Guatemala Between Migrants and International Aid

COVID-19 Reports on Latin America and the Caribbean: No. 50

Data and Stats on Guatemala

Of the three Northern Triangle countries, Guatemala has the largest overall population (17.2 million) as well as the highest percentage of indigenous peoples, with only 56% mestizos (or ladinos as they are called locally), 41.7% Maya, 1.8% Xinca; smaller ethnic and “racial” groups: 0.2% African descent and 0.2 % Garifuna (mixed West and Central African, Carib, and Arawak); 0.1%, foreign and 2% other. Correspondingly, Guatemala has the largest economy of the three countries, producing $143.4 billion of GDP (nearly 3 times as much as El Salvador and Honduras each) and $8494 GNP per capita.  As Guatemala exports 65% ($11.12 billion) of what it imports ($17.11 billion) – it has the best international trade (im)balance in the region. 

However, despite its large economy, more favorable balance of trade, and the fact that its GNP per capita is much higher than that of Honduras and only a bit below that of El Salvador, various other indicators suggest that Guatemala is the poorest of the three countries. Its population has the greatest percentage of inhabitants beneath the poverty line (59%), the lowest literacy rate (81.5%) and the greatest degree of chronic malnutrition in Latin AmericaGuatemala also receives less in remittances (money sent home from relatives abroad) than the other two countries, at 13.89% of GDP; accrues only 1.3% of its GDP through Foreign Direct Investment and receives only 0.5% from Foreign Development Aid. Guatemala is also the least urban of the three countries, with only 51.8% of its population living in urban areas. 

Guatemala’s low standard of living is linked to and intensified by its harsh climate, dominated by tropical, hot, and humid lowlands and cooler highlands, which is not conducive to stable food production and is vulnerable to storms such as those linked to climatic phenomenon known as “El Niño” and recent hurricanes.  Guatemala’s effort to provide its large population with essential services while working with these inadequate resources has been further taxed by Salvadoran and Honduran immigrants who relocated to Guatemala during the Trump administration via ACA agreements and the continued arrival of Honduran caravans of north-bound immigrants despite the Northern Mexican-US border remaining closed due to COVID.   

COVID Meets the Migration Crisis

Guatemala’s central geographical position providing the land bridge for migrants between Honduras and El Salvador and Mexico also puts it at heightened public health risk. Mexico poses the strongest threat, as its situation is currently worse than at any point to date in the pandemic, with “contagions, deaths and hospitaliz[ations … linked to the] virus on the rise“. Because of this, Guatemalan migration officers are asking those entering the country to provide proof of negative test results for COVID along with passports or identification to attempt to prevent infected people from entering the country. Mexico, on the other hand, has no health authorities present at the border and continues to ask only for identification. 

Before the pandemic, murder rates were falling in both Guatemala and El Salvador, partly due to declining inter-gang violence as gangs had established their own and honored one another’s territories. Improvements in Guatemala’s criminal investigations and prosecutions over the past decade – in part due to the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala – likely helped.

The Guatemalan government has taken various measures to try to address the negative economic effects of the pandemic and has also partnered with other countries and developed particular initiatives to attract foreign interest, collaboration, and investment. For example, in March 2020, the government pledged to take $26 million from an emergency fund to help the country’s neediest families survive the loss of jobs and income caused by the pandemic.

The government has also worked to develop particular industries in order to create jobs and attract foreign investment to stimulate further and continued growth.  For example, in early February 2021, Minister of the Economy Antonio Malouf described a collaborative effort between his office, the Ministry of Foreign Relations and the Programa Nacional de Competitividad (PRONACOM) to support growth in the pharmaceutical, medical supplies, electronics, and communications sectors, as well as more traditional manufacturing areas such as textiles, foods and beverages.  According to Malouf, together, these areas have the capacity to create at least 30,000 new jobs.  Furthermore, in January alone, with this targeted plan in place, foreign investment reached $140 million and generated 1000 new jobs, indicating that this strategy may be having some of the desired effect.

International Aid and Partnerships

Another success has been an international partnership between the Ministry of Foreign Relations and the Taiwanese government, leveraging technology to make Guatemala the first country in Central America with an electronic certification system, validating the authenticity of documents such as birth certificates, police and criminal records, and diplomas.  This will be useful for Guatemalans living abroad and also helps to mitigate the risks of acquiring COVID from public gatherings, as the non-electronic process can require standing in lines of hundreds of people.

Internationally-supported sustainable development projects based on microlending are another strategy for strengthening local economies and people’s standard of living. A powerful example of success with this kind of initiative is found in the Guatemalan city of Chiquimula, “one of the epicenters of hunger” and environmental threats related to climate change in the country. Chiquimula is in the Corredor Seco, a region that also runs through El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, which, thanks to the deforestation and “El Niño,” has become perpetually hot and dry and therefore a difficult place to live. It rarely rains in this region, and when it does, it is usually a result of severe storms, which unfortunately can devastate local crops of beans, corn, and coffee.   

The Inter-American Development Bank has worked with local authorities and Ch’orti’ Maya women on reforestation and microlending/investment projects to begin to reverse the environmental degradation and poverty that has been linked to it.  Women’s centrality to the project makes sense, as the poverty and hunger related to the harsh environment hits women and children the hardest. The planting of trees has slowly restored the necessary soils to allow cultivation of corn, beans, and coffee, and produced water for 4 municipalities in the region.  A parallel project works on rebuilding the population of a nearly extinct species of local chicken (gallus domesticus nudicullis) whose resistance to the region’s severe and destructive weather enables it to provide much needed nourishment and income (much like the crops reclaimed through reforestation and soil regeneration).  Through the gallina criollo” program, individual women acquire ten 9-month-old hens and two roosters, and receive training to learn to care for, vaccinate, and oversee mating and reproduction resulting in the ability to collect approximately 50 eggs per week for familial consumption and sale.  The success of the program is evident in the fact that a third of girls involved have increased their weight and height by 27% and 23%, respectively.

Another initiative to help Guatemalans gain new skills to generate a stable income is found in the USAID-supported education program targeted at migrant youth returned from the US Border. This “Alliance for Education” or “Puentes” program, has already established a presence in 23 Guatemalan municipalities to provide professional and vocational education and training as well as support to entrepreneurs and assistance with employment searching. Unfortunately, such educational programs are not integrated (and probably not even common) throughout the Northern Triangle. As discussed in other reports, Honduran pandemic-induced school closures are giving youth one more reason to attempt migration to the North – thereby feeding the influx of Hondurans into Guatemala who could overtax such initiatives.

There have also been some unexpected areas of growth during the period of the pandemic. Sadly, one has been in funeral and cemetery services, with 25-30% growth compared to 2019. Consequently, new businesses have opened, more jobs have appeared and workers in this industry have developed more environmentally sound and sanitary burial practices and virtual services to promote social distancing. Another area of expansion is in liquor. In 2020, the Quezalteca Liquor Group launched 27 new products, including a new medicinal alcohol line. Consequently, the company – which ships its products throughout the Americas and Europe – was recognized as exporter of the year and received awards in entrepreneurial sustainability, business and marketing ethics, and support to its employees.

By Sarah Buck Kachaluba

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