doc. 21 rev. 2
October 1981
Original: Spanish







A.          General Considerations


          1.          The 1979-1980 Annual Report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights contains the following observation with respect to economic, social and cultural rights:


         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.


          2.          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 Aires.


          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.


B.       The Socio-economic Structure


          1.          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 recent years,2 and the improvements in the quality of life of the poorest 50% of the population.


          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


          2.          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.


          3.          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


          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


          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


          6.          Guatemala's population of 6,813,000 is growing at an annual rate of 2.9%, and by 1985, will reach 8,083,000.7 Approximately 45% of the population is under 15 years of age.8


          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 illiterate.10


          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 public services.12


C.          Health, Nutrition and Education


          1.          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


          2.          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 programs.


         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


          3.          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 population.16


          4.          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.


          5.          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


          6.          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


          7.          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













El Salvador















Costa Rica






          8.          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

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1             In 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 “IDB 1979”.

2             In 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).

3             Situación 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.

4             Guatemala: Economic and Social Position and Prospects, World Bank, Washington, D.C. 1978, henceforth cited as “World Bank”. Page 12.

5             World Bank, page 72.

6             Poverty and Basic Needs, World Bank, Washington, D.C., September 1980, Page 3.

7             IDB 1978. Page 258.

8             World Bank, Page 8.

9             Economic and Social Progress in Latin America. IDB 1978. Page 138.

10             World Bank, Page 20.

11             Economic and Social Progress in Latin America. IDB 1976.

12             IDB, 1979.

13             World Bank, Page 21.

14             IDB 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979.

15             Sixth Report on the World Health Situation; Part II, Review by Country and Area, World Health Organization, Switzerland, 1980. Page 91.

16             1980-1982, 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.

17             World Bank. Page 18.

18             OAS. Page 10.

19             Educational Deficiencies in Latin America, Organization of American States, May 1979. Page 100.

20             IDB 1977, 1978 and 1979.

21             World Bank, and Fox, Donald T., Human Rights in Guatemala, International Commission of Jurists, Geneva, Switzerland, 1979. Page 5.