Banana Republic to Baby Republic

Guatemala could shut down its massive adoption industry

Jacob Wheeler

Birthday photos of Antonia Cubillas' children suggest better days, before the desperate Guatemalan woman sold five of her ten children into adoption.

On any giv­en day in Antigua, a touristy colo­nial town in Guatemala, as many as a dozen Amer­i­can cou­ples can be seen loung­ing with their soon-to-be-adopt­ed Mayan chil­dren in the Par­que Cen­tral or din­ing near­by in posh restaurants.

The cou­ples enjoy the leisure­ly Latin Amer­i­can lifestyle – con­stant spring-like tem­per­a­tures, droop­ing bougainvil­lea plumage and stun­ning views of Vol­cán de Agua to the south. But late­ly, fear has set in among the Guatemalan adop­tion indus­try. The Guatemalan gov­ern­ment is threat­en­ing to wres­tle con­trol of adop­tion away from the pri­vate sec­tor and either slow it to a crawl or shut it down completely.

Last year, at fan­cy Antigua hotels or in the lob­by of the Mar­riott in Guatemala City’s upscale Zona 9, Guatemalan fos­ter moth­ers or adop­tion attor­neys passed many of the 4,135 babies adopt­ed from this coun­try into the eager arms of teary-eyed cou­ples from El Norte. In oth­er words, one per­cent of all babies born in Guatemala in 2006 end­ed up in Amer­i­can cribs.

Guatemala is the only Latin Amer­i­can coun­try that doesn’t exer­cise strin­gent state con­trol over inter­na­tion­al adop­tions. Adop­tions there fall under the notary sys­tem, which means they are essen­tial­ly pri­va­tized and run by attor­neys who, crit­ics claim, traf­fic in impov­er­ished, mal­nour­ished and some­times stolen babies. 

Adop­tive par­ents can spend approx­i­mate­ly $25,000 to $30,000 to adopt from Guatemala, and most of them leave days or weeks lat­er with their lit­tle ones cra­dled in their arms, and with no ques­tions asked as to how the attor­neys acquired their babies.

But this trade in babies could soon be shut down. Led by out­go­ing First Lady Wendy Berg­er, an Amer­i­can-edu­cat­ed aris­to­crat, many in the Guatemalan gov­ern­ment view the cur­rent adop­tion sys­tem as a baby-sell­ing indus­try, in which unscrupu­lous lawyers recruit, coerce and bribe des­per­ate women into giv­ing up their infants. These lawyers often make tens of thou­sands of dol­lars sell­ing” them to Amer­i­can couples. 

Berger’s con­cern is shared by UNICEF, which believes that aban­doned or orphaned chil­dren should remain in their vil­lages with extend­ed fam­i­ly mem­bers or be adopt­ed by oth­er Guatemalans. UNICEF views inter­na­tion­al adop­tion as an unfa­vor­able last choice.

Our focus is on the best inter­ests of the child,” says Dora Giusti, a UNICEF assis­tant pro­gram spe­cial­ist pre­vi­ous­ly based in Guatemala. Only as a last resort do we look to inter­na­tion­al adop­tion if there’s no oth­er alter­na­tive. We think inter­na­tion­al adop­tion is a good option … if it’s well regulated.”

As the most open and vocal crit­ic of inter­na­tion­al adop­tion from Guatemala, UNICEF has tak­en heat from adop­tion-advo­ca­cy groups, social work­ers, attor­neys and adop­tive par­ents, both in Guatemala and the Unit­ed States. Shut­ting down the life­line between impov­er­ished Guatemala and fam­i­lies in the Unit­ed States who are unable to have chil­dren, they claim, will deprive these kids of their inalien­able right to a home, lov­ing par­ents, food and nur­ture, as well as the sup­port they need to thrive in life. 

These chil­dren aren’t the prop­er­ty of Guatemala, says Han­nah Wal­lace, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Adop­tions Inter­na­tion­al. If the state can’t pro­vide for them and guar­an­tee that they won’t die as infants or end up as pros­ti­tutes, in gangs or sniff­ing glue in the streets to quash their hunger, then the state should wel­come out­side help.

As much as 60 per­cent of Guatemala’s pop­u­la­tion is con­sid­ered poor by inter­na­tion­al stan­dards, and 20 per­cent of Guatemalans are extreme­ly poor, liv­ing on less than $1 a day.

In the indige­nous west­ern high­lands, this means that many Guatemalans pray to the gods that the next corn har­vest will be a good one; it means many nour­ish their babies with watered-down cof­fee in lieu of breast milk; it means some trav­el to far­away regions to find work, usu­al­ly on the fin­ca plan­ta­tion of some wealthy landown­er. It also means high infant mor­tal­i­ty rates (around 30 per every 1,000 live births) and lit­tle chance of edu­ca­tion for those chil­dren who do survive. 

The Catholic and Evan­gel­i­cal church­es that rule here all but for­bid birth con­trol. The aver­age Guatemalan woman has more than six chil­dren in her life­time – and some more than 10 – giv­ing adop­tion lawyers a near­ly unlim­it­ed sup­ply to choose from.

Those adop­tive par­ents who are already in the process, or in some cas­es have already met and fall­en in love with their would-be adopt­ed chil­dren, are hop­ing their paper­work will run its course through the Procu­radoría Gen­er­al de la Nación, the Guatemalan Solic­i­tor General’s Office, and that the U.S. Embassy will grant their child a visa to the Unit­ed States before the laws change.

Cur­rent­ly, more than 3,000 appli­ca­tions for adop­tion from Guatemala are being processed with U.S. Cit­i­zen­ship and Immi­gra­tion Ser­vices or the Guatemala gov­ern­ment, accord­ing to the U.S. State Department. 

On GuatA​dopt​.com, a pop­u­lar adop­tion advo­ca­cy and net­work­ing web­site for adop­tive par­ents, posts like this one cap­ture the mood of many par­ents: I am already attached to the chil­dren that have been assigned to us. I have cer­tain­ly writ­ten my let­ters, called my sen­a­tors and called the [State Depart­ment]. I also sent an email to UNICEF. I would be pre­pared to march in Washington.”

In Sep­tem­ber, the U.S. State Depart­ment issued a press release, dis­cour­ag­ing Amer­i­cans against adopt­ing from Guatemala: Fun­da­men­tal changes in Guatemalan and U.S. adop­tion law will take effect over the next six months,” the release stat­ed, refer­ring to changes to the Hague Con­ven­tion, which gov­erns inter­na­tion­al adoption. 

The Gov­ern­ment of Guatemala has informed us that they will not process adop­tion cas­es that do not meet Hague stan­dards after Dec. 31, 2007. We under­stand this to mean that Guatemala will stop pro­cess­ing adop­tions to the Unit­ed States begin­ning Jan. 1, 2008, until U.S. acces­sion to the Hague Con­ven­tion takes effect.” The Guatemalan Con­gress rat­i­fied the con­ven­tion this year, but the Unit­ed States has yet to do so. 

Through­out Guatemala, inter­na­tion­al adop­tion has become a con­tentious issue. Ear­li­er this year, in sev­er­al vil­lages in the west­ern high­lands, towns­folk attempt­ed to lynch local women whom they accused of steal­ing babies.

On Aug. 11, the para­noia reached a fever pitch when Guatemalan author­i­ties raid­ed the Casa Quivi­ra adop­tion fos­ter home out­side of Antigua under sus­pi­cions of irreg­u­lar­i­ties” in the adop­tion process. The gov­ern­ment seized 42 kids wait­ing to be adopt­ed and placed them in homes that don’t focus on adop­tion, accord­ing to indus­try sources who wish to remain anonymous.

Casa Quivi­ra was run by Clif­ford Phillips, an Amer­i­can who now lives in Flori­da, and his wife San­dra Gon­za­lez, a Guatemalan adop­tion attor­ney. They were among the first to cap­i­tal­ize when Guatemalan adop­tion became a boom­ing busi­ness in the 90s.

The raid sent shock­waves through the adop­tion com­mu­ni­ty, both in Guatemala and the Unit­ed States. Hun­dreds of opin­ions poured onto GuatA​dopt​.com. Par­ents who had adopt­ed through Casa Quivi­ra post­ed most­ly favor­able opin­ions of Phillips. Oth­ers described the fos­ter home as clean and efficient.

But Casa Quivi­ra has alleged­ly employed peo­ple in the past whose unscrupu­lous prac­tices have got­ten them black­list­ed from the pay­rolls of U.S. inter­na­tion­al adop­tion agen­cies. One such employ­ee was arrest­ed in July for smug­gling a Guatemalan child into the Unit­ed States with­out a visa.

In 2006, I helped reunite a teenage adoptee named Ellie with her bio­log­i­cal moth­er in Guatemala – sev­en years after her relin­quish­ment. Dur­ing the emo­tion­al reunion, Ellie’s adop­tive moth­er, Judy, learned from the bio­log­i­cal moth­er, Anto­nia, that Casa Quivira’s Gon­za­lez had offered to pay for Ellie, then refused to pay once the girl was in the home’s cus­tody. Anto­nia had a change of heart and returned to Antigua three months lat­er to try and reclaim Ellie but was ridiculed and refused access to her daugh­ter. In the adop­tion dossier, San­dra Gon­za­lez wrote, Moth­er of child presents a trou­ble­some and con­flict­ed per­son­al­i­ty that makes her inter­per­son­al rela­tion­ships difficult.”

Ellie was already sev­en years old at the time, and the fifth of 10 sib­lings who Anto­nia had giv­en up for adoption.

— —  —  —  —  —  —  — -

In Tiquisate, a dis­mal, one-street indus­tri­al town near Guatemala’s south­ern coast where Ellie was born, and where the Unit­ed Fruit Com­pa­ny once ran its south­ern port of oper­a­tions, the pub­lic record keep­er, Geron­i­mo Mén­dez, offered a bleak assess­ment of why thou­sands of Guatemalan chil­dren were sent into adop­tion, even though they weren’t orphans.

They [recruiters] are all around us,” says Mén­dez. The lawyers from the cap­i­tal have come to me and offered to pay me if I’ll sup­ply them with a list of illit­er­ate and poor women here in Tiquisate who have more chil­dren than they can handle.”

First Lady Wendy Berg­er, whose hus­band, Oscar Berg­er, will leave office next year, cast an incred­u­lous glance when asked about the thou­sands of chil­dren who could like­ly end up insti­tu­tion­al­ized if the win­dow clos­es on Guatemalan adop­tion – like they have else­where in Latin Amer­i­ca, name­ly Nicaragua and El Salvador.

What thou­sands of kids? Show them to me,” she says, adding that if Amer­i­can fam­i­lies didn’t buy them, lawyers wouldn’t be pay­ing women for their children. 

Since her hus­band became pres­i­dent in 2004, many Amer­i­can adop­tive fam­i­lies who have chil­dren from Guatemala have sent Wendy Berg­er pho­to albums of their chil­dren, now hap­py in Amer­i­ca. They do this to lob­by Berg­er to keep the process open. 

But Berg­er takes offense at the ges­ture. I don’t come to your coun­try and tell you how to do things, so please don’t come here and try to change our laws,” she says. Adop­tion works very well in the Unit­ed States. The prob­lem is here in Guatemala.”

Tough­en­ing reg­u­la­tion on the Guatemalan adop­tion indus­try could help pre­vent the pri­vate sec­tor from view­ing chil­dren as a com­mod­i­ty, and it could keep these kids in their coun­try and their culture.

But is shut­ting down the sys­tem the prac­ti­cal solu­tion? After all, if these babies weren’t removed from their nests in their ear­ly days, they would nev­er enjoy the fruits of the Amer­i­can mid­dle class: food on the table, health­care and edu­ca­tion – not to men­tion iPods and prom nights.

An anec­do­tal sto­ry of a baby theft and recov­ery from Quet­zal­te­nan­go, in the west­ern high­lands, pro­vides few answers.

In 2005, for­eign vol­un­teers helped a birth moth­er find and legal­ly reclaim the baby who was stolen from her at the mater­ni­ty ward, placed in a fos­ter home and on the verge of being adopt­ed abroad. The hap­py reunion was short­lived, how­ev­er. With­in months of the return the unsu­per­vised baby was killed by an abu­sive old­er broth­er – a tragedy that like­ly would have been pre­vent­ed had the child been adopt­ed into a healthy home in El Norte.

Jacob Wheel­er is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at In These Times.
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