one tough but beautiful land

The night before last, I was phoned from Central America. The call came in over my computer via the Skype program.

The night before last, I was phoned from Central America. The call came in over my computer via the Skype program. There were no lags in conversation or echoes in a signal amazingly bounced off a satellite fixedly rotating at the same speed as our planet at very close to 35,786 kilometres directly above the equator. Clear as an across-town conversation words flowed back and forth from Antigua, Guatemala, to a point in space probably over the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador and then on to Whitehorse.

With the check-in via Skype my son, Liam, let me know that he had safely arrived. Flights on Wednesday had carried him and his backpack from Montreal via Washington, D.C., Miami, Florida and San Salvador in El Salvador to Guatemala City. A 45-kilometre taxi ride had then taken him from the airport to Antigua, the country’s old colonial capital towered over by volcanoes such as Agua and Fuego (Water and Fire). After a few days orienting himself there, Liam will head to Quetzaltenango, a gateway to Guatemala’s Mayan heartland, for several weeks of Spanish language training.

Rain fell heavily on Antiqua last Wednesday night. Rainy season mists and clouds will dominate this tourist-brochure proclaimed “land of eternal spring” usually until November. But rain or shine the colonial architecture of this UNESCO designated World Heritage Site founded in 1543 draws tens of thousands of travellers to it each year. It is a much happier place for a newly arrived visitor to get one’s bearings than Guatemala City, which had on average 25 murders a week in 2009.

The World Bank classifies Guatemala as a middle-income country with the statistical per capita share of the country’s GDP set at well over $5,000 a year. Statistics are of course deceiving, Guatemala has always been a land of stark contrasts. Behind colonial facades and mist-surrounded mountains another reality can easily be deciphered.

Coffee, sugar, fresh vegetables, and bananas are among the country’s main exports. In fact, one ranking gives Guatemala the position as the world’s fifth-largest exporter of coffee and sugar. Yet this food-rich country also has another less laudable ranking: fifth-highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world, higher even than Haiti. One Pan American Health Organization study noted that Mayan people’s health and nutrition were better prior to the Spanish conquest of Guatemala in 1524 than that of their descendants today.

Clearly it is up to the people of a country, whether Guatemala, or Canada for that matter, to take the needed steps to ensure the just, equitable development of their own lands. No one can do this for them. However poverty today has global roots. Trading systems and global monetary institutions are controlled by the rich and powerful. These and other external political factors can make it very tough to break out of long-established patterns of inequitable distribution of goods and services; 51 per cent of Guatemalans live on less than two dollars a day.

In Guatemala the 40 per cent of the population who are indigenous remain firmly welded to the bottom social and economic rungs of society. A history of CIA-sponsored coups and brutal military dictatorships, foreign-backed economic exploitation and a culture of impunity in a country still afflicted by human rights abuses and corruption make it tough imaging an easy road to a just, equitable, environmentally sustainable future in this beautiful land. However there is no other path to take either for Guatemalans or for ourselves.

A city-wide food drive sponsored by the Catholic schools of Whitehorse in support of the Whitehorse Food Bank takes place from 6 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, October 6. Students will be going door to door asking for donations of non-perishable foods. Please be generous.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact