For so many Americans, Guatemala isn’t a place per se. Rather, it is synonymous with drugs, violence, and illegal immigration, since that is what we see in the news. As a first-time visitor to the northernmost of the “northern triangle” countries – or as Fox News put it, three Mexican countries – I was curious what I would see, and what I would experience. Would the violence causing so many to flee to the United States to try to press asylum claims be visible to me? Would people hate me because my country has threatened to cut off aid in response? And what do these issues do to the experience of a traveler?
I am not an expert in the politics behind immigration, Latin American reform, or the bloody history of the region. I’m going to attempt to keep this apolitical and from my viewpoint as a tourist, to present what I have personally seen as well as some basic facts. After all, it is impossible to fully separate political issues from our travels, as even visiting a country is in itself a small political statement. I likewise don’t claim to have any solutions, although I am confident enough to believe that such solutions generally exist. My goal is basic education from a travel standpoint, and an understanding that politics doesn’t exist in a vacuum, nor is anything purely black and white.
In 1996, the Guatemalan Civil War officially came to an end, and with it, the right-wing military juntas that had been governing the country and attempting to wipe out the indigenous Mayan peoples were exiled from power. In their place have been democratically elected governments (yay!), largely corrupt, powerless, and beholden to drug cartels and violent criminal enterprises (boo!). Violence is rampant, with the US State Department releasing 2017 statistics of 4,400 homicides, 5,200 aggravated assaults, and 2,900 missing persons, all in a population less than that of Los Angeles County. (To be fair, while in the upper echelon of violent crime per capita, Guatemala doesn’t even crack the top 10, which is a terrible reflection on the world in which we live.)
Besides a government that seems unable or unwilling to actively target and prosecute these large-scale violent criminal organizations, the extreme poverty in Guatemala also is a major contributing factor. The country reports an overall poverty rate of 59.3 percent (and rising), with 23 percent in extreme poverty. It is a shocking statistic for a country that has a skyrocketing GDP driven by exports of sugarcane and coffee, a booming tourism industry, and significant remittances from Guatemalans living abroad. The World Bank reports that 53% of the wealth in the country is owned by 260 individuals, of a population of approximately 13 million. As a result, most of the Guatemalans I spoke with believed that a middle class existence was out of the realm of possibility for them no matter how hard they worked.
It is hard, given these things, to blame anyone who wishes to seek a better life in the US. While income inequality is also a real issue in America, even a minimum wage job would be decidedly more than most would make back home. Visas are notoriously hard to get – an American friend of mine has a Guatemalan boyfriend who cannot even get a tourist visa to come visit her – as well as expensive by local standards (and the application fee is not refunded if the visa is denied), so unfortunately, many feel that crossing the border illegally and claiming asylum is the best hope for this better life. Ideally, there would be a better way than illegally crossing the border, and it is my sincere hope that our leadership comes up with real immigration reform to address it.
Ok, all of that said, how do these various issues affect the tourist experience? Largely, the violent crime is in areas not frequented by travelers. In Antigua, for instance, I walked around alone at night and never once felt unsafe. Some tourists have reported attacks on the local “chicken” buses, but these even are limited to robberies.
Poverty is easier to see. While much of the extreme poverty is located in places tourists don’t venture, the streets in most places are crowded with locals ranging from young to extremely old trying to sell tourists pretty much everything, in an effort to supplement the family income. In the towns of Lake Atitlan, I found myself constantly feeling guilty saying no to someone selling handicrafts and nearly begging, saying “please, I need the money.” Beggars are less common than I would have thought, although there are still plenty in evidence. (This is one area where tourists actually do help. Frequent local businesses, as the money spent will largely help regular Guatemalans. While we cannot help everyone, assisting a small local shop or restaurant is a small step in the right direction.)
What was perhaps most noticeable to me in Guatemala was how kind and hospitable nearly every person was. Despite violence, poverty, government corruption, even lack of hope, Guatemalans are on average spectacularly wonderful people. In a combination of their halting English and my spatter of Spanish, I’d be welcomed into their world, asked where I was from, and informed that it was great to meet me. I’d be regaled with stories of their relatives in the United States, although for many there would be a tinge of sadness as with visas being regularly denied – it is hard to blame the State Department as many who would come on a tourist visa would have, in their minds, nothing to lose to overstay it and vanish into American life – those family members are unlikely to be seen again.
People smile here, the smiles of those legitimately trying to stay positive by focusing on what they do have, rather than the American outlook of only noticing what is lacking. They seem genuinely happy that I would come to visit, to see their country – for they have pride in their country despite its issues – and to help in my own small way. Never once did someone show any hostility toward me as an American for the actions of my government, though many Americans would be hostile to them in the reverse circumstances.
Children laugh and play. People enjoy soccer and ice cream. Parks are filled with locals feeding the birds. (I think pigeons will outlive us all.) Normal people live basically normal lives. This is not a country of solely violent criminals seeking to invade the American southern border, despite voices here at home that claim the contrary. Rather it is a nation of people very much like us, just with a lousier starting poker hand.
Guatemala has been called many things in the American news, none of them positive. However, if you visit – and I hope you do – you’ll find that in spite of the very real issues, this country is populated by some truly incredible people. At the end of the day, I think that is what is most important.
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