Abstract – Social participation within a context of political violence: Implications for the promotion and exercise of the right to health in Guatemala

Walter Flores, Ana Lorena Ruano, and Denise Phé Funchal

Health and Human Rights 11/1

Published June 2009


Social participation has been understood in many different ways, and there are even typologies classifying participation by the degree of a population’s control in decision making. Participation can vary from a symbolic act, which does not involve decision making, to processes in which it constitutes the principal tool for redistributing power within a population. This article argues that analyzing social participation from a perspective of power relations requires knowledge of the historical, social, and economic processes that have characterized the social relations in a specific context. Applying such an analysis to Guatemala reveals asymmetrical power relations characterized by a long history of repression and political violence. The armed conflict during the second half of the 20th century had devastating consequences for a large portion of the population as well as the country’s social leadership. The ongoing violence resulted in negative psychosocial effects among the population, including mistrust toward institutions and low levels of social and political participation. Although Guatemala made progress in creating spaces for social participation in public policy after signing the Peace Accords in 1996, the country still faces after-effects of the conflict. One important task for the organizations that work in the field of health and the right to health is to help regenerate the social fabric and to rebuild trust between the state and its citizens. Such regeneration involves helping the population gain the skills, knowledge, and information needed in order to participate in and affect formal political processes that are decided and promoted by various public entities, such as the legislative and executive branches, municipal governments, and political parties. This process also applies to other groups that build citizenship through participation, such as neighborhood organizations and school and health committees.