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Guatemala’s Election Lesson — Not What You Think

Sunday, August 11, Guatemalans celebrated a peaceful runoff vote for their presidency, since no candidate won more than 50 percent on the first ballot June 16.

The two survivors of that contest were former national prisons director Alejandro Giammettei and former first lady Sandra Torres.  Although the election has yet to be certified, it appears that Giammettei won by some 58 percent to 42 percent for Torres with a low turnout of about 43 percent. Giammettei promised to take a hard line on crime and build “a wall of investment” around Guatemala to help create jobs to keep working-class Guatemalans from migrating. The condition of the polling places themselves suggests how necessary it is for Guatemala to invest in its citizens (see the photo above). 

Guatemala’s voting centers are almost all placed in public schools. I was in Guatemala for the June 16 round and visited several in Guatemala City’s largely working-class neighborhoods.  Over the years, I’ve been inside public and private academies all over the Americas. I would have to say that Guatemala’s were some of the poorest I’ve seen. Metal lamina roofs with missing panels. Crumbling concrete walls enveloping dark classrooms. Decrepit lavatories with broken, non-functioning fixtures. No sign of digital infrastructure. A few voting centers in private academies for Guatemala’s upper middle- and upper-class youth were more modern and better maintained, though spartan by U.S. standards. 

This grim picture suggests that education is out of reach for most Guatemalans. Statistics bear this out. Fifty-nine percent live in poverty which means that most school-age youth wouldn’t have the means to attend a decent private academy, much less buy books and uniforms for a barebones public institution. While public school attendance is free, it is compulsory only up to the sixth grade and not all graduate. Illiteracy runs about 20 percent of the population on average with higher numbers for indigenous citizens. Native communities, which make up more than 40 percent of the population, tend to live in isolated rural areas not served by schools and the need for children to help feed their families contributes to high drop-out rates even in primary grades.  Government support for public education is 2.8 percent of gross domestic product. The Latin American and Caribbean average is about 4.5 percent, and in the United States it is 5.0 percent.  

Voting with Their Feet

In the recent past, most public schools lacked electricity, heating, and running water, and only began to change a decade ago. Slowly, however. One Guatemalan congressional representative told me that most buildings still don’t have potable water, and the congress has yet to appropriate funds for that to happen as education is a lesser priority. Perhaps that’s one reason why so many people are leaving every day to join migrant caravans — with some 211,000 apprehended at the U.S. border so far this year. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) says that “In Guatemala, more than two million out-of-school youth between the ages of 15 and 24, including 600,000 in the Western Highlands, do not have basic life or vocational skills to enter the workforce. Youth face increasingly difficult conditions, including high levels of unemployment, social and economic marginalization, rapid urbanization, increasing crime, and lack of basic services.”

Guatemalan youth might hang around if they saw a better future for themselves, if the country’s public education system had modern classrooms, computer resources, vocational training along with arts and sports opportunities that would prepare students for the world as it is. But someone would have to pay for that. For now, the top individual tax rate is a low 7 percent. What’s more, loopholes and rampant evasion mean that only half of it is collected. Rake off a few more percentage points for corrupt officials lining their pockets and what’s left over is not enough to pay for all the things that Guatemala’s people need, from schools and utilities for individual citizens to roads and infrastructure for businesses to access markets. 

In April 2018, the congress approved US$150 million to buy books and renovate schools in different parts of the country, as part of a $1 billion spending package to be financed by loans. By my calculation, $150 million would only be enough to help modernize two schools in each of Guatemala’s 340 municipalities. A drop in the bucket. Government, civic leaders, and the business community will need to step up to the plate if they want to make the country’s human capital competitive, improve quality of life, and make Guatemala a destination for international investment — all of which would curb out-migration.

What IRI Is Doing in Guatemala 

No amount of foreign assistance can compensate for what Guatemalans should be doing for themselves. Yet, through a USAID grant, IRI is working with Guatemala’s government, congress, and civil society stakeholders to achieve consensus on dedicating more resources to improve national infrastructure, on changing laws to create a freer climate where businesses of all types can compete openly and contribute to the tax base, on passing a public access to information law so that citizens to know on what taxes are being spent, and on helping political parties become truly representative of citizen interests. These projects seek to create an enabling environment for citizens, lawmakers and other elected officials to identify the most important areas for public investment as determined by the country’s citizens. 

Poor school infrastructure is just one of the challenges Guatemala faces in dealing with out-migration. Corruption still robs resources needed for the country to become more prosperous and its prosperity more broadly shared. Murderous international drug syndicates pervade the countryside and run roughshod over rural populations. The latter two problems are more difficult and require time and outside law enforcement cooperation to resolve. However, upgrading the quality of the country’s education is something that can be done in-house and in the near term. If Guatemala’s new president is serious about building a wall of investment, he might start with this.