I recently went to a parents’ meeting at my children’s elementary school in the rural town of Aguacatán, Guatemala, a few hours from the Mexico border. As usual, I was one of the only men there.
This disparity has nothing to do with machismo or Latin gender roles; it’s that there just aren’t many men in Aguacatán. They’re all in places like North Carolina, Florida and the state of Washington. It has been this way for years; what’s new now is that there are getting to be fewer women and children, too. They are also heading north.
Most of those leaving don’t want to do it, but they no longer see how they can survive here. Why? Government corruption, income disparity, narco violence and foreign exploitation all play a role. So does climate change, which is taking a toll on our ability to raise the crops that have traditionally sustained rural Guatemalans.
Although I have gone legally on tourist visas to visit family in the north — a brother, two aunts and three uncles, some of them in the U.S. legally, some not — I haven’t even considered staying on without papers because I want to stay on the right side of the law.
Now, however, for the first time my wife and I are considering trying to get to the United States, too. We wake up early most mornings and watch our three young kids sleeping, wondering what future awaits them here. It increasingly feels like there isn’t one.
The U.S. government is telling families like mine to stay, and make a better Guatemala. I’ve tried to do that. I started a business. I work to connect Guatemalans with the internet. I have a small farm. My wife has a small business sewing traditional Mayan clothing. Her customer base consists almost entirely of families living in the U.S. They’re the only ones with enough disposable income to pay for this sort of thing. We are doing everything we can, and it’s not enough.
A few years ago I started a small mobile phone kiosk in my village. It was briefly profitable. But then tons of other similar shops began popping up, sharply undercutting my prices. They could do this because many of them weren’t legitimate businesses at all; merely fronts for money laundering by human and drug traffickers.
There’s corruption like this in any country, but in Guatemala, there’s little risk for lawbreakers. Officials have embraced corruption as simply part of life here and do almost nothing to stop it. The tolerance extends to the highest levels of government. Our outgoing President Jimmy Morales moved to shut down a United Nations-backed anti-corruption commission after it investigated his son and brother, as well as the financing of his campaign.
One core problem here is massive inequity. Less than 1% of the Guatemalan population has more wealth than all the rest of us put together. There is no way to counter that kind of disparity, so people leave, and head to the U.S., where the system isn’t entirely rigged.
Even a college degree doesn’t help in Guatemala without political connections or the money to bribe someone to get a job.
The Mayan families in my part of Guatemala traditionally keep small farms. Most farmers earn only a few dollars a day, and even that’s a struggle because of the changing climate. We look at the sky, waiting for rain, but the rainy seasons have shifted, or don’t come at all. My grandparents grew corn, the sacred Mayan crop, but over the years we’ve diversified our fields to try to make some additional income.
With farms failing, people in rural areas rely on remittances from the U.S. to put food on the table. Money from relatives working in the States is the one thing that has enabled families like mine to stay in Guatemala. The remittances pay for roads and infrastructure in towns the Guatemalan government ignores. We head to the U.S. in part to save the places we came from.
What’s most frustrating is that the U.S. government has been undermining one of the actual solutions to all this. About four years ago I saw hope for a better future when Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina was forced to resign after being investigated by the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala — the very commission Morales has moved to shut down.
When Donald Trump took office, his administration sided with Morales on the commission, remaining silent as he moved to dismantle the one independent entity that was trying to make Guatemala a functioning country of laws again.
Now Morales is trying to do Trump a favor in return, by striking a deal to designate Guatemala as a “safe third country,” meaning that other Central American migrants who pass through Guatemala to get to the United States will be required to stay here while their asylum claims are resolved. But how can Guatemala ensure safety and security for tens of thousands of Central American migrants from other countries when there is no accountability from the government to its own struggling citizens? There are no jobs, no food, no future here. Adding struggling Hondurans and El Salvadorans to the mix will cause only more misery.
Yes, we’re getting a new president soon, Alejandro Giammattei, but he’s more of the same. He has the same problematic ties to military and elites that Morales has. Giammattei hasn’t promised to support CICIG, so corruption will simply continue in Guatemala.
When I walk the streets of Aguacatán these days, it’s a lonely place, a ghost town. Yes, there are more modern houses and businesses now because of remittances from the U.S., but there are fewer and fewer people to enjoy them.
The U.S. helped shape what Guatemala is today, both through involving itself in the country’s internal politics over decades, and through corporate banana farming here. The U.S.-based United Fruit Co. controlled much of Guatemala’s economy and politics for decades beginning in the early 1900s. This involvement helped exacerbate the corruption, income disparity and violence that have created our current instability and led to my friends and neighbors going to your country.
It’s not as simple as telling us all to stay and fix our own country, when you played a role in breaking it. When you can’t see a future for your family, is leaving really a choice?
William López lives and works in Aguacatán, Guatemala. This op-ed was adapted from interviews with López conducted by Jesse Hardman, who also served as translator.