CAMOTÁN, Guatemala — Guatemalans living and working in the U.S. are sending home more money than ever, providing a lifeline for families struggling through the COVID pandemic and the devastating effects of climate change.
“The remittances [money sent home] are arriving to fill the gap created by the collapse of the informal economy, the collapse of the local economy due to the pandemic, and the lack of other assistance from the Guatemalan state,” Pedro Pablo Solares, a lawyer and analyst, told VICE News.
After briefly falling in April, remittances sent home from Guatemalans in the U.S. have boomed, and since July, money sent home has averaged over a billion dollars per month, according to data from the Guatemalan Central Bank. In October, Guatemalans abroad sent $1.132 billion back to their families.
“The pandemic has been difficult,” said Francisco, a 59-year-old indigenous Maya Ch’orti. “The aid from the government has not arrived here. We have not received anything.”
In March, the Guatemalan government announced programs to aid the population during the pandemic. The government's economic support and food aid efforts during the pandemic were not insignificant but their management and uneven distribution were heavily critiqued.
Francisco, who asked that his last name not be included for fear of repercussions, sat in a plastic chair in the shade of his humble home village of Lelá Chancó, Camotán as he spoke to VICE News. Newborn chicks followed a hen up and down a dirt walkway and piglets rolled in the sun nearby.
Francisco grew up working the land, sowing maize and beans to feed his family. Drought in the region that started some 11 years ago means his family can no longer count on their crops to survive.
“There are times when we have lost our harvests [due to the lack of rain],” he explained. “So we have to go to other places to work.”
But like many families in Guatemala, his family has been able to survive the periods of crop loss thanks to money sent from his two sons who migrated to the United States. They send the family around $100 to $150 per month.
“The money more or less sustains us,” said Francisco. “We live by what we harvest and from what our children send.”
The drive to improve economic and living conditions of tens of thousands of families has driven many Guatemalan youths to try to migrate to the U.S. in the last decade. Oralia, Francisco’s 34-year-old daughter, estimates that at least 70 percent of the young men of the municipality of Camotán have left in search of “the American Dream.”
Migration has continued despite the pandemic, with the Guatemalan Migration Institute reporting that nearly 17,000 migrants have been expelled or deported from the United States and Mexico since March. The Guatemalan Ministry of Foreign Relations estimates there are nearly 3 million Guatemalans currently living in the United States.
Many rural Indigenous communities exist in a historic state of both economic and social abandonment. For decades, people migrated to Guatemala’s southern coast and to neighboring countries for work during harvest seasons. Residents of Camotán, including Francisco’s sons, used to go to Honduras and El Salvador for the coffee harvest, and Francisco, too, traveled to other parts of Central America for work.
But in the last two decades, the United States has become the preferred destination for migrants.
“[Remittances] represent an economic support for families, for food, buying land, and constructing a home,” said Marco Ramirez, who works in the of town San Ildefonso Ixtuhacan, Huehuetenango with the migrant advocacy group, Pop N’oj Association.
Money that is sent home by those living abroad helps to fill a void in local infrastructure in many parts of the country, especially as the government has failed to invest in rural indigenous communities. According to Ramirez, remittances have helped construct important local projects, including bridges and churches.
This is common in towns across Guatemala.
In Camotán the first migrants to go to the United States sent money to purchase pickups, which allowed children in rural communities with access to education in the center of the municipality that didn’t require them to walk for hours or have to pay for housing during the school year.
“As soon as people started to migrate is when cars began to [give rides to town], and we had a way to travel to study,” Oralia said.
In the last six years a school was built in the village.
She adds, “Thanks to the remittances that have been sent from the U.S. our village has developed a little.”
Historically remittances to Guatemala tend to fall in November, but analysts like Solares projects that the upward trend will continue in 2021.
“Next year there is no reason to think that there will not be an increase between 10-12 percent, as it has been since 2014.”