Guatemala: Bush Jnr's prosperity message 'improbable' for farmers barely scratching a living Print E-mail

Monday March 12 2007

Farmers like this one in Santa Cruz Balanya, Guatemala, say too little land, too scarce credit and too many wealthy middlemen make farming difficult (MOISES CASTILLO: FOR THE CHRONICLE)

Prosperity message lost on many in Guatemala


SANTA APOLONIA, GUATEMALA ­ Straightening up from the row of carrots he'd been hoeing, Alvaro Aju paused to consider what U.S.-style free enterprise has meant for his corner of Guatemala's highlands.

"Not very much," the 23-year-old Maya Indian said.

On the fifth day of a Latin American tour meant to signal that he cares about the region, President Bush plans to travel by helicopter today into a village near Aju's carrot patch, take a quick peek at how the Maya live and talk up the benefits of free trade for the poor. But Aju and other peasant farmers who are barely scratching out a living here see few signs that things will improve much anytime soon.

Bush has praised free trade at every stop. He says open markets as well as better farming techniques and higher profits can lift people out of poverty and keep the Maya at home.

The Central America Free Trade Agreement ­ called CAFTA and signed in August 2005 by the United States and other nations in the region ­ will bring new wealth to the people, he says, end the wave of immigrants flooding into the United States and halt to the murderous criminal violence that has seized Guatemala and much of the rest of Central America.

"Part of my message in Central America will be that opening markets is the first step toward more prosperity," Bush told Latin American reporters before leaving on his seven-day trip last week. "The one reason I go is to herald what is possible."

Conditions on the ground
But too often, possible doesn't mean probable in places like Guatemala's Maya highlands.

Aju and others say that too little land, too scarce credit and too many wealthy middlemen make earning a living from farming all but impossible.

"We need the government to recognize the situation the countryside is in," said Candido Rodriguez, deputy mayor of Santa Cruz Balanya, a town of 9,000 set amid broccoli and cabbage fields, Bush's first stop on his tour today.

"People don't have any work," he said. "They want to plant, but they don't have land. Or if they plant, they don't have anywhere to sell their crops for a good price."

Those kinds of pressures helped fuel Guatemala's 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996.

The war killed some 200,000 people ­ mostly Maya villagers slaughtered by the army or pro-government militias ­ and left at least another 45,000 missing.

The fighting fell particularly hard 25 years ago in Chimaltenango, the province Bush visits today. It lies not 50 miles from Guatemala City and is a 30-minute drive from Antigua, the colonial jewel now a mecca for U.S. and other tourists.

"The guerrillas came, and then the army came," said Pedro Mendez, the chief caretaker of the Iximche ruins that Bush will visit, who got his job 25 years ago when his predecessor was murdered.

"The people were between them," Mendez said. "Many, many were killed."

Dangers remain
The violence continues. It just doesn't have a political label. Street gangs, called maras, control whole neighborhoods of Guatemala City and other urban areas. Police abuse is rampant, murder common.

"What we suffered here during the war they are suffering today in the capital," Mendez said.

Among the victims was Alvaro Aju's grandfather, Alberto. The old man answered a late-night knock on his door. Soldiers took him away, and he was never seen again.

His grandfather had nothing to do with the guerrillas, Alvaro said. But neighbors envious of his grandfather's relative prosperity told the army that he did. That was enough to doom him.

Aid groups and development schemes followed the end of the war. Local farmers were persuaded to switch from growing corn and beans on their postage-stamp farms to specializing in vegetables, which could fetch a better price.

A few peasant groups obtained financing from the U.S. government, international aid groups or the World Bank to set up export operations.

Labradores Mayas, the 66-farmer cooperative that Bush will visit, now sells produce directly to Wal-Mart.

But such success remains the exception, local farmers say. Instead, many still rely on deep-pocketed middlemen to market their vegetables.

"I'm not going to make anything on this crop," said Cesar Chonay, 32, as he and his family harvested a small field of carrots that he is sharecropping down the road from the Aju parcel. "Sometimes I can earn a little, but mostly I lose."

Alvaro Aju said his large extended family still only clears $1,000 a year from its 1-acre farm. Aju's father and brothers work as day laborers on other farms or in the privately owned packing sheds nearby. The jobs are seasonal. An eight-hour day pays about $6.

That's just the way it is here, Aju said. Everyone he knows remains poor. Too many families don't have enough to eat. Too many children go without school. Too many people live without a future.

Many local men, Aju said, have left to cross illegally into the United States. Some have failed, but others have made it. Aju may soon join them if he can scrape together the nerve and the money to pay the smugglers, some who demand as much as $5,000.

"It's very tough to get in" to the United States illegally, he said. "But those who have managed to do it can make a lot of money.

"So people keep trying."

Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle