Guatemalan Mayas not coming to take advantage of US generosity

Guatemalan Mayas not coming to take advantage of US generosity
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Guatemalan Mayas do not migrate to the U.S. without knowing the deadly risks.  A quarter century ago a common refrain was, ‘Migrants expect to find U.S. streets paved with gold.’ Studies revealed then that the poorest of the poor did not migrate because they did not have the resources to invest in it. Today, the poorest of the poor, knowing the infamous risks of ruthless gangs, unscrupulous narcotraffickers, insatiable swindlers, and predatory police, army officials, immigration officials, and train guards, pick up their entire families and start walking, riding trains, trucks, and boats, to seek refuge in a foreign, hostile land. Why? Survival and hope.

The recent Guatemalan national election, with only 42 percent of the electorate bothering to vote for two candidates previously involved in questionable dealings, confirms the lack of hope in the political process.

Why are Mayas without hope? Let me count the ways by examining the population with whom I have worked since 1990, the Ch’orti’ Maya, two of whom died on the border in the past year. First, they lack land for subsistence. Guatemala, a country in which much of the indigenous population partially subsists off the land, has long had extremely unequal land tenure. Meanwhile, the population attempting to live off their small slice of the pie has multiplied arithmetically over the past century and a half, with the overall national population climbing from 1.2 million in 1880 to an estimated 17 million today. Many such farmers have migrated either to clear forests in northern Guatemala and Honduras or to cities for work, but for the past few decades there are no forests left to colonize and employment is scarce. 


Agrobusinesses have expropriated large swaths of northern Guatemala and Honduras for cattle ranches and palm oil plantations, the latter of which exported a half million tons of oil in 2015. The Central America-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) laid the groundwork for expanded export agroindustry at the expense of subsistence farmers. Since its implementation in 2006, Central America-DR agroindustrial exports to the U.S., and U.S. corn & soybean exports to Central America-DR, have more than doubled. Agroindustrial grain entering Guatemala drives prices down, hurting small farmers who want to sell their own to buy medicine or other essentials. 

Low taxes on the wealthy ensure that the state has insufficient capital to provide adequate healthcare and education. Neoliberal economists will point to rising economic growth, trade, and GNP since 2006, but the numbers veil the millions of “zeros” on the balance sheet who sell and buy at negligible levels. Even for Ch’orti’s who manage to find employment, which is typically temporary or seasonal, the wages of $5-$9 per day pales in comparison to the $60-$100 per day in the U.S., even when the cost of living is considered.

Contributing to the precarity of small farming is increasing climate variability. Ch’orti’ elders in the early 1990s recalled that in their youth long, steady, and soaking rains always came in April and stayed until November. Today, one never knows when the rains will come, continue, or end abruptly, and they now fall in torrents that wash away topsoil and cause landslides. Last summer, the rains stopped completely for 6 weeks in June-July, killing 80 percent of the corn crop, according to local development experts.

Adding to the higher population-to-land ratio, inability to sell crops, and climate extremes is another consequence of CAFTA-DR: more mining, hydroelectric, and superhighway/railway projects, which not only offer little employment but permanently ruin land, water, and natural resources. Dozens of peasant leaders, including Ch’orti’s, have been assassinated in recent years for trying to defend their land and water from these transnational companies and consortiums.

The Guatemalan state is notorious for being controlled by an anti-indigenous, sexist oligarchy, whose example infects the nation. Gender and sexual discrimination, particularly against homosexuals, is rampant, including the burning of two homosexual men in one of the towns where I work, motivating others to migrate. Targeted attacks and assassinations against advocates of indigenous, gender, sexual, peasant, and environmental rights have been high, with over 200 recorded last year, but law enforcement has been woefully inadequate and even complicit. 


Where I work, the police have even been involved in child, rare timber, and drug trafficking, and it is widely assumed that all the mayors either look the other way, if not outright profit from the trafficking.

A year ago, they all farcically marched for the abolition of the one flickering light of hope: The UN’s International Commission Against Impunity, which has taken down criminal kingpins as high as the President in 2015 and has reportedly prevented 4,500 anticipated murders. The newly elected president has vowed not to renew its mandate, and the Trump administration silently approves.

Pro-asylum and anti-Hispanic opponents argue about whether migrants are political or economic refugees, emphasizing crime and discrimination on one side and poverty on the other; regardless, Guatemalan indigenous migrant families are desperate.

To argue that Guatemala should be a migrant-receiving country, that Guatemalans are coming to take over the U.S., and that the U.S. has no responsibility for Guatemala’s lack of land reform, corrupt and unaccountable military culture, disruptive and unbalanced trade, transnational trafficking, and climate change is to insist on the right to ignorance. 

Substantive arguments might revolve around whether semi-subsistent agriculture is better than commercial agriculture for indigenous farmers, about the various parties responsible for high birth rates, about fair versus “free” trade, and whether migrating to the U.S., with all its hidden costs, is better than staying home in one’s hopelessness and precarity. Indisputable, though, is that if one wants to keep these desperate people home, then the most cost-effective means would be to take some responsibility and provide economic and political assistance there.

Dr. Brent Metz, an associate professor of anthropology at University of Kansas, is a speaker of the Ch’orti’ Maya language and has studied the Northern Triangle area for nearly 30 years. He is the author of “Ch’orti’ Maya Survival in Eastern Guatemala” and co-edited “The Ch’orti’ Area, Past and Present.