Presented here is Part II of La Cuadra’s continuing series on the effects of the Central American Free Trade Agreement upon, specifically, the nation of Guatemala, but also the other nations of the region generally. In Part I, published in our January – March edition (Volume IX, Issue I), reporter Jeff Abbott presented an overview of the CAFTA ratification process and its many moving parts. Part I also highlighted a simmering battle between the world-spanning agricultural giant, Monsanto and the citizens of Guatemala who successfully resisted their government’s first attempt to enact a law that would give unprecedented ownership rights to, potentially, all seed corn in the entire nation by the end of the decade. Alarmingly, that law may well come into force eventually as part of the overall structure of CAFTA strips a level of sovereignty from national governments when it comes to international trade.  We will keep you posted on that as the series continues in the coming year. This report largely focuses on the CAFTA-vectored causes of a significant spike in migration from rural Guatemala either to cities around the nation or to the United States.

We encourage our readers to find Part I of Jeff Abbott’s series on CAFTA here.

In 1970 the United States began gathering nation-of-origin information from undocumented migrants caught crossing its borders. With that data in hand over a forty-five year period, it is clear that the flow of people risking the northbound journey from Central America has had several distinct incarnations. At times of relative peace and prosperity, the number of migrants has either slowed or declined. During eras of civil conflict and economic dislocation, that number has spiked. As pertains to Guatemala, the focus of this report, the most recent surge in migration northward began in 2006 and has continued to the present day as an explosion of economic, social and political dislocation has been in effect since the signing of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA.

According to the politicians and economists who designed the agreement, this was not supposed to happen. CAFTA — an international trade agreement based on the earlier North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada, the United States and Mexico — was intended to raise all boats by extending an economic environment that supported innovation and the free exchange of good and services (but, importantly, not labor) to the southern reaches of Costa Rica. In any honest accounting of the effects of CAFTA, however, the changes were too fast, too sweeping and too unrelentingly brutal for millions of people living at the margins to be considered much of a success if we take those disrupted lives as a legitimate metric.

This is particularly true of Guatemala, a nation demographically unique in Central America. According to the United States Central Intelligence Agency’s World Fact Book, 40 percent of the Guatemalan population is indigenous and just shy of half is rural. By comparison, in El Salvador, only 10 percent of the population is indigenous and one-third is rural. In Honduras, while 45.3 percent are rural, only 6.2 percent are indigenous. The Guatemalan combination of high rurality and significant indigeneity make for a particularly vulnerable population of campesinos, who are, as a rule, the poorest group in the nation, with all of the social stultifications of such status: low literacy rates, high mortality rates, poor access to education and healthcare, limited access to clean water and high levels of chronic, persistent hunger which, at times of high stress, can tip over into outright famine. These campesinos also suffer from limited political representation often organized at cross purposes on the national level, which likely explains how their conditions were either overlooked, or intentionally disregarded, during the planning and implementation of CAFTA.

Two of CAFTA’s principle economic tenets — the opening of all nations to competition from foreign goods and services and the requirements of free access to foreign multinational corporations to investment opportunities — have destabilized an already precarious situation for campesinos in this nation. As an example, let us consider the effect of the importation of corn from the United States into the Guatemalan market.

Most Guatemalan campesinos farm their land individually or in small cooperatives. Regionally, this had allowed for a balance between subsistence agriculture and moderate sales of surpluses. The corn produced for regional sale faced real competition from other campesinos and communities. Which is to say that prior to CAFTA, there was a functioning market for Guatemalan corn in Guatemala. After CAFTA, that system is blowing to pieces. Since Guatemala is now open to agribusiness from the United States — businesses that enjoy a massive advantage due to the economics of scale — local farmers are sinking fast as American corn floods their market and undercuts their price. Driving the price of American corn even lower are federal subsidies to the industrial farmers in the United States from Washington. Sticklers might argue here that the United States recently did away with direct subsidies to national agribusiness — in part to show wink-and-nod abeyance to the free trade provisos of NAFTA and CAFTA — but in reality the indirect subsidies that were set into place immediately following the cancellation of direct subsidies more than made up any hit that corporate agricultural companies might otherwise have been forced to take. The only difference is that now the federal government supplies the payments to cover crop insurance policies rather than cash-in-hand to large agricultural conglomerates.

Thus, with the passage of CAFTA, literally millions of Guatemalan campesinos found themselves in a grudge match between the only livelihood they have ever known and some of the largest corporations in the world whose owners they will never meet. It is a fight they are losing badly.

To compensate for the collapse of prices, campesinos have increasingly struggled to find new strategies for survival. If they are to stay on their land, then they often must explore farming crops for the export market such as coffee, cardamom or green beans, but they are still small players and as such, the next shoe is continuously poised to drop. That next shoe often comes in the form of an offer on land that is fast becoming economically unviable under the old model. As Juan Pablo Ozaeta, of the Ixim Center for Rural Studies once stated, quite blankly, in an interview with the author, “CAFTA has led to the destruction of the land.”

Others who study the impacts of the trade agreement on campesinos come to the same conclusion. Álvaro Caballeros, an investigator for the Coordinating Offices of NGOs and Cooperatives in Guatemala (CONGCOOP), gave voice to this frustration by saying, “We are losing land that was once used for the production of staple foods to monocrops meant for export.”

Monocropping, also known as monoculture, is the practice of planting the same crop in the same field, year after year. Traditionally, campesinos plant nitrogen-fixing beans with their corn and seasonally allow part of their land to run fallow as means of maintaining a sustainable farm. But agribusiness has a different agenda and they tend to drive the land hard and replenish nutrients through the use of powerful chemical fertilizers. These fertilizers do increase crop yields and keep the land productive, but they are prohibitively expensive for small farmers. This, again, puts capital-starved campesinos and cooperatives  in a bind. Even if they do attempt the jump from traditional farming to export-based monoculture, they are at a terrible disadvantage to large, well-capitalized foreign agribusiness.

The combination of these pressures has driven new land conflicts, long a plague in Central America, stretching back to the days of a feudal system that concentrated plantations in the hands of wealthy landowners. Many readers will recall that during the years of the Guatemalan Spring (1944-1954) two Presidents, Juan José Arévalo and Jacobo Árbenz, took steps toward addressing this inequality of wealth, power and status. Such actions were not welcomed by other members of the ruling class, international agricultural interests, nor their friends in Washington, DC. Árbenz, for his sins, was overthrown in a coup launched by the military leader Carlos Castillo Armas with the support of the United States Department of State and the CIA, thus ending any attempts toward political and economic reform for many decades to come.

What did, however, come in the wake of the coup was war. In 1960, six years after the overthrow of President Árbenz, the Guatemalan internal armed conflict began. This war would rage for 36 years until the military brought the guerrillas to the negotiating table by both force of arms and a promise to finally address the issue of land ownership and inequality throughout the nation. According to a number of sources, including a New York Times editorial titled Peace by Piece in Guatemala (September 23, 1996), when the fighting ended, just two percent of the population owned 70 percent of the land. After the treaty was signed and a new government was formed to enforce its tenets, some weak attempts at follow-through were made, but by the time CAFTA came to a vote in the national congress ten years later, any hope towards meaningful reform had been long since abandoned. Today, 3.2 percent of the population own more than 80 percent of the land. Perhaps one might argue that represents a 60 percent expansion of land ownership overall, but we’ll not be doing so here.

Rather, we will focus for a moment on a specific region in north-central Guatemala as an example of the conflicts that have arisen due to monoculture and the collapse of protective structures that defended Guatemalan agriculture prior to CAFTA-ratification in 2006. Much of what is happening in that region of the country is happening all over Guatemala in slightly different manifestations.

According to the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission, the GHRC, during March of 2011, in the department of Alta Verapaz, 800 families living in twelve hamlets were evicted from their homes in the Polochic Valley at the behest of the Chabil Utzaj Sugar Company. The company is owned by a close family member of Guatemalan former-president Óscar Berger and is backed by the Nicaraguan financial concern, Grupo Pellas. To make room for more export crops, the families were forced from their homes and separated from their land by armed guards. Reports at the time indicated that the Polochic campesinos watched from the road as their fields of corn and beans were set ablaze. Resistance to the evictions was met with brutal repression — including three targeted assassinations of community leaders. In the place of the farmers’ crops, Chabil Utzaj planted African Palm (for its export-prized oil) and sugarcane.

Three years after the eviction, only some members of 170 families had been relocated to permanent housing, though promises had been made to them all at the time of their eviction. After a protest by the remaining families in Guatemala City in 2014, the administration of current president Otto Pérez Molina promised to relocate an additional 250 families within a year. As of the last available report from the GHRC in March, no arrangements have been made. In an interview, Juan Roberto Buzoc Che from Cobán, the capital of Alta Verapaz, rhetorically asked: “Where do these families who have been displaced go?” He then answered his own question with resignation, “They go live in the streets; they go live with other families. It is possible that they go to they city to look for work. Or they go to the United States — because [here] they don’t have the means to survive.”

In Guatemala such occurrences are not uncommon. The model with agribusiness is very much like the model with the extractive industries and large hydroelectric plants: Gain access to the land, terrorize and threaten the human beings who live in the region, selectively assassinate community leaders to drive the message home and trust that the national government will, ultimately, look the other way long enough for your business interest to disperse the local population and claim an on-the-ground victory against troublemakers who wish to hold back progress. For its part, the government is largely subservient to large business interests and, seemingly, is quite content to look the other way if the proper gears are greased. If absolutely necessary, temporary housing with limited sanitation facilities and a remote, almost intentionally illogical location will be constructed for those families who have yet to give up hope and fade away into the greater sea of dislocation and poverty like so much salt poured into the ocean. Such is the cost of doing business, and that cost is really quite low.

Whether part of the plan or simply a by-product of economic forces, the dispersal of Mayan campesinos has been facilitated by the inherent religious and spiritual violence long a part of imperial and neo-imperial interactions. CAFTA, said directly, has created a vehicle for economic forces of powerful and distant interests to undermine the Mayan worldview. As central to their religious belief as is resurrection to a Christian, the Maya view Ixim or maize as an animate force in the universe. Maize is a critical element of Mayan cosmology, central to both a connection with ancestral traditions and the perpetuation of their culture. To dismiss this in favor of consumer culture is the very definition of cultural imperialism.

The Maya view red, black, white and yellow maize as sacred. These are the colors of the Mayan flag. They represent the four corners of the universe, known in more pedestrian, though far less evocative, terms as the cardinal points of the compass. According to the Popol Vuh, our very bodies were formed from maize by the gods. Planting, harvesting, preparing and consuming corn are sacred acts. To drive a Mayan farmer from a life of maize cultivation is an act of profound disregard and violence. That might be recalled by politicians in both Guatemala City and Washington, DC, when they defend the benefits of free trade with a  quasi-religious zeal.



With the opening of Guatemalan markets to foreign agricultural products, the foreign subsidies that support those products and lower their costs below nationally produced crops, the aggressive business operations to either buy, out-compete or evict Mayan farmers, and the destruction of whole communities while undermining cultural and religious traditions that date back to the earliest Mesoamerican history, it should come as no surprise that the population is in flight — one could even call it a slow-motion diaspora. This flight of Mayans from their homes is also the result of other “economic development” projects, such as the building of hydroelectric dams and mining operations, facilitated by CAFTA. In a report on migration from the Guatemalan National University of San Carlos, researchers stated “the reality of free trade is that there is a magnet created between the weaker economies and the larger economies that attracts people.” What it creates, according to Caballeros, the investigator for CONGCOOP, is a “migration pipeline.”

One major trunk of that pipeline runs directly from rural Guatemala, north through Mexico and into the United States. To address this reality the governments of Mexico and the U.S. have adopted strategies to mitigate the flow of undocumented labor flowing northward. One policy change has been a joint action to prevent Central American migrants from ever making it to the southern border of the United States by stopping them at the southern border of Mexico. This plan, started in 2000, predates CAFTA and is known as Plan Sur. By 2010 it had expanded into an extensive operation to fortify and control the border between Guatemala and Mexico. In 2012, Alan Bersin, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security official, claimed that “the Guatemalan border with Chiapas, Mexico, is now our southern border.”

In 2014, the Mexican government released statistics for the number of Central American deportations they had carried out in collaboration with the United States. According to the released documents, 42,697 Hondurans,  40,311 Guatemalans, 20,269 Salvadorians, and 976 Nicaraguans were detained and deported between January and November 2014. The Mexican government estimates that in 2015 the number of detained will increase by 150 percent.

Immigration chart Apprehensions by BP 2004 - 2013Despite these efforts, the migrants still flock north with great success. According to the Office of Immigration Statistics Yearbook for 2013 (see chart), the number of apprehensions along the southern border of the United States has profoundly changed since 2006 with the ratification of CAFTA. Using these numbers as a reasonable stand-in for overall migration patterns, it is clear that the number of Mexicans migrating to the United States has, in fact, declined  by nearly 50 percent in a decade while over the same period, the number of Guatemalan migrants has tripled.

In response to these realities, the Obama administration has stated goals to create an improved environment for multinationals to make more investments in Central America. In January of this year, Vice President Joseph Biden took to the opinion pages of the New York Times, citing the “Inadequate education, institutional corruption, rampant crime and a lack of investment” that are “holding these countries back. Six million young Central Americans are to enter the labor force in the next decade. If opportunity isn’t there for them, the entire Western Hemisphere will feel the consequences.”

The new plan of the Obama administration is, in form and content, essentially the same prescription offered by CAFTA. This has left many local observers scratching their heads.

“It will only create more of the same,” said Byron Garoz of the IXIM Center for Rural Studies. “Supposedly, their plan is to combat the causes of migration. Success depends on whether the plan can generate decent employment, if any. But in reality it will only lead to the promotion of more megaprojects — land speculation, energy, and mining — which all cause more social conflict and displacement.” This may simply be the reality one confronts when the nation that receives the investment capital is still 50 percent rural, but it seems, to this point, that few politicians in Guatemala City or Washington, DC, are willing to concede that point.

The creative destruction of trade agreements like CAFTA may look rosy and bottom-line beneficial from political offices in the centers of power. They certainly look grand from corporate boardrooms. Still, the reality on the ground for campesinos is an altogether more terrible thing. The migrants arriving in the United States are searching for a means of survival, but they would likely never have been driven from their homes without the signing of CAFTA. In a very real way, the families standing on the side of the road, watching their lives go up in flames, had the eviction orders signed long before the men with guns came and forced them to take their first tentative steps on the long and unforgiving migrants’ road.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

About the Author

Jeff Abbott is an independent journalist based in Guatemala. He has written for Truth-Out, VICE, Open Democracy, The North-American Congress on Latin America and Upside-Down World. La Cuadra is honored to have him on the team and encourages everyone to read his work, buy him mezcal and follow him at Twitter @palabrasdeabajo.