The CIA and malnutrition: Guatemala’s shackles, past and present

Think for a moment about the parts of the world we associate with malnutrition. Sub-saharan Africa during an acute famine, natural disaster zones, or impoverished regions of the Indian subcontinent. It may come as a surprise that Guatemala is the world’s third worst country for chronic malnutrition, behind only Haiti and Angola.

Sometimes called the Land of Eternal Spring – this lush and verdant country has an abundance of food thanks to plenty of rain, sunshine and astonishingly fertile volcanic soil.

Hills above Lanquin

Local markets feature some of the plumpest, most colourful fruit and vegetables you’re likely to see. So why are children being permanently damaged, even killed, by malnutrition?

One huge problem is that in many Mayan communities, for the most part far poorer than their Latino compatriots, children are well fed but badly fed. There is seemingly no limit to the Central American sweet tooth and among Mayans this is even more pronounced. The same globalisation that has done little for their economic prospects has brought with it a wave of addictive but highly unhealthy sweet treats.

Last week I sat on a boat on Lake Atitlan and watched as a Tz’utujil Maya mother fed her gorgeous little girl a chocolate-covered banana, chewing gum and some stuff that looked like a sugary Knorr stock pot, all in the space of five minutes. The mother was obese and her teeth were nearly all gold.

One Guatemalan NGO worker I spoke to, who specialises in battling malnutrition, reported infants being plied with Coca-Cola but not breast-fed. As far as food crops go, it’s largely corn in the form of tortillas, some frijoles, but precious little in the way of vegetables.

The result, in many cases, is stunted development of both brain and body, tightening the grip of Guatemala’s poverty trap.

A malnourished child cannot learn and so, later in life, cannot earn enough to improve the prospects of his/her own child. Provision of education is also poor in remoter rural areas, while many children don’t attend school at all. So there is little chance of them breaking the cycle by learning about nutrition outside the home.

Throw into the mix a lack of clean water, meaning infants and small children often suffer from diarrhea, preventing them from absorbing even the meagre nutrients on offer.

Coupled with the scourge of malnutrition is the other great plague that has dogged Guatemala – violence.

I don’t want to give the impression that Guatemala is a dangerous place to visit – for the most part it isn’t. Tourists who behave sensibly (don’t go waving your smartphone around at midnight on a dark street) are unlikely to encounter any trouble.

Sadly though, like most countries on the drug export trail up to the United States, Guatemala has a problem with criminal gangs.

Gang members in Guatemala

Guatemalan gang members (Source:

That’s thanks in part to the steady American demand for party favours, with the import supply chain outsourced to its poorer, less well-policed neighbours.

But there is something more deep-rooted than even the drug trade behind Guatemala’s ongoing struggles to address crime and poverty.

It is still recovering from the legacy of a civil war that lasted, astonishingly, from 1960 to 1996 and saw up to 200,000 people killed or ‘disappeared’. The war was waged, for the most part, by US-backed  government forces against the Mayan population and Ladino (mixed Hispanic and indigenous) leftist guerillas, who often turned to indigenous people for food and shelter.

Mayans hold crosses, with photo of victim of Guatemala civil war

Mayans mourn civil war victims (Source:

The grubby pawprints of American foreign policy are all over this tragic period in Guatemala’s history. Here’s a brief outline of Uncle Sam’s involvement:-

In the 1950s, US politicians were terrified by the emergence of left-wing potentially Soviet-friendly governments in Central America. In the case of Guatemala, they were increasingly minded to interfere with Guatemala following the election of President Jacobo Arbenz, who favoured land reforms to redistribute farmland away from a tiny elite, spreading it more widely among the rural poor in the hope of enriching them.

Jacobo Arbenz, former president of Guatemala

President Jacobo Arbenz (Source:

We don’t know whether the Arbenz government would have achieved its aims because he made one crucial mistake that meant no-one would ever find out. Much of the land he wanted to redistribute belonged to US firm the United Fruit Company. Luckily for UFCO, they had friends in high places. Secretary of State John Dulles and his brother Allen, CIA director, both had significant ties to the company and an interest in its prosperity. Between them, they managed to convince the Eisenhower administration that Arbenz was a dangerous Communist, rather than (as many historians of the region say he was) an exponent of a pretty benign left-wing ideology.

John Dulles and President Eisenhower

John Dulles and President Dwight Eisenhower (Source: Wikipedia)

Here’s the fiendishly ingenious and skin-crawlingly sinister part. The CIA sponsored an invasion that consisted of little more than a handful of right-wing Guatemalan forces. Using fake radio broadcasts ‘reporting’ major military victories that never happened, coupled with a relatively small degree of US air support, they intimidated the Arbenz government into capitulation. The new president fled and any prospect of organic democratic political development faded into nothingness.

What followed was more than three decades of brutal military rule, coups and counter-coups, in which armed patrols roamed the country perpetrating genocidal warfare, largely against a mostly defenceless Mayan population. Documents released subsequently revealed that the CIA provided vital support to genocidal militias throughout this bloody period, even as they carried out the worst atrocities imaginable – foetuses cut from the wombs of mothers, children smashed to death against walls, villages burned to the ground, rape, summary executions and much more.

A peace accord, brokered by the UN, was signed with leftist guerillas in 1996. But incredibly one of the (alleged) perpetrators of the CIA-backed coup and the atrocities in the civil war, General Efrain Rios Montt, managed to remain in frontline politics long after.

Rios Montt at his genocide trial, in military regalia and depicted in a mural calling for 'justice for he who ordered the agony'

(Top right) Rios Montt as his genocide trial (Source:; (Top left) The general in his younger days (; Mural with slogan ‘For he who gave the order for agony, i ask for justice’ (Source:

When I first visited Guatemala in 2003, his party FRG (Guatemala Republican Front) was still fighting hard in the elections. The General remained a high-profile figure in politics until 2012, his office rendering him immune from prosecution. He was eventually convicted in 2013 of genocide and crimes against humanity in connection with massacres of Mayan Ixil people but that ruling was overturned on a technicality this year and a retrial is set for 2015.

Montt and the CIA left an enduring legacy. After the civil war, thousands of men who had fought on one side or the other found themselves jobless and with little in their skillset other than the ability to terrorise and kill.

Little wonder that Guatemala suffered from one of the world’s highest kidnap and murder rates for many years afterwards. While the security situation has improved, violent crime persists. Guatemala places fifth in the list of countries with the highest murder rates, a table topped by neighbouring Honduras and dominated by Central America [Source: UNODC]

As for the Mayans who suffered so terribly in the civil war, they remain to a large extent second-class citizens in their own country, abandoned and impoverished. The toxic residue of nearly four decades will take just as long, if not longer, to dissipate.

This is just a brief and by no means exhaustive outline of Guatemala’s catastrophic lost 36 years. The full story is far more labyrinthine, though just as heartbreaking. Two books worth dipping into are Bananas by Peter Chapman and Stephan Schlesinger’s Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala.

What I hope this summary shows though, is how the progress of a country as beautiful, diverse and culturally rich as Guatemala has been tragically undermined by the twin menaces of malnutrition and US foreign policy.

I have every confidence in the vivacity and entrepreneurialism of this great nation to overcome its problems. I only wish it had been given more of a chance before now.

For more information about chronic malnutrition in Guatemala – and to donate – please visit Food for the Hungry, Guatemala.