Legacy of poverty and corruption

What hits me hardest when travelling in Central and South American countries is how children are treated, or maybe a better word would be – ignored. Their position is even worse than that of women in some countries.

Just having returned to the US from Guatemala, the images and facts related to that country are vividly on my mind. International aid organizations estimate that almost 50% of children in Guatemala are malnourished. The situation is even worse in the countryside where the figure is about 80%. The malnutrition often already starts in the womb, because women and girls are lowest in the family food chain after grandfather, father, brothers, male cousins and any other male of the household.

Mayas in San Pedro

Mayans in San Predro

Young girls are not often receiving sexual education and may get pregnant unbeknownst to them. Even though they might know how to avoid getting pregnant, they cannot always protect themselves. Rapes of young girls by their fathers, brothers and other males in their surroundings are not rare. Prenatal malnutrition adds to the poor outcomes of these pregnancies: the fetus isn’t getting enough proteins and other essential building blocks to grow a healthy brain.

Large families in the countryside are more the rule than the exception. This is usually not the fault of the Catholic church, as is the case in some other cultures.  It is more related to traditional macho attitudes, where a “real” man shows his potency by impregnating women. If the man does not get an education or is incapable of understanding family planning and long-term consequences of bringing cognitively handicapped children into the world, the situation precludes a change in these men’s behavior.

The soil in Guatemala is fertile and many crops can be and are cultivated there. The main ones are coffee, sugar cane, cotton, fresh vegetables and fruit. Most of the harvest and the best quality is exported. Corn is grown for local consumption, and corn flour seems to be the main ingredient of the daily diet. Freshly baked tortillas are sold at every street corner and eaten for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and sometimes also as snack. I found them to be bland since the dough consists of only corn flour and water.

Marijuana plants and poppies used for the production of drugs are grown at remote areas that are difficult to access. Economically, these plants are much more attractive crops for poor farmers than the legal ones. However, according to daily newspapers one gets the impression that the Guatemalan congress is persistently fighting against drug production. The army is dispatched to destroy poppy fields whenever they are detected.

The more educated locals with whom I spoke seemed skeptical of their government’s statements on any issue. The current President is a former comedian, and they suspect that the congress may act comically more than it governs. It also struck me as somewhat comical: on one hand the extreme poverty, lack of funds for improving the substandard health care and social services, on the other hand, the congress announced a salary and benefits’ increase of 14 percent for themselves. I hope it is a joke.

By the way, both the previous president and his vice-president are in jail since 2015. They are suspected of corruption and money laundering. Roxana Baldetti, the previous vice-president accumulated unexplained riches during the years in her governmental position. She bought five luxury properties and a helicopter. The corruption resulted in a scandal and she resigned, and was subsequently arrested. The United States would like to have her extradited as she is suspected of cocaine trafficking to the US.

My main takeaway from the Guatemala-trip is a reminder of how privileged I am, given my birthplace in a wealthy and responsible country. I feel an obligation to do my best to help the less fortunate. Maybe I could start by re-engaging in global poverty advocacy through Results, a nonprofit, grassroots advocacy organization…


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