The Luxury of a Cough

Interview with Indian catechist from Retalhuleu, July 1986

From Guatemala: False Hope, False Freedom

Q: Whatt are workers whom you know being paid this year?

A: I would say that the average daily wage is around Q2 [50 pence], but some pay only Q1.50. For example, to clean two to three cuerdas of land [about one-third of an acre], you'll get paid Q2, but the difference is that they're now paying by the tarea [i.e. by the job] and not by the day. When you pick the coffee, you get from Q2 to Q2.50 per molde [a type of large container]. In previous years you had to ensure the molde was full, but now it's got to be overflowing! Whole families work all day from 7 a.m. to 4p.m., and then at the end of the day the administrators will still cheat you over the weight you've picked or chuck out two or three pounds saying they're dirty.

Q: So, in general, conditions are worse this year?

A: Yes, I would say so. There's much more hunger around. In many fincas the semi-permanent workers are not given any food, so they have to go and buy it from the nearby village. With the rise in the prices, and because they are not paid very well, they simply cannot afford to buy enough to feed themselves. If you have ten in your family, you need five pounds of maize a day2 which at 25 cents a pound now costs around Q1.50 - that's before the beans and everything else you need. Very often families only eat in the morning and evening, and miss lunch. The contracted workers will get something at lunchtime, but it's usually only a few tortillas. Because there's more hunger this year, there's more malnutrition and so more people are susceptible to diseases.

Q: What sort of diseases?

A: Malaria especially. There's very few medicines available. Even if you can get a prescription it costs Q8, so what are the people supposed to do with it - chew it? We say that to have only a cough is a luxury.

Q: Is there any change in the conditions on the fincas?

A: No, people are still living in the galeras, sleeping on the floor. We often say that the sheds for the cattle are better than the galeras.

Q: What happens if you protest?

A: The finqueros have lists of people who protest or who are known trouble-makers. If you're on the list, you're told you can't work on the finca, so you don't protest. Many people who come down from Huehuetenango and 0uiche are on the list because they're suspected of 'being involved in politics'. They have to pass from finca to finca, trying to find work. In many cases they don't return to their villages - or if they do, only with an illness and no money. Sometimes they just end up abandoned. They die simply out of starvation, or because the weight of their sorrow breaks their hearts.

NOTE: The State Planning Council recommends a minimum of just under a pound of maize per person per day, supplemented by a variety of other foods, to ensure a healthy diet.

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