Social Exclusion of Indigenous Communities

By: Anfranz Vázquez Bragan

Corruption is, indeed, an enemy of good governance and development. Because the people of Guatemala recognize this, they carried out weekly protests for five months in front of the National Palace, demanding their president’s resignation… and they won. Otto Pérez Molina finally resigned hours before he was arrested on corruption accusations. On October 25th, Jimmy Morales, a conservative comedian and part of the National Convergence Front political party, won the Guatemalan presidency. His political campaign was based primarily on an anti-corruption platform. In fact, his political slogan was “neither corrupt nor thief,”[1] and his name did not show up on the election polls until after the corruption scandal was reported.[2] However, corruption is not the only enemy of development and good governance; Guatemala needs more than just an anti-corruption leadership.

Although the Guatemalan Civil War ended in 1996 with peace accords, the horrible human rights abuses that occurred during that 36-year period still haunt Guatemalan civil life. The discrimination against the indigenous people is still present, and indigenous identity itself is often denied due to constant fear of repression. While most attention is given to political corruption practices, we must not forget that daily exclusionary and discriminatory practices against the Guatemalan indigenous population have not been left in the past. Rather, they are still part of daily life, and (desperately) call for thoughtful consideration for they too are enemies of development, peace, and good governance.

Rigoberta Menchú, a Guatemalan indigenous woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, claims that “many people forget that in Guatemala we [the indigenous] are killed in two ways. One is direct repression . . . the other is hunger and poverty.”[3] Although indigenous people are not killed like before (they are not explicitly repressed and massacred as they were in the late 1970s and 1980s), they are still repressed and killed because of poverty and malnutrition.

In Guatemala, a predominantly poor country, the descendants of Mayan Indians have been the particular victims of social exclusion, and have thus been disproportionately affected by the nation’s struggles towards development. “Poverty is highly concentrated among indigenous communities, which comprise over 40% of the total population. In fact, government figures indicate that 7 out of every 10 people of indigenous descent live in poverty.”[4] This is mainly because the indigenous communities have traditionally been excluded —socioeconomically and politically— and most live in the rural part of Guatemalan society —which is practically completely ignored. “Guatemala is Central America’s largest country in terms of economy and population, and plays a pivotal role in regional trade and integration. The nation has one of the most skewed income distributions in the world, which heightens its characterization as a land of contrasts and a country of two faces.”[5] Because of the structural inequalities present in Guatemala and the global economy at large, the benefits of economic growth have only reached the small Guatemalan (urban) elite. On the other hand, indigenous communities living in rural Guatemala have no say in political processes, continue to be socially and politically excluded, and live in deprived conditions.

Exclusionary processes establish a hindrance to a nation’s development mainly because they further exacerbate inequalities and poverty. By not providing a proper place in society to specific groups of people, social participation and opportunity are practically denied. Consequently, poverty becomes an ingrained, almost irreversible, aspect of the social realm; that is, one in which the people are not only denied material means and services, but are also implicitly left without the potential and the courage to even try to change their current situation.

In 2011, 53.7% of Guatemalans lived in poverty.[6] The indigenous population, however, constitutes the majority. The indigenous and the non-indigenous population (as well as the urban versus the rural population) constitute the two different sectors of Guatemalan society. The “indigenous Mayan, Xinka, and Garífuna groups account for approximately 43% of the population . . . [and] most of Guatemala’s poor are rural indigenous people of Mayan descent who live in the highland regions (74.8% live in poverty, more than twice the percentage of non-indigenous).”[7] Three-fourths of indigenous people thus live in poverty. In fact, according to the International Fund for Agricultural Development, in 2010, 5.1 million of its 7.3 million total rural population (which is approximately half of the total population) lived in poverty —that is 70% of its rural population living in deprived and miserable conditions.[8]

Yes, corruption is terrible for a country, for its people, for development, for peace; eradicating corrupt practices must be a national objective, like it was during the five-month protests in Guatemala. However, a corruption scandal cannot be the only excuse for Guatemalans to protest. Lack of peace, equality, inclusion, opportunity, and education are all reasons to protest and are all reasons to ask for more.


[1] “Ni corrupto, ni ladrón.” (translation by author).

[2] José Elías, Jimmy Morales, el candidato sorpresa, El País, Oct. 22, 2015, http://internacional.elpais.com/internacional/2015/09/07/actualidad/1441605730_868386.html.

[3] James Painter, Guatemala: False Hope, False Freedom: The Rich, the Poor, and the Christian Democrats (1987).

[4] Rural Poverty in Guatemala, http://www.ruralpovertyportal.org/country/home/tags/guatemala (last visited Nov. 26, 2015).

[5] USAID, Guatemala Country Development Cooperation Strategy 2012-2016, (2012), http://www.usaid.gov/sites/default/files/documents/1862/GuatemalaCDCS.pdf.

[6] Economic Data of Guatemala, World Bank, http://data.worldbank.org/country/guatemala#cp_wdi (last visited Nov. 27, 2015).

[7] Guatemala County Development Cooperation Strategy, supra note 5.

[8] Rural Poverty in Guatemala, supra note 4.

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