Why Are They So Poor in Guatemala: Asking the Tough Questions

(Odel, director of Caminando por la Paz, explains the challenges facing his community in Guatemala City)

Last night, at a family gathering, I was discussing my recent experience in Guatemala. A friend asked, “Why are they so poor?” While this is a question that I am glad to discuss, I find that many of us are not prepared to accept some of the answers.

To give some background to my own encounter: In my work at Maryknoll, I am one of many tasked with helping US Catholics identify mission as central and definitive of our Christian identity. In our short-term immersion programs, we see an important step for people in entering into the world beyond their borders and forming relationships with their brothers and sisters from across the globe. Someone once asked me if we organize these programs for people to “identify the needs.” In a way, yes, but more fundamentally we go to first identify God in the stranger, and to feel compelled to participate more fully in God’s love for the world. Out of that comes the desire to work with people to help face the challenges to that love – be they poverty, violence, exploitation, fear, anger, closed-mindedness, bigotry – whatever may be damaging people’s lives and relationships with one another.

Our immersion experience to Guatemala brought eight Catholic educators from the US to meet students, other youth, teachers, families, and community members in Guatemala City and Esquipulas. We experienced overwhelming joy, welcome, and love in meeting people. Many, like Odel, who runs a house to tutor kids in Guatemala City and to keep them out of the gangs, were people doing their small part to address the many needs of the country. Many others, like the families that we visited in small groups in a rural neighborhood outside of Esquipulas, were struggling to address the needs of their own families’ survival.

It is difficult to meet these people and not ask the question that my friend asked me: “Why are they so poor?” Why do they struggle so much? When you start to ask those questions, though, you need to be able to face the role that you play in the answer. We learned, for instance, that in Guatemala the majority of the usable agricultural land is owned by outside corporations, many from the US. This means that most of the profits from the agriculture industry in the country actually end up outside of it, and the wealth that does go to Guatemalan people lands mainly in the hands of the wealthy ruling elite.

In discussing this, some people have remarked to me that this is simply the fault of those corrupt elite, and that we ourselves are not to blame. While I disagree with this in and of itself (we support and benefit from this system, and also are called in general to the cause of the poor), countries like Guatemala provide an additional wrinkle. The people did attempt to rise against this system of oppression, and the US Government, fearing that the cause of the poor was a dangerous entrée into Communism, supported that same wealthy elite in leading an all-out attempt to massacre the indigenous people.

At this point, it may seem that I am blaming the US entirely for the problems in Guatemala, but I am not. The point is, though, that we can no longer look only at what other people need to do and expect the world to change for the better. Yes, the corrupt members of the Guatemalan elite need to change, but is that my role? Or is my role to challenge businesses here that exploit cheap land and abuse labor practices overseas to engage in more ethical – dare I say, “Christ-like” – business practices? Am I more effective in criticizing the Guatemala government, or in challenging my own government, challenging my people, and, ultimately, challenging myself?

These are the hard questions. But we need to take to heart when Jesus said, “remove the wooden beam from your eye first, then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye” (Mt. 7:5). We often take that as an admonishment, but it is also an invitation. It is an invitation to see anew, to grow closer to God, and to be a better witness of Christ’s love to our brothers and sisters.