Establish justice for me, LORD, because I have walked with integrity. I’ve trusted in the LORD without wavering. – Psalm 26: 1 (CEB)
I’m in the middle of 15 days of study in Central America and Mexico around issues of migration. In Guatemala, we received a lot of information on the history of the country. This post provides a history of Guatemala. It is long, but important in understanding why people are migrating.
In the United States, we have a shared pride in the religious freedom that was part of our founding as well as the heroes of the Revolutionary War that led us into a free democracy from our beginning. (Note: Although we know that it was not free for all people here from indigenous tribes, women, and slaves.)
Although Guatemalans are proud of their rich cultural heritage, they do not have shared pride of its founding of the country.
The Spanish arrived in 1492 to conquer the area. Guatemalans refer to this as an invasion, completed in 1524. Similar to the U.S., indigenous populations were seen as inferior and were forced to cede tribal lands to the Spaniards or die. Indigenous religion was labeled “witchcraft,” and many were massacred when they refused to become Christians.
The Spanish created a social stratification with Spanish at the top, followed by Christian Mestizo (mixed Spanish and indigenous), Mestizo, indigenous, and black slaves from Africa. While many Spanish men fathered children, there are only two documented cases where they married their indigenous wives. Similar to slavery in the U.S., indigenous women served as concubines (at best) or victims of sexual violence. Creole children were often shunned by both the Spanish and the indigenous, not accepted by either.
In 1821 an independent state was created. However, the social stratification, which determined wealth and power, continued. This new “independence” led to dictatorships. During this time, multi-national corporations (MNC) were allowed to come into the country, beginning to transform a familial agricultural country io corporate agriculture. Guatemala was the first “banana republic” with the incorporation of large banana plantations.
In 1944, the people revolted against the dictatorships to form the first democratic government. The elections were still skewed towards the ruling class, but elections were held every four years. During this time, there was an effort to address the needs of the people. Literate women were allowed to vote, laws for agrarian reform were passed (returning land to the people), education, and anti-corruption in the government. The number of schools more than doubled during this ten-year period.
However, this was during the Cold War and those in power called these reforms communism. The wealthy joined owners of the MNCs and went to Washington to garner support from the U.S. government to “end communism” in Guatemala. In 1954, a counter-revolution occurred, supported by the U.S. government (with CIA involvement) to overthrow the democratic government.
In 1960, the 36-Year War began as the people, especially the indigenous and poor sought to restore the democratic reforms. This internal war saw 200,000 people were killed or forcibly displaced and 45,000 “disappeared.” In excess of 500,000 migrated to the U.S., mostly by young men who were seeking to avoid being conscripted into the war or disappearance as well as to support their families who were internally displaced or otherwise devastated economically by the war.
After a war that resulted in nothing, the 1996 Peace Accords were signed. Democratic elections have been held ever since, but the government is very corrupt. Migration continued now that communities of Guatemalans lived in the U.S. The men sent for their families to join them. Currently, the largest migrating group is indigenous peoples who still suffer greatly from racism in Guatemala. There is an estimated 2.8 million Guatemalans in the U.S. today (documented and undocumented). Almost every family in Guatemala has a family member in the U.S.
The cost of migrating is expensive. For $12-15,000, you can buy door-to-door service where you are guaranteed delivery to a specific U.S. city. For $5,000, you can buy the same without the guarantee. For $2,000, you can be delivered to the border where you turn yourself in for asylum. The cost of joining a caravan is about $50. The average monthly income in Guatemala is about $300.
People go into significant debt to migrate, mortgaging their homes and businesses. Once in the U.S., they begin to pay off the debt. After this, migrants send home remittances averaging $300 per month. Remittances are expected to be $9.8 billion in 2020. This is 12% of the country’s GDP (which is lower than other Central America countries: remittances are over 20% of El Salvador’s GDP). By comparison, foreign business investment was less than $2 billion and U.S. foreign aid in 2019 was $530 million (down from $750 million in 2016).
Like El Salvador, there is violence in Guatemala, but the primary push factor displacing people today is poverty and family reunification — and racism for indigenous populations. Many attempt to relocate within the country, but the growth of corporate agriculture and mining, magnified by droughts caused by climate change, are moving people outside of the country. A common characteristic of all migrants is the desire to return to their home country, although is less likely today due to stricter customs enforcement and reduced temporary labor visas. If they leave, they will not be able to return. Thus, the increase in family reunification in the U.S. Many of the groups we met with are actively trying to help people stay in the country rather than migrating.
I realize this is a lot of history (and many might not still be reading), but as we form our opinions on immigration matters, it is important for us to have a broader understanding of why people migrate. The Guatemalans have a rich history and abundant natural resources. But the outside influences of colonialism, MNC “investment,” and even the U.S. government have negatively impacted the country. There is only a ten-year window when a democratic government focused on social reforms for the good of the people with limited (relatively) corruption existed. Compare this to our 244-year history.
Can we imagine the greatest national unifying factor being violence and corruption? We might not like the results of our elections, but we know there will be a peaceful transition of power on a specific date in the future. While our justice system has its flaws, we can still trust the government to protect our human rights. We have sanitation, education, and safety guaranteed. We have a social safety net for those most in need.
I close with this. In a government run foster facility, there was known abuse especially of girls. On March 7, 2017, many children escaped the facility. Most were found by police and returned. The girls were not allowed to leave the room to use the bathroom or receive food and water. Inside the room, a mattress somehow caught fire. Many believe the fire was set by the girls to get out of the room. When the guards realized there was a fire, there was an order not to open the door. 41 girls between the ages of 14-17 diedand 15 injured on March 8, the international day of the woman.
This was three years ago. Five have been charged in the action, although I can’t find any information of convictions. A memorial has been placed in the City’s Central Square directly across from the presidential palace. Despite the government attempts to remove the memorial, it is immediately restored. In death, these girls will not be silenced and continue to speak truth to power in a way they could not in life.
What we can be praying for:
- Organizations working to help Guatemalans to migrate internally would have the resources they need and increased government support.
- The health and well-being of the 4 non-Guatemalans who are required to live in Guatemala while applying for asylum in the U.S. (and the 410 others who ceased their asylum claim when faced with remaining in Guatemala for an untold period).
- Unity among Christian churches to set aside theological differences to work for justice and hold the government accountable for guaranteeing people’s human rights.