Dreams for the Future are Modest in Guatemala
It seems like there are only two options for youth growing up in rural Guatemala. You can accept the miserable existence of a land worker or you can migrate. Together with other Dutch and local Guatemalan organizations, CNV Internationaal is trying to change this situation by creating more political awareness among the youth and expanding their opportunities in the labour market.
Eight years ago, Yener Olivero (34) left for the United States, full of dreams. Now only a shirt is left to remind him of this failed adventure. The shirt says, “Kidz love soccer”. Yener is back in the village where he was born, El Chorro, a farming village high in the San Marcos mountains. He’s currently leading the life he tried to escape eight years ago. Yener Olivero left his situation 8 years ago to pursue a better life in the U.S. Now, he’s back where he started, living the life he tried to escape. San Marcos is a department in western Guatemala on the border of Mexico. It is picturesque, with women in colourful woollen skirts walking the windy paths between mountain villages, the jagged tops of volcanoes contrasting against the clear blue sky in the background, But also, an enormous billboard advertises corrugated sheets, the most used building material here in the cold mountain villages. The people here don’t expect much from life.
Yener Olivero left his situation 8 years ago to pursue a better life in the U.S. Now, he’s back where he started, living the life he tried to escape.
Submissive and timid
Residents hope that potato prices will be high enough to keep them going until the next harvest. They don’t harbour any illusions. Self respect is hard to find here. These people cast their eyes to the ground when a city person addresses them. They are submissive and timid in their posture. Violent gangs are a major reason for the persistent stream of migration to the U.S. The community of Tejutla in El Chorro is no different. Olivero finished primary school here, began secondary school, but didn’t finish. The school was far away and Olivero didn’t see any benefit in finishing. As far as he knew, people like him have two choices: Accept a miserable life as a farm labourer or migrate. After having tried the first, he attempts the second option. First, Olivero tries to build a life in the capital, Guatemala City where he quickly finds a job at a nail polish factory. It’s definitely not much, but Olivero thinks it’s a good start. Two years later, the problems begin. A gang begins blackmailing the factory owner. When the owner doesn’t pay what they want, the gang murders several of the factory workers.
Violent gangs are a major reason for the persistent stream of migration to the U.S.
Gangs dominate the cities
Maras, as the gangs are called, have dominated the cities of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala since the 1990s. They earn their living through drugs, kidnapping, blackmail and contract killing. The two largest gangs, Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, battle each other over territory. Their bloody war makes Central America one of the most dangerous places on earth. It is also a major factor causing the migration movement to the U.S. Olivero is terrified of the gang, and when his colleagues are murdered, he runs for his life back to El Churro. There he gets a job as a farm labourer. He earns 4 euros a day, which is nowhere near enough to live on. Olivero is only 26 and he refuses to accept this kind of life. So, he decides to approach a “coyote” (a human trafficker).
Often villagers build new houses in San Marco from the money they earn in the U.S
Olivero sees flashy houses showing up in the poverty stricken villages. Houses built from money sent from by villagers now in the U.S. Many of the buildings are only half finished or have been abandoned. Their owners’ plans to return have become more and more distant, until they disappeared all together. However, these houses remain a stark contrast to the other clay huts and they symbolise the American dream to those who have been left behind. Olivero borrows 1,200 euros for the “coyote” (i.e. human trafficker) and travels through Mexico on the roof of a cargo train. A dangerous journey—migrants are often kidnapped from the trains by the drug cartels, but Olivero manages to reach the U.S. border unharmed. There he pays another 350 euros to be able to cross the Rio Grande river on an air mattress, together with 15 other migrants. He then pays another 1000 euros to be brought to New York where he has family. There he can work in the corn fields.
Now Olivero owns a small piece of land in El Chorro. “I grow corn, beans, and potatoes,” he tells us. “I earn more than in the time before I left. But still not enough to live from.” But he doesn’t want to return to the U.S. “The deportation was traumatic,” he says. “They held me in prison for three months. I never want to go through that again.”
Migration tears families apart
Olivero’s 22 year-old neighbour, Carolina Ramirez, is standing next to him. She sighs when Olivero finishes his story. “This is our reality,” she says with a deep sigh. “It’s so sad; everyone wants to leave. Migration has torn apart so many families; so many children have to grow up without their parents.”
Ramirez would like the tides to turn.
“We could create opportunities here if we’d just believe in ourselves and stand up for ourselves,” says Carolina Ramirez
Ramirez is part of a new generation of rural young people who are refusing to bow to the status quo. Instead of fantasising about a life in the U.S., Ramirez dreams of transforming her village. And possibly the entire country.
MTC wants to improve opportunities for young people in the labour market
“I want to ignite a flame and inspire other young people to remain in Guatemala,” Ramirez states. “I recently organised a first meeting in El Churro.” Ambitious young people like Ramirez are supported by the Movimiento de Trabajadores Campensinos (MTC), the Movement of Rural Labourers.
Since 2017, Dutch organisations including ICCO, CNV Internationaal, and Wilde Ganzen, have financed a youth project in Guatemala, with MTC as their local partner in San Marcos and several other youth organisations throughout the country (including SODEJU and CGTG trade union). Their goal is to raise political awareness among youth, to make local political organs allow them to have more to say, and to increase their opportunities in the labour market.
I want to ignite a flame and inspire other young people to remain in Guatemala,” states Ramirez
Extreme states of inequality
These are big plans for a country with extreme states of inequality. A tiny portion of the historic elite have political power in Guatemala. They usually turn a blind eye to all the abuse imposed on the large rural population. This situation led to civil war in the last century. Left-wing rebels took up arms and the country landed in a civil war which took place from 1960-1996. Some 200,000 people died and 45,000 went missing. Nearly all the deaths were caused by government violence. Dictator Efrain Rios Montt wrote the darkest pages of this history. In the year and a half that he was in power, Rios Montt had hundreds of villages wiped out because he felt the residents were helping the guerrillas. His terrorism goes far and above anything most people could ever imagine.
Half the population lives in poverty
Soldiers and other paramilitary raped women and children, played football with cut-off heads, and sliced babies from pregnant women’s bellies. The war left ragged scars on the communities. The causes of the war are still present. The peace treaty of 1996 has hardly been put down on paper. Corrupt police forces raid the public treasury until it’s empty and half the population lives in poverty. That figure continues to grow.
Farmers without land work under slave-like conditions
The situation is especially grim in rural areas. Some 2% of landowners possess 2/3 of the land available for agriculture. They use farmers who don’t have land of their own to work their enormous plantations. The conditions are slave-like. Residents of the mountain villages of San Marcos leave for the lower areas of the department, where they find work as seasonal labourers on coffee plantations.
On one of these plantations, Finca de las Cruzes, 150 permanent workers live in rickety huts. The grounds are further inhabited by mosquitoes, fleas, and mangy dogs. The workers earn 6 euros a day. Most of them were born on the plantation. The only other place they know is the village where they go to pick up their wages every two weeks. That is a festive day. They wash their hair with shampoo and put on their best clothes. The hundreds of seasonal plantation workers are even worse off. They live in a dirty stall and earn less than 4 euros a day. Some of them have a piece of plastic for a mattress, others sleep directly on the splintered wood floor. Their children wander aimlessly around the grounds, filthy and their tummies swollen from hunger. A 12 year-old girl stares blankly into nothing; she has a newborn baby in her arms.
MTC (Moviemento de Trabajadores Campesinos) the Movement for Rural Labourers, CNV Internationaal’s partner organisation in Guatemala, tells workshop participants that even plantation owners have to follow the law and pay their workers the minimum wage of 11 euros a day. That may seem logical, but it’s a completely new idea for many of the workshop participants. “I always thought I had to do what the plantation owner said,” Olivero shares. This is also the case at meetings where women learn that domestic violence and marital rape are not normal.
Carolina Ramirez sells eggs to pay for her education
Alternatives for young people
Carolina Ramirez’s father also worked as a seasonal labourer on coffee plantations. Ramirez received a scholarship from MTC 6 years ago. That enabled her to finish high school and now she’s studying law. She went to MTC workshops where she learned about vaccinating chickens. She bought 50 hens and now, the combination of her scholarship and egg sales allow her to finance her education.
“The young people learn about the law and discover that corruption isn’t normal.”
This is what MTC wants: To create economic alternatives for young people so they will no longer be exploited by land owners. The organisation also gives courses in pottery and weaving. “A major problem is the fact that participants also need start-up capital if they want to begin actual production,” Ramirez tells us. “MTC is limited in how much they can do; banks have exorbitant interest rates, and we can’t expect the government to do anything.”
Jaime Hernandez (31) coordinates the MTC youth programme in the mountains of San Marcos. “In addition to the work opportunities courses, we also organise workshops on the workings of the political system,” he says. “The youth learn about the law and discover that corruption isn’t normal.” They get to talk with other youth organisations and take part in a national youth network. “It’s great to see how they’re, slowly but surely, becoming more self-confident.” Hernandez went to the capital city when he was younger, looking for a better life. He was very happy when he found a job as a cleaner and that it paid a somewhat decent wage. But just like Olivero, he fell prey to the maras. When he returned to his village, he learned about the possibility of raising poppies, the flower which contain the main ingredient in heroin. The demand for heroin in the U.S. had been increasing for years. San Marcos is strategically situated on the border with Mexico and the mountain area is ideal for growing poppies. But, it now seems as though the market has already reached its peak.
“Poppies have had a major economic impact here in the region,” Hernandez says. “Children help with the harvest; students pay their university tuition with the money they earn working in the poppy fields.” Unknown men would visit the villagers, waving bags of seeds and making big promises. “If you grow this, you’ll make a lot of money!” they told the villagers. “We’ll even come to you to pick up the harvest!” Entire villages were persuaded. Hernandez explains the simple calculation: One hectare of poppies earned 1,600. In addition, poppies are easy to grow. Potatoes, in contrast, are much more fragile. One heavy hail storm can destroy an entire crop. And if it’s a bad year, the prices can be so low that the costs of bringing the potatoes to market aren’t even covered.
“Poppies have had a major economic impact here in the region,” Hernandez says. “Children help with the harvest; students pay their university tuition with the money they earn working with poppies.” But it seems like the market has already reached its peak. The arrival of synthetic heroin has caused the price of opium to fall by 50%. Further, the armies destroyed millions of poppy fields in San Marcos in the past year. Many farmers have returned to growing traditional crops.
MTC youth worker, Jaime Hernandez, “It’s great to see how youth are becoming more and more self-confident
Hernandez began by planting 2/3 hectare poppies, but then started to work for MTC as a youth worker. He didn’t pursue the poppies and he now earns the minimum monthly wage of 320 euros.
He is so enthusiastic about his work that he claims he’d even do it for free. He’s determined to mobilise more young people to demand their rights. They are addressing very basic subjects, like asking a local government official why their village has no policy for youth and young adults. Or putting pressure on local authorities to hire local youth. The smallest victories are greatly celebrated. Hernandez admits that he usually ends up being the one doing the actual talking. “They are still too timid,” he explains. “The authorities get angry sometimes—they’re not used to people talking back.”
Hernandez tries to reach as many local young people as he can in a weekly radio programme. "The main priority is getting them to realise that they have rights. That they don’t allow others
to silence them anymore".
Ramirez completely agrees. Her eyes are fiery when she talks about how politicians rob the state treasury and thus inhibit Guatemala’s development. “As long as we’re ignorant, they can continue to dominate us.” Dreams for the future are modest. “I want to expand my chicken run,” Ramirez says. “Of course, I’d also love to become a lawyer, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to find a job. That’s very difficult here if you don’t have the right connections.” Hernandez is considering taking a position on the Community Council. He’s not interested in traditional politics. “All the politicians are corrupt,” he says. “If I started talking with a political party, no one would trust me anymore.”
Author: Marjolein van de Water
Photos: Michael Rhebergen
This article was also published in Vice Versa
Since 2017, the Dutch organizations ICCO, CNV International and Wilde Ganzen have been financing a youth project in Guatemala, with MTC (Movimiento de Trabajadores Campesinos (MTC), the Movement of Rural Workers,) as a local partner in San Marcos and a few other youth organizations in the Strategic Partnership. the country, including SODEJU and trade union CGTG. MTC creates economic alternatives for young people, so that they can no longer be exploited by landowners. This project is being carried out within the framework of the Civic Engagement Alliance .