An explosive cocktail for inflation and hunger in Guatemala

Diana Pastor

Manuel, 14, from Santa Maria Chiquimula used to work every day shining shoes in a park in Quetzaltenango.  Evening came and with a lot of sacrifice, he searched for something to eat after a day in which earnings vs. efforts were unfair.  His life was difficult before the pandemic, but when Covid-19 began, his income was reduced.  Many no longer went out to work in person and others didn’t want a shoe shine to avoid close contact and prevent infection.  Manuel had to stay for a while in Santa Maria Chiquimula, because he could no longer afford to pay for the room he rented together with two other young people in Quetzaltenango.

By the end of the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, people knew that the economy for the working class was in trouble.  The virus seriously impacted the community: many businesses recorded huge losses from temporary or permanent closures, numerous families incurred expenses for health emergencies or changes in their daily activities.  Due to transportation restrictions, there were disruptions in the markets and in the supply of products, local shortages, and higher food prices. 

For people like Manuel, who work in the “informal” sector, the situation was worse.  With the drastic reduction in demand for his services, he quit shining shoes because it was no longer viable.  He began selling face masks and it was better for him, but even still, it was difficult to survive because the cost of transportation and food was rising.  In February of 2021, consumer prices reached the highest peak, but later, beginning in March, they started to decrease gradually.  It seemed that the situation was returning to normal and the country started to breathe a bit easier, but no one imagined what would come a year later.

One afternoon in February 2022, Manuel stopped for a moment to watch television through a display case in an appliance store.  He found out from the news about a war that had exploded between two distant countries.  Neither Manuel nor many of us imagined the enormous importance of that war for our economy, not knowing the role that Russia as well as Ukraine have in the distribution of essential products.  In the case of Ukraine: cereals (especially wheat), oil and metals.  In the case of Russia: gas, fertilizers and petroleum.

Globalization would show us, (like a tsunami wave), how much our pockets would be affected.  The price increase today is in almost everything; however, some of the most expensive products are fuel and food, especially corn, beans, oil and eggs.  These are an important part of the basic diet of Guatemalans.

The Inflation or price increase from 2021 to 2022 in transportation rose by 11.5%, and with food, 10.65%.  Comparing prices from 2021 with those of 2022 worldwide, the increase is 29.8%

Manuel struggles, without help from anyone, to survive and eat.  Although the government promised to support families in need, the results from programs from the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food (MAGA) are not very encouraging.  The food provision program has been developed by 37.85%; the garden and agricultural promotion program has executed 27.82% of a budget and the food vulnerability assistance program reports progress of only 2.82%.  Although the government subsidies for gas and gasoline have supported sectors of the population, these are unsustainable and temporary, and don’t benefit those in extreme poverty, who usually cook with firewood and lack a vehicle.

Under this inability of the government to support the poorest, there is an enormous risk of famine in already vulnerable regions, like Huehuetenango, Chiquimula, Alta Verapaz, Quiché and Totonicapán, where Manuel is from.  While the interruptions in the supply chains of goods and raw materials continue, and political uncertainty worldwide because of the war continues, the threat approaches every day.  Not only toward the poorest; but even toward those who had never considered living under poverty, but that now, are feeling closer and closer to it.