History and current context of philanthropy in Guatemala

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In order to gain an understanding of the modern realities of philanthropy in the Republic of Guatemala, it is important to take a look at the history of the country.

Brief History of Inequality in Guatemala

Spaniard Conquistador Pedro de Alvarado led the initial efforts to conquer Guatemala

The history of Guatemala is rich with social inequality. Said to have begun with the Spanish conquest in 1524, this inequity has pervaded the country’s political and social development throughout its history.

Upon independence from the Spanish crown in 1821, the divide widened as new Guatemalan ethnic identities formed.[i] As experienced throughout the world, lighter skin color was associated with more power, authority, and privilege.

This divide influenced various discriminatory policies, including the “whitening” of Guatemala, which gifted indigenous land to white-skinned foreigners, during the late nineteenth century.[ii]

As the years passed, new, revolutionary thought took shape in Guatemala. On October 20, 1944, the revolution began, ending a series of dictatorial governments and replacing them with democracy. The voice of the people was finally heard. Through signing a new Constitution by President Jacobo Arbenz, it abolished forced labor and held free elections. It accepted the freedom of ideology and autonomy for universities, and made improvements in the health and education systems. It also put antitrust measures in place.[iii]

However, the revolution and the new democracy angered the country’s rich and privileged, who were now losing their monopolies. This shift resulted in the rise of ideological conflict between conservativism and what was deemed communism.

Labeled a communist, Arbenz was overthrown in 1954. Colonel Castillo Armas seized power through a coup d’état supported by the United States. Castillo Armas repealed the Constitution in an effort to return the country to its previous state. This action solely benefitted the rich. This change led to the rise of guerilla warfare and one of the bloodiest internal armed conflicts in Latin America. Given the large proportion of targeted indigenous communities many consider it to have been a genocide.[iv]

Jacobo Árbenz served as the 25th President of Guatemala from 1951 to 1954. He was a major figure in the 10 year Guatemalan Revolution.

Signature of Peace 1996: A New Guatemala?

In 1996, Guatemala implemented the Signature of Peace, which concluded the civil conflict. The country sought to rebuild its democracy and improve the quality of life of Guatemalans. However, these actions are yet to be fully This is due to a corrupt, inefficient, and unequal system that disproportionately affects the indigenous populations (Maya, Xinca, and Garifuna).

Guatemala has a current population of 17 million people, and approximately 50 percent self-identify as indigenous. The nation is built on disparity and social inequalities. This resulted in the country being categorized as one of the most unequal in the world.

According to the Guatemalan National Institute of Statistics, 59.3 % live in general poverty (less than $4 a day). Of this population, 23.4% live in extreme poverty (less than $2 a day). This heavily affects children, as 46.5 percent under the age of five experience chronic malnutrition. This leaves Guatemala with the fifth-highest chronic malnutrition rate worldwide. Additionally, women are disproportionately affected, as Guatemala continues to experience the third-highest rate of femicide in the world.

As if this were not enough, the country’s endemic corruption has weakened several public systems. These systems include health and education. Health services provided are precarious, and most health centers lack supplies for their operation. In addition, the public education system has been the victim of corruption by politicians, which has led to its ruin. This disproportionately affects indigenous and rural communities that do not have access to private education or private healthcare.

The Reality of NGOs and Philanthropy in Guatemala

Currently, NGOs and philanthropic organizations in Guatemala have an active role in trying to address the aforementioned realities of Guatemala and in everyday social life. According to January 2020 data from the Public Information Office of the Ministry of Governance in Guatemala, there are 1,394 NGOs, 12,601 civil associations, and 796 foundations legally registered in the nation. However, the history of divisiveness between communist and conservative groups continues to generate clashes of thought directly affecting development through this sector.

After the peace signing in 1996, former guerrilla fighters founded NGOs that work for the redevelopment of the number of villages that burned and “disappeared”. Others set up organizations for the reunification of displaced families and kidnapped children given for adoption to families abroad. Others created organizations to assist with justice for human rights violations made by the state against indigenous communities.

As a counterpart to these organizations, conservative families with high social prestige and economic power formed large foundations in Guatemala City. These foundations work hand-in-hand with large national companies to develop projects that impact groups close to their interests, including workers and municipalities where their connections are located. These efforts generally exclude a large percentage of Guatemalans who need financial assistance, specifically the indigenous population.

NGOs for unscrupulous purposes

Unfortunately, other NGOs form in Guatemala specifically for unscrupulous purposes. These have the sole aim of fraudulently stealing funds from the state, laundering money from drug trafficking, and conducting any other criminal activities. This has greatly contributed to the weakening of the name and stature of NGOs in the eyes of Guatemalans and has led to a lack of trust and public philanthropic giving to NGOs. Guatemalans prefer to participate in charitable giving through the Catholic or Evangelical church, the two primary religions, in the form of tithes and offerings. However, Guatemala has also seen a recent rise of corruption within the religious sector itself.

Due to this fear of corruption, the nonprofit sector receives the majority of its funding from U.S. donations. Organizations are highly dependent on U.S. fiscal sponsors and/or philanthropy consultancy services to benefit from the culture of philanthropy present in the United States.

Philanthropy in the form of volunteer hours is also not widely present in Guatemala. This is attributed again to ideological divides. Volunteerism is associated with communist ideology. Many people remain fearful of the label “communist” and made to “disappear,” and, therefore, do not participate. Conservative ideology, on the other hands, sees volunteerism as handouts to those who should simply work to get ahead.

However, in the instance of emergency, Guatemala does experience a surge of philanthropic efforts.

Ideologies and Philanthropy in the Days of COVID-19

the COVID-19 pandemic, like the majority of the world, affected Guatemala. Throughout this crisis, many Guatemalans decided to come together in attempts to support those in need. This was primarily accomplished through monetary and in-kind donations made by individuals, groups, and associations.

However, once again, differences in ideologies in the philanthropic sector limited positive impact.

2 examples of philanthropic impact taking a backseat to ideology.

Due to COVID-19, many nonprofits such as Maya Traditions Foundation have paused projects. They did this order to raise funds to purchase food and essential items for their stakeholders.

During this time of crisis, the Guatemalan government coordinated social assistance to aid those in need. However, this aid has only reached 200,000 people, a figure that is not remotely close to the totality of Guatemalans living in poverty and extreme poverty. For this reason, inhabitants who have not benefited by the public sector’s aid set to the streets to ask for help from their fellow citizens. Those with red flags are asking for donations of medicines, and those with white flags are urgently requesting food. By meeting these requests, we have seen a surge of human compassion and philanthropy to assist the most vulnerable. Those who could gave money, groceries, medicines, and more.

During the COVID-19 Pandemic, you can frequently see people waving white flags seeking help due to economic hardship. President Giammattei has labelled these people as members of “destabilizing” NGOs and groups linked to Communism.

This was the case until President Alejandro Giammattei’s press conference in which he asked his nation to stop the social assistance. He labeled people holding flags as members of “destabilizing” NGOs and groups linked to communism. He believed these people were paid by NGOs to ask for help as a protest or to attack his government in order to stain his record of management. This situation made news worldwide as the Guatemalan government received billions of dollars to address COVID-19. However, these social assistance funds weren’t used transparently for social aid. This raised suspicions that the funding was spent to favor certain companies linked to Giammattei himself. Questions arose of possible corruption and mismanagement of public funds by the government.

Another Clash of Ideology

April 25, 2020 witnessed another clash of ideology that limited the philanthropic impact in Guatemala. A popular bar/restaurant, Rayuela, known for its left-wing ideology, launched a project entitled “The Community Pot.” They began accepting monetary and in-kind donations in order to provide free meals to people in vulnerable situations. They received a lot of assistance from citizens and were able to serve over 1,000 plates each day. National Police, the Ministry of Health, and the Municipality of Guatemala City were helping to maintain order and ensure health protocols were in place.

That is, until the Arzu family, linked to the most conservative groups in Guatemala, contacted Rayuela in order to donate food to the project. Unable to see the common goal, one of the restaurant’s partners rejected the aid due to ideological differences. Following this altercation, the National Police, Ministry of Health, and Municipality of Guatemala City tried to close the project. They labelled it a health risk. Many people have viewed this attempted shutdown, which postponed the impact of the project, as political revenge. The ones affected and left without food, once again, are among the most vulnerable.

Ideological struggles and political fanaticism continue to destroy philanthropic efforts and spaces for Guatemalans in need. Both communist and conservative groups continue to search for political spaces and social prestige. They do this forgetting that the main purpose of philanthropy is to help the least privileged in the country.


The history of Guatemala is one of inequality. Furthermore, the realities of corruption have made it very difficult for the general population to participate in philanthropic efforts. There are still strong ideological biases that hinder this process, as the ghost of communist ideologies still exist within society. This lack of philanthropy is only furthered by the continued inequality and divisions seen today. The idea to use privilege to help those less fortunate is clouded by vast generalizations, stereotypes, and discrimination.

For these reasons, Pionero Philanthropy promotes local philanthropy in Guatemala by establishing platforms and data collection in the philanthropic sector.


[i] “Pure blood” Spaniards born in Guatemala (called Creoles), predominantly held the power within the nation. They took control of Mayan lands and peoples that inhabited them. They placed the indigenous communities in positions of poverty and forced labor.

[ii] During this period, the United Fruit Company (UFCO), a US company, came to Guatemala. UFCO obtained large land concessions for the exploitation, production, and export of bananas. However, vast territorial control was not enough for UFCO. Through presidential and congressional bribes, the company managed to be exempt from paying national taxes. It also had a “monopoly law” put in place to ensure that they would not have any competitors. In addition, they also manipulated the approval of laws “against loitering”. This law gave power to the army and police to detain indigenous people and assign them as “laborers” in the plantations.

[iii] The political power of the UFCO in Guatemala was directly affected by these changes. This was not to the liking of those bringing in millions of dollars in Guatemalan banana sales, especially since their plantation lands were redistributed back to the indigenous farmers from which they first came for their habitation and subsistence farming. For this reason, in 1954, UFCO, utilizing its strong connection with the CIA and the conservative sector of Guatemala, branded President Jacobo Arbenz a communist for expropriating land “in reserve or disuse” owned by the UFCO. This was the beginning of the CIA’s intervention in Guatemala, which would hasten the plans to end Guatemala’s “communist” government.

[iv] The civil conflict lasted 36 years from 1960 to 1996. During this time, 626 villages were destroyed, over 200,000 people were killed, over 40,000 people “disappeared,” and 1.5 million people were displaced.

By Asia Blackwell and Rodri Fresse