My Son and the Guatemalan Indians

Mr. Fischer is president of Hartford & Slocomb Railroad Company in Dothan, Alabama.

Several years ago my youngest son, Ted, visited Honduras with a small group of Episcopalians from south Alabama and northwest Florida, to repair and paint mission and clinic buildings in the rural areas. He paid his own way, and with exception of his first and last nights there, all of his nights were spent in a sleeping bag.

It was quite an adventure and experience for a teenager—a blond, blue-eyed “gringo” if ever there was one—whom most would have considered quite privileged at home. It was also a time of considerable concern and suspense for his parents. (Is he sick? Is he safe? Can he get a doctor? Can he get to a phone?)

In 1987 he visited Guatemala with a similar group of six, including the bishop and his wife. The bishop soon became sick and returned home. This only added to our worries. (Was it the food or water? What if Ted became sick in a remote village? Who was the new leader?)

The group completed its mission and returned safely to the United States. All, that is, except my son. It seems that he had to do a little more exploring on his own, and: “Pray tell me, just when would it ever be cheaper and more convenient to do what one must do?” For the first time—the very moment I learned that he did not return with the group—I knew that he was much safer there than here.

Since then he has returned to Guatemala “solo” several times to explore volcanos and Indian ruins, visit the most remote villages, take Spanish courses, and just learn more about the country and its people in general.

Soon he came to realize that he could visit Central American countries the rest of his life, giving of his time, energy, and what little money he could come up with. But, the results would be extremely temporary and barely noticeable at very best.

Recently, he concluded that a venture in free enterprise would likely produce the best, quickest, and most lasting benefit for the people of Central America—and most especially for the poor Indians in Guatemala.

Accordingly, he went to the most remote Indian villages and purchased samples of colorful woven cloth handcrafts, mainly bracelets and belts. These he brought back to Birmingham, Alabama, where he attends school. Every boutique, shop, and store in the major malls in Birmingham that saw the samples immediately placed orders. Soon other merchandisers in New York, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, and elsewhere saw or heard about these items, became interested, and began placing orders.

This was all the excuse my son needed to return to Guatemala personally to get more supplies and set up a dependable network for future orders. Although he had been assured by two U.S. Customs offices and the Caribbean Basin Initiative office that these products were exempt from customs under the Caribbean Basin Initiative, Houston Customs seemed unaware of this. The customs people in Houston could not figure out how to classify a few dozen woven cloth bracelets, so the goods were held.

After missing a couple of flights, and facing an early Monday class, my son had no choice but to leave his precious little cargo and get on the next flight out of Houston.

“Welcome to the real world, son. Did you not know that you should engage the services of a customs broker? Oh, I know that a broker isn’t required by law. But, I also know that a broker is required by the facts, conditions, and circumstances. Don’t get one and you can wait for clearance until your merchandise rots.

“But, not to worry. On a few hundred dollars worth of bracelets (at origin) your brokerage fee probably won’t exceed $200.

“Among other things, you see, your customs broker must prepare and file the ‘Consumption Entry’ form (probably $60 minimum), then post the ‘Bond Fee’ (probably $20 minimum), then the ‘Immediate Delivery Permit’ ($10 or more), ‘Appraisement & Liquidation Service’ ($5 or more), ‘Estimated U.S. Customs Duty’ (who knows?), ‘Messenger Service’ ($10 minimum), and so on, possibly including delivery orders, additional entry classifications, and the like.

“Like it or not you will have to engage the services of a broker. U.S. Customs will see to that!”

My son reacted simply and forthrightly. He acknowledged that the “system” is extremely boring, time-consuming, and frustrating. But, he was determined to proceed within it.

He has since contacted other U.S. Customs Offices. Fortunately, the number of different answers he received did not exceed the number of government offices contacted. With a little experience under his belt, he moved forward.

Meanwhile, we—this is my first official involvement—have contacted our Senator and Representative to see if they can determine if these imports are exempt or not. If not, what’s the deal? If we’re lucky we at least will have a clue soon.

Meanwhile, back at the Indian villages in Guatemala, the natives are weaving colorful bracelets of the most intricate designs which they are happy to sell to my son’s group for four cents each. It is, to be sure, tedious, backbreaking work. There are no printed patterns or computer printouts. Designs come from the head, and execution comes from the fingers and toes. Typically an Indian sits on a rock, ties the structural yarn around his or her toe, and begins weaving the bracelet.

Four cents per bracelet seems like a pitifully low price. And in some respects that may be true. On the other hand, however, less than two months ago the same bracelets were being bought by a “city native” for only two cents each. And the “city native” also sold staples to the Indians at 20 times the going prices in Antigua or Guatemala City.

The Indians are very happy to get four cents per bracelet. That’s twice as much as they received less than two months ago. More important, the men who pick up the bracelets deliver staples at cost. These workers likewise earn four cents per bracelet. They too are pleased to earn so much.

Thus the first large order—8,000 cloth bracelets—arrived by air. U.S. Customs in Birmingham yielded to U.S. Customs in Mobile, which in turn insisted upon a customs broker.

The customs broker’s fee and charges equalled the cost of 3,375 bracelets, and the duty was equivalent to the price of 1,120 bracelets at the point of purchase. Broken down and stated somewhat differently, “Preparation and Filing of the Consumption Entry Form” cost 1,500 bracelets. “Postage”—buying, licking, and affixing one 25-cent stamp—cost 250 bracelets; “Messenger Service” cost 250 bracelets; “Bond Fee” cost 500 bracelets; and so on.

In the final analysis, 50 Indians work more than a week producing something you can see, touch, wear, and enjoy—and earn less than the broker’s charges for shuffling government papers for an hour. Something is terribly wrong, and I don’t feel that it is with the poor, hardworking Indians.

Fortunately—or unfortunately—my son has yet to learn about state and Federal unemployment taxes, Workers’ Compensation, F.I.C.A., city license fees, state franchise taxes, state and Federal personal and corporate income taxes, sales and use taxes, wage and hour laws, and so on. He doesn’t even yet realize that he must now retain a lawyer and an accountant to advise him about insurance, product liability, state laws and taxes, and fair employment practices.

But, he is working through the market to improve the lot of the Indians, while trying to better himself in the process, I admire and love him even more for his effort.

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