GUATEMALA: Water, poverty and CAFTA



FRAY BARTOLOME DE LAS CASAS, Guatemala — The World Bank anticipates that poverty will continue to worsen in the majority of the world for at least the next generation. In the rural north of Guatemala, in Central America, 75% of families in Fray Bartolome de las Casas (Fray) know what this feels like — 85% live in "extreme" poverty (on less than US$1/day). A land of lush tropical green, it rains eight to nine months of the year, yet Fray also finds itself in chronic drought.

The afternoon sun of May 20 unleashes burning heat upon Fray. The sky over Guatemala remains a hazy white from the burning of forest and scrub cut by campesinos (predominantly Indigenous rural workers) prior to this year's planting of frijoles (beans), arroz (rice) and ma¡z (corn).

Overhead fans do nothing to stop the sweat dripping freely from the faces of a small group of people gathered inside La Casa de la Cultura (the Cultural Centre). They represent some of the communities worst affected by the "drought".

The head (and only staff member) of the municipal water department, Juan Medina, opens proceedings with the eloquence of a seasoned politician. "The problem is due to company errors, engineering mistakes, citizen misuse and bad decisions by the municipal hierarchy. I am not responsible for that", he laments.

The local government in Fray is run by members of the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG), a former left-wing rebel group that fought the US-backed government in the 1980s.

As each community representative speaks, they encounter the same absolving response, which sends waves of increasing frustration, despair and anger pulsating through the group.

Medina continues: "No-one listens to me. No-one gives me any information. Meetings are held by the mayor and others in Cob n [the nearest city, three hours drive away], while here the mayor, secretary, treasurer and a few select others make all the decisions."

After about an hour, C ndido Reyes haplessly moves to close proceedings. He states in exasperation that, after having attempted to work for three years with a department that now admits itself to be an empty entity, "Hay peros y peros, pero no hay responsables al final" ("There are 'ifs' and 'buts', but in the end we are left with no-one accountable").

Reyes is a highly respected teacher, a returned refugee and local representative of the Basque social-profit organisation Zuzeneko Elkartasuna (Towards Solidarity). The organisation facilitates community access to clean drinking water.

Around half of the 43,000 people of Fray remain without this basic service, resulting in children dying regularly from treatable illnesses like diarrhea. At the same time, the US oil corporation Texaco pays the same flat rate charge for its water service in Fray as does a family that lives below the poverty line.

"The biggest problem is administration", Reyes advised the Mayor Ceferino de Paz Gonz les a few nights before the meeting. The two men share a background in the guerrilla forces that struggled for survival in the face of the brutal US government-commissioned military dictatorships that ran Guatemala for most of the last half century.

Privatisation and CAFTA

Today, they share a new common task. However, the petitions of Reyes and the community for better access to water continue to go unheeded. While rainwater literally floods Fray for most of the year and international support is as unceasing as ever, "drought" and "poverty" remain as symptoms caused by a dislocated and unaccountable government structure and disabling coordination and planning.

Those employed in the service of the community sit on relatively comfortable salaries, organisationally isolated from each other, the population, the problems and the power to change the situation.

With an air of inevitability, as the community meeting draws to a close, Medina suggests, "The only way to fix the problem is to give it over to a private corporation".

Here the meeting joined the grandest of current international debates — the privatisation of water. In this case, the prospect of selling the source of life in Guatemala to a giant US corporation.

Within days of the meeting in Fray, only a few hundred kilometres away in the affluent, colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, the US government met with five Central American governments (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica). They have since met in Honduras, and again in Guatemala.

On the agenda was CAFTA — the Central America Free Trade Agreement. CAFTA is the next step in the US government's plan to have each country throughout the Americas sell off their public assets to US corporations and adopt the US currency, as two of many steps to continue to facilitate the operation of US corporations in the region (Costa Rica and El Salvador are today largely "dollarised"). This is purported to be the best way to eradicate poverty in Central America.

Plan Puebla Panama

The process involves 11 monthly meetings throughout 2003 of government officials from each of six countries, aimed at the implementation of a 10-year, multi-billion-dollar mega-investment plan to industrialise Central America. The plan is called Plan Puebla Panama (PPP) — extending from Puebla (a city just south of Mexico's capital) to Panama (which shares the southern border of Costa Rica).

The March 28 Central America Report detailed some of what the PPP entails, including the construction of an eight-lane highway through some of the last remaining forest regions of northern Guatemala.

The US government makes the point that it is only negotiating with democratic governments. I have asked hundreds of people in Fray if they know anything about the meetings. No-one has heard of CAFTA. Mayor Ceferino confirmed his exclusion: "No, I have not received any invitations to participate, or to offer input regarding free trade agreements."

Mention of CAFTA and the PPP occasionally appear in the Guatemalan press, usually small notes. On June 18, the national newspaper Prensa Libre featured a full-page report on a press conference with the head of the US negotiating mission, Regina Vargo. The reporter wrote, "from the outset of questioning, Vargo made clear to journalists that she preferred them not to ask any questions about the negotiation process".

Any wonder the people don't know about it. The argument for privatising water (and other public "assets" like education and health services) as part of CAFTA, and corporate-globalisation generally, alleges that government structures are dislocated and unaccountable, inefficient and corrupt. This argument is used for the reason that it is generally true — as evidenced in Fray, and in so many other places around the world.

US interference

What is omitted, however, is how Guatemala came to be in "poverty" and "drought" in the first place. And how these same unaccountable government structures were created and supported as part of that process.

Privatisation has been Guatemalan government policy for well over 100 years, except for 10 years following the second world war — a brief change in policy which in 1954 prompted no less than a CIA-orchestrated invasion and overthrow of a democratically elected government.

The military dictatorship of President Justo Rufino Barrios, in power for more than three decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, talked of "modernisation" — meaning the encouragement of as much foreign investment (mostly from the US) as possible.

The most infamous of the US companies to invest on a grand scale was the United Fruit Company (UFC). The government, in order to facilitate the large-scale operation of the UFC as its priority, in effect ceded control of Guatemala's major ports and highways to it, and "privatised" the majority of the land most conducive to crop cultivation (primarily for bananas).

The UFC virtually controlled the country, to the degree that it successfully petitioned the CIA-orchestrated 1954 invasion of Guatemala. A military dictatorship was re-instituted by the US government. The "modernisation" policy was back in operation.

Who benefitted? UFC and the governments that engineered the coup. The displaced and exploited? They are seen all over Guatemala today.

This is the pattern the world over, fundamentally unchanged by the privatisation policies of corporate globalisation, because the policies themselves are fundamentally unchanged from those that brought about the situation in the first place.

Dislocated and unaccountable government structures remain the same, continuing to assist private corporations that are by nature dislocated from, and unaccountable to, the public (and they committed to the narrow financial interests of their shareholders only).

If our interest is in developing genuine democracy, a broader sense of efficiency and justice, real structures of accountability are required. Structures that secure public representation, as distinct from continued corporate representation. Structures that facilitate increased and improved public access to information and decision-making.

This would divert history from repeating itself for yet another century, systematically clearing the way for water, money and other resources, to finally hit their mark.

[Anthony James is an independent volunteer who works in Fray Bartolome de las Casas, Guatemala. He is a writer who specialises in issues of economic, social and environmental justice relating to globalisation and international development. Visit <> for information regarding projects in Fray, and other articles by James.]

From Green Left Weekly, September 10, 2003.

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