Our Man In Guatemala

Politics, Prices and Processions in Guatemala

by Brian Miguel Foley


April 13, 1999

Hola mi amigas y amigos,

I can connect my laptop to the Internet again - yeah!!! Sucks not having an Ethernet card but c'est la vie. Only one place I've found in 3 towns with plentiful Internet cafes gives me a dialup connection directly from my modem to you. The rest of the places I have to use webmail.

Quick Guatemalteco Cultural Synopsis:

Top 2 Songs in Guatemala (played daily eventually, no matter where you might be):

1. "Could This Be Love?" by Bob Marley and the Wailers

2. A dance remix with a sample of "Could This Be Love?" by some Latino techno group.

3. "Do You Believe in Love?" by Cher


Songs I was hoping never to hear again that I've heard more than once:

1. "Fox on the Run" by Sweet

2. "My Heart Will Go On" by Celine Dion (there's no getting away from this one I'm afraid)

3. "Do You Believe in Love?" by Cher


Price of a good cup of coffee: 75 cents (4.5 quetzales).

Price of a really bad cup of coffee: 15 cents (1 quetzal).

Price for a room (per night) in Quetzaltenango (referred to as Xela from here on out) where lots of gringos stay (includes electrical outlet to plug laptop into): $2.85 (20 quetzales).

Price for a room (per night) in Antigua (does not include electrical outlet for laptop): $2.50 (17 quetzales).

Price for a room (per night) in San Pedro la Laguna on Lk. Atitlan (electrical outlet cross-wired with the light for the room so it blinks intermittently while recharging batteries): $1.40 (10 quetzales).

Price for a good ham and cheese sandwich (restaurant in Xela): 8 quetzales.

Price for a good ham and cheese sandwich (restaurant in Antigua): 15 quetzales.

Price for a mediocre beer identical in character to Budweiser (restaurants everywhere): 8 quetzales.

Price for that same beer at a little corner store: 4.5 quetzales

Number of deaths in Guatemala during Semana Santa (Holy Week) due to traffic accidents: 57

Reported armed robberies: 241

Number of religious processions I saw during Semana Santa in Antigua: 15

Number of student demonstrations I saw the week before Semana Santa in Xela: 2

Damage caused by the students to local businesses with black oil/paint and graffiti, in Xela and Guatemala City, in quetzales: 20,000,000 Q

Cost to pay the students not to paint your business (money supposedly to go to student activity funds and organizations to help the poor, but just as likely to go to their beer fund): 500 to 50,000 quetzales, depending on the size of the business.

Job the students did painting McDonalds in Xela: Really good and thorough - McDonalds was closed the day following the paintjob.


Geez, I leave for a month and what happens? The start of WW3 in Kosovo (shocking or avoidable?) !?! The Dow Jones breaks 10,000 and is hitting all time highs (expected when a war starts)! Gas prices in California go up (gasp!)?!? Well, lots has been going on here in Guatemala as well, though whether any of it has world changing significance is rather doubtful.

Its been a great time to watch parades, that's for sure. Lots and lotso parades and processions, from solemn to riotous.

First the riotous, because I know that's what most of you will enjoy reading:

For 101 years, the university students in Guatemala have had big parades the Friday before Good Friday which poke fun and sarcasm at the gov't, the church, local traditions and institutions, etc. They build puppets and signs and such which parody the things they are protesting. This has been an approved and accepted practice throughout the years, even during the civil war. However, this year many people feel that the students went over
the acceptable lines. But it was fun to watch anyway...

At about 10:30 at night (Thursday, March 25, 1999) the doorbell rang at the family I was staying at. I was working on my computer, thinking it strange they were getting a visitor so late at night, but knew it wasn't for me since no one knew where to find me. But I was wrong - it was Joe (named changed to protect the innocent), the one guy from the Spanish school I was at that knew where I was. He told me there was a demonstration going on and that it was worthy of videotaping - perhaps maybe I could come along and he could use the video camera to document (since it would be politically incorrect for me to be taping such a disturbance). I was all over that and hopped into the taxi waiting in the street, telling the senor of the house that we'd be back in a little while.

The taxi took us up to the university district where there were a ton of people out, considering it was after 10 PM, late by local standards. Ambulance lights lit up the street where a car had been demolished by angry students. I found out later that someone that did not sympathize with the students had stolen the car and run over a group of 15 demonstrators. This in turn had led to the driver, and the car, being turned into pulp. 16 people to the hospital. Signs of a disturbance was the wet, black, oily paint spread on the sides of buildings and sidewalks. We hopped back in the taxi looking for the protesting students. Traveling by taxi in situations like this is the preferred mode of transport in cases such as this I was told by Joe - it keeps you moving fast and also anonymous, easy to make a getaway if things get ugly.

About a mile away we found them, about 400 guys dressed in black hoods ala the KKK with revolutionary slogans on their t-shirts or images of Che Guevara, or simply black plastic garbage bags keeping the paint from soiling their clothes. They were accompanied by 3 or 4 cargo trucks which carried the oildrums full of "paint", plus a beat-up Japanese stationwagon with a big loudspeaker on the top, blasting away slogans and instructions to the mob. We witnessed the defacing of a storefront, rags and brooms being used as brushes, and spray cans being used for the graffiti details. (Unfortunately, Joe had a bit of dyslexia operating the video camera, and I have at least two or three shots of the lens cap being put on and only audio being recorded. But he did get some good footage, just not all that was available that night.)

The mob then moved up to a block on a street that had gas stations on each end, and a car dealership, a bank and an electronic equipment business along it. One of the glossier buildings in Xela. When the students started the graffiti on the dealership a big, fat older guy (probably the owner) came out and tried asking them to stop. The students continued defacing the front of the building and the guy went back inside. That's when the stones and Molotov cocktails started being flung into the street from within the compound. The crowd dispersed into two groups, just out of throwing range, and started sending the rocks back to the source. Windows were broken, fire in the street, shouts, whistles, banging on doors with sticks, typical chaotic behaviour - got a few good seconds of it on video and hopefully some good stills on film... this standoff lasted about 30-40 minutes, then the mob continued on its merry paint-it-black way into the center of Xela. No further resistance was met, numerous large corporation-type businesses were painted, and the cops were nowhere to be found.

I couldn't help but think that this kind of thing in Seattle would have been met after about an hour by the cops in full riot gear, tear gas, Billy clubs and such, and that things would have gotten much, much uglier. From my perspective the protest was pointless and the students did not really articulate what they have a problem with other than some company wouldn't pay the extortion they were being asked to give. Guess I gotta work on my Spanish a lot more.

The next day the same students led a peaceful parade through the town, with the populace turning out to watch and cheer them on. Bands played marching tunes, the Coca-Cola van was out there playing Men At Work and Bob Marley and let one of the students read their manifesto over its PA, and even a little kid being carried by his grandmother had a KKK-type hood on. Just a tad surreal...

Next transmission - Semana Santa.... gotta go help Joe get his new modem working in his computadora.

Ciao for now my friends,


Brian Miguel Foley can be reached at bfly@scn.org