Guatemala’s New President Won’t Stop Citizens Leaving

The Trump administration is relying on the country to curb migration. That won’t happen.

Guatemalan presidential candidate Alejandro Giammattei speaks to supporters in Guatemala City on Aug. 11 after the run-off presidential election.
Guatemalan presidential candidate Alejandro Giammattei speaks to supporters in Guatemala City on Aug. 11 after the run-off presidential election. JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images

GUATEMALA CITY and SAN MARTÍN JILOTEPEQUE, Guatemala—Humberto Pineda is one of thousands of Guatemalans who face a choice every day: stay in the country or leave. The 28-year-old father couldn’t find a job living in San Martín Jilotepeque, a predominantly indigenous Kaqchikel community about an hour and a half outside Guatemala City, so he commutes to the capital to pack boxes in a factory. But he still struggles to support his family, so he is thinking of leaving Guatemala. “We need a lot of changes,” he said.

On Sunday, Guatemalans like Pineda faced another decision: who to choose as their next president. They elected Alejandro Giammattei, a 63-year-old former prisons director who has run for president three times before. Giammattei won about 58 percent of the vote over his center-left rival, former first lady Sandra Torres. The elections come in the midst of a major exodus. More than 200,000 Guatemalans have left their country since October 2018. The president-elect promises to grow the economy and reduce unemployment so that Guatemalans won’t have to leave, saying he will build a “wall of prosperity.”

The success of his tenure could hang on immigration. How he will address it is unclear. Just weeks ago, Guatemala’s outgoing president struck a deal with U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration that would force migrants to seek asylum in Guatemala rather than in the United States. Giammattei has said he will now seek to amend the deal to be more favorable to Guatemala. “If we don’t have the capacity to look after our own people, imagine what it will be like for foreigners,” he said.

But many Guatemalans—even those who voted for Giammattei—have little faith that he can make the drastic changes the country needs to give its own citizens a reason to stay. “I wouldn’t think twice if I had the chance to migrate,” said Pineda outside the voting center in San Martín Jilotepeque. He voted for Giammattei but said that he wanted to leave even if his pick won. “It’s difficult to even consider [not migrating],” Pineda said. “This country does not let us improve our lives.” The only thing stopping him is the high fee for a smuggler—at least $7,000.

“People have fallen into a depressive state, and they no longer believe that change is possible through elections—or at least through the options that exist in Guatemalan elections,” said Manfredo Marroquin, the founder of Citizen Action, a Guatemalan organization that focuses on issues of transparency and corruption. This was demonstrated by low voter turnout. Only about 42 percent of the country’s 8 million registered voters made it to the polls on Sunday, compared to 56 percent in the second round of presidential elections in 2015. “I don’t like either of the two,” said 52-year-old construction worker Carlos Enrique Canac, who was planning on casting a null vote, before the elections. “They are not good candidates. They both have bad reputations.”

Giammattei previously spent 10 months locked up for his alleged role in a controversial 2006 prison raid that left seven inmates dead. He was director of prisons at the time and was eventually acquitted in the case. His rival, Torres, faces allegations of illegal campaign financing. With these two options, many voters cast their ballots without much enthusiasm.

For Pineda, Giammattei was the better candidate because “he didn’t promise much.” Fewer promises made means fewer promises broken. The conditions in the country are dire—an estimated 59 percent of Guatemalans live in poverty, according to the World Bank. No matter what past candidates have promised, this reality has remained the same, so Guatemalans like Pineda don’t expect anything different this time.

Many Guatemalans are worn out by decades of corruption and the fight to rid the country of it. Past presidents have promised to improve conditions in the country only to line their own pockets once they make it to office, as revealed by several corruption scandals.

In 2015, citizens thought real change was finally coming. Tens of thousands of Guatemalans took to the streets to protest against a president and vice president involved in a graft scheme. Both resigned, and the vice president has been sentenced on charges including fraud and influence peddling, while the president remains in detention awaiting trial. The country’s current president, Jimmy Morales, a political newcomer and former comedian, promised to tackle corruption during his 2015 campaign. But Morales and his family were soon implicated in their own corruption scandals. The president kicked out the leader of an United Nations-backed anti-corruption investigation body, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (known by its Spanish initials as CICIG), and did not renew its mandate. He repeatedly defied Guatemala’s democratic institutions, thrusting the country into a constitutional crisis. As he did so, the United States, once a staunch supporter of CICIG, took a step back, even as the Trump administration claimed to want to curb migration from the country. Conditions never improved for millions of Guatemalans as they had hoped.

As Morales leaves office, he’s handing over a nearly impossible list of problems to address.

As Morales leaves office, he’s handing over a nearly impossible list of problems to address: Insecurity, unemployment, high cost of living, and corruption were all major concerns for Guatemalan voters as they headed to the voting booth, according to a poll by a Guatemalan organization, the Liberty and Development Foundation. These were the same concerns many voters expressed to Foreign Policy.

To address these problems, Giammattei promises to improve the economy and create more jobs. “Physical walls don’t stop [migration],” he said in a June interview with EFE. “Economic walls do, an economic wall of prosperity, of employment.” Giammattei has promised to reduce poverty by sustaining 6 percent economic growth over a 12-year period. To do so, he says he wants to attract foreign investment and work with the private sector to create jobs. He also said he would negotiate an agreement with Mexico to promote development in San Marcos and Huehuetenango, two departments near the Mexican border where many residents migrate north.

Still, although the lack of job opportunities is one of many problems facing the country, it is not the only one. Widespread violence, the effects of climate change on agriculture, institutionalized racism, and extreme poverty also push migrants north.

“Migration is related to economics, without a doubt,” Pedro Pablo Solares, a Guatemalan lawyer and immigration expert, told Foreign Policy. “But it’s not just economic. It’s also political,” he said. “If it does not address the marginalization and social exclusion of the majority of the indigenous population, any investment will also exclude them.” Guatemala’s indigenous people have long faced exclusion and discrimination, and they’re leaving in record numbers, in some cases from communities where migration has been uncommon in the past decades.

Mauro Verzeletti, a missionary who works with migrants in Guatemala through Scalabrini International, worries Giammattei will not truly change the economy so that it works for poor Guatemalans and not just a select few. “[I doubt] that they are truly open to constructing a policy of investment to create more job opportunities,” he said.

Many voters on Sunday said they were worried not just about finding a job, but also about finding one that would pay a living wage and provide dignified working conditions. Neither voters nor experts believe Giammattei will be a president who will push for this type of transformation. Giammattei has surrounded himself with many of the same people who have ruled the country for decades, so Guatemalans are bracing for more of the same. “Neither party or candidate wants to have a strong break with the groups of power,” Marroquin, of Citizen Action, said. “Basically this will maintain the state of things and prolong the current crisis, which is both an economic crisis and a crisis of governability.”

“The corruption and impunity are creating this wave of migration.”

With a system plagued by corruption continuing largely intact, Guatemalans will continue fleeing despite campaign promises. “The corruption and impunity are creating this wave of migration,” Verzeletti said. “This migration is because people are really hit hard by the violence, poverty, and lack of opportunities. They have to leave, and they are going to continue to leave.”

Carlos Vargas, a 28-year-old man deported from the United States who arrived back in Guatemala City days before the election, is among those who wants to leave the country.

“They haven’t been able to fix anything in so many years, so they won’t now,” Vargas said. “People are going to keep migrating to a country where they can live a better life.”

Anna-Catherine Brigida is a freelance journalist based in San Salvador covering immigration, human rights and security in Central America. Twitter: @AnnaCat_Brigida

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