The underside of the cup: Guatemala

Florence Marquis

Guatemala Brulerie du Quai

Global coffee trade represents between 10 and 15 billion dollars depending on the year. More than 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed worldwide every day. The coffee economy represents a significant part of the income of several countries on either side of the equator. It is also the most exported product after oil and the movements of goods are therefore closely linked to the geopolitical issues of the producing countries and we can see the traces of their histories colored by European colonization strategies.
This column is intended to be a different look at the industry and the content of our cups of coffee, with the perspective of Florence Marquis, an integrated baccalaureate student in public affairs and international relations at Laval University.

Guatemala, country on the run

A little-known actor on the international scene, Guatemala is all too often forgotten. However, the situations that affect it are all too real and the effects on its population are hard to leave aside. From a democratic political situation in decline, with a system prone to corruption, from climate change destroying the fields and the hope of poor citizens, from food insecurity or poverty, it is easy to understand why citizens and families would try to flee.

Politics and COVID-19

After the end of World War II, more progressive presidents ruled the country until 1954 when military rule took place. This widely contested regime creates strong political instability that even a constitution and the return to power of civilians cannot resolve. After a civil war within the country, in 1996, a peace agreement was signed and a truth commission was set up to investigate atrocities committed under the government's rule. Following this, a certain peace settled and democracy evolved quietly in this new context.

However, the installation of a presidential regime with its rigid separation of powers allowed corruption to perpetuate and exert a strong influence in the political sphere. This was so much the case that a commission was created jointly with the United Nations in 2006; The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Its goal was to implement long-term measures to reduce the possibilities of corruption. His support for the Attorney General made it possible to support Guatemalans through disputes opposing them to strong economic and political figures. She launched investigations into hundreds of people accused of this wrong. Despite strong popular support, the existing political elite decided to oppose it and in 2019, the commission was not renewed. A constitutionality check was carried out and it was declared illegal for the government to take this decision unilaterally. Since then, governments have worked to reverse progress and regain control over government institutions. Also, despite the appearance of democracy, the political regime in Guatemala is far from liberal. In 2020, 60 complaints of threats and attacks on journalists were made. Also, since the beginning of the 2000s, 18 journalists have been assassinated. Also, between the beginning of 2019 and 2020, attacks against human rights defenders as well as against major figures in social movements became a recurring phenomenon. More than 651 people were victims of harassment or attack. Abortion is punishable by 3 years of imprisonment if performed when the mother's life is not in danger. Also, the judicial system is not independent, is easily influenced and does not judge the most serious disputes quickly enough to prevent them from recurring. These are just a few examples of non-respect of rights and freedoms that can be found in liberal democracies.

Like the rest of the world, Guatemala was also affected by the Coronavirus epidemiological crisis. As long as the president was in place, Mr. Alejandro Giammattei decided to make it his priority, at the expense of his people. On the night of November 20 to 21, 2020, the government urgently adopted the budget for 2021, without debate and without the possibility of access to discussions for the population. This obscure method of adoption was compounded by the fact that this budget would only increase the country's debt. A large part of this budget was devoted to solutions for the health crisis, without considering the problems of food insecurity and malnutrition that the population was experiencing nor the poverty which rages in a large part of the country. Citizens therefore took to the streets and set fire to parliament as a sign of protest and demanded the resignation of the president.

Climate change and drugs

Next, one of the most important economic sectors in Guatemala is agriculture, totaling 9.4% of its GDP and employing 31% of its working population. However, this sector is also the victim of inequity, climate change as well as several circumstances due, among other things, to Mexican cartels located near the country. First of all, Guatemala is mainly recognized thanks to its culture of coffee, bananas, pineapples or cane sugar. These sectors, more profitable, allow the families who are responsible for them to meet their needs in a suitable manner. Also, these areas which employ around 8% of farmers take 80% of the land, leaving very little for small farmers who struggle to meet their basic needs. This inequality is explained by years of underinvestment in agriculture, but also by the dismantling of several institutions that supported agriculture. Several agricultural communities have had to turn to less lucrative sectors, such as the cultivation of potatoes, oats or corn or the palm oil industry. Also many were subjected to the elements of nature. In recent years, three hurricanes have hit Guatemala, destroying years of work in the fields, many crops and infrastructure, but also causing several deaths. Several families were forced to flee, to migrate to another region of the country or even to Mexico and the United States. Whether it is drought, floods, volcanic eruptions, this country is extremely sensitive to weather changes which continue to increase every year. Also, having signed free trade agreements with the United States and Europe, it only takes a small variation in prices, for example in the field of coffee, for the consequences to reach Farmers.

Another problem that affected some producers was the influence that Mexican drug cartels had on them. They encouraged them to grow poppy plants in order to make opium. Subject to poverty, it was not difficult to convince the farmers to grow this plant which brought them a good income. They were often unaware of what they were actually growing and were told that they were helping to produce medicine, which explained the value of the plant. Subsequently, the Guatemalan government, pushed by the United States which was trying to undercut the Mexican drug trade, tried to eradicate all the plants and prevent its production. This, without offering financial assistance to farmers who lost this important part of their income, saw themselves fall back into poverty. This is what partly explains part of the problem plaguing Guatemala and why there is food insecurity which affects 45% of the population moderately and 18% seriously. This country also finds itself with the worst rate of chronic malnutrition among children which reaches 50% of those under the age of 5, this figure rising to 70% for indigenous children. It is therefore easier to understand the frustration of the population when the government presented a budget that did not include any funds to help its population get through this crisis.

Emigration and illegal immigration

Whether it is the political situation, the economic situation or the food crisis currently plaguing Guatemala, it is possible to understand why some citizens decide to migrate to the United States. 77% of Guatemalans who migrate do so in search of a new economic situation, a better situation for their family, and better education. Indeed, from the 6th year onwards, school becomes paying for children, which does not allow many children to escape poverty by aiming for a higher educational status. Many farmers barely have enough land to grow enough food to feed their families, but with the hurricanes, some have lost everything. In fact, 59% of the population lives below the poverty line. For them, the option of getting a better job to support their family by going to the United States would be perfect if they could only enter the country. Indeed, the United States has adopted several policies to criminalize immigrants who try to cross the border to seek refuge. They could no longer declare themselves refugees. The Vice President of the United States, Kamala Harris, made a public outing, urging Guatemalans to no longer try to cross into the United States without having official documents, because they would turn them over. She also assured her desire to work jointly with Guatemala to find long-term solutions to resolve the problem. Its goal was also to find solutions to the underlying problems that led to the proliferation of immigrants, for example the money that cartels made by smuggling Guatemalans across the American borders. It is an activity that has indeed produced four billion dollars for these Mexican criminals. This migration can easily be called a crisis when the numbers are exposed. In fact, over the past 50 years, more than a million citizens have tried to flee the country. Surveys showed that the biggest reason for leaving was economic, and 75% of those surveyed announced their desire to return to their motherland after saving enough money.

Also, the United States is not the only one to experience problems with its borders, although more minimal, Guatemala is also experiencing them. Since they do not have a common border with the United States, Guatemalans in search of a better life are forced to go through Mexico in order to enter the much desired country. But they are not the only ones to covet this dream of financial security, Hondurans and Salvadorans also share it, while finding themselves even further from the goal. This situation was further complicated by the global pandemic. In 2020, Mexico announced that it intended to close its borders to all non-essential travel and Guatemala did the same. Despite this, in January 2021, Guatemalan soldiers had to stop a caravan of nine miles of migrants from Honduras. This problem is likely to get even worse in the years to come with the increase in climatic phenomena which risk having a further negative impact on the socio-economic situation.

Finally, how does the coffee trade fit into its interrelation with all the other elements presented a little earlier in this text? As mentioned earlier, coffee is a relatively lucrative area of ​​agriculture, good land is granted and the families who tend it generally receive a decent salary and conditions that allow a decent living. For example the San José Ocana farm located in San Juan Sacatepéquez which produces superior quality coffee beans. The producers own a farm with more than 175 hectares of forest, 85 of which are reserved inclusively for coffee production. They have managed to stand out thanks to a high altitude as well as nutrient-rich soils.

Find our selection of Guatemalan coffees here .

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