Providing Aid after Genocide: President Obama’s Global Health Initiative Targets Guatemala

Written by Christina Lorella

While Guatemala identifies as a lower-middle income nation, the disparities between rich and poor remain devastatingly apparent, making many of its inhabitants the least nourished in the world.

In fact, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, “only Afghanistan and Yemen fare worse.” The extreme poverty that many Guatemalans face, especially indigenous Mayans, has caused widespread malnourishment that has manifested in countless cases of growth disorders among children, often referred to as “stunting.”

The Center for Economic and Policy Research reports that, “half of all Guatemalan children under five are stunted and in the Western Highlands, it’s seven out of ten.” That is no surprise considering half of the nearly fourteen million citizens still live in poverty, and another sixteen percent live in extreme poverty, surviving on about $1.00 a day, according to data collected by UNICEF.

Global Post, an international news agency, has reported that those “most affected by malnutrition are the indigenous Mayans, who make up 40 percent of the country and have twice the rate of stunting of the non-indigenous.”

Sadly, the United States may be at blame for such horrifying statistics.

In 1953, under the authority of President Eisenhower, the United States Central Intelligence Agency launched Operation PBSUCCESS. The  covert operation was intended to put a halt to any leftist or socialist activities occuring in Guatemala, which were being perceived by large fruit corporations including the U.S. State Department and United Fruit (which is now known as the popular Chiquita Brands International). The two groups feared leftist views on labor unions and workers rights. They knew that organization amongst workers could effect their profits.

As a result, the United States CIA, in colloboration with United Fruit, carefully picked Carlos Castill0 Armas, a very right-winged Colonel in the Guatemalan Army, to lead 400 fighers in the new “Liberation Army.” They were given strict orders to overthrow the democratically-elected President of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman.

Arbenz had widespread support amongst the people of Guatemala because of his promises to redisburse any unused or unfarmed land to peasants, most of which were indigenous Mayans. At the time, only two percent of the people owned seventy percent of the land. In fact, it was United Fruit and other large U.S. corporations that controlled most of the land. A reform would threaten American interest.

The Eisenhhower administration, along with the CIA, feared Arbenz’s government and deemed it “communist.”  Together, United Fruit and the U.S. government felt the need to intervene.

In 1954, after overthrowing Arbenz in a Coup d’état, a CIA-funded Armas banned all labor unions and strictly prohibited any left-wing political parties. Political activists revolted and caused a radical leftist party to form. Thus, the Guatemalan Civil War began.

In the years to follow, Guatemala experienced coup after coup, with constant warfare occuring between the current Guatemalan governments and insurgencies. The socioeconomic status of the country worsened and the indigenious Mayans became the target of extreme hatred and racism.

Through the efforts of the Catholic church, the United Nations, and several politicians interested in ending the war, a peace agreement was reached in 1996, some thirty-six years later.

It is estimated that 200,000 people were killed in the Gutemalan Civil War and another 50,000 went missing. A devastating 1 million people, mostly of Mayan descent, were displaced as a result of the warfare. Ironically, the United States immigration laws did not recognize Guatemalans as refugees, despite U.S. involvement in the war.

Relatives of victims of the Guatemalan Civil War commemorate the 10th anniversary of the publication of the Truth Commission report. Photo Credit: Associated Press

Global Visionaries has an office in San Miguel Escobar, a small town outside of Antigua, located in the Western Highlands. It is there that we strive to enrich the lives of the Mayan people, who still suffer greatly from the devastation that thirty-six years of oppression caused. The Obama Administration’s Global Health Initiative of 2009 (GHI) strives to do the same.

GHI has teamed up Guatemala’s Ministry of Health and various organizations to help fight the malnutrition epidemic plaguing the country. In 2009, GHI promised to devote $63 million over the course of six years to countries most in need of help, including Guatemala.  In May of 2009, Obama addressed the need for global aid in an official White House statement, saying that Americans “have a responsibility to protect the health of our people, while saving lives, reducing suffering, and supporting the health and dignity of people everywhere.”

The current GHI strategy in Guatemala aims to increase access to public health in areas where services are either lacking or nonexistent. The initiative has three main areas of concentration, which were developed as a result of evidence-based interventions in other vulnerable populations.  The first goal is to improve access to quality maternal and child health, as well as reproductive health and family planning, especially in indigenious populations.  The second goal is to prevent chronic malnutrtion for children under two years of age, again with a special focus on rural and indegious people.  Lastly, the GHI strives to “strengthen the use of information for action at all levels of the health system.”

We can only hope that, through the Global Health Initiative and the help of other programs, Guatemalans will one day be able to look beyond the terrible atrocities of our past, and recognize our desire for peace now and in the future.

To learn more about the atrocities caused by Chiquita Banana, click here. Additionally I have provided a link to both the Spanish and English version of Pablo Neruda’s poem, “La United Fruit Co.” Neruda, a Chilean poet and politician, was the winner of the 1971 Nobel Prize for Literature.


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