It is hardly one of Latin America's poorest countries, but according to Unicef almost half of Guatemala's children are chronically malnourished—the sixth-worst performance in the world. In parts of rural Guatemala, where the population is overwhelmingly of Mayan descent, the incidence of child malnutrition reaches 80%. A diet of little more than tortillas does permanent damage.
This chronic problem has become acute. Higher world prices for food have coincided with a recession-induced fall in money sent back from Guatemalans working in the United States (remittances equal 12% of Guatemala's GDP). Drought in eastern Guatemala has made things worse still. Many families can scarcely afford beans, an important source of protein, and must sell eggs from their hens rather than feed them to their children.
The government and aid donors are providing emergency food supplies for 300,000 people scattered in some 700 villages. Up to 400,000 more may need help. In Jocotán, in the east, rehabilitation centres have admitted dozens of children who are so malnourished that their black hair has turned blond, their faces are chubby from fluid build-up as their organs fail, the veins in their legs become a visible black spider-web and their face muscles are too weak to smile.
What makes this even more distressing is that Guatemala is rich enough to prevent it. Other Latin American countries, such as Bolivia, Peru and Brazil, have reduced child hunger. Yet according to Unicef, the incidence of stunting—a common indicator of chronic malnutrition—in Guatemala is twice what it is in Haiti, where income per head is only a quarter as high. Stunting is not genetic: a study by the World Bank found that Mayans in southern Mexico are taller than those over the border.
That points to a failure of government in Guatemala. The Mayan population were the main victims of a long-running civil war between military dictatorships and left-wing guerrillas. Although democracy came, and eventually peace, social conditions have been slow to improve. Income inequality remains extreme, even by Latin American standards. Two-thirds of the rural population remains poor. Guatemala came second to bottom of a new index measuring inequality of opportunity in Latin America published by the World Bank last year. Whereas Guatemala City has shiny shopping malls, gated mansions and trendy restaurants, many indigenous Guatemalans scratch an inadequate living as sharecropping subsistence farmers. "These people were totally abandoned in the mountains with no infrastructure, no education, no health," says Rafael Espada, the vice-president.
Much research shows that children who are undernourished tend to suffer from learning difficulties and end up poorer. So proper feeding is the first step in breaking the cycle of poverty. But schooling is vital too. Guatemala lags behind in educating girls in particular. As a result, mothers may not prepare corn-soya feeding supplements correctly, and may share them among all their children rather than favouring the malnourished.
The government fails to collect enough taxes from wealthier Guatemalans to provide good schools and health care for the majority, let alone the kind of targeted cash-transfer programme that has helped to cut poverty in Mexico, Brazil and elsewhere in the region. But urban Guatemalans are more worried about rampant crime, much of it by drug gangs. The government, like its predecessor, is full of good intentions. But several attempts at tax reform over the past decade have foundered in the face of entrenched political resistance. So malnutrition looks set to continue in a country in which it ought to be a cause of national shame.