US Interests Intertwined with Guatemalan Mining Operation

Guatemala faces many challenges -- a 59 percent poverty rate, deadly drug trafficking, the lowest literacy rate in Central America, and topographic realities where only five percent of the soil can support permanent crops, yet agriculture accounts for half the jobs. 

On top of that, its low-growth economy and violent, largely unchecked drug trade have convinced a generation of Guatemalans to look elsewhere for peace and prosperity. Today, nearly eight people leave the country for each one that comes in. By comparison, nearly 16 people move to the U.S. for every person who moves out. 

Considering this epic drain of talent and resources, it is puzzling that Guatemala’s government, with the acquiescence if not approval of some elements of the U.S. government, has shut down the third-largest silver mine in the world in San Rafael in southern Guatemala on some fairly suspicious grounds. 

In July, CALAS, an anti-mining organization, convinced the Supreme Court of Guatemala to issue a provisional decision closing the mine pending the outcome of a lawsuit it filed that claimed the Xinca indigenous community was not properly consulted before the mine was built. 

The decision came despite the fact that, according to the most recent Guatemalan census, 98.6% of the area is nonindigenous and no Xinca are party to the lawsuit. 

The court overturned the decision in early September, but protesters have formed a roadblock near the mine, blocking entry a la the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in South Dakota. Also, Guatemala’s Ministry of Energy and Mines has declined to renew the mine’s export credential, which expired during the time the suspension was in effect.

The result is that nearly 8,000 people who live in one of the poorest parts of the Western Hemisphere and benefit financially from the mine are idled because activists from international groups such as United for Mining Justice, Mining Injustice Solidarity Network, the Center for International Environmental Law, and others convinced a court to stop work on a project because people who do not live near a mine and had not expressed any problems with the mine were perhaps offended.

The company is paying the workers for now, but the cash-starved government of Guatemala is missing out on $9 million per quarter in royalty payments and tax revenue, and Tahoe Resources, which operates the mine, is deferring a $12 million investment in the region. 

President Trump has called for reducing immigration at its source -- in part by helping countries such as Guatemala become more hospitable to industry that could provide growth and keep residents from wanting to migrate. But hisaAmbassador there until recently, Obama-holdover Todd Robinson, seemed to work against those principles.

According to an article in the Daily Caller, Robinson made clear to Guatemalan lawmakers that Washington wanted Gloria Porras, an activist lawyer who had scandal problems of her own, to lead the Constitutional Court, Guatemala’s highest judicial body. One lawmaker said Robinson went so far as to supervise the vote and make clear to members they could lose their U.S. visas if they went against the ambassador. 

Trump’s ambassador, who recently just arrived in Guatemala, should make it clear that the new administration will support American interests in the region -- making good on a promise to put “America first.”

Guatemala’s Supreme Court has acknowledged CALAS does not have a case, but its Constitutional Court is now headed by a lawyer who is expected to side against the mine. 

These cases -- this state-sanctioned harassment of legally operating businesses -- don’t come without costs. 

Losing high-paying jobs will mean a massive hit on government budgets, the elimination of $1 billion in American investment dollars and another generation of Guatemalans heading north in search of menial jobs in the U.S. or worse.

The government is already so cash-strapped that the U.S. military’s second-largest drug program is hindered by the Guatemalans’ inability to help. The president, Jimmy Morales, has said jobs, business and economic development are the keys to recovery and to stop the nation from hemorrhaging its young residents.

Guatemala can’t do much in terms of crops, but it is blessed with unique natural resources. Those resources can’t bring prosperity by themselves, but they can provide good-paying jobs that get the country up and running, improve its educational attainment, brighten its prospects and cause young Guatemalans to be excited about staying put in their home country.

We’ll soon know if Guatemala takes its responsibility to its young seriously. In late-September, the Supreme Court clarified that the mine had to reach out to Xinca communities in just four municipalities and denied a request by the mine to renew its export credential. The Constitutional Court, with its American-influenced corrupt chief judge, is expected to rule by the end of the year. 

The Trump administration does not have a lot of options when it comes to intervening in a court case in Guatemala. But it should inform the people there that our ambassador and our policies have changed, and we don’t support the loss of high-paying jobs for thousands of people in one of the world’s poorest regions. 

Brian McNicoll is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va.