Guatemala-An Ambassador's Report

Guatemala was a part of the one of the greatest civilizations of the world, the Mayan civilization that existed in Honduras, El Salvador, and into Mexico. In 1524 the Spanish Conquistador Pedro de Alvarado arrived in Guatemala and the modern history of Guatemala followed a path not uncommon in Latin America after Spanish conquest. Alvarado was a particularly brutal Conquistador and under his rule natives were suppressed and disease and hard labor reduced their population by ninety percent in less than a century[1]. Guatemala did not possess the desired resources of gold, sugar, and spices like other colonies and so was largely neglected by the Spanish rule. This changed with the advent of the world coffee market which propelled Guatemala onto the world economic stage and greatly altered traditional patterns of economics by displacing Indians from their land and introducing harsh labor codes[2].

Guatemala gained independence from Spain on September 15, 1821 and was absorbed into the Mexican Empire. However, two years later it left the empire and became part of a federation of the United Provinces of Central America which also only lasted a brief period. Throughout the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, political leadership in Guatemala was characterized by military dictatorships, coups, and repressive regimes[3]. However, in October 1944, Guatemalans came out to protest and a small group of military officers overthrow the dictatorship of Ubico. A democratic government was elected and various reforms were undertaken until another military coup occurred in 1954 and a particularly bloody regime followed, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans[4]. A civil war then began in 1960 between the government and insurgents which lasted until 1996 when a United Nations peace accord was signed. While there have been democratic elections since 1996, the situation in Guatemala is precarious and much work still needs to be done in various areas[5].

  1. History of U.S. Relations with Guatemala.

The Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) involvement in the 1954 military coup to overthrow democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, remains a bitter memory for Guatemalans in their history with the United States. The Cold War was escalating and the threat of Communism dominated U.S. foreign policy, particularly in a region as geographically close as Central America[6]. In 1954, the U.S. pushed for the Declaration of Caracas at an Organization of American States (OAS) meeting, deeming Communist activities a threat to the Americas. When the OAS would not intervene militarily in Guatemala the CIA began sponsoring disaffected army officers secretly in Honduras to overthrow the Arbenz government[7]. Those involved in the coup and the killing that followed were trained, equipped, and supported by the CIA and the U.S. government, who were quick to grant military aid to the operation[8].

However, Guatemalans tend to hold a different version of events, claiming the coup sprang primarily from U.S. economic interests in the country. The Boston-based United Fruit Company (UFCO) was the largest land owner and employer in Guatemala by the end of World War Two. International Railways of Central America, a subsidiary of UFCO, was the second largest employer. When the military dictator was ousted in 1944 and a democratic government began reforms, new labor unions, a national labor federation, and Labor Code were formed, alongside agrarian reform and land expropriation. These labor codes and a 40 percent loss of land by UFCO launched them into action and they turned to their U.S. government for help[9]. While the CIA was concerned with the spread of Communism, they also expressed a concern for communist “sabotage of strategic industries” like UFCO[10]. Whatever the motives of the U.S. government in this operation, its success set a dangerous precedent in a region where they would continue to intervene in the affairs of Latin American nations and contribute to the deaths of thousands of innocent people.

U.S. support would continue for decades following the 1954 coup, firstly with the Eisenhower administration who aimed to create a model democracy in Guatemala and legitimize the regime they had put in place[11]. In the 1980s, President Reagan expanded much energy into Guatemala in his quest to eradicate communism and Bush continued Reagan’s policies into the 1990s, although with considerably less zeal[12]. However, the U.S. government did support the 1996 United Nations peace accord which called for an end to the civil war that had been in existence in Guatemala since 1960. They have committed substantial funding to reconstructing the nation and building strong diplomatic and economic relations. US AID has been working hard to build democratic foundations, improve social equality, and other fundamental facets that exist in a democracy[13].

  1. Political, Social, and Economic Challenges Faced by Guatemala.

The Spanish colonial period between 1524 and 1821, established an economic situation of underdevelopment and dependency that would persist into the twentieth century[14]. Although Guatemala now has the largest economy in Central America, improving income growth and reducing poverty in a sustainable capacity are major challenges. Inflation is not uncommon and their account deficit of the balance of payments stood just above 5% before 2009[15]. The U.S. is still their number one trading partner with 40 percent of exports and imports going the U.S. and their main exports are limited to textiles, coffee, sugar, and bananas[16]. Such limited trading has made the Guatemalan market vulnerable to changes in U.S. markets and world prices. The government has been unable to expand economic growth significantly; thus, poverty is still a major problem for the Guatemalan government with an illiteracy rate of 40 percent, a per capita income of approximately $5,500 annually, and deep social inequalities that tend to exacerbate ethnic tensions and contribute to instability in the country[17].

Unfortunately, poverty is more prominent in indigenous populations due to a historical policy of exclusion of the indigenous population, despite the fact that the majority of Guatemalans are indigenous. It is apparent that Guatemala was less successful than other Latin American states in creating a solid national identity and a strong political legitimacy. Ethnic tensions were rife and the national government was unable to find a national project to bring its people together. Thus, during times of upheaval and protest, the government of the time would inevitably turn to violence to maintain social control[18]. Now indigenous children suffer higher rates of malnutrition and less access to education, health, and basic utility services[19]. The peace process in the 1990s brought focus to the plight of indigenous Mayan populations and the Accord on the Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples, signed in 1995 was an important step forward in recognizing indigenous rights[20]. Nevertheless, there is still much progress needed to address social inequalities that are well entrenched in Guatemalan society.

In recent years, corruption and lawlessness in Guatemala have become prominent issues in a country aspiring to become a stable democracy. Drug trafficking has long been a problem and the corruption of law enforcement officials reached new heights when U.S. drug agents arrested Guatemala’s equivalent of the head of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) on charges of corruption[21]. It is believed that organized crime has penetrated into government circles as well as the judicial system, which is described as weak and inefficient[22]. Those who speak out against corruption, including a congresswoman, are now finding their lives threatened by organized crime which some claim are also linked to President Colom[23]. While the parties responsible for corruption and violence may not always be clear, it is evident that Guatemalan citizens are increasingly unhappy. In a 2008 regional survey, only 25 percent expressed confidence in their police force and 15 percent trusted the Constitutional and Supreme Court, revealing clear problems in administrative processes in Guatemala[24].

  1. Crucial Policy Differences with the United States.

Transparency of legal and judicial proceedings is clearly a policy difference between the U.S. and Guatemala. In the case of the chief drug enforcement official mentioned previously, the U.S. DEA engineered a fake invitation to a training exercise to entice Adan Castillo into the U.S. where they then arrested him in his hotel room[25]. Clearly, the U.S. did not trust the Guatemalan legal system to deal with this issue and decided to bring the suspect onto U.S. soil so that he may be prosecuted and convicted in the U.S. legal system. It would appear that Guatemalan citizens agree with these conclusions in a nation where citizens face difficulties in accessing justice, delays in procedures, and low rates of conviction. People are increasingly taking action into their own hands with vigilante justice on the rise[26]. While the legal system in the U.S. is not perfect, in comparison to Guatemala it is far advanced.

Such a weak judicial system has serious implications for how the U.S. deals with drug trafficking from Latin America. It is estimated that $10 billion in cocaine passes through Guatemala annually, 10 percent of money from profits is laundered there and is used to bribe local officials such as Castillo[27]. It appears that the Obama administration is not in agreement with the Guatemalan government’s approach to drug trade within its borders. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton recently criticized the government for “not taking strong enough stands” in their approach to drug trafficking. She highlighted a recent trend of the drug industry in corrupting weaker nations such as Guatemala. While the U.S. takes a strong stance against drug trafficking and devotes millions of dollars each year to eliminating drug trafficking they are clearly dissatisfied with Guatemalan policies towards drug trade[28].

Perhaps one of the most contentious policy differences between Guatemala and the U.S. has been the handling of immigration issues. When President Clinton visited Guatemala in 1999 he was met by a large and angry crowd of demonstrators who prevented his motorcade from entering the presidential palace. They were protesting his insistence on a repatriation policy which would lead to the possible expulsion of 165,000 illegal Guatemalan immigrants from the U.S. who send substantial financial assistance home to their poor families[29]. This policy difference was highlighted more recently when President Bush announced a push for tougher immigration laws and enforcement measures, while President Berger of Guatemala condemned the treatment and deportation of Guatemalan immigrants from the U.S. In a nation where 10 percent of the population migrates north, this issue is likely to cause tension between the two nations for many years to come[30].

  1. Strategy for Gaining Trust with Guatemalan Government as New U.S. Ambassador

Given our complicated history with Guatemala and our involvement in the 1954 coup, one of the first steps that must be taken to gain the trust of the Guatemalan government is acknowledgement of past wrongs. In 1999, President Clinton described this involvement as “wrong” but he did not go on to apologize for our actions[31]. An official apology I feel, first from the U.S. ambassador and if possible from the President would go a long way in gaining the trust of the Guatemalan government, its people, as well as other Latin American nations in which the U.S. was involved in throughout the twentieth century.

Regional dialogue is another very important factor in any strategy for improving relations with Guatemala. This includes opening up dialogue to nations such as Venezuela who have been highly critical of the U.S. in recent years. Venezuela possesses a democratically elected government and the U.S. needs to show its willingness and commitment to work with such a government so as not to send mixed messages to other Latin America nations. As ambassador I feel it would be beneficial to take the lead in developing both informal and formal partnerships to deal with issues particularly relevant to Central America. Informal meetings create a non-threatening environment for discussion, whereas formal summits and partnerships express a commitment from the U.S. to address these issues with the cooperation of all concerned parties. Climate change is one issue that is increasingly dominating global discussion and the U.S. recently signed an agreement to build on the 2009 Copenhagen Accord to deal with climate change with Brazil[32]. It is issues such as this that could form the basis of discussion with both Guatemala and neighboring countries and show a commitment to working with the Guatemalan government rather than excluding it from important discussions.

However, some of the most pressing issues in Guatemala today are poverty and social inequalities. Health is one area in serious need of attention and as ambassador I would push for an increase in aid or find other forms of support. Neighboring Cuba has sent thousands of physicians to some of the world’s poorest countries in a program that could easily be implemented by the U.S[33]. Education is another barrier to removing poverty in Guatemala and programs such as Teach for America already exist and could also be extended below the southern border of the U.S. In the past, the U.S. has provided training and funding for Guatemalans primarily in the area of military training. As ambassador I would work to establish funding and partnerships to train entrepreneurs, teachers, doctors, and providers of other essential services that would help improve both economic and social conditions in the country. Guatemala has lived in the shadow of its military for far too many decades and it is time to move beyond this small scope and help to build a stronger democratic nation.

  1. Policy Suggestions for Improving Relations with the U.S. and Ensuring a More Beneficial and Mutually Enhancing Long-Range Partnership.

Economic underdevelopment is a serious problem for Guatemala and thus trade relations should be considered in any policy changes for the U.S. in a way that they might help Guatemala. While the Central American Free Trade Agreement with Guatemala was established in 2006 and has spurred economic growth, there are still many problems with distribution of income between the wealthy few and the majority living in poverty[34]. Currently the U.S. also provides substantial subsidies for its own agricultural industries which infuriates and disadvantages Guatemalan farmers. The sugar industry in particular, is among the most highly subsidized and costs U.S. consumers $1.9 billion a year in higher prices[35]. Future economic policies need to reduce agricultural subsidies and take into account developing inequalities in Guatemala, particularly since the U.S. has committed to a free trade agreement with Guatemala.

Our policy towards drug trafficking is clearly an issue that needs to be addressed. Firstly, it seems futile to deal with the problem on a country by country basis when traffickers work across borders. A regional approach that includes Guatemala and other Latin American countries would provide a more comprehensive and perhaps more successful policy for addressing drug trafficking in the Americas. The U.S. needs to engage those governments where trafficking is taking place and work with them to eradicate corruption and crime that occurs rather than against them. ‘Tricking’ drug enforcement officials into coming to the U.S. so the DEA can arrest them, shows a complete lack of respect for the sovereignty of the Guatemalan government and how they deal with crime. The U.S. has already committed to the Merida Initiative and provided millions of dollars in funding to combat the drug trade, but future efforts need to be carried out in conjunction with the Guatemalan government in order to create a mutual approach to the problem[36].

In terms of aid, the U.S. lifted the ban on military aid in 2005 under the Bush administration. Given our past relationship with the Guatemalan military this aid could lead to a future increase in military power and will likely increase civilian distrust towards the U.S[37]. Instead, our policy should be to increase humanitarian and economic development aid to rebuild a nation still recovering from decades of war that the U.S. government contributed to. In addition, we need to stop supporting the interests of corporations such as UFCO over civilian interests, and that policy should extend to all Latin America nations so as to set and example. Our government needs to distance itself from companies like Chiquita Banana, a subsidiary of UFCO, who have been supportive of the military coup in Honduras[38]. Such relationships are a particularly sore point for Guatemalans and their feelings towards the U.S.

The other major point of contention for Guatemala is illegal immigration and how the U.S. government deals with these immigrants. Guatemalan President Colom expressed his belief that immigrants from his nation deserve the same temporary legal protections given to other Central Americans and that the sacrifices they make in coming to the U.S. to support their poor families should be recognized[39]. One recommendation is that a Standing Committee on Immigration and Labor Markets needs to be established in order to address immigration issues properly and in a comprehensive way. Annual visa quotas should be set, based on our labor market needs, and promoted as a legal way for Guatemalans and other Latin Americans to enter the U.S. and work[40]. I also feel that if the U.S. works to create policies to improve the economic situation in Guatemala, then it will provide a better environment in which citizens will be able to achieve economic independence within their own nation. Although this will obviously take many years to develop, the benefits will be more sustainable and beneficial to Guatemalans if they can remain in their own country of citizenship with their families.

Finally, the civil war in Guatemala only came to a close in 1996 and there are still many issues that remain unresolved. Considering the role the U.S. played in the war, we have a duty to ensure that the peace accord is carried out properly. Approximately ten years after the signing of the accords an international conference found that progress in achieving goals set out, particularly in improving the situation of indigenous people, had been limited[41]. Part of this process is also reconciliation and historical clarification, a process that is occurring in many Latin American nations in the form of “truth” commissions and reports. Guatemala currently has its own report which makes recommendations regarding the preservation of memory of victims of human rights abuses, compensation for victims, and the strengthening of democratic processes[42]. It is clear that there are still many steps to be taken in regards to the reconciliation and peace process and the U.S. government can help in this process by providing funding, personnel to oversee the process, or general structural support in advancing the nation. However, this should only be provided at the request of the Guatemalan government.

Guatemala has a truly troubled history in which the United States has been involved and our relationship remains tenuous. Moving from an authoritarian and violent military regime to a democracy is a long and arduous process that will take many years to achieve[43]. However, we must work together with the Guatemalan government to address issues that are important to our two nations such as drug trafficking, trade, illegal immigration, economic development, and creating a regional dialogue to enhance the situation of all Central Americans. There are also internal issues such as social inequalities, lack of protection of indigenous rights, redistribution of land, lack of education and health services, and a high rate of poverty. The United States should make it a priority to work with Guatemala on these issues as well as the issues that affect our own nation. As ambassador to Guatemala I will work hard to ensure that equal attention is given to both sides and that the reconciliation and peace process continues to make progress.

[1] Cockroft, James D. Latin America: History, Politics, and U.S. Policy. (Wadsworth Publishing, 1996): 125

[2] Gleijeses, Piero. Shattered Hope: The Guatemalan Revolution and the United States, 1944-1954. (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1991): 10

[3] U.S. Department of State. “Background Note: Guatemala.” Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. (April 2001) at (04/30/2010)

[4] Gleijeses, Shattered Hope, 30

[5] “Agreement on a Firm and Lasting Peace.” Conciliation Resources. (04/30/2010)

[6] Haines, Gerald K. “CIA and Guatemala Assassination Proposals 1952-1954.” CIA History Staff Analysis. (June 1995) at (044/30/2010)

[7] Halperin Donghi, Tulio. The Contemporary History of Latin America. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993): 256-257

[8] La Feber, Walter. Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America. (New York, NY: Norton, 1983): 256

[9] Schoultz, Lars. Beneath the United States: A History of U.S. Policy Toward Latin America. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998): 337

[10] Krenn, Michael L. The Chains of Interdependence: U.S. Policy Towards Central America. (Armonk, NY: M.E.Sharpe, 1996): 64

[11] Brockett, Charles D. “An Illusion of Omnipotence: U.S. Policy Toward Guatemala, 1954-1960.” Latin American Politics and Society. (Spring 2002) Vol. 44, 1:116

[12] Leogrande, William M. “From Reagan to Bush: The Transition in U.S. Policy Towards Central America.” Journal of Latin American Studies. (Oct. 1990) Vol. 22, No. 3: 620

[13] US AID. “Guatemala Country Plan for 2004-2010.” US AID From the American People. (04/30/2010)

[14] Jonas, Susanne. The Battle for Guatemala: Rebels, Death Squads, and U.S. Power. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1991): 14

[15] World Trade Organization. “Secretariat Report.” Trade Policy Review: Guatemala. (Feb. 2009) (05/01/2010)

[16] “Guatemala Trade Brief.” World Trade Indicators. (2009/10) (05/01/2010)

[17] Constable, Pamela. “Guatemalan Stress Immigrant Sacrifices.” The Washington Post. (04/30/2008) (05/01/2010)

[18] Grandin, Greg. The Blood of Guatemala: A History of Race and Nation. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000): 8

[19] The World Bank. Poverty in Guatemala. (Washington, DC: The World Bank, 2004): 18 at

[20] Sieder, Rachel. “Reframing Citizenship: Indigenous Rights, Local Power and the Peace Process in Guatemala.” Conciliation Resources. (1997) (05/01/2010)

[21] Aizenman, N.C. “Endurance of Corruption Shakes Guatemala Anew.” The Washington Post. (03/11/2006) (05/01/2010)

[22] Plihal, Vanessa. “President Accused of Corruption While Gangs Reign in Guatemala.” City Mayors Society. (05/27/2009) (05/01/2010)

[23] Whiteman, Hilary. “One Woman’s Fear in the Fight Against Corruption in Guatemala.” CNN World. (06/10/2009) (05/01/2010)

[24] Casas-Zamora, Kevin. “‘Guatemalastan’: How to Prevent a Failed State in our Midst.” Brookings. (05/22/2009) (05/01/2010)

[25] Aizenman, “Endurance of Corruption.”

[26] Transparency International. “Global Corruption Report 2007.” Transparency International. (2007):211 at (05/01/2010)

[27] Schneider, Mark. “Guatemala: The Next to Fall.” Global Post. (04/16/2009) (05/01/2010)

[28] Llorca, Juan Carlos. “Guatemala Arrests Show How Drug Cartels Target Weak Nations, Threaten Global Security.” Associated Press. (03/30/2010) (05/01/2010)

[29] Garvin, Glenn. “Protestors Jeer Clinton Over U.S. Repatriation Policy.” The Miami Herald. (03/11/1999) (05/01/2010)

[30] Baker, Peter. “In Guatemala, Bush Vows to Push Immigration Changes.” The Washington Post. (03/13/2007) (05/01/2010)

[31] Hornberger, Jacob G. “An Anti-Democracy Foreign Policy: Guatemala.” The Future of Freedom Foundation. (02/11/2005) (05/01/2010)

[32] Kaufman, Stephen. “U.S., Brazil Plan Cooperation on Climate, Gender, Development.” (03/04/2010) (05/01/2010)

[33] Mullan, Fitzhugh. “Affirmative Action, Cuban Style.” The New England Journal of Medicine. (Dec. 2004) Vol. 351, No. 26: 2680-2682

[34]. Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. “Background Note: Guatemala.” U.S. Department of State. __(03/22/2010) (05/01/2010)

[35] Fulmer, Melinda. “Plant Closures Are Bitter Pills for Sugar Beet Growers.” Los Angeles Times. June 22, 2000.

[36] Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. “The Merida Initiative.” U.S. Department of State. (06/23/2009) (05/01/2010) __

[37] Thompson, Ginger. “U.S. Will End Ban on Military Aid to Guatemala.” (03/26/2005) New York Times. (05/01/2010)

[38] “From Arbenz to Zelaya: Chiquita in Latin America.” Democracy Now. (07/21/2009) (05/01/2010)

[39] Constable, “Guatemalan Stresses Immigrant Sacrifices.”

[40] Members of the Partnership for the Americas Commission. “Rethinking U.S.-Latin American Relations: A Hemispheric Partnership for a Turbulent World.” The Brookings Institution. (Nov. 2008): 4 (05/01/2010)

[41] International Conference. “The Guatemala Peace Accords Ten Years Later: An Analysis and the Outlook for International Cooperation.” European Parliament. (May 2-3, 2007) (05/01/2010)

[42] Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification. “Guatemalan Memory of Silence: Report of the Commission for Historical Clarification, Conclusions and Recommendations.” Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification. (05/01/2010)

[43] Preti, Alessandro. “Guatemala: Violence in Peacetime – A Critical Analysis of the Armed Conflict and the Peace Process.” Disasters. (2002) Vol. 26, No.2: 110