Tuesday, July 1, 2008

El Salvador and Guatemala Redux

I went to Guatemala because a friend of mine was getting married there, and I went to El Salvador because a) it's right next door and if I'm in Central America for 2 weeks I want points for more than one country, b) it's a Central America airport hub and c) no one ever goes there for tourism. I already had assumed c), and indeed everyone I met kept asking me what I was doing there if I wasn't there on business. In fact, one taxi driver flatly refused to believe me.

El Salvador has deserted white sand beaches, a famous black sand surf beach, gorgeous coastal mountains and ancient ruins buried by volcanic ash like Pompeii. But this is a political blog, not a travel blog. If you've been to some of the countries in Latin America, you're familiar with the drawbacks: people aggressively trying to sell you crappy trinkets. Trash on the beaches. And guns everywhere. Private security guys with rifles on every corner, at banks, at hair salons, at McDonalds (really). Guys sitting on their porches with shotguns, and the occasional machine gun (yes, really). Guys in various types of uniforms with uzis walking around casually (also really - I arrived at my hotel in San Salvador 7:30am, and by 9:30 I'd seen my first uzi). While I support the right to keep and bear arms, it's still worth pointing out that despite the show of force, there's still crime in these places, in fact more than here. On one level you think no one would dare rob me in front of that guy; on another you think, holy hell, is civil order really that tenous that the uzi display is required? And why do I think that guy guarding his porch won't rob me too? It really is better to just have a functioning public security force that protects everyone, as I discussed before.

Both El Salvador and Guatemala had devastating Civil Wars (from 1979-1991 and 1960-1996, respectively); with that in mind, things didn't look so bad. San Salvador has several gigantic new malls and factories springing up along country roads thanks to CAFTA, and Guatemala has about every retail chain known to man in it (along with its own fast food chain that now has stores in the U.S. and China). Despite the recovery, both countries have problems with income disparities and corruption, especially Guatemala. In fact when I told people in El Salvador I was heading to Guatemala they warned me about the police (I was already a little nervous in Salvador - how do you think that made me feel?) To be fair, just Saturday I got pulled over at a highway checkpoint by Guatemala's Finest as I was driving back from the beach, and all they did was check my passport, US driver's license, and the rental car registration, and waved me on. Thirty seconds. So my one experience with the cops was a fair and efficient one. Just to be safe, I exaggerated my accent in Spanish so they would think that any attempt to bother me wouldn't be worth the hassle of making me understand what they wanted.

In any case, I tried to ask as many people as possible in both countries if they thought things were improving or getting worse. I tried to hit every slice of the pie - wealthy people, Indians in the country, taxi drivers, expats residing there, you name it. In both places, nearly 100% of the people I talked to thought things had in general been improving over the previous decade, with the possible exception that crime has gotten a little worse in Guatemala City over the past year or two.

And here's the take-home point. As Americans, we've had drilled into our heads that our foreign policy in the 20th century led us to shamelessly interfere with our Latin American neighbors, even to the point of supporting dictators because they mouthed anti-communist platitudes. While this was sometimes true, there were other foreign powers doing the same - specifically, the USSR, through Cuba. As I often remind people: there are real bad guys in the world with real designs against democracy, and dialogue alone doesn't always protect our ideals.

Despicable atrocities were committed on both sides in both civil wars. I met someone whose father was abducted and murdered by the Guatemalan military, although I suspect there are many more people thus affected that for obvious reasons don't like to talk about it; in fact it amazed me how little people talked about the wars, and I didn't feel like forcing the subject. One notable exception is that you can go on walking tours of the trails on the volcano overlooking San Salvador, which were used by guerillas during the war, and your guide will be someone who fought in the war. And you thought U.S. Civil War re-enactments were a little strange?

Particularly in Guatemala, the government's forces, fighting communist insurgents, committed the most brutal acts during the period 1977-1981 - during the Carter administration, when the US was providing no military aid, and ironically could not therefore apply much pressure on the Guatemalan government. Quite apart from the idea that the U.S. only funneled guns into Central America and then left the countries to their own devices, a positive role for the US in restoring stability in Latin America was recognized already in the mid 1990s. The Economist charged at one point that the U.S. was arrogant to assume it could build a democracy in Iraq when it couldn't encourage it even in its backyard of Latin America. I now disagree strongly. I just visited two Latin American countries that were both dictatorships in a civil war 20 years ago, and the US has had some influence in making both places democratic and more prosperous, not so much through military support, but through trade agreements and subsidies designed to encourage the development of transparent democracy and markets. Bush Sr. deserves the most credit. As an example, since 2002 Guatemala's per capita income has been growing at just under 6% annually - 2002 number here, 2008 number here.

I remind free market fundamentalists that public services and lands are good things. Neither has a strong presence in either country. And somehow, even El Salvador (with a remarkably low tax rate) has not turned into a Randian, meritocratic paradise of venture capital and innovation. Parks have to be constantly patrolled to keep locals from poaching game and timber (you must go into many with a guide). For fear of robbery, you can't go out for a walk at night; you can't go for a run in the hills around the cities. Most people don't hold their elected officials accountable, and anybody with money has glass-lined walls around their compound, and not without reason - one family told me about a multiple home-invasion where gunmen held them hostage while they ransacked their house. The problem with cleaning up crime is that there's not much money for police, people have poor expectations of the performance of public services, and corruption is still endemic. Add to that the still very obvious relation between skin color and income: the more Indian you are, the poorer you are. Guatemalans are sometimes uncomfortable talking about this to Americans just like we're sometimes uncomfortable talking to Europeans about white and black issues. It's getting better, but it doesn't get fixed overnight.

Having said all that, I had a great time, particularly at Lake Atitlan, and it's the first time I've hiked on an actively erupting volcano. My gracious thanks to my hosts, who were hospitable beyond any reasonable expectation. And of course you can't beat the Mayan ruins; my favorite was Yaxha. I heartily recommend both places, but keep your eyes open and maybe you'll learn some things that the media doesn't deem important.

No comments: