Our flights into and out of this Central American country were crowded with youths on spring break mission trips.
They traveled to Guatemala to build homes, improve education or do other important work to benefit this country where more than half the 15.4 million people live in poverty. It’s a noble, longstanding gesture by many U.S. and international governments, charities, church groups and private organizations.
But it also is part of the problem, said Ph.D. anthropologist Robert Hinshaw, who has studied this country, its people and culture since 1963. He and his wife, Linda, invited my partner, Bette, and me to see the nation and its people. All the while, we wondered how life could be better.
Topping the list, all groups providing aid should “endeavor to walk a tightrope” respecting Guatemala’s people, culture and traditions. Often that doesn’t happen.
On our cross-country nearly 10-day journey, Hinshaw described the well-meaning but sometimes counterproductive foreign involvement. Many Christian groups proselytize, and the foreign money causes the Guatemalan government to not devote its taxing structure and policies to the health, education, welfare and other needs of the poor.
Outside groups should work with the Guatemalan government to ensure that foreign aid and efforts only occur with a far greater commitment in taxpayer-funded Guatemalan social services. As we traveled from the lowlands, to the mountains, the tropics and through the Mayan ruins, Hinshaw pointed out that what this country also badly needs is a railroad to efficiently and safely carry commerce and people.
Agriculture and tourism are Guatemala’s chief industries. If crops such as coffee, bananas, flowers, sugar and vegetables could get to market faster, lives would improve.
A massive public works project to construct a network of railroads, a light-rail system and safe divided highways connecting cities, ports and tourist sites would create jobs for Guatemalans. Right now, many young men enter the United States illegally for work. A large portion of Guatemala’s wealth comes from them sending money home to families. Women often can only hope to be domestics. Construction of a modern transportation system would help keep families together and end the labor and brain drain from this country.
In walking through several Mayan ruins, the Hinshaws noted how the writings, art and other historical work had deteriorated greatly in the last few years. Decades of archeological work unearthed the ruins, but it also has exposed the priceless, outdoor antiquities to today’s man-made scourges.
That includes climate change. Humanity’s unbridled consumption of fossil fuels produces acid rain, which has rapidly deteriorated outdoor Mayan structures, writings and artwork.
The damage is heartbreaking. Huts with thatch roofs now partly shield many artifacts. Unless all nations reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve energy efficiency and turn to green energy sources as a United Nations panel this month urged, the damage will continue. This country should also build more colleges and training centers to develop more wind, solar and geothermal energy uses, creating more jobs.
Guatemala must purify its water, end the illegal drug trade fueled by U.S. demand, stop human trafficking and reduce crime. Hinshaw said crime includes thieves taking and selling tourists’ eyeglasses. Private security guards with pistols and shotguns protect wealthy people and companies.
Many young men serve in the military, walking the streets with assault rifles.
But a country that spends so much money guarding against its own people cannot advance. All of the people must become more democratically involved in running the government for that fear to end, for the separation to dissolve and for this country to finally grow to its potential.