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Access in Guatemala

George Scariano & Ryan Polomski, May 2001


Guatemala, a land of extreme ecological and ethnic diversity, is located immediately south of Mexico, west of Belize, and north of El Salvador and Honduras on the narrow Central American isthmus. The country's 11.1 million people are divided between mestizos of Spanish and Indian descent, and an extensive indigenous population of pure blood. The 1.5 million people living in and around Guatemala's City make up, by far, the country's largest urban center. Like most Central American countries, Guatemala is bi-coastal, and has rare tropical forest-regions within its borders.

An initial survey of Guatemala's economic and social conditions provides a clear look at the country's future struggle in attaining Internet equitability. In many ways, the present digital divide is not only an extension of the nation's social and economic ills, but is also serving to agitate and augment those ills. The instruments for freedom of expression and individual empowerment have yet to reach the people of this often ignored neighbor of Mexico.

The Digital Divide in Guatemala

Guatemala's primacy in size, population and gross national product has not been translated into widespread prosperity or the abolition of a significant digital divide. While collecting and analyzing data on Guatemala's telecom and computer infrastructure as well as Internet Service Provider issues, it becomes apparent that, although there are encouraging projects and initiatives, the overwhelming obstacles stem directly from Guatemala's status as an impoverished nation and its internal underdevelopment.

Telecommunication Infrastructure

First, we will present some statistics that round out the economic/ communications portrait of Guatemala. All these statistics are cited from (1.) the UNDP Human Development Report 2000, (2.) the World Bank World Development Report 2000/2001, (3.) International Development Center - Canada 2000.

The percentage of households in Guatemala with phone coverage was low at five percent. When determining telephone density, the percentages were 10% urban, 1% rural, and 3% total. The latest figures from 1998 show that Guatemala has about 40 telephone mainlines per 1000 people, as well as 10 mobile phones per 1000 people -- the latter almost certainly being a statistic which has increased over the past 10 years. Switching to computer statistics, 8 Guatemalans per 1000 actually owned a personal computer in 1998, and as of January 2000 there were 1.56 Internet hosts per 10,000 people. The coverage of the Internet (in terms of percentage of the population) was quite low at 0.6%, with the existence of nationwide local service being basically limited to the "capital and a few other cities". The telecommunications systems, including the ISPs, have been fully privatized with an intense competition between the phone companies. According to (4.) IDRC: "Privatization promotes an accelerated development of telecommunications and the private offer of Internet service directed towards the population with spending power. There is little presence of social compensatory interventions, and quite unfavorable socioeconomic conditions when it comes to Internet access for the majority of the population" (own emphasis).

One example of Guatemala's few compensatory interventions are the community technology centers, called "centros digitales", available as part of a development program privately funded by Francisco Marroquin University. They offer connectivity and training, with the eventual goal of over three hundred centros -- one per municipalidad. As far as large-scale educational policies with an Internet component, Guatemala has them planned, but not yet implemented due to public financial resources. One needs the hardware with which to teach before embarking on a nationwide program, and that requires funds that seem not to be available in the near future.

The 1998 privatization and sale of the Guatemala's telephone system to private entities has achieved the desired result of spurring investment and increasing equipment imports -- which rose by $17 million from '96 to '97 alone. (Industry Sector Analysis: U.S. Foreign Commercial Service and U.S. Department of State, 1998) Computer hardware import is rose at a 15% clip over the same period. As of 1998, there were 300 recognized computer dealers (ISA). Many more are suspected to conduct business in Guatemala's informal economy.

Foreign, wealthy communication corporations are increasingly penetrating the shores of Guatemala. In April of 1999, Telgua Inc. launched it's PLS Digital wireless program, which enhances voice, data and enhanced calling services in Guatemala City and Antigua. Puerto Barrios, Quezaltenango, Escuintla, and Puerto Quetzal are scheduled to be added to the service area in the future. In July of 2000, Guatemala was included in Emergia's planned, extensive Latin American seamless broadband network. How dense the connectivity to Guatemalans living outside the urban centers is yet to be seen. It is possible that corporate infusion may be correlated with the government's Phase II of MayaNet, whose goals include a stronger metropolitan backbone with more points of presence, expansion of LAN's in academic and governmental institutions, and expansion of MayaNet to the country's interior. An improved infrastructure would possibly drive down the current impossible telephone and Internet rates that plague most of the country.

Internet Usage and Adoption Patterns

While the specific data is lacking that delineates who is getting on the Internet first, last or not at all --- the statistics on poverty, literacy, and disparity in incomes can lead us to safely assume that urban and rural poor (especially those who are illiterate) are the citizens of Guatemala whom are least involved in Internet communications. If the private telecom providers do not deem poor rural areas profitable, there will almost certainly not be increasing coverage unless public policy emphasizes interconnectivity and training/ education. At present, such public policy excludes huge swaths of the nation -- especially the rural and urban poor.

While temporarily shelving the philosophically quagmire of whether or not poor villagers need or want the Internet in their lives and assuming that the digital divide should be bridged, there are Internet applications of perceived utility which are being fostered. The main thrust of these comes from USAID. Guatemala's bilateral program was named in the 1999 Internet for Economic Development Initiative (IED). Two of the platforms of the IED are as follows:

These platforms neatly encapsulate both the strategy and the applications in narrowing the digital divide in Guatemala.

An indirect statistic related to Internet adoptive patterns are the purchase of computer hardware. While purchasing of computers and peripherals are rising at a 15% annual rate, the great majority of purchasers are, in order, the government, the financial service sector, industry and commerce, and banking systems. Private individual purchase is, by far, the least of all (ISA Dept. of State, 98).

Economic Issues

Recent economic data concerning Guatemala illustrates a nation that continues to struggle under an oligarchic system, inept public policies, and racial segregations that limit the benefits of trade and commerce to an elite few. While the country boasts the highest GNP in Central America at $18.4 billion, and a respectable 3.5% average growth rate, 64.3% of Guatemalans exist on less than 2 dollars a day, and $1,660 GNP per capita (World Bank: World Dev. Report, 2000-2001, Tables 1 and 4). The economic divide is magnified in the rural and indigenous sectors. Of Guatemala's 4 million people that make up the labor force (out of 11.1 million total population), over half work in the low-wage rural agricultural industry where less than 2% are estimated to own at least 65% of the land and resources. 78% of all the farms are less than 3.5 hectare and occupy just over 10% of the land (World Bank Table 3, CIA World Fact Book 2000, & USAID-Guatemala). Restricted to these small, less-than favorable plots, rural farmers (60% of whom are Mayan or of Mayan descent) migrate to large plantation farms for seasonal wage work on the Pacific coast sugar and coffee plantations (International Labor Organization, 1989). These seasonal workers join with the permanent laborers to drive the large agro-export industry, which creates 1/2 of all export earnings. The entrenched latifundio-minifundio complex (20 families control most all of the agriculture and industry) has and continues to result in a severely oppressive economy, where workers lack all opportunity to achieve financial independence and purchase profitable land (UNICEF, "Break Through for Children). This system is enforced through the powerful political alliance of the landowners (The National Farmers and Ranchers Assoc., CONAGRO) whose interests are often protected by a corruptible and deadly military. Since the end of the 36 year long civil war in 1996, the promise of agrarian reform remains an unfulfilled: 76% of the poverty stricken Guatemalans are rural dwellers; 74% are of indigenous background (International Labor Organization).

The agricultural economy, which added 23% to the GDP in 1999, is not the only sector dominated by a dualistic structure. Industry (19% of GDP), manufacturing (13%), and services (58%) all suffer from similar lacks of mobility and equality (World Bank, Table 12). Nation-wide, 63% of the income and consumption occurs within the top 20% of the earnings bracket, while the lowest 20% contributes and relieves only 2.1% (World Bank, Table 5). Most non-agricultural business is located around the urban center of Guatemala City. Driven to the city by the unequal rural land distribution, migrants are creating a pool of cheap, desperate and disorganized labor. Foreign direct investment has risen from 48 million in 1990 to 673 million in 1999 (World Bank, Table 21). Investment, in large part, is in the cities' maquiladora sector by large U.S. owned corporations taking advantage of the inexpensive labor, and the government sponsored Free Trade Zones ("Guns and Greed", Richter). The work force in this intensely growing sector is composed of mainly (est. 90%) women between 18 and 25. Nearly 100% of the products made in the low-wage and brutal conditions are U.S. bound (Murga, G.P., "Promised the Earth").

Meanwhile, Guatemala's economy is under increasing strain from the world's financial governing bodies including the IMF and the World Bank to solve its macro-economic imbalances, and to curb its rising external debt, which is listed at 4,565 million in 1999 (World Bank, Table 21, Murga). Instead of changing the nation's internal imbalances, the Guatemala government, its military, the large land and industry owners and now the intense foreign investment capital facilitated by advances in telecommunications, data transmissions and data processing are all augmenting the economic crisis of the great majority of the nation's inhabitants in order to improve international credit rankings.

Guatemala's economy of exclusion has a long and troubling history, beginning with the Spanish conquistador invasion and indigenous enslavement in the 16th century, to the U.S. backed military coup of Guatemala's only financially reforming government in 1954, up unto the current, globalized financial structure which preys on cheap labor.

Social Issues

Any social comment on Guatemala society must begin with the recent and horrific war between the Guatemala army and the country's people from 1970 to 1996, in which 150,000 to 200,000 Guatemalans, mostly rural indigenous, lost their lives (Jonas, Centaurs and Doves). The war exists as a sub text for any discussion of the country's present and future circumstances, but is particularly and immediately important in regards its social character.

At its height in 1982-83, under the leadership of Rios Montt (now the current president of Congress), the Guatemalan military conducted a massive counterinsurgency campaign against the revolting UNRG guerrilla group by destroying and murdering entire villages, creating barb-wired, Spanish-only speaking "model villages" in their place, using methods of documented torture and, in general, creating an environment of fear and terror throughout the country side. The partially U.S. trained military has and continues to act with impunity, including the recent 'unsolved' assassination of the prominent activist and author Msgr. Juan Girardi in April 1998 ("Guns and Greed", Richter). The repression of all acts of reform and empowerment dominates the social consciousness of Guatemala, especially the rural, indigenous Mayan population, who were the main targets of the military. The World Bank Post Conflict Unit has grouped Guatemala with Cambodia, Rowanda and Somalia, as areas in which extended armed conflict undermines social capital, and "intrapersonal and communal trust". Evidence that a multi-generational experience of warfare and violence tears at the social fabric can be found in every statistic measuring the health of Guatemala's communities. A most telling statistic, however, published in June of 2000 by the Dallas Morning News, predicted that guns would outnumber people in Guatemala City by the new year. There are 1.5 million people in Guatemala City.

World Bank 2001 statistics gauging nation-wide illiteracy for men and women above 15 years of age at 25 and 40 percent, respectively. Urban numbers are higher, at 37 and 39 percent, respectively. Rural statistics are unofficial, but ground reports by humanitarian organizations, such as the Poresa Xtani Project, and Casa Xelaju claim that 66% of girls drop out of school by the 3rd grade for traditional and financial reasons, and in some rural communities, female indigenous illiteracy is close to 100%. Small NGO operations are attempting to spread the skill of reading and writing with limited success. In the report "Reasons For the Non-Participation of Adults in Rural Literacy Programs in Western Guatemala", by German Cutz, she writes, nonparticipation is caused by feelings of threats to their ethnic identity, native language, and a sense of loyalty to their community. Top reasons for avoiding Spanish literacy programs were a fear of participating in groups, lack of self-esteem, and financial lacking. The war continues.

Unique to Guatemala are the 22 separate indigenous languages spoken throughout the country. The most prevalent non-Spanish languages is Quiche Maya which has 700,000 speakers, 95% of whom do not speak Spanish (Stross, 2001). The preservation of culture and ethnic diversity seems to symbolize Guatemalans richness as well as its inherent disunity. Internet programs, like LearnLink, have begun indigenous language preservation programs, as well as the embryonic installation of dual-language academic instruction. Currently 12% of Guatemala's schools are bilingual, and, with Internet training, the number is expected to rise dramatically (USAID).

Statistics recording academic enrollment are incomplete, but, roughly one half of all children are reaching grade five -- 52% of male and 47% of the female population (World Bank, Table 6). Guatemala City is home to 5 universities, including University of San Carlos whose student population exceeds 50,000, and who may soon acquire partial ownership of Guatemala's first public access television station (Moore, 2001). Guatemala's universities have traditionally been the home to progressive movements; reform groups have quieted, however, since a military crackdown in the early 90's. For every 1000 people, there are 79 radios, 126 television sets and only 41 telephone mainlines (World Bank, '97, '98 & '98, 2000 Table 19). The daily newspapers, mainly La Prensa, is read by 3.3% if the population (World Bank, 1996, Table 19). Military and political interests when necessary have traditionally controlled the content of Guatemalan media, especially during elections and times of social unrest.

More lingering evidence of Guatemala's social poverty is evident in some disturbing trends. According to National Survey on Mother and Child Health, 50% of Guatemalan children suffer from chronic malnutrition. (1999). The Inter-American Development Bank claimed the country to one the worlds 5 most violent, citing the 257 murders in the first half of 2000 alone, as well as the increasing prevalence of vigilante law and lynching (26 for the same period) in the police-vacant country-side (July, 2000). In the fallout from the war, Guatemala has become the world's 4th largest provider of adopted children, whom are seen as financial commodities for lawyers, agencies, and (far less, however) for the parents themselves (IAD, July 2000).

While violence and terror are embedded in the current Guatemalan society, some amazing evidence of resiliency, especially amongst the indigenous populations, have become recently noticeable. The UN's peace-building initiative in Guatemala is "its largest and most ambitious such operation in the world", spearheaded by the MANAGUA watchdog program (UNICEF, "Breakthrough for Children 2000). International NGO's like Amnesty International and charity arms of corporations such as the eBay Foundation have taken notice and are contributing resources to the revitalization effort. Locally, the Guatemalan society, for all its ills, appears to be picking up the pieces, especially in the rural highlands; Quezaltengo has recently elected an indigenous mayor. The Guatemalan people are slowly being heard by the international community, making their claim as important and vital members of the increasingly integrated global village, a people rich in history and beauty, to be forgotten or exploited nunca mas.


The parallels between Guatemala's economic and social inequities and its digital divide seem to be extremely correlative. Education and literacy, two necessities for Internet and technical utility, are being thwarted by the grander, macro-economic and ethno-political crisis. Lack of public subsidies and corporate not-for-profit infusion of telecommunication infrastructure -- combined with an instilled indigenous fear of intrusion and destruction of culture and community complicates the future of the 'have-not' Internet deployment. Without public or international assistance -- it takes years of waiting, and the price of an average annual salary for a family to obtain just a phone line -- the wide spread of the most recent tool of democratic liberation will remain unobtainable for 90 to 95% of Guatemalans (Guatemala Weekly, 4-96; IDRC, Martinez).

The situation is ironic, for the under represented and exploited Guatemalans are those who could most benefit from access to global information, cross-community communication and organization, on-line trading of crafts and wares, and distance learning of language, agricultural and business skills. International investment in the telecommunication infrastructure appears to be the best hope for financial and political revitalization in Guatemala for, currently, the nation lacks the social and financial capital to build a productive nationwide network.

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