Guatemala’s Deadly Lifeline: Over-Reliance on the United States

Guatemala is a country full of contradictions. Grinding poverty, political ineptitude and a recent wave of violence and murder can easily make one forget that it is a country, the largest and most populous in Central America, incredibly rich in natural resources and full of working age youth. One result of these contradictions is forcced internal and external migration.

People crossing Suchiate River. There’s a one peso fee to cross the border on foot from Mexico to Guatemala. I dropped the coin into a metal-clanking turnstile, then walked under a scorching sun to cross the bridge over the Suchiate River where, in plain view, crude inter-tube rafts were ferrying goods and people in both directions. The raft-riders, many of them probably migrants from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, were skirting the one peso fee.

Guatemala is a country full of contradictions. Grinding poverty, political ineptitude and a recent wave of violence and murder can easily make one forget that it is a country, the largest and most populous in Central America, incredibly rich in natural resources and full of working age youth. Climate conditions are ideal for growing an array of vegetables nearly all year round, and yet a few international corporations have seized huge tracts of land dedicated exclusively for banana and coffee exports. In Western Guatemala prospectors have in recent years discovered profitable oil fields, but international (mostly Canadian) companies, in cahoots with the Guatemalan government, are expropriating the land, kicking off small farmers and raking in profits for a just a few. One result of these contradictions, besides impoverishing millions and sowing violence, is forcing internal and external migration. For the past sixty years Guatemalans have been heading north to the United States. In recent years, despite the economic downturn in the US and the increasingly dangerous journey across Mexico, the northward flow of Guatemalans has remained steady or even increased. One of the most representative of migrant sending communities and one that embodies many of Guatemala’s contradictions is the city of Salcajá in the country’s western sierra. Salcajá, of about 18,000 people, depends heavily on migrant remittances from the United States, which, in turn, leads to growth, construction and, above all, increasing dependence on what has become practically institutionalized migration. Coyotes (migrant guides) in Salcajá actually go door to door looking for customers.

According to a recent survey by the Municipal of Salcajá, 44% of families have at least one person living in the United States, with an average monthly remittance of 100 dollars. Walking around in Salcajá, however, where neighbors act as family and strangers invite reporters into their homes (as happened to me) it seems that everybody, much higher than 44%, has at least somebody in the States. Taking a place usually reserved for a local hero or city founder, there is a large migrant statue at the entrance to the city: a young man with a backpack and a walking stick, waving goodbye to his family. I spoke with one man, Don Carlito, in the neighboring town of San Cristobal (another major migrant sending community closely linked to Salcajá) whose entire family, 25 or 27 members (he couldn’t remember exactly how many births and deaths he had missed) were all in Houston.

But while net migration from Latin America to the United States is equalizing, and while the number of migrants from Mexico is decreasing, and even while the journey for many Central Americans is increasingly dangerous, what has kept pushing Central Americans like Salcajeños to continue risking their lives on a perilous and expensive journey?

There are both internal and external (push and pull) factors continuing to spur Guatemalan migration. Many of these factors seem tied to the legacy of the still fresh 36-year long Civil War, in which US funding, war material, training and economic policies played a leading role. In 1964, the US pushed for reversal of land reforms giving an imbalance of wealth and power into the hands of the country’s elite, where it largely still remains today. It was actually the CIA-led coup that allowed massive, monopolistic/monoculture expansion of the banana growing United Fruit Company (now Chiquita) whose profits are concentrated both outside the country and in the bank vaults of the richest Guatemalans. These violent redistributions of resources and land led to a country today in which not only do nearly half (48%) of Guatemalan children suffer from undernourishment, but the wealthy 1% own 65% of the country’s wealth. The figure of the top 5% of Guatemalans owning 85% of the country’s wealth may be even more startling. Though the contemporary factors for such an unequal distribution are complex, the struggle to maintain these inequalities was recently brought to light in arguments over a proposed anti-corruption bill currently being blocked in Congress. Mayra Palencia, a transparency expert, commented on politicians’ fight against the bill: “[Politicians] see themselves as threatened by the law that would stop them from becoming millionaires from the country’s resources.” The echoes of the worried oligarchs from the 36-year Civil War are clear—politicians and the super wealthy will fight to maintain the conspicuously egregious imbalance of wealth, and they will be assisted by international trade policies and continued US support and military funding (US military funding alone to Central America was nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in the last five years).

People crossing Suchiate River. Many Guatemalans are left with little choice but to migrate to the United States in order to send back to their families that precious 100 dollars a month. Remittances, indeed, represent 11% of the country’s GDP. A prominent Salcajá resident, Doña Juanita, commented that, “Salcajá has grown on the economic back of the United States.”

“I thank God for the United States,” Doña Juanita continued. “[Migrants] send money back and pulled us out of, as you know, extreme poverty. I used to sell clothes in small villages to very poor people. Now many of these villagers have family members in the US. They’ve started buying more clothes.” And yet Doña Juanita’s gratitude for the United States also belies Guatemala’s forced dependence on the US and the lifeline of migration. She is thanking God for saving her from a storm God rained down on her, thanking the United States for saving her from a mess the United States purposefully created.

Without internal reforms combating corruption as well as curbs to the corporate rapacity and serious reconsideration of free trade policies that disadvantage small farmers, Guatemalans will continue risking life and limb to come to the United States, migrating towards the best, or perhaps even only hope many of them have. Soon other towns, like Salcajá, might have to erect statues of their own sons and daughters waving goodbye as they start on the dangerous migration up the umbilicus of foreign/corporate control.

John Washington lives and writes based out of Los Angeles. His co-translation, along with Daniela Ugaz, of Óscar Martinez’s ‘Los migrantes que no importan’ is forthcoming from Verso Books. An excerpt of the translation on Upside Down World can be found here.

Photos: El Colegio De la Frontera Norte.