ON THE SITUATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS
AND SOCIAL RIGHTS
The 1979-1980 Annual Report of the Inter-American Commission on Human
Rights contains the following observation with respect to economic, social and
The essence of the legal obligation incurred by any government in this
area is to strive to attain the economic and social aspirations of its people,
by following an order that assigns priority to the basic needs of health,
nutrition and education. The priority of the “rights of survival” and
“basic needs” is a natural consequence of the right to personal security.
The Government of Guatemala deposited its instrument of ratification of
the American Convention on Human Rights on May 25, 1978, and thereby assumed, inter
alia, the obligations set forth in Article 26 of that Convention:
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
Because of the great socio-economic disparities between the various
sectors of the population, which provide a fertile environment for the continued
violence, this Chapter will discuss the status of the basic health, nutritional
and educational needs of the Guatemalan people.
Guatemala is the richest of the Central American Republics in terms of
resources, and the most heavily populated.1
However, there is a notable lack of correspondence between the
considerable rates of economic growth that Guatemala has been experiencing in
and the improvements in the quality of life of the poorest 50% of the
Coffee is the largest export product, to the point where the recent
economic growth was the result of large revenues from coffee exports.
As the Inter-American Economic and Social Council (CIES) of the OAS said,
“the principal sources of the country's economic growth have come from the
production of goods and services for export, and not from any notable
development of the domestic economy that would enable its needs to be met”.3
Economically and socially, the poorer half of the Guatemalan population
is Indian. Guatemala's economy is sharply divided into a non-Indian urban
population and an Indian rural population. The latter is extremely poor and is
socially and culturally isolated from the more modern urban centers. The Indians
live on the altiplano, concentrated on subsistence farms. They are so
isolated from the culture that they do not even learn Spanish; they speak a
dialect of one of the current seventeen Indian languages derived from the Kelchi,
Quiché, Mam or Cakchiquel groups. Life expectancy and literacy rates are
disproportionately low, as are their landownership and income. Since the altiplano
is generally not suitable for the intensive farming of maize (corn), beans, or
other basic grains that constitute their principal food, most of the Indians are
seasonal workers who migrate to the large commercial farms in order to survive.
According to a recent analysis of income distribution in Guatemala, in
1979, 25% of the population received 66.5% of the income, while the remaining
75% received 33.5%. Economically speaking, Guatemala is characterized by the
absence of a middle class. “The cost-of-living index of three-quarters of the
population is very low, less than half the national average ($135 compared with
the per capita income of $302 in 1979)”.4
The stark disparities in income distribution reflect the system of
landownership. Since agriculture continues to be the most important sector of
the economy, economic and political power is concentrated in the hands of a
class consisting of a small number of land owners. According to a World Bank
document, the Guatemalan system of landownership can be described as follows:
Nine out of every ten people in rural Guatemala live on plots too small
with present farming techniques to provide the income needed to cover the basic
needs of one family without outside employment. At the other end of the scale,
80% of Guatemala's agricultural land is held in units larger than 7 hectares,
and these farms are owned by only two percent of farm families. The high
concentration of the indigenous population in the Western Highlands of Guatemala
accounts for much of the inequality in the distribution of land; this area makes
up only 26 percent of the country, but accommodates about 60 percent of the
population. The situation is made even more acute by the fact that the highlands
topography is very rugged and basically unsuited for cultivation. However,
because of the population pressure, a large proportion of this area is dedicated
to agriculture causing serious land erosion problems and reduced productivity.
In contrast, the fertile plains along the Pacific Coast are for the most part
held by relatively wealthy owners in large units and are dedicated to the
production of export crops such as sugar and cotton.5
The result of this situation is that most of the population lives in a
state of absolute poverty. Extreme poverty, the product of skewed distribution
of national wealth, has been defined as “a condition of life so limited by
malnutrition, disease, illiteracy, low life expectancy, and high infant
mortality as to be beneath any rational definition of human decency.”6
Between 1971 and 1975, 81.4% of children under 5 years of age were
suffering from some degree of malnutrition.9
General, but particularly, infant mortality and illiteracy rates have
traditionally been high (10.9 per 1,000 inhabitants, 82.9 per 1,000 live births
and 45.4% respectively). Because there are few schools in the rural areas,
approximately 69% of the rural population and 30% of the urban population are
The average level of formal schooling is estimated at 2.3 years, while
74% of the school-age population drops out of primary school.11
Life expectancy at birth in 1979 was estimated at 57.8 years, but this figure
varies significantly throughout the country according to the availability of
In its study of the economic and social situation of Guatemala, the World
Bank came to the conclusion that in comparison with its poorer neighbors,
Guatemalan health services were at the bottom of the scale. In 1972, when these
statistics were prepared, Guatemala had fewer doctors and nurses than any other
Central American country.13
Despite the urgent need to improve the health services and facilities,
state spending on this sector has been dropping since 1975.14
A WHO Report maintains:
Efforts are being made to rationalize the use of financial resources and
to increase progressively the funds earmarked for the implementation of health
There is a chronic lack of resources, due to unequal distribution of the
Gross National Product; the high and increasing costs of the health services
(resulting mainly from unsound decisions); increasing expectations and demands
on the part of the population; poor utilization of the resources available,
owing to lack of coordination between institutions and the various sectors
concerned with health; and the lack of managerial competence necessary to ensure
an optimal yield from those resources.15
The health situation in Guatemala is generally poor; but it is even more
critical in rural areas where the vast majority of the Indian population lives.
Only 18% have access to drinking water, in comparison with 76% of the urban
Fifty percent of recorded deaths are of children under five years of age,
and more than half of those are attributable to intestinal and respiratory
diseases, most of which could have been prevented. The poor quality and in some
cases, the lack of public services such as medical care, waste disposal and
sanitation and the lack of drinking water services and proper housing contribute
to the relatively high infant mortality rate of 82.9 per thousand live births.
Another factor contributing to the poor state of health in Guatemala,
particularly in rural areas, is malnutrition. The World Bank concludes that the
basic diet of the poor is deficient in calories, proteins minerals and vitamins.17
The poorer half of the population, for example, consumes only 56% of the minimum
protein requirement. Nearly one-third of the rural population and 82% of all
children under five years of age are suffering from malnutrition.18
Because children suffering from malnutrition perform poorly, the level of
education of the inhabitants is consequently low. According to the 1973 census,
51.8% of the population over 10 years of age is illiterate. Among the Indian
population age ten or older, 76.2% are illiterate.19
Although Guatemala is the richest of the Central American countries, it
invests less in education than the others, as shown in the following table:
Percentage of State Spending on Education20
Malnutrition and infant mortality are the result of an unequal
distribution of income, and not of a shortage of food. Although the GDP
quadrupled between 1950 and 1970, the unequal distribution of income has become
worse over time, because of the emphasis on increasing exports and expanding
capital-intensive industry. On the one hand, in 1948, the richest 25% of the
population of Guatemala received 60.5% of the income, and 66.5% in 1970; on the
other hand, the poorest 25% received 7% of the national income in 1948, while in
1970 it received only 6.7%.21
mid-1979, the population of Guatemala was estimated at 6,813,000. The
populations of the other countries are: El Salvador, 4.436,000; Honduras,
3,565,000; Nicaragua, 2,463,000; and Costa Rica, 2,166,000. Guatemala's GDP
at 1979 market prices was 6,966,700. The GDP of other nations: El Salvador,
3,060,700; Honduras, 1,947,000; Nicaragua, 1,545,000, and Costa Rica,
2,840,000. Source: Economic and Social Progress in Latin America,
Inter-American Development Bank, Washington, D.C. 1979, henceforth cited as
1979, the GDP rose by 5.3% as compared with 5.5% in 1979, with an annual
average of 8% in preceding years. In 1976-1977, economic activity was given
a boost by the coffee boom. However, the growth of the economy was slowed by
the drop in international prices and the growing political unrest in Central
America (IDB 1979).
y Perspectivas de la Economía Guatemalteca 1978-1980, Permanent
Executive Committee, Inter-American Economic and Social Council,
Organization of American States, Washington, D.C. 1980.
Economic and Social Position and Prospects, World Bank, Washington, D.C.
1978, henceforth cited as “World Bank”. Page 12.
Bank, page 72.
and Basic Needs, World Bank, Washington, D.C., September 1980, Page 3.
1978. Page 258.
Bank, Page 8.
and Social Progress in Latin America. IDB 1978. Page 138.
Bank, Page 20.
and Social Progress in Latin America. IDB 1976.
Bank, Page 21.
1976, 1977, 1978, 1979.
Report on the World Health Situation; Part II, Review by Country and Area,
World Health Organization, Switzerland, 1980. Page 91.
Social Action Plan, General Secretariat of the National Economic
Planning Council, Guatemala, 1980. The World Bank Study provides even more
alarming statistics: 15% of rural homes and 23% of urban housing have access
to running water.
Bank. Page 18.
Deficiencies in Latin America, Organization of American States, May
1979. Page 100.
1977, 1978 and 1979.
Bank, and Fox, Donald T., Human Rights in Guatemala, International
Commission of Jurists, Geneva, Switzerland, 1979. Page 5.