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History and Economy of Guatemala

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As from 2017, there were around 1.4 million people of Guatemalan descendant living in the U.S; 33 percent were foreigners while the remaining 66 were U.S. citizens. This was a huge increase of population compared to the year 2000, with only 406 thousand living in the U.S. With no end in sight of the immigrant crisis and an ever increasing antagonistic approach taken by the U.S., one has to wonder how this situation came to be. Looking at the history and economy of Guatemala, apparent conflicts arise over interest in power and influence, and the unfortunate Indigenous people who stand in the middle of it.

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Like most of Latin America, Guatemala was part of the Spanish empire, where people of Spanish blood were at the top of the caste system while the Indigenous were at the bottom. During this period of the empire’s beginnings, the encomienda system also surfaced; resembling serfdom, Indigenous people were forced to work under the rule of landowners (white Spanish people) for most of the day before being allowed to return home. In essence, the Indigenous people worked in dreadful labor conditions that decimated their population; they were also being taught Catholicism, which was meant to replace their traditional beliefs. After the decline of the Spanish empire and the encomienda system, the Spanish elite took hold of the Latin nations. Despite decades of changes in administration, national identity or state borders, a small group of people remained in control and swiftly enacted their own proposed wants. And the Indigenous people, and soon afterwards including mixed people, received the short end of the stick. A possible turning point in Guatemalan history was the Guatemalan Revolution of 1944. A coup d’etat led by military major Arana and captain Guzman, overthrew Ubico’s rule of succession, and then began the first free election of Guatemala. Juan Arevalo, a Christian liberal and socialist, enacted progressive change such as creating hospitals and funding education. His successor Arbenz Guzman, took a controversial stance of transferring unused or underdeveloped private land to the poor. United Fruits Company, a large landowning fruit business saw this as an attack against their assets and so convinced the U.S. government to intervene, on accounts that the Guatemalan government was heading towards a Communist regime.

In Guatemala, land was more important than money; the struggle between the poor and the commercial and elite interests only became bloodier as resentment grew against the authoritarian government. The Guatemalan Civil War was the height of this conflict where leftist guerilla groups, supported by Nicaragua and Cuba, battled against the Guatemalan military supported by the U.S., Argentina, and Israel. The war lasted for around 36 years and was mainly the reason why as many as a million Guatemalans fled from their homes. Up to 200,000 people were missing or dead, mainly constituting Indigenous Mayans; as always, the government made up 93 percent of the attack violations. Of course, this was a genocide. With the peace accord in 1996 and the creation of the CICIG (International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala), Guatemala transitioned with limited economic mobility toward a democratic capitalist nation. The CICIG’s goal was to deter organized crime and stop illegal acts from continuing; they were able to successfully prosecute many Guatemalan politicians including ex-president Otto Molina and uncover scandals such as “La Linea”. Basically, people were bribed to lower tariffs. So, Guatemala is still rampant with corruption and Jimmy Morales, current president, decided to not renew CICIG for another term. It gets worse once climate change is accounted for; the future state of the weather and temperature can prove to be too harsh on corn and other vulnerable crops. This could destroy Guatemala’s agricultural sector which makes up 13.2 percent of the GDP. And then more people from Central America would immigrate to the U.S.

To this day, Guatemala remains controlled by special interest groups such as big businesses and its elite of people, and the military, possibly supported by the U.S. government. Guatemalans aren’t in the terrible situation they were in before, but there’s nothing much leftover to keep them staying in Guatemala. Since they searched for any economic opportunities, the one they found most prosperous was migrating to the U.S. And it’s easy to see why it was justifiable for the current risk. “Guatemalans working in the U.S. can multiply their purchasing power almost seven times.” This was a far better plan than working on a farm or laboring for a low wage.

With tens to hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans immigrating to the U.S. for better economic opportunity and less violence, the U.S. government is deporting the deportees back to their home country or either holding onto the asylum seekers in prison camps with limited necessary resources such as food, medication, and family communication. It isn’t acting any friendlier toward the established illegal aliens living in the U.S. This is a stark contrast to the signing of DACA, a program that permits young aliens to stay in the U.S. The migrant crisis coming from Guatemala and other Central American states are only part of a bigger problem that the U.S. currently refuses to face. Of the 3.5 million asylum-seekers hoping to enter the U.S., there are millions more refugees or displaced people coming from Syria or Afghanistan. If the U.S. fails to successfully handle the problem of foreign resources, they will only hurt themselves of the possible talent and taxes gained. 

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