The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Past U.S. policies have made life worse for Guatemalans

If the Biden administration wants to address migration, it must recognize U.S. complicity in Guatemala’s problems

Vice President Harris and Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei on June 7 at the National Palace in Guatemala City. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Vice President Harris recently met with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to discuss ways to stem the migration of people to the United States. Harris has acknowledged the complex factors causing migration, including climate change’s impact on declining agricultural production and high rates of crime and violence. Harris also identified corruption as key. “No matter how much effort we put in — on curbing violence, on providing disaster relief, on tackling food insecurity … we will not make significant progress if corruption in the region persists.”

Harris rightly notes that multiple causes are driving migration to the United States, but blaming the current corruption and violence actually distracts from the long-standing historical and structural factors fueling Guatemalans’ desire to leave their country. It also obscures the role that U.S. policy has played in sustaining this crisis. For decades, impoverished urban workers and Indigenous Mayan campesinos have struggled to subsist in a nation that refuses to protect basic human rights and denies them full citizenship. U.S. support of Guatemala’s oligarchy has only worsened living conditions and exacerbated migration.

During the mid-20th century, Guatemalans tried to bring more economic opportunity and political equality for all. From 1944 to 1954, the country experienced “Ten Years of Spring” after the people ousted a dictator and enjoyed democratic elections. Reform-minded governments passed laws that guaranteed a minimum wage, established a 45-hour workweek and secured freedom of the press. In rural areas, the 1945 constitution prohibited forced-labor practices commonly used by elites to obtain free or inexpensive labor during the coffee harvest. Subsequent reforms supported the redistribution of idle land to rural communities that had their land stripped from them during the 19th century.

This brief democratic interlude ended under the Eisenhower administration. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CIA Director Allen Dulles had economic interests in the Boston-based United Fruit. (UFCo). The fruit company owned vast amounts of uncultivated land that would have been subject to the agrarian reform regulations passed by the Guatemalan government. Instead, UFCo paid a public relations firm to convince Congress that the Guatemalan government was pro-Soviet. The result was a CIA-sponsored coup in 1954 that ousted the democratically elected government.

After the coup, Guatemala experienced a string of military governments that collaborated with the country’s small elite class to protect their economic, social and political privileges. However, impulses for a more equitable society reemerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Mayan communities formed rural cooperatives and agrarian leagues designed to improve living standards. After the Catholic Church’s Vatican II reforms from 1962 to 1965, local churches expanded education and leadership opportunities to ordinary parishioners, and the church became a hub for social justice activism.

These community-based civil organizations made small gains in social reforms, but they lacked sufficient power to challenge the oligarchy’s resistance to substantive change. Instead, Guatemalan elites charged that social reformers were Cuban-inspired communists that threatened U.S. interests — and sought to crush them. As the conflict intensified through the 1970s, business leaders and elites increasingly supported the military’s efforts to control social unrest by “extralegal” tactics, including death squads and forced disappearances. Declassified U.S. documents show that the United States provided military hardware and counterinsurgency training to Guatemalan military and police in this effort, leading to the indiscriminate use of force and violence.

In March 1982, Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt led a coup against the then-military president. Ríos Montt promised to end government corruption, revitalize the economy and defeat the insurgency. In reality, Ríos Montt unleashed a genocide against the Maya population. More than 200,000 people were killed or disappeared and 1.5 million were displaced from their homes, including about 200,000 who became refugees in Mexico. Eighty-three percent of the victims of violence were Maya. The Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH in Spanish) identified the military as responsible for 93 percent of the abuses.

Guatemalan migration to the United States grew during the violence. However, the Reagan administration refused to acknowledge the migrants as refugees. People fleeing from the Central American wars in Guatemala and El Salvador were automatically listed as “economic migrants” because their governments enjoyed strong U.S. support. To acknowledge them as refugees would have required the United States to admit that it was supporting repressive governments. Instead, Guatemalans and Salvadorans became undocumented immigrants in the United States, the same country that supported the violence that forced them to flee.

Many of the young men who came to this country found work in the construction, agriculture and service industries. Some formed gangs for protection from the tough neighborhoods of eastern and central Los Angeles. Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha 13 emerged in Los Angeles during the 1980s. By the early 1990s, California’s “tough on crime” policies ensnared young people, including immigrants, in systems of incarceration that fueled gang membership. The Clinton administration’s harsh immigration reform laws in 1996 mandated deportation for immigrants who were convicted of minor crimes such as traffic violations or marijuana possession. In Los Angeles, Immigration and Naturalization Service agents rounded up Latin American immigrants, looking for any criminal activity that could be used to justify deportation. Guatemalan people who had long resided in the United States were deported to a nation that had few resources or institutions to integrate them into society.

Essentially, the United States deported gang culture back to Central America. This set the stage for increasing instability and violence over the past 20 years.

For the past half-century, wars have left Guatemalans traumatized, economically fragile and deeply divided. And these socioeconomic inequalities persist. Mayan campesinos continue to be treated as second-class citizens and lack sufficient land to meet their basic needs. Urban working classes continue to struggle to earn a living wage. The alliance between the traditional oligarchy and military remains strong.

Efforts to implement reforms do exist. In 2006, civil society organizations pushed the government and the United Nations to establish the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). The CICIG worked to support Guatemala’s nascent judicial institutions on cases of corruption, illicit security organizations and organized crime. Although the judiciary had significant successes, including corruption investigations against three former presidents and the conviction of a vice president, the judicial system remains marred by mass impunity and corruption permeates all levels of society.

Impunity and corruption have eroded people’s faith in government institutions, a situation best highlighted by the trial of Ríos Montt. Although he was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity in May 2013, Ríos Montt’s conviction was annulled based on procedural irregularities. On May 19, the Guatemalan attorney general’s office dropped one of the corruption charges against former president Otto Pérez Molina. Instead, it turned against two officials who had helped to build the case. These recent cases highlight the strength of an intransigent elite willing to undermine the rule of law to maintain power.

Migration from Guatemala is directly tied to this history of genocidal violence and impunity. Guatemalans migrate because the possibilities to live and work in their own country have been eliminated. U.S. policy helped make this happen. The Biden-Harris administration needs to recognize how U.S. policy has contributed to this exodus to avoid making similar mistakes.