Education Equals Empowerment

The truth about education

By Caitlan and Luke Smith

A Mayan woman tends her baby as she sells handmade
tapestries in the street market.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that education is a fundamental right.

The statement reads, "Everyone has the right to education … Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial and religious groups."

In Guatemala, however, that fundamental right has become a privilege for the fortunate few.

Guatemala experienced a turbulent period of civil war from 1960-1996, which started as a confrontation between leftist revolutionaries and a rightist government that trampled human rights.

Previous to the 60s, Presidents Arevalo and Arbenz put into place a social security system, health care reform, labor laws and eventually added agrarian reforms. These presidents sought to bring wealth back into Guatemala instead of allowing its northern neighbors to reap profits from such a fertile land.

However, in a period of intense hatred for communism, the US government feared another country moving to the left. Thus in 1954, the CIA led a coup to overthrow Arbenz and replaced him with a leader they saw as appropriate. This event led to many successions of military coups in the Guatemalan government and the slow removal of the civil rights of the Guatemalan population.

As the military government continued to suppress protests and uprisings, violence erupted in the countryside. In 1966 the first documented "death squad" killed counterinsurgents. By 1979, Amnesty International estimated nearly 60,000 people died at the hands of military regimes in the 70s alone.

The 1980s saw the peak of this civil war, as General Montt took power as president over Guatemala. Montt, knowing the majority of insurgencies of the left came from rural farm areas, created a scorched earth policy. In the name of anticommunism and stabilizing the government, Montt’s forces razed hundreds of rural indigenous (Mayan) villages, killing most of their inhabitants. Many Guatemalans today know this time period as la escoba, meaning "the broom," population and providing adequate health care and education.

The McCaleb Initiative for Peace grant allowed us to travel to Guatemala in the summer of 2011 to study the education system, 15 years after its development, and discover how the government provides for its population, both Ladino (non-Mayan) and Mayan populations alike. Many contend that education is vital in creating civil society, giving people a voice in government, and creating a developed and safe environment. By travelling to various non-governmental organizations (NGOs), we sought to research the problems of a fairly new education system, see how the Maya received education and whether or not they are given full human rights, and discover what non-governmental organizations are doing to supplement what was promised in 1996.