A stark choice for some Guatemalans: watch crops wither, and maybe die with them, or migrate.
NENTÓN, Guatemala — To understand why President Trump’s new sanctions and other flailing to end Central American immigration aren’t working, step into the dark, melancholy hovel of Ana Jorge Jorge.
She lives in Guatemala’s western highlands in the hillside village of Canquintic, near the town of Nentón, and she’s a widow because of the American dream.
Her husband, Mateo Gómez Tadeo, borrowed thousands of dollars and migrated north to the United States several years ago after his crops here failed. He found work in Alabama cutting flowers but then caught an infection and died, leaving hungry children back home and a huge debt hanging over the family.Two of their sons, aged 7 and 14, soon died as well, apparently of malnutrition-related illnesses. Jorge Jorge pulled another son, Juan, out of school in the second grade so that he could work in the fields and help pay off the debt. If it isn’t paid, lenders will seize the family land.
“We all suffer now,” Jorge Jorge told me grimly. “I have to struggle daily.”
If any family understands the risks of traveling to the United States, it’s this one. Yet Juan, now 11, is talking about trying to make his own way north. And Jorge Jorge, while terrified at the prospect of losing him, approves.
“I say, ‘Go,’” she said bleakly. “‘There’s nothing here, so go.’”
I’m on my annual win-a-trip journey, in which I take a university student on a reporting trip, and we’ve come to Guatemala to report on migration. My student winner, Mia Armstrong of Arizona State University, and I have heard from innumerable Guatemalans that the most fundamental driver of emigration is desperation — and, to an extent that most Americans don’t appreciate, this desperation often reflects drought and severe weather linked to climate change.
“Food doesn’t grow here anymore,” Jorge Jorge said. “That’s why I would send my son north.”
There are other factors as well, and the despair also reflects a marginalization of Mayan communities that goes back hundreds of years, presided over in the capital by an incompetent kleptocracy. But climate change is aggravating the desperation.
“The weather has changed, clearly,” said Flori Micaela Jorge Santizo, a 19-year-old woman whose husband has abandoned the fields to find work in Mexico. She noted that drought and unprecedented winds have destroyed successive corn crops, leaving the family destitute, adding, “And because I had no money, my children died.”
A third son, now 14, will be the next to try his luck. Remaining as crops fail and children suffer is not an option.
“There’s no rain, and no way to grow crops,” Mateo Mateo said. “One can’t live here.”
TYLER COWEN: To pick a success from the past, let me mention Poland. In my opinion, Poland has gone very well. It’s a great country. It’s been a success. If I made the following claim, would you agree with it? That you, Jeffrey Sachs, have done more for economic liberty through the medium and history of Poland than almost any other economist alive today? True or false?
.. In 1989, I made recommendations for Poland. I said several unusual things, like “Don’t pay your debts, get debt cancellation. You need emergency, a billion dollars on this date,” and so forth. Everything I recommended actually ended up happening with US government support.
.. Then in Russia two years later I was asked by Gorbachev and then by Yeltsin to help them, because they saw what was happening in Poland. They liked that. They wanted something similar. So I said exactly the same things, and the US government kept saying, “No, no way, no way.” I kept saying, “But that kept working there.”
I didn’t understand it in some deep sense for a long, long time, how weird this was. I knew it wasn’t the difference of economic advice. I understand what a financial crisis is.
TYLER COWEN: Culturally weird, you mean.
JEFFREY SACHS: No, how weird it was in the historical moment that things that had worked extremely well, had shown themselves, where I had had Brent Scowcroft and Bob Dole and others strongly supporting it, all of a sudden just no support from Washington. The IMF saying, “We’re not going to do this.” I said, “But, Richard Urban, you did that two years ago in Poland.” “We’re not going to do it.” “Why?” Flat.
OK. What’s the lesson of this? Quite important, actually. It’s a little bit off-topic, but very important. We didn’t want to help Russia in 1991. We wanted our unipolar world. I didn’t know that at the time.
.. I had had Brent Scowcroft and Bob Dole and others strongly supporting it, all of a sudden just no support from Washington. The IMF saying, “We’re not going to do this.” I said, “But, Richard Urban, you did that two years ago in Poland.” “We’re not going to do it.” “Why?” Flat.
.. What I didn’t understand was everything I said about Poland was immediately accepted because it was good advice and because Poland was going to be a bulwark of NATO. Everything I said about Russia didn’t matter whether it was good advice or not. Russia was on the other side.
TYLER COWEN: But China did it without us, without American help for the most part. What is it about Russia that meant Russia couldn’t do it? The problem was not like a Khrushchev-Kennedy dialog. But Russia must have failed in some other way where China more or less did not. What is that element?
.. JEFFREY SACHS: Many things. First of all, Russia faced in 1991 an extremely acute financial crisis. If you haven’t lived through a deep, deep, deep financial crisis, it’s hard to understand what it is.
.. But there’s a big difference of being a urban industrial, broken, Soviet economy.
TYLER COWEN: Which was deindustrializing eventually anyway.
JEFFREY SACHS: Which had so overgrown the investor heavy industry, and it was in a lot of collapse, versus being an agrarian, impoverished country, as China was in 1978. The pathways were bound to be very, very different. The geography is different, by the way, because China’s just filled with people who could do low-cost labor right at the ports on the east coast of China.
Whereas for Russia, it’s almost basically a landlocked landmass that was running off of petroleum which had collapsed in global price, which had collapsed in the physical facilities in the countryside, with collapsing steel mills, collapsing everything.
.. Syria had a huge drought, the biggest in its modern history, from 2006 to ’10. It led to many social ramifications that contributed to the explosion of violence starting in 2011.
This fact of these ecological crises turning into social catastrophes, I think, is a very real phenomenon. We should not presume that somehow we’ll just be able to handle this stuff. I’m told constantly, “Crisis leads to innovation and solution.” The truth is that’s sometimes true, and sometimes crisis leads to catastrophe.
.. Just a final word about that. We have so much statistical machinery to ask the question, “What can you learn from this dataset?” That’s the wrong question because the dataset is always a tiny, tiny fraction of what you can know about the problem that you’re studying.
If you want to know about the problem, get out there and learn about it. Don’t think that you’re going to find it in your dataset. For that we need a different kind of epistemological approach and a different kind of teaching approach as well.
I want our students out on the hospital wards, as it were
From 2006 to 2010, 60 percent of the farms in Syria were destroyed and had to be abandoned and 80 per cent of the livestock were killed. The drought in the eastern Mediterranean is the worst ever on record – the records only go back 900 years, but it’s historic. And 1.5 million climate refugees were driven into the cities in Syria, where they collided with refugees from the Iraq War.
.. There are other causes of the Syrian civil war, but this was the principal one. And those in the region recognize that. And it has unleashed, with other factors an incredible flow of refugees into Europe which is creating political instability in Europe and which contributed in some ways to the desire of some in the UK to say ‘Whoa we’re not sure we want to be a part of that anymore.’