Guatemala to Eliminate Mental Asylum, Improve Health System


By Ian Van Buren

In the 1960s, the United States began to replace its mental asylums with much improved community based psychiatric treatment facilities. Today, poorly operated mental asylums still exist around the world. In Guatemala, the country’s only public psychiatric institution is nothing short of a disaster.

In 2011, Disability Rights International began an investigation over the country’s mental asylum with help from local advocates. In October 2012, the group filed a scathing complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an arm of the Organization of American States, documenting widespread mistreatment of patients, including sexual assaults and exploitation, beatings, prolonged use of solitary confinement, deaths from infectious diseases and overdoses of psychiatric medication.

Donald Robas, a patient with paranoid schizophrenia, has witnessed much of the mistreatment and has described the activity of the patients and the asylum’s personnel; if a patient refuses their medication, they are beaten and then put into what is known as the “little room”, a cell where they are left in solitude. Women can be seen selling themselves for what equates to less than a dollar. “I see when they have sex for money,” he says. “To buy food.”

At first, the Guatemalan Health Ministry denied most of the allegations. Regardless, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found the charges credible and directed Guatemalan authorities to improve safety and health at the hospital immediately. A year of negotiations concluded in October with a groundbreaking agreement by Guatemala to overhaul hospital policies and restructure the country’s mental health system.

Guatemala has promised to establish a program that, within two years, will significantly reduce the population of those who are mentally ill or disabled serving in long-term institutions and relocate them to safer, community-based homes, such as those used in the United States. New inpatient psychiatric units are to be opened at general hospitals, while outpatient mental health care and support, including free medication, will be made available at dozens of community health centers throughout the country. Criminally charged psychiatric detainees will be separated from ordinary patients, and a law codifying substantial new legal protections for the mentally ill and disabled is to be introduced within a year.

“The government accepts that people with disabilities need to be integrated into the community. They recognize that the only way to make people safe is to get them out of the facility,” said Eric Rosenthal, executive director of Disability Rights International. “If we can do it in Guatemala, we can do it everywhere.”

Guatemala is certainly not the only country where abusive, problematic institutions still exist. In order for the issue to cease, citizens and human rights organizations must continue to work through the media to spread awareness in effort to help those who remain in distress.

YouTube link regarding a similar story:

Original article:


Poverty Remains an Issue in Costa Rica

El Hueco

By: Ian Van Buren

Costa Rica is obviously well known as a beautiful island and a major tourist attraction where people can relax in paradise. What most people don’t know is that sitting just behind the perfect beaches and glamorous resorts are neighborhoods where life is a constant struggle.

One of these neighborhoods, El Hueco, or ‘The Hole’, is just that. It’s a community in Jacó of about 100 people who live in single room, shanty homes that are missing doors and windows. Running through the lot of shacks is a river contaminated by sewage. Living conditions are harsh, but somehow El Hueco’s residents find ways to make ends meet.

As ironic as it is that poverty can be found just behind all-inclusive resorts and elegant restaurants, these tourist attractions are the only employment options for El Hueco and other neighborhoods like it. “Jacó doesn’t produce anything,” one resident explains. “If there wasn’t tourism, we wouldn’t have jobs.” Some families living in The Hole manage to live off less than $500 a month, and during difficult times, they are left with no choice but to beg tourists for money.

To grow up in El Hueco and receive an education, even if only elementary, is an enormous accomplishment. Although school is free, bus transportation and uniforms are not. Therefore only a fraction of the children in the community are able to attend classes. In an effort to save money, families use a rotation system where multiple children take turns going to school and will share a single uniform.

The municipality of Garabito is an occasional source of extra income. Home to about 22,000 people and encompassing Jacó and Herradura, the municipality works closely with anti-poverty programs, such as Instituto Mixto de Ayuda Social (IMAS), which is funded by the national government. The organization helps poor children get an education and provides aid to families in times of crisis. A new community center under development will also provide free afterschool programs.

According to Garabito Deputy Mayor Karla Gutierrez, volume is the biggest issue. With the tourism in Jacó creating job possibilities, people continue to arrive in search of opportunities. “If we take out two people, six will enter. The problem is there’s no control,” she said.

The problem exists in communities all over Costa Rica, and programs like Avancemos and the National Volunteer Program have been established to raise the standard of living. Avancemos aims to promote the formal education system and help adolescents from families who are struggling to keep their children in the educational system. The National Volunteer Program promotes building healthy societies through social participation that will guide Costa Rica’s development of a new model of social management.

According to the World Bank, as of 2012 poverty in Costa Rica is a staggering 20.6%, which is down from 21.6% in 2011.

Original article:

More info on the Avancemos program:

More info on the National Volunteer Program:

Puerto Rico statistics via The World Bank:


Ak’ Tenamit – a Guatemalan NGO

By: Abby Belongy

An NGO in Guatemala has an inspiring story.  In 1990, Steve Dudenhoefer was the owner of a successful business in southern Florida.  Many of his employees, Mayans from Guatemala, sent their entire paycheck back home.  To understand this, Dudenhoefer decided to visit Guatemala himself and learn more about the Mayan people (Q’eqchi) there.  When he saw the vast amount of people struggling and living in poverty, he sold his businesses and founded Asociación Ak’ Tenamit (New Village Association) in 1992.  Dudenhoefer remains active in the NGO today, but it is run by the Q’eqchi people.  All board members must be elected by their communities, and the board has to have an equal number of males and females.  Dudenhoefer is more directly involved in The Guatemalan Tomorrow Fund,  a U.S. non-profit that fundraises solely for Ak’ Tenamit.

The Q’eqchi people recognize that fighting poverty starts with improving education.  Therefore, a major focus of Ak’ Tenamit is education in the villages, and this is reflected in their young Board members, who are an average age of 23.  By providing girls with more access to schooling, Ak’ Tenamit has increased female enrollment in the village school by 400%. Education also goes beyond traditional schooling and aims to inform the community about issues such as gender violence, women’s rights, and HIV.  In addition to that, 100% of the 2009 graduate class from Ak’ Tenamit’s school are currently employed.

Students have also founded an additional NGO, Aprosarstun, which promotes environmental improvement.  These students help by replanting trees, installing wood-saving stoves, and giving presentations in communities and schools.  Because of its environmental work,  Ak’ Tenamit is the only civil society organization in Guatemala to have Permanent Observer Status to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change.

In its two decades of work, Ak’ Tenamit has already improved quality of life of the Q’eqchi people.  Having a Board run by the people keeps the village’s best interest in mind and assures that the money raised by The Guatemalan Tomorrow Fund benefits the indigenous people of Guatemala.

Watch this video to learn more about Ak’ Tenamit:

Guatemala Takes Steps to Protect Forests


Maya Biosphere Reserve in Petén

By: Abby Belongy

Guatemala has several social, political, and economic issues to deal with, but the country also has an abundance of natural resources worth protecting.  According to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Guatemala is one of the most ecologically diverse nations on the planet.  In the Americas, its forests are second only to the Amazon.  The important ecological regions of the country face common environmental problems such as deforestation, contamination, and climate change.

To combat these threats, Guatemala has teamed up with USAID in its Country Development and Cooperation Strategy (CDCS).  The plan is to use marketing and management strategies to promote conservation, increase the defense against climate change, and strengthen environmental governance.

The Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR) and the Sierra de las Minas Biosphere Reserve (SMBR) are considered important natural areas to continue protecting.  In addition to reducing forestation, the CDCS focuses on preserving habitats for scarlet macaws, monkeys, and jaguars in these regions.  Guatemala has the highest density of Jaguars in the world.  The nation also places an emphasis on reducing emissions as the best and most cost-effective way to positively impact climate change.

Efforts have also come from forest conservation groups created by citizens.  The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) awarded one of two Sasakawa Prizes to the Asociación Forestal Integral San Andrés in 2011.  The group focuses on both environmental and economic benefits, as they preserve the forest, especially the MBR, and also control the extraction of xate, a huge export for Guatemala.

While it seems Guatemala is taking strides in the right direction to protect its ecological haven, the nation needs to focus even more on the environmental efforts.  Many of Guatemala’s indigenous population lives off the forest and depends on it for shelter and survival, so the issue reaches far past ecology.  With corruption and major problems, such as poverty and drug trafficking, hitting Guatemala, the government can get preoccupied.  However, working with USAID is a good first step, and all plans must be continued and executed.

Nicaraguan Economy Still in Trouble


Poverty-stricken Nicaragua

By: Abby Belongy

Not much news about Nicaragua reaches the rest of the world.  In recent years, Haiti has become a popular news topic due to its natural disasters and poverty.  Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, but Nicaragua is right behind it in second.  The CIA World Factbook has Nicaraguans earning a mere $4,500 per capita with nearly half the nation (42.5%) below the poverty line.  In recent years, the country has relied on the IMF and other outside sources to help manage debt, and the government is looking for that support once again.

On a positive note, The Nicaragua Dispatch reported in July that Nicaragua increased its foreign-direct investment by 33%.  Venezuela invested the most, and most countries opted to invest in areas such as industry, trade, and energy.

Overall, however, Zakaria’s Post-American World never held true for Nicaragua.  The “rise of the rest” did not include the rise of one the west’s poorest nation.  While the country is “developing,” a Sandinista-run government and lack of resources impedes globalization through the very low percentage of Nicaraguans with Internet access, according to the Nicaraguan Dispatch. In “Broken BRICS,” Sharma points out that only 35 nations in the world can be considered developed, and of those emerging markets, Nicaragua is very low on the list.  If Nicaragua truly wants to globalize and reach the rest of the world, it has a lot of work to do.

Nicaraguan People Oppose Canal


The six possible routes of the canal

By: Abby Belongy

The Nicaraguan people are arguing that the construction of a major canal compromises the nation’s sovereignty.  A Chinese company requested permission from the Sandinista-led government to construct a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  The Nicaraguan canal would rival the Panama Canal in theory, though it is projected to be four times as large.  In June of 2013, the Supreme Court took a mere two days to approve the $40 billion project.

Citizens range from skeptical to outraged at the prospect of a canal spanning the country.  One reason for this is a distrust of the Chinese firm and its owner, Wang Jing.  Hardly anyone has heard of the company before and therefore do not believe it is credible.  The same goes for Jing, as many question where he came from and how he got his money.  Jing also said the route was finalized, whereas the government says six possibilities are still being researched (see photo above).  Additionally, the canal could destroy fresh water and other natural resources that Nicaragua relies on or will need for the future.

The biggest problem, however, is the issue of sovereignty.  It is extremely interesting that the Nicaraguan government approved this deal so quickly when it would relinquish ownership and control of the canal to Wang Jing for at least 50 years.  Nicaraguans certainly do not want any part of their nation to be controlled by an outside force, but the Sandinistas, for some reason, seem to support the controversial idea.  They even went so far as to remove from office the sole politician who opposed the law.  To show their disproval, a political group has come forward and filed a challenge to the Supreme Court, so we’ll have to wait and see how the government responds to its people.

Learn more: