published Sunday, July 24th, 2011

War, poverty trigger Guatemalan exodus

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The number of Guatemalans living in the United States has quadrupled in the past two decades.

A Guatemala official refers to it as a “forced migration” triggered by poverty, economic despair and a decades-long civil war.

In 1990, about 250,000 Guatemalans lived in the United States, said Erick Maldonado, Guatemala’s vice minister for foreign relations. Today, there are more than 1 million in the United States, he said.

What initially started as a political migration due to a civil war that lasted 36 years turned into an economic migration, said Maldonado. The exodus was “provoked by the lack of access to opportunities for Guatemalans in our country,” he said from his office in Guatemala City.

A concentration of wealth among the small upper class has led to the exploitation of some poor Guatemalans, Maldonado said.

The Central American country’s social and economic picture is bleak:

* The per capita GDP is $5,200 in Guatemala, compared to $47,200 in the United States, according to CIA World Factbook.

* Twenty percent of the country’s population receives 64 percent of Guatemala’s total income, while the other 80 percent gets the rest, according to the U.S. Department of State.

* Nearly one-third of the population, 30 percent, are illiterate.

* About 1.6 million children between the ages of 7 and 14 work, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund.

Along one of Guatemala’s western highways, heading north to the state of Retalhuleu, children as young as 7 sit beneath makeshift sheds, chipping rocks from the Samala River into gravel. The boys and girls, known as the niños picapiedras or rock breakers, sell the gravel to help their families make a living in a country where money is scarce and life can be desperate.

Guatemalans started to leave the Central American country for Mexico, the United States and Canada in the 1970s and ’80s, during a 36-year civil war that left, by some estimates, more than 200,000 people dead — mostly unarmed indigenous civilians — and turned 1 million people into refugees.

Now, most Guatemalans come to the United States because of a lack of well-paying jobs in their native country.

Guatemalan Congressman Mauro Guzman, president of the Immigrant Commission, said Guatemala should be doing more to help its citizens. He suggests infrastructure projects such as a highway in the northern part of the country to create jobs and spur development.

Guatemalan officials can’t stop anyone from migrating, he said, but they can certainly provide more opportunities so people won’t leave.

“We need to offer them ways of earning a living here,” he said.

about Perla Trevizo...

Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...

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