The Washington Diplomat / January 1999
By Larry Luxner
William Stixrud Herrera presented his credentials as Guatemala's ambassador in Washington on Sept. 10 -- only six weeks before Hurricane Mitch slammed into Central America. At the moment the storm hit, Stixrud -- a longtime coffee grower -- was in Guatemala getting ready for his daughter's wedding.
Although Mitch did far more damage to nearby Honduras and Nicaragua, the powerful storm left a trail of destruction few Guatemalans will soon forget: 268 dead, 121 missing, 280 injured and hundreds of thousands homeless
Furthermore, over 20,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, while 121 bridges collapsed, 331 schools were washed away and an estimated $263 million worth of crops and agriculture devastated.
Nevertheless, says Stixrud, "the immediate emergency has passed. Now we're trying to recover our exports. My biggest challenge is to get Guatemalans living here in the United States to invest in their communities back home. What I want is to help our government eradicate poverty through investment in power, small businesses and schools."
For eight years before coming to Washington, Stixrud, 54, was active in Anacafé, Guatamala's National Coffee Association. Most recently, he served as the organization's president. He was also president of the United Coffee Producers Association, and a member of the Specialty Coffee Association of America.
The ambassador says coffee -- one of Guatemala's most important exports -- suffered at least $50 million in losses at the hands of Mitch.
"Rain was falling at the rate of three inches an hour for more than three consecutive days, so a lot of cherries fell to the ground," he said. "The equivalent of 500,000 bags was lost because while the coffee in the lowlands was in harvest, nobody would go out to harvest it under the circumstances."
Stixrud says about 25,000 acres were affected directly by the rains and flooding. In addition, the lingering high humidity encourages the growth of fungus -- meaning coffee trees will have to be pruned. "Recuperating the trees will take three to four years. It's not like melons or bananas, which grow back much sooner," says Stixrud, who owns coffee farms in southeastern Guatemala. Fortunately, the famous Antigua strictly hard bean variety, cultivated at 4,500 to 6,000 feet above sea level, was hardly affected by Mitch, though the banana industry -- centered along the country's Atlantic coast -- was devastated, with an estimated 60% of the Guatemalan banana crop destroyed.
Guatemala, whose economy is highly dependent on coffee, bananas, cardamom and other agricultural exports, in 1996 reported a Gross Domestic Product of $13 billion and per-capita income of around $1,200. Yet even if non-traditional exports continue their rapid growth, coffee will still be the mainstay of Guatemala's economy for a long time to come. At the moment, coffee represents 27% of the country's foreign-exchange earnings, and 39% of total export revenues from agricultural products.
On a larger scale, Mitch struck Guatemala just as the country was attempting to rebuild its economy after 36 years of internal bloodshed. The end to Latin America's longest-running civil war came in December 1996, when President Alvaro Arzú and leaders of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) guerrilla group signed a peace treaty at a ceremony attended by over a dozen Latin American heads of state and thousands of observers from around the world.
The development not only ended a war that has killed up to 140,000 people since 1960, but opens the way for massive development aid and renewed investor confidence in Guatemala, whose 11.5 million inhabitants make it the most populous nation in Central America.
Stixrud was in the forefront of this process, both as director of Contierra (Presidential Dependency for Legal Assistance and Land Conflict Resolution) and of Decopaz (Community Development Program for Peace) for the past two years.
The ambassador has also been active with Guatemalan NGOs that promote social and economic development. Since 1994, he's been president of the Rural Development Foundation (Funrural), and is a longtime member of the board of directors of "Ayudemos a la Niña" -- a group that sponsors the education of young women.
Stixrud -- whose predecessor in Washington, Pedro Lamport, is now Guatemala's finance minister -- says the country's economy is being supported in large part by the remittances being sent by the estimated 1.5 million Guatemalans living in the United States.
He adds that he's "very satisfied" with the response of U.S. citizens and the Clinton administration in the wake of Guatemala's most recent tragedy.
"For the first time since I've been a little boy, I find the support of the White House, Congress and the American public has never been as strong as it is now -- not only because of Hurricane Mitch, but because of economic reasons. They want an improvement in our standard of living. If we're poor, we won't buy anything from the United States."