WHO profits when a mail strike wreaks havoc with business overseas? Not the US Postal Service. At least not by serving Guatemala.
But dozens of storefront entrepreneurs across the United States are cashing in on the traffic of individual money orders Guatemalan emigrants send home to support their families.
Between 500,000 and 1 million Guatemalans are thought to be living and working in the US, joining millions of other ``guest workers'' from El Salvador, Brazil, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Peru. Together, these workers represent an unofficial transfer of US foreign aid to Latin America running into billions of dollars every year. This aid is a vital part of many Latin countries' economies.
Mail to Guatemala started piling up in a Miami warehouse July 15, when the US Postal Service suspended deliveries at the request of the Guatemalan government, then in the throes of a nationwide public workers' strike. Eventually, as the undelivered mail accumulated to nearly two tons, the US post office started returning it to the senders.
The walkout of 3,500 postal workers, which ended Aug. 18, left Guatemala partly cut off from from approximately $430 million worth of remittances sent annually from its emigrants working in the US.
``The strike hurts us here, too,'' says Pedro Ramirez, a Guatemalan living in Massachusetts. ``For example, me. I like to use the regular mail. It costs just 45 cents. But when I went to the post office they said they wouldn't take the letter.'' Instead Mr. Ramirez used King Express, which charges $12 to send mail to Central America via a Los Angeles post office box.
``It's a direct mail service,'' says Francisco Leon, King's manager. ``Just like you pay your phone bill or American Express.'' Kings's pre-addressed envelopes are available in emigrant barrios (suburbs) throughout the US at stores and restaurants that cater to Latin emigrants. The letters are bundled in California and flown to Guatemala for next-day delivery. Mr. Leon declines to say just how much mail flies out each evening, but says business rose 10 percent during the strike.
Another operator, Giant Express of Miami, says business from Guatemalans has more than doubled since the strike began, from an average of 700 documents and letters a day, to almost 1,500.
``We just switched to a computerized system,'' says Carlos Noceda, Giant's marketing director. ``So we were prepared for the heavy load.''
Giant, with 29 outlets in five states, relies mainly on walk-in business. It charges a $10 fee to send a customer's money order and one-page letter to Guatemala, where more than 150 company mail-carriers make deliveries on the other end. Mail strikes, like the one in his native Peru earlier this year, are always good for business, Mr. Noceda says, but most customers use Giant for security.
Stories of corruption and the genius of mail thieves are legion throughout Latin America. Many governments, ostensibly on the lookout for subversive material being sent through the mails, have inadvertently encouraged theft by permitting mail surveillance by police. There are tales of postal employees, armed with chemicals commercially available from photo-supply outlets, rendering incoming envelopes transparent in order to discover, and steal, cash and bank checks hidden within.
``Last month there was a national holiday in Peru,'' says the marketing manager. ``The post office was closed four days, and thieves broke in looking for money in letters from the US. Here, we offer the service, plus proof of delivery.''
Giant's toll-free 800 number rings throughout the day as customers call for confirmation that their letter has been received back home. Business is so good, Giant plans to open eight more outlets later this month.