A few demographic data points can tell a breathtaking story. In 1960, the populations of Guatemala and the USA, respectively, were 4.1 million and 181 million. Today, they are 14.6 million and 318.4 million. Guatemala’s population has much more than tripled, while that of the US has not come close to doubling. While it is true that the rate of population growth recently has slowed in Guatemala (having shown signs of commencing the so-called “demographic transition”), the country still adds over 300,000 people per year to a territory half the size of Minnesota. The stresses and strains that this explosion has placed on the local economy, environment and society are almost unfathomable.
Just south of Guatemala City, for example, the beautiful, volcano-rimmed Lake Amatitlán has become a receptacle for 75,000 tons annually of sewage and industrial waste from the fast-growing capital region flowing in via the Villalobos River. Eutrophication has given it an eerie green glow. Use of the lake as a source of water and seafood, and for recreation, has been greatly reduced. Indeed, except for the valiant efforts of local environmentalists, Amatitlán might already be practically dead.
GDP numbers can also tell a stark tale. In 1960, South Korea’s economy totaled $3.9 billion; Guatemala’s, $1 billion. This represented income per capita of $156 in the former, and $251 in the latter. Today, South Korea’s GDP amounts to well over $1 trillion, while Guatemala’s adds up to a mere $50 billion. Per capita, in the case of South Korea this represents $22,590; while in Guatemala, only $3,330. As a result substantially (but far from exclusively; see below) of national policy choices, Guatemala has squandered its significant economic “lead” over South Korea to end up lagging by 700%. The result is widespread misery.
It is against this demographic and economic backdrop that the current crisis of migrant children on the USA’s southern border is unfolding. The other two Central American sending countries, apart from Guatemala, are El Salvador and Honduras, and these have similar profiles: Huge population growth over the decades accompanied by economic stress, environmental degradation and massive levels of violence, including widespread kidnapping, murder and extortion.
In some ways it is no surprise that such a multi-faceted breakdown has produced waves of minors fleeing their homelands. According to Customs and Border Protection, 52,193 children have arrived to the US so far in the current fiscal year (October 1, 2013 to June 15, 2014), double the number of the previous year. For the full fiscal year, the federal government expects 90,000 kids.
For legal and bureaucratic reasons, relatively few will be sent home any time soon. In the meantime, though, Central America needs to undertake a tough assessment of itself and aggressively pursue demographic and economic policies that ameliorate the conditions that push so many of its people away.
While untenable demographic trends constitute one aspect of the problem, there are many others. As Guatemala country expert and resident Bob Perillo says, “Yes, population growth, under Guatemala’s grotesque land tenure system, has meant shrinking inheritances and, therefore, more poverty. But the primary issue is access to arable land — the best lands are owned or controlled by [elites that have] repeatedly resorted to murder, torture and forced disappearance to maintain that control. [This is] coupled with a longstanding policy of favoring agriculture-for-export over local food security, as well as forcing the country to open its markets to foreign agricultural products, including heavily subsidized ones from the U.S.”
There is also the issue of an often disgraceful, counterproductive and gratuitous meddling in the region’s political affairs by the US government. The most egregious example is the CIA-organized coup of 1954 that ousted Guatemala’s progressive and democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz. This rupture in Guatemala’s organic economic evolution, carried out to benefit a single New Orleans-based fruit company, set the stage for the civil war that ravaged the country from 1961 to 1996, and which itself sowed the seeds for the current climate of violence. It would not be farfetched to argue that the USA owes Guatemala reparations for the infamous events of 1954 and their dark, seemingly interminable aftermath.
So, why not take the $3.7 billion that President Obama has asked for to beef up border security in the face of the child migrant crisis, and instead apply it as a downpayment on what the USA owes Central America? Local governments could use the resources to fundamentally improve life for citizens. Agricultural reform; access to family planning services; environmental protection and cleanup; better infrastructure; more efficient justice systems; greater public safety; better schools; industries that create mass employment — all these are needed. It is a daunting list, accompanied by many institutional challenges, but better to begin remedying the current dysfunction in Central America, than to continue to merely grapple with its symptoms. Remember, at one point not long ago, Guatemala was richer than South Korea.
Christopher C. Schons lives in Arlington, VA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.