History and current context of philanthropy in Guatemala

0 Comment

History & Current Context Of Philanthropy In Guatemala

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

Brief History of Inequality in Guatemala

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

Guatemala is a Central American country with a unique history of 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 were 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]

Guatemalan Revolution 1944

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 the signage of a new Constitution by President Jacobo Arbenz, forced labor was abolished, free elections were held, freedom of ideology and autonomy for the universities were accepted, improvements were made in the health and education systems, and ultimately, antitrust measures were put 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 being deemed communism.

Labeled a communist, Arbenz was overthrown in 1954, and 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 Castillo Armas repealed the Constitution in an effort to return the country to its previous state, which solely benefitted the rich. This change led to the rise of guerilla warfare groups and caused one of the bloodiest internal armed conflicts in Latin America. Given the large proportion of targeted indigenous communities, it is considered by many 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 still far from being carried out 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 has been built on disparity and social inequalities, which has resulted in the country being categorized as one of the most unequal in the world.

According to data from the Guatemalan National Institute of Statistics (INE), 59.3 percent live in general poverty (surviving on less than four dollars a day), of which 23.4 percent live in extreme poverty (surviving on less than two dollars 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, such as the health system and the education system. 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 non-governmental organizations (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, groups of former guerrilla fighters founded NGOs that work for the redevelopment of the number of villages that were burned and “disappeared;” the reunification of displaced families and children who were kidnapped and illegally given up for adoption to families in Europe and the United States; and the persecution of countless 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.

Unfortunately, other NGOs have also formed 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 can be attributed once again to ideological divides. Volunteerism is associated with communist ideology. Many people remain fearful of being deemed 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

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

However, once again, we see how differences in ideologies in the philanthropic sector limit the impact being made and how the neglected are those who have faced inequality for generations. Two current situations demonstrate how philanthropic impact takes the backseat to ideology.

Due to COVID-19, many nonprofits such as Maya Traditions Foundation have paused projects in 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 being 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 has made news worldwide as the Guatemalan government has received billions of dollars to address COVID-19; however, these social assistance funds have not been used transparently for social aid. This has raised suspicions that the funding is only being spent to favor certain industries and conservative companies linked to Giammattei himself, which has generated questions of possible corruption and mismanagement of public funds by the current government.

April 25, 2020 witnessed another clash of ideology that limited the philanthropic impact being made 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 Guatemala City in order to cook and provide free hot meals to people in vulnerable situations and poverty. 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, who is directly linked to the most conservative political and economic groups in Guatemala, contacted one of Rayuela’s representatives in order to donate 200 pounds of chicken, among many other foods, to support the project. Unable to see the common goal, one of the restaurant’s partners rejected the aid due to ideological differences. Immediately following this altercation, the National Police, Ministry of Health, and the Municipality of Guatemala City tried to close the project down completely, claiming that it was 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 power groups continue to search for political spaces and social prestige, forgetting that the main purpose of philanthropy is to help the least privileged and most vulnerable people in the country.


The history of inequality and the realities of corruption within Guatemala have made it very difficult for the general Guatemalan population to participate in philanthropic efforts, to make donations of economic funds, and to volunteer with humanitarian organizations. There are still strong ideological biases that hinder this process, as the ghost of communist ideologies and the repercussions of such still very strongly exist within Guatemalan 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, infrastructure organizations such as Pionero Philanthropy aim to promote grassroots NGOs and local philanthropy in Guatemala by providing resources, establishing platforms among different stakeholders, and supporting data collection and sharing in the philanthropic sector.

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

[ii] During this period, the United Fruit Company (UFCO), a company based in the United States, came to Guatemala and obtained large land concessions for the exploitation, production, and export of bananas. However, vast territorial control was seemingly not enough for UFCO and, by means of presidential and congressional bribes, the company managed to be exempt from paying national taxes and 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” that gave power to the army and police to, without much cause, detain indigenous people and farmers and assign them to be “laborers” in the banana 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