Guatemala / OT Without Borders

Apartheid in Guatemala?

“The world might well congratulate itself by
apartheid’s collapse. Yet, in countries throughout
the world, the structure and practice of a functional
apartheid persists–in the United States and other
developed countries as elsewhere. While we may
share in the celebration of the collapse of apartheid
in South Africa we should not be blinded to the
tenacity of apartheid in its various guises and
its destructive consequences throughout the world.
Groups of people are marginalized, exploited and
abused, as a result both of their ethnicity and of their
class; for being ‘the Other’…Whether apartheid is
official government policy or de facto (functional)
may be a significant distinction but the health impact
on ‘the others’ may not be obviously distinctive.”



This quote from one of my readings hearkens back to my very first post where I mentioned the concept of occupational apartheid where people are not able to do the things they find meaningful or lead as healthy lives as they may need or desire to because of various situational forces barring them from access to opportunities.

This is a concept we are studying as it relates to Guatemala, here in Guatemala at the field school. It’s a country that struggles with functional or occupational apartheid due to a HUGE income (the wealthiest 10% of the country consumes about 43% of the country’s GDP) and land distribution inequalities (commercial farms represent less than 2% of farms in Guatemala, but take up 57% of the land), amongst other things.

A quick overview: In Guatemala the majority of the population is made up of indigenous Mayan communities who live in rural areas who are the poorest, with the least access to resources/healthcare/education, and have the least political power in the country. Approximately 51% of the population lives off of $2 a day, and 15% live off of $1 a day or less. There is a rising middle class which is a good sign, albeit on a small scale, however the country is “owned” by what is basically an oligarchy – it started out as 5 families who owned all the land and according to my professor is now more like 20 families. Health insurance doesn’t really exist here. Only about 17% of the population are formally employed and eligible for IGGS (Guatemalan social security which helps cover some medical costs), and everyone else pays out of pocket for medical expenses which can eat up more than 60% of one’s income.

The government really isn’t the answer to all the problems though since the entire government changes every 4 years.Yhere’s no civil service or social structures in place. Plus there is still a deep seated mistrust of the government, as well as the police, due to the government’s rule of terror and genocide throughout the 36-year civil war which only ended in 1996 and most notably affected the Mayan and rural communities. Thus NGOs are playing an important role here in Guatemala – providing, facilitating, and managing services that one might usually ascribe to a government. The government gets very little tax money to help support any kind of real infrastructure, but also they are very fractured politically and about what to prioritize for their country. For years, organizations like USAID and others have been pouring money into Guatemala with very little changes taking place. There are so many issues at play here…I am only scraping the surface. In all honesty, Guatemala is a bit of a hot mess. And it’s overwhelming thinking about how to help and get it onto the right track for a sustainable, progressive future. At this point though, it seems supporting the current NGOs that are on the right track, raising awareness in the younger generation and instilling in them a new conscience that will hopefully steer them in the direction of pushing for a more just society are a few ways we can help.

I want to highlight a few NGOs here that were mentioned in our readings and also ones  we have toured and learned about. They are doing great and innovative things by setting up occupation-based community programs (yay!).

  • Long Way Home built a technical training school and helps communities recycle trash by using it as building materials  and also as a training tool for sustainable practices.
  • Common Hope facilitates donations to sponsor children to help them finish high school (a big feat here in Guate) and also helps the families build affordable housing, offers affordable “cleaner” stoves, offers affordable health care services, and trains educators to encourage retention rates in schools. They also use a program called “sweat equity” where families who can’t pay for services can work off their debts by doing landscaping, cooking, or cleaning around the facility’s campus or other places. This is actually based on what they have found in working with families, that they appreciate the services more when they have to work for them.
  • TESS Unlimited works with the hospital I am volunteering at and helps find babies in need of surgery for cleft lip/palate or who need medical treatment  for malnutrition by providing the money, transportation help for families,nutritional milk formulas etc. Apparently one of the babies I particularly love at the hospital was one of this org’s finds and just this past Sunday, the organization head ran a half marathon to raise money for the baby’s surgery, yay! She also has a program KIDS Restaurant program where street kids learn valuable skills working in a restaurant. I’m going there for dinner this Friday (aka my BIRTHDAY!) 

IN OTHER NEWS: This Saturday is my Hike for Water with Ecofiltro up Volcan Fuego! It’s going to be about 5 hours up (and down?), involving some “microclimates” as I am told, and yes, it’s  an active volcano. Wish me luck! If you are feeling generous and want to donate to a great cause visit my donation page and read more. Gracias! Also tomorrow is the big day...the big 3-0… 🙂


One thought on “Apartheid in Guatemala?

  1. Pingback: Alternative Building…With Pooh & Traditional Healers | OT Without Borders

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