But none of this feels even remotely possible in a Guatemala run by a corrupt and indifferent government and a rapacious elite that persists in seeing the country as their plantation and its farmers as their peons. United States policymakers with an eye on the data, an ear to the ground and a penchant for creativity have a set of tools that can help empower this citizenry.
The Biden administration has vowed to invest $4 billion in Central America to address economic insecurity, violence, environmental crises and government corruption. Getting results in Guatemala requires investing in the economic and commercial scaffolding that the country’s entrepreneurial farmers desperately need, including access to land, fertilizer, water, roads, credit, technical assistance, broadband internet and the ability to sell their products directly to consumers.
The United States should also expand the availability of H-2B seasonal worker visas and privilege Guatemalans in their allocation. The welcome decision to increase the numbers of eligible Central Americans to 6,000 in fiscal year 2021, compared to 467 last year, is not nearly enough to satisfy demand. Rural farmers would welcome the opportunity to participate in a program that allows them to come and go regularly and safely, avoid crippling debts, count on an annual income and hone transferable skills and ties to U.S. markets.
More important, the United States needs to break a pattern in which foreign assistance is channeled through government contractors with too little transparency, too much overhead and scant connection to community priorities. We should seize the opportunity to work directly with local communities to fund sustainable development projects.
If the Biden administration is serious about curbing undocumented immigration, it should insist that the Guatemalan government provide the resources and expertise its rural poor so desperately need. Rather than partnering with the same old cast of business executives, Washington should seek out Guatemalan entrepreneurs who favor greater economic inclusion and are willing to pay taxes, invest capital, lend expertise and share market access.
None of this will be easy or quick, but Vice President Harris’s visit signals a potentially new approach toward Guatemala. Her invocation of hope as an antidote to migration raises an intriguing possibility: With U.S. assistance and a sustained commitment, Guatemala could become a country where the Mayan vision of utz k’aslemal, a full, plentiful and dignified life, could finally be within reach for all its citizens.