Kent posted this – that’s a lot of work for a comment in an Open Thread, and I think it deserves a wider audience.
Since this is an open thread, how about a thread or discussion about Harris’ visit to Guatemala today? I have a lot of thoughts on the subject.
Today Vice President Harris is in Guatemala looking for ways to reduce immigration pressure from Guatemala and what they call the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras). This is a topic that is near and dear to me. And much of the coverage just wants to make me scream. Yes, corruption is an issue, but there are larger public health, religion, and economic issues at play as well, not to mention climate change.
By way of background, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala for 2.5 years in the late 1980s when the Guatemalan Civil War was winding down. After that I worked from time to time on other development projects in Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica in the early 1990s and have been back to the region many times since then and still maintain a lot of friends and acquaintances there.
I was sent to Guatemala to work as a beekeeping extensionist as part of a USDA funded program to control and mitigate the spread of the Africanized (killer) bees and was assigned to a fairly large work area, the entire department of Sacatepequez which my Guatemalan counterpart and I covered daily by motorcycle. We had perhaps 25 different villages in our work region.
At that time Guatemala had a population of about 9 million and population pressure was the most obvious social problem that was undermining economic prosperity. I would encounter rural families with 10, 12, or 14 kids and would ask them how many kids they had, and how many they wanted. “As many as God wills” was the common answer. There were public health programs and public health workers in rural Guatemala who were promoting family planning at that time. I knew many of them. Some were Peace Corps volunteers working in public health, but more often it was Guatemalan health workers doing it on their own. For example, all Guatemalan med students need to do rural residencies as part of their training so there were a constant stream of educated middle class Guatemalan med students being sent out to the rural towns where I worked and we would often socialize along with the school teachers. A lot of people were working on family planning efforts.
But these efforts were undermined at every step by a toxic alliance of conservative Catholic and US-based evangelical groups who pressured in both DC and within the Guatemalan Congress to put a stop to all family planning efforts in Guatemala. This was the end of the Reagan era and start of the Bush I era and they were largely successful. This was part of Reagan’s 1985 “Mexico City Policy” described the 1960’s and 1970’s as a time of ”demographic overreaction” in which too many governments plunged into population control without adopting economic policies that would raise living standards and lead to voluntary decisions to limit family size. The effect was to strangle family planning efforts across Central America in an effort to limit abortions, which were never common in the region anyway. The squelching of family planning programs was ultimately successful. Clinton and Obama did little to fight to reverse these policies.
Fast forward to today and the Guatemala of 9 million people that I knew in the late 1980s has ballooned to a country of 19 million today even AFTER millions have migrated to the US. Guatemala was overcrowded at 9 million in the late 1980s. Guatemala is a country of 42,000 square miles which makes it the same size as Virginia or Tennessee. But it is extremely mountainous and rugged. Imagine Tennessee with 3x the population, much of it rural, and much less arable land and you get the picture.
During the 1990s the Clinton Administration took up the mantle of free trade under the notion that trade deals with Central America would open up US markets and lead to prosperity. Along with NAFTA, they negotiated the Central American version called CAFTA which was signed into law during the Bush Administration in 2005 but was years in the making and originated in the Clinton administration. How did that work out for rural Guatemalans? I will give just one personal anecdote. In the late 1980s one of the big rural development efforts was to push for modern chicken production. My counterpart’s family was part of a chicken cooperative that built a set of seven chicken barns so they could raise chickens for local markets on a 6-week rotation and they had quite a successful little business that was mostly run by the women while the men worked in the coffee fields. Other development agencies were prompting the same thing. There were Spanish volunteers building chicken farming cooperatives in the neighboring town.
On one of my trips back to my old village in the late 1990s I noticed that all the cooperative chicken farms were abandoned. I asked my counterpart what happened and he said “let me show you”. It was market day so we walked up to the market and there was a refrigerated semi truck parked at the edge of the market selling boxes of frozen chicken thighs and legs labeled “Tyson”. “Take a look” he said. They are selling gringo chicken at less than it costs for us to raise chickens here. It is impossible to compete. And what is wrong with you gringos that you don’t eat the chicken legs and thighs?” This was the time period when chicken nuggets, chicken fingers, and chicken breast sandwiches were exploding in popularity in the US which meant that US poultry producers were swimming in a sea of unwanted chicken thighs and legs. They only really had US markets for breasts and wings. So under CAFTA they were legally entitled to dump vast quantities of surplus chicken thighs into the Central American market with no restrictions or tariffs. The local Guatemalan poultry industry, (which was largely an artesanal rural industry) was wiped out overnight. At that time around 2000, my counterpart’s son Emilio took off for Los Angeles because there was no longer any functional work to do locally.
At the same time, and under the same free trade agreements, big textile mills were going up in that part of Guatemala. Might those provide economic opportunities? Most of them were Korean and due to lax labor laws they largely and intentionally hired only girls between the ages of say 14 and 20. Why just girls? Because they are the easiest to control and least likely to organize or advocate for better wages and working conditions. It really disrupted family life and dynamics in many rural towns because girls were forced to drop out of school to work in the maquiladoras as the only breadwinner for the family while their fathers and other brothers couldn’t find work.
The other thing that happened at that time was the winding down of the Civil War and its replacement with the drug war. During the 1980s the Reagan Administration poured millions of dollars of military aid and training into Guatemala and El Salvador (and later Honduras as part of the Nicaraguan Contra war). When those wars reached peace agreements in the 1990s a lot of unemployed former soldiers found employment with the drug cartels which started using Guatemala as a transhipment point to the US. They were often paid in drugs rather than money, which jump-started a whole wave of drug addictions and drug crimes in Guatemala and fueled an explosive growth of drug mafias in both rural and urban Guatemala. While the US eyes were turned elsewhere. It is basically the same criminal reign of terror that Mexico is experiencing. And, of course, 9-11 completely turned US focus away from Central America and towards the middle east for two decades.
Ad climate change to the mix which has made much of rural Guatemala far less productive, and a Guatemalan aristocracy that is both incredibly venal and racist, and pours its fortunes into politicians and parties dedicated to minimizing taxes and regulation on Guatemalan business and keeping social and labor rights at bay. And we end up with what we have today. Countries that are overpopulated as a direct result of US policy, whose economies are strangled as a direct result of US trade policy, and whose corruption and violence are also a direct result of US policy and neglect.
What are the answers? There are no easy answers. Certainly nothing that will affect conditions in Guatemala or its neighboring countries in the short term. We are talking about a generational effort that will need to combine: (1) health care and family planning, (2) education, (3) favorable economic policies that direct investment to the region, (4) anti-corruption and anti-crime efforts to eliminate the current “impunity” and (5) democratic reforms to empower poor and rural folks.
I often contrast Guatemala to my wife’s home country of Chile. Which has the same population as Guatemala but is far more prosperous and stable and really much more like a mid-level European country than Central America. Or even Costa Rica which is somewhere in the middle. Like the US, Chile also sucks immigrants from surrounding poorer countries and even from as far away as places like Haiti. Chileans who travel and study overseas rarely stay but almost always return to Chile where there are opportunities. My wife’s large extended family has lots of younger cousins who have studied abroad in the US and Europe but every single one has returned to Chile because they have opportunities there. Guatemala could have a different fate if we had the will to make the investment and effort. Immigration is largely a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself.
Kent is here to answer questions and for conversation with anyone who is interested.