- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 31, 2019

It has been a couple of years of uncertainty and stress since President Trump took office, but Abner Piedramartel thinks there may be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

The president of the Washington-based U.S.-Guatemala Chamber of Commerce takes it as his mission to promote trade and investment between the two countries, even while the U.S. administration focuses heavily on strained resources and rising border tensions from the flow of migrants from Guatemala and other Central American countries.

But Mr. Trump signed an accord in the Oval Office on Friday that his supporters immediately trumpeted as a major breakthrough in immigration policy. Mr. Piedramartel told The Washington Times in an interview that the agreement has a chance to clear the air between Guatemala City and Washington.

“Our position is that there are far more benefits to be gained from this agreement for Guatemala and the Guatemalan economy and U.S. companies trading with Guatemala,” Mr. Piedramartel said. “It also favors companies looking at Guatemala to direct their investment and expand trade.”

However, Mr. Piedramartel cautioned that ordinary Guatemalans will benefit only if the U.S. government continues to provide aid to Guatemala to help slow the influx of asylum seekers.

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, who leaves office in January, also signed the accord, which designates Guatemala as a “safe third country.” The upshot: Migrants passing through Guatemala from countries such as Honduras and El Salvador have to seek refuge in Guatemala before pushing on to the United States.

Kevin McAleenan, the acting head of the Homeland Security Department, held closed-door meetings in Guatemala City on Wednesday in an apparent effort to nail down details of the agreement.

U.S. Ambassador Luis E. Arreaga said in a statement that the deal, if implemented, would clear the way for “increased overseas private investment, U.S. development assistance and additional U.S. investment” in Guatemala’s private sector and would create jobs in the Western Highlands, a region with high emigration numbers, The Associated Press reported.

Guatemala, with the largest economy in Central America, has earned high marks from international analysts. Gross domestic product grew by 3% in 2018, and the World Bank projects it to hit 3.3% this year.

Still, the analysts say, Guatemala faces major social and economic challenges.

Guatemala “has one of the highest inequality rates in Latin America, with some of the worst poverty, malnutrition and maternal-child mortality rates in the region, especially in rural and indigenous areas,” a World Bank study said.

Mr. Piedramartel, who works with Guatemalan businesses inside and outside the U.S., said the deal has provided a major psychological boost because the U.S. is easily Guatemala’s No. 1 trading partner. Guatemala sends a third of its exports to the American market and takes in nearly 40% of its imports from U.S. producers. In 2018, Guatemalan exports to the U.S. totaled $4.2 billion, up 4.8% from 2017, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

With the certainty provided by Friday’s accord, “The Guatemalan economy can continue to grow without the disruptions that would have otherwise been disastrous to the people of Guatemala and its economy,” Mr. Piedramartel said.

As part of the deal, the U.S. will increase access to the H-2A visa program for temporary Guatemalan agricultural workers. The visa program allows agricultural employers who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers to bring in foreign workers on a temporary or seasonal basis.

The U.S. has certified 7,559 H-2A visas and denied 103 so far this year. In 2018, the U.S. certified 11,319 and denied 165.

“The Guatemalan labor force that now can seek legal work permits to legally work in the U.S. will benefit both countries,” Mr. Piedramartel said.

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