‘Safe third country’? Guatemalans are not convinced

Demonstrating against the deal in Guatemala City. Photo by Jackie McVicar.Demonstrating against the deal in Guatemala City. Photo by Jackie McVicar.

Carlos Ernesto Choc sat near a circle of 41 small crosses, cemented in plastic pots and draped with colorful crocheted doilies—symbols now a permanent fixture in Guatemala City’s Central Plaza to remember the girls who were killed during a fire at a state-run foster home two years ago. Though staff at the home had the keys to let the girls out of the small classroom where they were being locked up as a collective punishment, no one responded when the fire began inside, despite the screams for help. Fifty-six girls burned in the fire on March 8, 2017; 41 died.

“Our people live a sad reality,” Mr. Choc said. “Security, education, health care are problems. You can see how we are living.” Mr. Choc has been internally displaced for close to a year and a half. A Maya Q’eqchi’ journalist from the eastern part of Guatemala, he was forced from his home after he witnessed police shoot and kill Carlos Maaz, a fisherman who was protesting against contamination of a nickel mine in Lake Izabal in May 2017.

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On July 26, acting U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan and the Guatemalan Minister of the Interior, Enrique Degenhart, signed a Safe Third Country Agreement in the Oval Office in Washington. Declaring Guatemala a “safe country” is part of the Trump administration’s latest attempt to curb the flow of migration from the so-called Northern Triangle nations, and in particular, asylum seekers from Honduras and El Salvador.

Under the agreement, asylum seekers traveling through Guatemala would have to make an asylum claim and exhaust all legal channels there if they hope to be considered for asylum in the United States. U.S. officials tried to broker a similar deal with Mexico that would mean Guatemalans would have to claim asylum in their northern neighbor to have any shot at making an asylum claim in the United States, but so far the administration of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has refused to cooperate.

Down the street from the monument to the girls, 200 people gathered outside the presidential palace on July 27, the day after the agreement between the two states was signed. Elderly couples, parents and kids waved Guatemalan flags and held up signs condemning the agreement and calling for the president’s resignation. The crowd circled around the People’s Batucada, a grassroots political reform organization that hosted the rally.

“Our own people don’t have dignity. There’s no security. There are thousands of malnourished kids. How can we offer to be a safe country if it isn’t even safe for our own citizens?”

“We really can’t afford to become a safe third country. It’s not because we don’t love our migrant brothers and sisters, but we don’t believe that we can give them dignity here,” said Pamela Saravia, a member of the Batucada. The group was created in 2015 during a crackdown on corruption that eventually led to the jailing of Guatemala’s former President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice-President Roxana Baldetti.

“Our own people don’t have dignity. There’s no security. There are thousands of malnourished kids. How can we offer to be a safe country if it isn’t even safe for our own citizens?”

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According to a World Bank assessment, Guatemala, the biggest economy in Central America, has one of the highest inequality rates in Latin America. Its citizens endure some of the worst poverty, malnutrition and maternal and child mortality rates in the region, especially in rural and indigenous areas. Over half the population lives below the national poverty line of $2 a day, and public spending on education is only 2.6 percent of Guatemala’s gross domestic product, the lowest in Latin America.

Pressure had been mounting for Guatemala to sign an agreement since early July, but civil society actors have objected to the plan. The Guatemalan Conference of Bishops published a statement on July 13 that urged the Guatemalan government to withdraw from negotiations with the White House, expressing its “enormous concern” about the impact such an agreement would have on the region’s migrant people. The bishops argued that Guatemala did not have the capacity to comply with the obligations such an agreement would demand in terms of providing security, health care, shelter and employment.

On July 14, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court halted a previous deal, ruling that it was illegal for President Jimmy Morales to unilaterally make decisions that have economic and other impacts on the country. According to that court decision, the Congress of Guatemala must approve any such deal according to the country’s constitution.

On July 24, President Trump responded by threatening to impose economic sanctions if Guatemala did not accede to the agreement. By July 26, despite the Constitutional Court order, the Cooperation Agreement for the Assessment of Protection Requests was signed. In this latest iteration of the agreement, Mr. Morales avoided using the term “safe third country” in an apparent effort to get around the court ruling. Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office responded with a statement, citing the Vienna Convention, arguing that “any agreement made under threat is null and void.”

The deal “hit us pretty hard,” said Ms. Saravia. “We were practically sold to the United States. Signing an agreement to become a safe third country is totally absurd, totally shady.”

“It’s important that human dignity be respected and prevail over any agreement,” said David Avila, representative-elect for the Winaq Political Movement. “The agreement has to be thrown out. Different organizations and collectives will take legal action to make sure that this agreement becomes null.”

“We were practically sold to the United States. Signing an agreement to become a safe third country is totally absurd, totally shady.”

By July 29, Transparency International’s Guatemala Office (known as Citizen Action) and an independent lawyer had presented injunctions to the Constitutional Court to stop the agreement, while university students blocked members of Congress from entering the building where a vote to ratify the agreement was said to be scheduled for July 30.

On July 31, 15 members of the U.S. Congress penned a letter to Acting Secretary McAleenan condemning the agreement with Guatemala, saying that it denies access to families who merit international protection, noting that “at 26.1 homicides per 100,000, Guatemala remains one of the most violent countries in Latin America.” Despite those objections, on the same day Mr. McAleenan traveled to Guatemala to “expand the partnership” between Guatemala and the United States.

The Jesuit Migrant Network of Guatemala, a member of the Civil Society Articulation Group on Migration and the Regional Network of Civil Organizations for Migration, criticized the agreement in a statement released on July 26. “As civil society and churches we recognize migrants, asylum-seekers, refugees and stateless persons as subjects of law,” the statement read.

“There is concern that actions such as these promote xenophobic discourses and practices, divide populations and contribute to their criminalization,” especially migrant children and adolescents, “whose conditions of vulnerability require special attention and protection measures.” The statement also noted the lack of institutional capacity in Guatemala to assess, process and support asylum cases.

Sentinels for the Dignity of the State, an interfaith justice network, has denounced illegal state actions tied to corruption and impunity and the breakdown of constitutional order during the Morales administration. The day after the agreement was signed, the Sentinels also took to the streets in front of the presidential palace to demonstrate their rejection of the agreement, which they say put economic and individual interests over those “who are forced to migrate because of the poverty, the violence and the structural and historical inequality of our peoples.”

Mr. Choc takes note of this inequality. The problem, he said, is not that Hondurans or Salvadorans claim asylum in Guatemala, it is that the Guatemalan state is not even capable of protecting its own citizens, the majority of whom are indigenous and living in rural areas. “Large land owners evict, and want to evict, people, families, that are wanting to work the land, who just want to have their homes and live happily,” he said. That basic freedom, he said, “is what is missing in Guatemala.”

A Global Witness report, focused on the threats to land and environmental defenders like Mr. Choc, was released just days after the agreement between the U.S. and Guatemala was signed. According to the report, Guatemala recorded the sharpest rise in the murder of indigenous and environmental defenders in the world in 2018. The more than fivefold increase makes it the deadliest country per capita in the world for indigenous rights and ecological activists.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Cosgrove
3 weeks 1 day ago

What caused all these impoverished countries? The authors never look into why some countries are poor and others are prosperous. What is it about Catholic countries that they are so dysfunctional and so undesirable as a place to live.

eliz.atkins@gmail.com
3 weeks ago

here you go my dude: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Guatemala
TLDR: Economic and political exploitation from the Spanish empire in the 16th century to United Fruit and the US in the 20th century, and a right-wing military dictatorship that only left power 20 years ago.

J Cosgrove
3 weeks ago

I know what caused the dysfunctional social system in Latin America. It was a Catholic Church social policy called the “Great Chain of Being” which said each person had a place in society and essentially did not move out of it. It was brought to Latin America by the Spanish. It was all over Christendom but disappeared from England and Holland due to religious wars which essentially set the ordinary person free. The top 1-2% would exploit the bottom 98% in Catholic countries and often use the military to do so.

J Cosgrove
3 weeks ago

The English concept of freedom then came to the English colonies especially Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania was called the poor man's country because everyone from all levels of society were free. This led to the immigration of 80,000 poor Germans who then became prosperous as farmers and tradesmen in Eastern Pennsylvania. In the mid 1700's Philadelphia was the most vibrant city in the Western hemisphere and for awhile the second largest city in British empire.

J Cosgrove
3 weeks ago

This concept of freedom then spread to Western Europe in the 1800's and led to the domination of northwestern Europe and the United States and Canada in the economic world. After World War II these ideas of development spread to other parts of the world as they too wanted to become prosperous. However, several sections of the world still resist this social change but even there the people can take advantage of the innovations developed elsewhere.

Richard Bell
3 weeks 1 day ago

This is amazing. The Bishops and other civil society actors are saying, in effect, "President Trump, you got us wrong. Guatemala is actually another one of your proverbial shit-hole countries."

arthur mccaffrey
3 weeks 1 day ago

what is it about these Catholic Latino countries that they are so dysfunctional? Is it corruption in government? gangs and drugs? Simple Latino ineptitude? and why do they think that the USA is the answer to all their problems? Should the UN step in as they do in Africa? What can the USA do to keep the people there rather than cluster at our borders? We surely cannot be the Emergency Room for all the world's sick people, no matter what Bishops say.

eliz.atkins@gmail.com
3 weeks ago

ahh yes, as Jesus told us "whatever you do don't welcome the stranger, it could infringe on your high levels of consumption. instead, call their entire race inept and hope things improve where they came from"

Shayne LaBudda
3 weeks ago

Well done eliz.atkins. I am laughing audibly. Can't see the forest, too many trees in the way (maybe in the eye).

Oz Jewel
3 weeks 1 day ago

Guatemala was an old Inca civilisation site invaded and colonised by European forces granted permission to do so by Rome which had divided up the whole world into parts which were the responsibility of the Christian kingdoms to evangelise.

Modern history reveals that the United Fruit Company backed by several US Presidents had their interests defended by force and supported heavily armed dictators eventually opposing Communist forces to the detriment of the whole population and the devastation of the society along with perpetuation of their poverty and heavy loss of life.

Plenty of blame and shame to go around; none of which is attributable to President Trump who has not had enough time to drain the home swamp before setting historical wrongs to right.

eliz.atkins@gmail.com
3 weeks ago

eh. not a trump girl but i don't think it's too much to ask that while he's draining the swamp he at least refrains from threatening our smaller poorer neighbors with economic sanctions that would cripple their economies

Judith Jordan
3 weeks ago

Trump and his people are the swamp.

Opting Out
3 weeks ago

Judith Jordan.....Trump and his people are the swamp
People like Judith are going to sadly get Trump re-elected because they prove what we all see today: the Left hate, hate, hate much like Hillary's "deplorable" and "irredeemable" comments which cost her the election. Now Sen Elizabeth Warren is just as vitriolic towards anyone who disagrees with her much like Bernie Sanders. These left wing extremists are continuing the "divide and conquer" cycle started with the Left post Richard Nixon. Trump is surely not the answer but clearly neither side is willing to reflect a matured, reasoned, adult disposition. our country is being run by soiled toddlers on the Left & Right

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