Guatemala: A Land of Opportunities
POLITICAL AND COMMERCIAL AFFAIRS
BY NEVIN O. WINTER IN THE WORLD TO-DAY
Few people realize the great resources of Central America. The next quarter óf the century will witness great developments in these republics.
THERE is a great deal of ignorance and wrong conception concerning the little republics of Central America. Mexico has been exploited a great deal in recent years, and the location of Panama is now pretty generally known, but the five republics lying between these two countries have been too much overlooked by recent writers.
The ideas of many concerning the Central America republics are drawn from the play-life of popular novels and the comic opera stage. It is true that there is some foundation for their portrayal of life along the Caribbean Sea, and that there are many things approaching the burlesque to our eyes. When our boat stopped at the last Mexican port, San Benito, on the Pacific Coast, the news was brought on board that a former president of Guatemala with twenty-five followers armed to the teeth was camped on the border ready to march across the country and raise the banner of revolution. When we landed at Champerico the country was under martial law, and we were obliged to report immediately to the commandate and give a full account of ourselves. This movement did finally culminate in a slight revolution during the past summer, but its effect on business was slight. The autograph collector in the form of a bare-footed soldier of the comic opera type, made his appearance about a dozen times before the capital was reached. Then when a handful of paper bills are
thrust out to you in exchange for a few of LTncle Sam’s gold coins at the ratio of twelve or twenty to one with the American Eagle stamped thereon, you feel as reckless in your expenditures as the stage millionaire with his play money.
There is, however, a more serious side to life in these countries, and there are thousands of Guatemalans, Honduraneans Costa Ricans, San Salvadoreans and Nicaraguans, wno are seriously trying to solve the problem of self-government, and they are improving each year. The spirit of adventure was inherited by them from their Spanish ancestors, and it can only be overcome entirely by education, immigration and the general infusion of saner ideas. A whole country can not be plowed up and resown in a season, as the corn-fields of last year were transformed by the farmers into the waving fields of golden grain this year. It is a long and hard task that is before these struggling Spanish Americans, but they are now on the right road and will win. .They deserve our sympathetic consideration rather than ridicule.
Guatemala is a country of great natural resources and is the largest and most important of the Central American republics. It has. rich mineral deposits. Its soil is extremely fertile and, with a territory little larger than the State of Ohio, its productions are as varied as in the whole of the United States with its vast expanse of territory. The climate varies from the tropical
lowlands of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to the cool uplands of the interior where snow occasionally falls. The wealth of Guatemala is and probably always win be in agriculture. The prospective plantationowner has a wide variety of products to select from, any one of which will yield much larger returns than farming in colder climates. The soil is in places many feet deep and seemingly inexhaustible. When one discovers that three crops of corn can be successfully raised in one year in this tropical land, one has a little idea of the possibilities of agriculture in the tropics.
Slowly but surely Guatemala is raising itself out of the rut of three centuries of Spanish rule. The adventurers who carried the flag of Spain into the New World were men of great physical endurance, but possessed of little character, and that little dwarfed by their lust for gold. They were soldiers of fortune who came to destroy and not to create. By the aid of thousands of native laborers whom they impressed into service, the capital, Guatemala city, was constructed. Long before New York was more than a second-rate town, this city was noted for its wealth and learning, and was surpassed in importance only by Lima, Peru, and the City of Mexico. It was twice destroyed by volcanic disturbances, after which the capital was removed to the present site, which is in a broad, beautiful valley at an elevation of nearly five thousand feet, surrounded by picturesque mountains, and with the extinct volcanoes of Agua (water) and Fuego (fire) in plain view. Guatemala City has an ideal climate which does not vary more than about
twenty degrees during the entire year, and is delightful in winter and in summer. Seventy-five thousand people live here. Spaniards, Indians, and Mestizos, with a sprinkling of Germans and Americans, are trying to solve the problem of life and existence under favoring skies.
Twenty-one years ago the awakening came. In that year the raiL road was opened from Guatemala City to San Jose on the Pacific, a distance of seventy-five miles. Recently another line has been opened connecting the capital with Champerico, another Pacific port. Even progress must have its siesta here in this land of “wait-a-while.” No one improvement would be of such an advantage to this country as a railway from the Gulf to the Pacific. This has long been realized, and it was the pet project of President Barrios. Twmlve years ago the Guatemala Northern was completed and opened for traffic from Puerto Barrios, on the Gulf, a distance of one hundred and twenty-nine miles, and to within seventy miles of Guatemala City. The government then became bankrupt and leased the road. Having no good terminals the road was never a paying proposition, so that the line was allowed to deteriorate.
The difficulties in the operation of railroads in the tropics are many, and they were all encountered here. The ties soon decayed and in the rainy season the streams became torrents, which washed away bridges and tracks along the banks. The rolling stock was likewise neglected One train a day is now run over this line, which makes connection with the weekly steamer from New Orleans, and it takes two days to cover the one hundred and twenty-
nine miles. The passenger does not care to go faster, for in some places there are scarcely two ties to eacli rail that will hold a spike. The government has now secured the services of Sir William Van Horne, who built the Canadian Pacific and Cuban railways, and men are at work reconstructing the road and building new bridges. They are also at work on the extension to the capital, which will connect the Atlantic and Pacific with iron rails before many months have passed. A branch is also projected into San Salvador, which will be of great advantage to the United States in securing the trade of that republic.
The completion of this road ought to give the United States a monopoly of the export and import trade of Guatemala. At present shipments have been made by a circuitous and expensive route via San Francisco or Panama, so that freight charges are almost as great as from Europe. With this road completed Guatemala City could be reached in four days or less from New Orleans. For this and other reasons the United States has not been getting its fair and legitimate proportions of the trade of Guatemala and other Central American countries.
Guatemala is a corruption of an Indian word, which means “the land covered with trees.” Many valuable woods are found in the forests. The extent of the forest lands, which abound in mahogany, ebony, logwood and other valuable hardwoods, and much of which has never been fully exTDlored, is estimated at a million and a half of acres. This timber land can be bought cheap, but the great problem is to get the product to market. The
streams are not large enough to float the timber to the coast, and under the labor conditions it is a difficult matter to construct the necessary tramways. Howrever, an energetic firm with money and pluck can secure a return more sure and no less remunerative than a good gold mine.
Coffee was introduced into Guatemala from Arabia by the Spanish priests. It was found to be suited to the soil and climate and to-day is the most valuable export of the country. The exports have reached as high as eighty-five, millions of pounds in a single year. The grade is choice and brings a high price in the market. Most of it is sent tof Europe, as it is a common saying throughout Mexico and Central America that only the poor grades of coffee are sent to the United States. This is rather a slur on the tastes of the American people, but such is our reputation down there.
Coffee trees will grow on land at an elevation of from one to six thousand feet. They begin to bear at four years and a plantation of bearing trees is very valuable. However, they require careful nursing during the first >^ew years and sometimes a bad season will cause great injury to the growing trees. Last year there wTas an unusually large crop and the profits to the grower were correspondingly gratifying. An earthquake a few years ago nearly destroyed Quezaltenango, the second largest city, and destroyed many coffee plantations along the Pacific slope.
Banana cultivation was the one thing that appealed to me most forcibly. The returns are quick, the income regular and the profits large. Great fortunes have been made by
banana-growers in Costa Rica and Honduras, and are awaiting the planter here in Guatemala. 'lnc Guatemala Northern Railway runs through the heart of the banana country, and there are weekly steamers from Puerto Barrios and Livingston to New Orleans and Mobile.
The government is doing everything possible to encourage the cultivation of the soil. Most of it has never been cleared of the dense tropical growth of trees, vines and underbrush. Title can be purchased for a very small sum per acre if assurance is given that it will be cultivated. The preparation of the ground is very simple. The trees and underbrush are cut down and left on the ground to decay, widen will not take more than a year. The banana plants are set among the piles of underbrush. After nine months or a year the plants will begin to bear. Each stalk will produce one bunch of bananas. The stalk is then cut down and a new one, or several, will spring up from the roots and will bear in the same length of time. Thus a banana plantation that is carefully looked after will produce a marketable crop each week in the year, so that there is a constant revenue coming in to the owner.
Sugar-cane can be raised very profitably, as the stalks grow high with many joints and have a greater percentage of saccharine than in most countries where it is cultivated. Furthermore, it does not require replanting so frequently. At present about the only use to which the cane is devoted here is in the manufacture of “white eye,” the native brandy.
Rubber grows wild in the forests and has been planted successfully.
The government will give one manzana (113.62 acres) of land as a bonus for every two thousand rubber plants set out for cultivation. Cacao planting is now a very profitable undertaking. It is from the cacao bean that chocolate is made. Tobacco, sarsaparilla, hemp, and grapes can be successfully cultivated. The government is now making an effort to foster the cultivation of hemp, cotton and grapes by offering to exempt from taxation for ten years lands devoted to their cultivation.
The great problem with all enterprises in Guatemala is that of labor. Five-sixths of the population are of Indian or mixed blood, and by this class all the labor is done that is done. The Indians will only work spasmodically. Under certain circumstances the political governors can compel them to work, but this can not exceed fourteen days at one time. Then they can draw their pay and leave. The plantation owners overcome this by advancing the Indian a certain sum of money, and then the law compels him to work until the debt is paid under a system of peonage. Once in debt he seldom gets out of debt. Each plantation has an alcalde, or mayor, who has the power to enforce the labor laws, and he can put the recreant laborer in the jail, or in the stocks, if he refuses to work. Or he can summon the soldiers to hunt him up and bring him back if he attempts to escape. Another mozo, or servant, is often taken as security for the one employed.
The law provides that all contracts for labor covering a period of one month or more be in writing. Among other things the mozo binds himself as follows: Not to absent
himself from the plantation under any condition or pretext without previous permission in writing ; to pay all *he cost necessary to secure his return in case he should flee, rendering himself subject to whatever punishment is adjudged against him by the authorities ; each member of his family shall be responsible for that which he or she receives; the mozo who goes security, be he man or woman, assumes the same responsibility and liability as the one who is employed.
Like all Spanish-American countries Guatemala must be developed by outside capital, and none offer greater opportunities. The shrewd American with a little capital and a good deal of patience can, in a few years, acquire a fair competence. There are openings for small manufacturing enterprises, but Guatemala will never, in my estimation, be a manufacturing country. The labor
is cheap but unsatisfactory for that kind of work. Many minerals, in-, eluding gold and silver, are found in paying quantities. Commerce offers great inducements to Americans, who can and should control the trade. Agriculture, however, offers the greatest and surest returns. If the plantation owner does not care to cultivate tropical products, he can raise corn. The natives are great consumers of this food, and yet not enough is raised to supply home demands, although several crops can be produced in one year. Cattleraising is another profitable line in which to engage. Railroads are needed and concessions are easy toi obtain. It is the undeveloped country that offers the best opportunity for the man of modest means but of good judgment and with plenty of energy. The man of larger means can do equally as well in the greater enterprises.
There is a tremendous power in character when added to ability. A great many youths think that ability is everything, that if a man has brain power he can accomplish most anything ; but he is a light-weight man, no matter how able, if he does not add character to his ability.