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Story Publication logo October 7, 2009

Guatemala: Behind the Famine


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Samuel Loewenberg ventures to Guatemala to survey the underlying issues of the Central American...

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Parents and children queue to see a doctor at a health clinic in the Chiquimula region. Image by Samuel Loewenberg. Guatemala, 2009.

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Last month, Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom declared a "state of calamity" as Guatemala experiences the worst drought in 70 years. Approximately half of the population lives below the poverty line and 50 percent of children are suffering from chronic malnutrition. But these are only the surface casualties of a vulnerable nation ravaged by 36 years of civil war, genocide and now, the encroaching drug war spilling over from the northern border with Mexico.

Worldfocus special correspondent Martin Savidge hosts Anita Isaacs, Carlisle Johnson and Sam Lowenberg. Some highlights of the conversation include:

  • Guatemala in 2009 looks a lot like Guatemala of the 1960s and 1970s
  • Malnutrition is connected to poverty, which is connected to the ownership of land
  • There is almost no basic infrastructure in rural areas, including access to clean water and sanitation
  • The U.S. CIA-orchestrated coup in 1954 gave rise to 36 years of genocidal armed conflict
  • Lawlessness on the streets, drug trafficking and rural violence have contributed to the deaths of 6,000 people in 2008
  • Indigenous systems of justice punish by means of lynching and public humiliation
  • The sitting vice president has called Guatemala a "failed state"
  • There has been no justice for war crimes and the civil war hangs over everyday life in Guatemala
  • Is Guatemala a feudal society that never stopped being a banana republic?
  • Guatemala has the highest per-capita income in all of Central America at $4,000/person, but income distribution is woefully underreported
  • As the capital of Central America with it's entangled history with the U.S., Guatemala does matter


Dr. Anita Isaacs is a political science professor at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. For the last decade, she has researched democracy, justice and the peace process in Guatemala. She conducts field research in the country four to five times a year. Anita is writing a book with the working title At War with the Past? The Politics of Transitional Justice in Postwar Guatemala. She has also served as consultant to the Ford Foundation, the Inter-American Dialogue, Freedom House and the Open Society Institute.

Stephen C. "Carlisle" Johnson is the producer and host of the television show "Inside Guatemala." He has worked as a venture capitalist in about 50 countries and traveled to more than 120 countries. Carlisle has lived in Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, France, England, and currently, Guatemala. He is the former publisher of the "Guatemala Post" and the former host of the English radio program "Good Morning Guatemala" on ABC Radio International affiliate. He is a chartered interpreter in English and Spanish.

Samuel Loewenberg is a journalist who covers public health and politics. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Economist, The Atlantic Online, The Washington Post and many others. He has reported from Latin America, Europe, China, Africa, and the former Soviet Union. His work in Guatemala was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.


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