Reflections on Guatemala

March 15, 2023

No city, let alone a country, can be assessed from a 36-hour visit. But I couldn’t obtain a full-term tourist visa after a short trip outside Mexico in January, and so I was required to go somewhere briefly and return, in order to remain here for six more months. Plane flights being absurdly pricey right now, I chose the cheapest destination: Guatemala City.

Despite visiting or living in Mexico for almost 20 years, I’d never previously been to a neighbouring Spanish-speaking country. Guatemala and its capital have the general reputation that the US State Department puts on Mexico: a terribly dangerous place. The city does have more street beggars than I’m used to, but it struck me as less grimy and gritty than most central Mexican cities. 

Given the short time I had there, I couldn’t take in Tikal or the other spectacular Mayan archeological sites off in the highlands. I therefore opted for the Museum of Archeology and Ethnology. Alas, my cab driver didn’t know it was under renovation, and closed except for Thursdays and Fridays. And this was a Tuesday. My tourism extravaganza therefore included the city’s Cathedral of Santiago (St. James), a brief look at the presidential palace and a saunter around the central part of the city. Not, I grant you, the basis of an in-depth profile, but enough to leave an impression.

The city’s core had an unusual number of cops around with serious-looking weaponry. It also had the predictable mix of traditional little tiendas selling tacos or household goods, as well as a bunch of upscale stores and cafes. On that sunny Tuesday morning, there was little sense of people being nervous to be out. But then, in some places people learn to live with wariness. And with the impoverished. Yes, I did buy a shine for my shoes, and added a reasonable tip. 

The Cathedral of Santiago in Guatemala City.

The cathedral’s design dates from the late 1700s, and wasn’t completed until 1815, a few years before independence from the waning Spanish empire. It was damaged in 20th Century earthquakes, and a lot of the exterior seems plastered over rather than having its original detail. It is a light-filled place, albeit not one full of fascinating old shrines and or artwork. From the purple banners around the city centre, marking the start of Easter season, it seemed this country is more devoutly Catholic than much of Mexico is these days.

Outside the cathedral, pillars commemorate the thousands who died in the civil unrest and wars between 1950 and 1996, a period when a Cold War-minded US contributed some of its most disgraceful interventions in other countries. A plaque in the entrance to the nearby presidential palace commemorates the people who fought in the 1944 revolution that ousted a dictatorship. But since voters after that didn’t choose a leader acceptable to Washington and to the United Fruit Co., which produced bananas on plantations with miserable working conditions, President Arbenz was overthrown. Interventions continued under other US presidents, notably Ronald Reagan.

The Presidential Palace dates from the early 20th Century, but uses an older architectural style.

While Mexico was able to establish a relatively stable system after the 1911 Revolution, Guatemala’s history was far more turbulent until recently. If anything, I was impressed by how the city and the society had held together following such events. Obviously, we can say there were no options other than keeping on keeping on, but Guatemala City is not some big slum. There are bad areas, undoubtedly – there are nearly three million people in the whole urban area, and around a million in the city proper. But it is not an ugly place.

While there are always rifts between the rich and the poor or indigenous people in Latin America, I’m constantly struck by how resilient these societies are. I always come back to the same idea about Mexico when people tell me how terrified I should be of kidnapping or murder: this country will find a way to hold it together while more developed nations wail about the loss of stability, security and prestige.

Guatemala strikes me as a similar place. Destroy the central authority, or corrupt all the elections, and people will still know what to do. Perhaps someday I’ll be back, and then I’ll make that trip to Tikal.

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