Friday, July 26, 2019

Guatemalans seek the American Dream

Many in Guatemala have loved ones who, knowing the potential outcomes - detention, deportation, sickness or even death - risked everything, trekking north to the United States in hopes of finding work to send money back home. Thousands of Guatemalans have joined Hondurans and Salvadorans in large caravans headed to the US-Mexico border. Thousands more have gone on their own. But at the border, they've been met with US President Donald Trump's "zero-tolerance" policy. Many have been detained, others deported, and thousands of others continue to wait on the Mexico side of the border. Guatemala now has the highest number of migrants and asylum seekers apprehended at the US southern border, according to US government data. The policies come as Trump falsely labels those fleeing violence, extreme poverty and political persecution part of an "invasion".

It is estimated that one in 10 Guatemalans lives outside of the country, with nearly 98 percent of those living in the US.

Guatemalans living in the US sent about $8.19bn back home in 2017, and more than $9bn in 2018, or 11.3 percent of the country's gross national product (GNP), according to data from the Guatemalan National Bank. That money, especially here in the highlands, is used to buy cars, build houses and send their children to school.

According to research by Mark Penate and Fidel Us for the Guatemala City-based Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (ICEFI), for every quetzal ($0.13) the Guatemalan government invested in a non-indigenous community, the government invested 0.45 quetzal ($0.059) in indigenous communities. As a result, going north becomes one of their only options to escape poverty. 

"We are able to live because of the money our family sends from the United States," said Marina Vicente, a 46-year-old.

"The dream of everyone is to have a house, a car; this pushes people to go to the United States," Pablo Mendoza said. "They see things that they could not have. But if you go there, then you can have something nice."

"We are trying to teach the people about the history of the politics of the United States and how it has contributed to poverty," Eduardo Jimenez, a 38-year-old Maya Mam from Cajola, Quetzaltenango, and former director of the Cajola Group, an organisation that supports returned migrants and works for local development. Jimenez migrated to the US in 1996 before returning to Guatemala in 2005 to work on community development. told Al Jazeera. "People do not understand why there is poverty and why there was the war. We want to create a local economy where the people do not have to migrate to the United States."

In 1954, the US backed a coup d'etat against the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz, eventually throwing the country into a 36-year-long internal armed conflict that ended in 1996. Following the coup, successive US administrations supported the various dictatorships in Guatemala, especially during the Ronald Reagan administration. During this period, the Guatemalan dictatorship of General Efrain Rios Montt carried out a genocide against the indigenous Mayan people, especially in the highlands.

Trump said he was considering tariffs, remittance fees or a "ban" on Guatemalan immigrants after the Central American country's supreme court ruled against a third safe-country agreement with the US in which Guatemala would agree to take Honduran and Salvadoran asylum seekers who first arrive in the country.

Jorge Calmo, a 24-year-old civil engineering student in Boston Massachusetts migrated to the US when he was 13-years-old.
"People will keep going to the United States because they see it as the land of opportunity," he said. "They know if they make it, then they will have a better lifestyle."

 Willy Barreno, a 47-years-old from Quetzaltenango who migrated to the US just before the signing of the peace accords that ended the 36-year-long internal armed conflict, returned to Guatemala in 2006 intending to build the "Guatemalan dream". He founded the organisation, Sustainable Development for Guatemala, or Desgua, in 2010.

"The Guatemalan dream cannot be a copy of the American dream," Barreno told Al Jazeera. "The American dream is based in material desires," he said. "The Guatemalan dream is to feel happy with the resources we have and to also to be happy with the ancestral culture we have, because it is part of the history that has been taken from us."

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