October 7, 2009
Tune in: Radio show on “Guatemala: Behind the famine”

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.

Host: Martin Savidge
Producers: Lisa Biagiotti, Ben Piven




I’m trying to spread media awareness of a enviromental crisis that had developed in the past 10 days.Lake Atitlan is covered with blue-green algae, threatening a huge tourist meeca, and habitat for dozens of indigenous communities, and homes and businesses of hundreds of foreigners, this has ocuurred due to gov’t mismanagment waste project, irresopnsible agricultural practices, and climate change. there is widespread alarm at the moment there, thsi story has not been reported……


I would like to amplify my views on several topics lightly touched upon on World Focu/Guatemala. Acceding to political pressure to divide land into small holdings will not resolve any food issues. Economies of scale are important in rational and prolific crop production. The Guatemalan peasant is a skilled farmer. Rather he should be given technical training on production of alternative (to corn) crops and market access, e.g. tomatoes and peppers in the US and Europe.

The “civil war” does not meet any of the tests of a civil war, and even the UN does not call the tragic and lamentable civil conflict in Guatemala a case of genocide.
Anti mining claims are stuff and nonsense.
I would be happy to engage in discourse with any listener on these Guatemala issues and other areas of interest to World Focus listeners, through gmg977@yahoo.com. I thought the show was excellent, and the moderator (my profession) gets my A+ Carlisle Johnson


I have worked on gathering the supplies for an 85 person medical and stoves team that my wife has been on several times in the last few years. The team has been going to Uspantan where they work (and live) in a Typo A hospital and serve, mostly, the indiginous Mayanswho live in that region. (The team is one of the 11 “Helps Internation” teams that go every year to Guatemala.)

From the photos and stories they bring back, it is obvious that the first two comments are not true . . . unless they are talking about the people in the cities who are of spanish heritage. The indiginous people have been totally ignored for _centuries_ except when they could be exploited . . . after all, it’s not like they are real people, they’re just Indians.

Our team provides madical care that is simply not otherwise avaiable to these people. It also installs efficient stoves that consume about 25% of the wodd that the usual open-fire cooking consumes, cuts down on burns from children falling in those fires, and cuts down on the carbon monoxide and particulate matter that effects the women and children in the huts. The teams have also been installing water filteration so that the villagers can have clean, bacteria and ameba free water to drink.

If you care, contact HELPS International and help fund a team from near you (or from San Antonio).


[…] remains in a “state of calamity”. I’ve listened to this broadcast, “Guatemala: Behind the Famine“, several times now and it is both incredibly informative and indescribably painful to hear. […]


I am dismayed by the first two comments. Martha is correct in her statement. Children daily are starving to death and their bodies/minds will never be of use to Guatemala in the future once the damage is done. The sad circle continues. Praying that this world of caring people wakes up to what is truly happening in Guatemala. Yes open your wallets and your minds folks. Look in their staring, begging eyes and let’s help save, even if just one…today.


Guaemala is not a homogenous country; there can be drought and famine in one part of the country and not in another. I have traveled all over Guatemala for the past 11 years and seen many women and children whose staple of diet is corn in the form of tortillas with even beans only a few times a week and other vegetables and fruits
occasionally. There is chronic malnutrition and anyone who really interacts with the people in poor isolated villages has seen it.


Very ignorant and insensitive comments. Yes, the stature of the people is short and stocky, but that does not mean they are getting enough nourishment. And the Guatemalans are a very proud people who will not beg for food. I’d like to know Tim if you traveled to Azcapa, Jalapa, and Jocotan, or just to the resort areas. And Carlisle, if you are saying children did not die due to malnutrition you should not be reporting on anything of import?

Perhaps you should open your hearts and your wallets, and close your mouths.


I have travelled all over Guatemala, Everyone is SHORT, nobody is starving, they just look undernurished. I don’t know where they got this Genocide thing from, I haven’t seen any fighting.
Of course anything that is wrong with Guatemala or any other country MUST be the fault of US


There is no famine. The president took advantage of a seasonal shortage of corn and tried to shake $100mm out of foreign donors. The supply situation is back to normal and the price has dropped some 30%. Not to say there is no malnutrition here ( I am in the media in Guatemala, gmg977@yahoo.com, but there always will be as long as corn is king.

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