Category Archives: #poverty

Nicaragua

Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, second only to Haiti. I had seen that statistic several times in the past, but for some reason I never believed it. I thought that surely there must be other countries that are poorer … Cuba? … Honduras? … Bolivia?

Perhaps Guatemala as well, for I had seen firsthand the poverty in Guatemala when we were there in 2010. However, now that I have seen Granada, the crown jewel of Nicaragua, I understand why this country can be considered so impoverished. Guatemala´s crown jewel, Antigua, seems wealthy by comparison.

Nicaragua is very fortunate to be located where it is, just South of the drug shipments that pass through Honduras, El Savador, Guatemala, and Mexico on their way to be sold in the USA. The demand for illegal drugs in the USA creates the supply, but if there was no demand then the illegal drug trade would shrink together with all of the associated violence. Below Nicaragua is Costa Rica, a very prosperous nation indeed, and interestingly one of the few countries in the world that does not have a military. I sometimes wonder what we could do with the one trillion dollars we spend every year on our military if we skipped one year of that spending and instead found something different to invest in. Would our economy go belly up? Would the world fall apart? Would some other nation overrun us and take away all our liberties?

When my wife and I travel, we try as much as possible to absorb the local culture … the food, activities, and life in general. Nonetheless, in less than one week we have already eaten at half a dozen restaurants that most Nicaraguans would not even consider due to the prohibitive cost. For example, the other night we ate at one of the nicest restaurants in town and spend $37 (which in Nicaraguan currency is 1000 córdobas). In light of the fact that the average annual income for a Nicaraguan family is around $1800, it would be excessive for one of the local folks to spend $37 on a single meal. So, while we like to say that we try to experience the local culture when we travel, the reality is that we don´t get anywhere close. One soothing grace is the knowledge that tourism money is one of the principle sources of income for the country of Nicaragua, but the difficulty is in getting that money to the people who need it most.

In the USA 90% of the wealth is controlled by 20% of the population, however the problem of income inequality is even more pronounced in Latin America where 90% of the wealth is controlled by only 10% of the population. I am proud to be a US citizen, but I don´t believe that our capitalistic system as it has evolved to this point is particularly pleasing to God. The socialism of Cuba and Nicaragua is not the answer either. Wouldn´t it be wonderful if we could create a system that honors ingenuity and hard work and wealth building while making sure that most of the wealth is not controlled by such a small percentage? For example, what if 50% of the population of the USA controlled 90% of the wealth? It seems absurd to say that this would be a significant improvement over the current reality, but that is the truth.

Also posted in #nicaragua, #poor, #rich

Antigua, Guatemala

The city of Antigua is unlike any other place in Guatemala – there is a fair amount of money here.  The vast majority of the 13 million people who live in Guatemala are poor, but being in this small town of about 60,000 people is like being in an entirely different world.  Let me paint a broader picture of the people of Guatemala.

Guatemaltecos can be classified into 3 primary groups:  (1) indigenous people, which is by no means a homogenous group, for there are dozens of different indigenous groups here, each with their one language and customs, (2) direct descendents of the Spanish Europeans who colonized this country starting 500 years ago, and (3) “mestizo” people who are a mixture of the first two groups.

There is a wide gap between the rich and the poor in Guatemala.  It is estimated that about 25 families of European heritage control more than 80% of the fertile land here.  Another stat indicates that 10% of the people receive more than 50% of all income in this country.  The super-rich are a tiny minority that not only have most of the money, but they also hold most of the power because they control the political and governmental systems.  Antigua, which is known world-wide for its Spanish language schools, is also one of the playgrounds of rich Guatemaltecos who come here on the weekends to escape the hustle and bustle of the capital Guatemala City (which is only 40 minutes down the road).

There is also a small percentage of middle-class families here, it includes those who have been fortunate enough to get through school and find professional employment, and those who through sheer tenacity have worked themselves out of poverty.  The families who host Spanish language students are an example of the middle-class, and this income is vital to their livelihood.  By the way, no language school would prosper here without having middle-class accommodations for language students, anything less would simply not be tolerable for many of the North Americans and Europeans who come here to study Spanish.  But having said that, there is even a significant gap between the middle-class here in Antigua and the middle-class in Xela (4 hours west of here) where I spent the month of October.  Here in Antigua the accommodations are very close to what I am used to in the United States, but the accommodations in Xela were somewhat spartan by comparison.

Most of the rest of the people who live in Guatemala are poor.  At least 80% of the population live in poverty, and about one-third of those are considered to be living in “pobreza extrema” or extreme poverty.  A person who is extremely impoverished likely has no job, has no education, might be in poor health, and is fortunate to eat one time a day.  Thus, if I have my stats correct, well over 3 million Guatemaltecos are living in extreme poverty.  But I don’t need stats to prove to me the level of poverty here, for I have seen it with my own eyes.  I have been to Guatemala City and also spent a month in the Xela area, and it is painfully obvious to me that there ain’t no place in the United States – including Appalachia – that is anywhere close to as poor as the majority of Guatemala.

Education can be a ticket to a better life, but the school system here suffers from lack of funding and enforcement, and is also viewed with suspicion by much of the population.  The largest percentage of the population is the indigenous poor, and many of them think that the school system is designed to erode their indigenous culture.  Moreover, they need their children to work in the fields, and thus even the children who are enrolled in school often miss classes and/or stop school altogether after completing only a few grades.  It is estimated that the literacy rate among indigenous women is around 30%.  Another problem is that a good education is supposed to provide graduates with more opportunities and better jobs, however even when kids advance through the school system very often they cannot find work afterward … thus, people in the community see these poor results and think, “Why should I even send my kids to school?”

People wonder why my wife and I would want to come to Guatemala for vacation.  Let me just say that we could have gone to Hawaii or Europe or Australia or many other places in the world for vacation, thanks be to God we are very fortunate and can afford to splurge occasionally.  (Admittedly, a trip to some of those other places would have had to been considerably shorter to be affordable for us).  But we came to Guatemala in part for the quality of the Spanish instruction, but also to invest our tourism dollars in a country that could really use the tourism income.  Actually, the hardest part about coming here has been ensuring that as much money as possible gets to the people who need it the most.  I don’t want to pay some tour company raking in tourist dollars to take me on a tour to show me where the poor people live, I would much rather hop on a chicken bus and go there myself.  If you come here and feel like helping the less fortunate, you could take the money that you plan on spending on a tour, change it into a bunch of one quetzal coins, and walk down the dirt streets handing a quetzal to everyone you see.  Occasionally we see someone sitting on the sidewalk here in Antigua with their hand out seeking a little help, and when you give them a one quetzal coin they are delighted and very appreciative … they might even be able to eat for a day on one quetzal.  Yet one quetzal is worth only about one U.S. dime – how the hell hard is it to walk around giving out dimes?

People also wonder about how safe it is here in Guatemala … they rely too much on exaggerated news coverage, and imagine that there are gangs of thugs wandering all over this country ready to pillage.  Granted, it is somewhat safer to be in the United States than it is to be this country, and granted one must take precautions, but in reality there is a very small difference in the degree of relative safety between the two countries.  Many times while in Xela I walked home alone at night down poorly lit streets past many people I did not know, yet I did not once feel fear or have any problems.  The people I passed at nights in the streets of Xela were people just like you and me … a woman walking home alone after her shift at Dominoes Pizza … vendors from the market walking to their trucks … kids walking home after school activities … a man walking into town to have a few beers at the sports bar … couples returning home from dinner at their favorite Chinese restaurant … teenagers going to the soccer match (“fútbol” here and in most of the world) … some lady walking to the beauty shop to get her hair done … a family on their way to Wednesday night Bible study … an elderly woman carrying on her head a basket of fruit that she was not able to sell on the street corner … and some gringo Spanish student heading back to his host family’s home after spending a few hours at the internet café.

Also posted in #Antigua, #Guatemala

Guatemala – Rich, but mostly Poor

I just completed my second week here in Guatemala, and I would like to begin this entry by sharing a few stories about my experiences here in Xela.

It is hard to know for certain what a place is like until you actually visit it, and in my own life there have been times that my pre-conceived notion about a particular place ultimately proved to be completely mistaken. For example, for some odd reason when I was already in my early twenties I still thought of Canada as a vast wilderness with cute little villages sprinkled throughout. And then one day some of my buddies and I crossed into Canada at Windsor (near Detroit), and we drove the highway for several hours until we dropped back into the U.S. at upstate New York. Along the way we passed through Toronto, and seeing that huge, metropolitan, city for the first time completely and forever shifted my perspective on Canada.

Last night here in Xela I began my night by having dinner at Sabor de la India … and the food there was every bit as authentic and delicious as any Indian food I´ve had in the United States. Last week I had yummy Chinese food. There are many people here of German descent, in fact there are large sections of the main cemetery where only bodies of German descent are buried. In my school alone (and there are at least 35 Spanish language schools here) recently there have been people from Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Ireland, Germany, Canada, United States, and various other countries of the world. And maybe I should not tell you this, but Wendy´s is here, as well as Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Dominos Pizza, the Wal-Mart owned Paíz chain of stores, and of course McDonalds has a prime location here in Xela in a historic building right beside Central Park. Perhaps this picture of Guatemala is different than the one you´ve had.

After dinner last night I went to the grand Municipal Theater in downtown, a gorgeous (albeit aging) classic theater with two levels of balcony seating that wrap around both sides of the stage, where people sit at tables in little booths in the balcony and look down at the show and at those seated on the main floor. We were treated to a concert by a renowned classical guitarist by the name of Thisbault Cauvin, who hails from France, and though he is only 25 years old, he has already performed in Beijing, San Francisco, London, Paris, Hong Kong, and who knows where else. Yep, he performed right here in supposedly backward, unsophisticated, isolated, Guatemala … he is headed to Costa Rica next, and then to famous cities in South America.

After the concert I went to see the local professional soccer team Xelajú play in the downtown stadium. The whole stadium was ringed by vendors hawking merchandise, food, beer, and various other trinkets … just like you find at the stadiums in the U.S. In thrilling fashion, the goalie for Xelajú blocked a penalty kick in the 85th minute, thus preserving a win for the home team. The stadium was packed, although small by U.S: standards, it holds only about 10,000 people. But it is not small in spirit, for the end zone fiesta with all the fireworks, music, dancing, and banner waving by ravenous fans was about three times the size of the end zone fiesta at Real Salt Lake soccer games. By the way, this is the original fútbol … a sport far more popular throughout the world than American football.

However, Guatemala is indeed a nation of contrasts. The reality is that the majority of the people here live in poverty, and even the small middle class population here does not enjoy nearly as many creaturely comforts as we do in the United States. Unfortunately, our country has benefited greatly to the detriment of many who live here, you can read for yourself about the history of our stealing of resources from here, about the misuse both of the lands but also the mistreatment of the people. I´m not sure that much of anything will ever be done to change or fix that, but at the very least we can support organizations that provide assistance here, and each of us can do little things to help … such as support fair-trade organizations, buy authentic Guatemalan handicrafts, or even come here on a trip and infuse some tourist dollars into the economy. Here is a link to pictures of one little thing I participated in recently, http://www.flickr.com/photos/appleplatypie/sets/72157625051444517/, I spent a few hours helping to build a stove for an indigenous family. I twinge a little when I say the word “family” because many of these homes that are chosen to receive a brick stove (to replace the open pit fire used for cooking meals) are headed by single mothers with several kids, their husbands have either left to try and immigrate illegally to the United States, or the mother suffers from domestic abuse at the hands of an alcoholic husband. It must be said that there are many normal, happy, family clans living here, however the poverty is extreme … and you can see the collective burden in the faces of many here on a daily basis.

I hate to end this post on a sad note, but that is the reality in Guatemala. May we always be grateful for the opportunities that we enjoy, and may we always help those less fortunate.

Also posted in #Guatemala, #Xela

Ignore a Problem

That seems like a fairly pragmatic solution, doesn’t it? If there is a problem in my life, or in your life, or in the lives of those around us, just don’t notice it … ignore the reality … pretend that it doesn’t exist. Maybe it will go away.

This practice of ignoring a problem is captured in a commonly used Spanish expression, an expression that can take on many forms, such as:

  • Si hay pobreza, que no se note. If there is poverty, just don’t notice it.
  • Si hay corrupción, que no se note. If there is corruption, just don’t notice it.
  • Si hay hambre, que no se note. If there is hunger, just don’t notice it.
  • Si hay marginación, que no se note. If there is marginalization, just don’t notice it.

Some people believe that there are way too many problems in this world, and the need is far too great. They say to themselves, “Anything I might do, any help I might offer, any money I might give, won’t make any real difference in the grand scheme of things.”

But is ignoring a problem the best solution?

About the only time that tactic works is when we are focusing too much on a perceived problem, one that remains a problem only through our continued focus on it.

At all other times, don’t fall into the trap of “just don’t notice it.” Face the problem, and do what you can to alleviate the problem … remembering that every little bit helps.

My family has started a little fundraising page to help alleviate, just a little, the poverty experienced in Guatemala. Check it out at http://www.firstgiving.com/spanish.

And thanks for all the little things you do.

Rich and Poor

I walked by a Salon & Day Spa on Main St. here in Salt Lake City that offers expensive hair care, manicures, and various and sundry other pampering. Anyone who pays the price is welcome as a customer there, but I expect that most of the clients are middle class and higher, many of them rich by just about any standard.

Not 60 feet away (I know because I stepped it off) in the alley behind the Salon & Day Spa is a trailer park with 16 dilapidated trailers, I expect that most of them are 40 years old or older. (I know because my Mom lived in one just like them for several years). The skirting around the bottom of most of them was caved in, no doubt offering critters a place to stay. The trailers sit about 10 feet apart, and the grass in the trailer “park” was burnt to a crisp.

I wonder how many of the rich people who frequent the Salon & Day Spa give any thought to the people living in that trailer park? I, too, can be counted among the rich, for I was on that walk while I waited to pick up the license plate for our new car.

Though the gap between the Spa and the Trailer park was less than 60 feet in distance, the gap between the people in them is far as it relates to privilege and wealth. What can we do to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor?