPTER III - ECONOMIC, SOCIAL, AND CULTURAL RIGHTS. Article 26. Progressive Development.

The States Parties undertake to adopt measures, both internally and through international cooperation, especially those of an economic and technical nature, with a view to achieving progressively, by legislation or other appropriate means, the full realization of the rights implicit in the economic, social, educational, scientific, and cultural standards set forth in the Charter of the Organization of American States as amended by the Protocol of Buenos Aires, to the extent of their resources.


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