Thursday, October 13, 2011

Failed state? Or, stayin' alive in the rainy season

Today as I drove from Antigua up to El Quiché, I started to ponder whether Guatemala is, in fact, a failed state. I guess it depends upon whom one thinks the state is supposed to serve. I am not a specialist in theories of "failed states", and perhaps if I did a little research I could find a definition that worked. But this reflection was prompted less by any theoretical navel-gazing than by living through a series of disasters and near-disasters in the last month here.

This is rainy season, and it has been an especially vicious one. We've had one landslide and avalanche after another; the highways are collapsing; there has been flooding; thousands of people have been evacuated and otherwise displaced from their homes. There have been threats of hurricanes; and several earthquakes (although mostly not causing a lot of damage or loss of life). This is so much part of the everyday stuff of life here that unless one is directly affected by a catastrophe (which I, thankfully have not been; my house has not collapsed), one just goes along with one's life and adapts to the inconveniences of flooded streets, blocked-off highways, potholes, canceled events, detoured bus routes, and so forth.

Yesterday (October 12), I was in Guatemala City. I had gone to participate in a march commemorating the 500 years of indigenous people's resistance, and pressuring the government to take concrete action to comply with its commitments under international law and the peace accords. Afterwards, I was presenting a paper at a colloquium that had been organized by the students in Anthropology at the Universidad del Valle.

The march took place under rain and the threat of rain. We were assembled in front of the Gran Tikal Futura, a flashy post-modern commercial center and hotel near the entrance to the city along the Calzada Roosevelt. There were three meeting points, but I went to the one where the community radio folks were gathering. However, as it has been raining throughout most of the country since the previous night, only the folks from Sumpango (about 40 kilometers outside of Guatemala City), Danielle from Cultural Survival and I were there to represent the radios. Danielle had dragged this absolutely huge banner that she had had made to carry at events like this: it was 6 feet high (and therefore way too large for any Guatemalans to carry) and about 12 or 15 feet long

I wandered off to try and take some photos and record some audio, and then it started to rain again. When I returned to where my friends had been standing they were nowhere to be seen. A phone call produced the information that they had gone to eat breakfast. I wasn't planning to stay that long as I had to get to the university, so I watched as the march began along Roosevelt. Once the march took off (the route was going past the Supreme Court, the Congress and the Presidential Palace), and the rain was starting to come down more heavily, I ran back to the parking garage and drove to the university.  The first inkling I had that the weather might be more serious than usual was when the panel ended and the conference was breaking for lunch, and the chief organizer, Diego, announced that Alvaro Pop, who was supposed to give a keynote address, was not able to attend the conference since he was in Cobán (in the northeastern part of the country), and he had set out for Guatemala City but had had to turn back as the roads were impassable.

I checked out the announcements of the national agency for the reduction of disasters (CONRED), and they were reporting several landslides on the Inter-American highway between Guatemala City and my destination in Quiché. My companions at the radio station both told me that the road conditions were bad in the department, so I decided to stay in Antigua another night and travel in the morning. During the evening I saw news from Xela -- streets in the city had been flooded, as well as in some nearby towns, and there were thousands of families evacuated. The web and the radio airwaves were full of announcements about where emergency supplies could be donated, and it seemed as though a lot of individuals and civil society organizations like the volunteer firefighters were snapping into action.

I checked CONRED's Facebook page in the morning and it seemed that the worst of the landslides along my route had been cleared so I set out. However, just as I was about to reach Los Encuentros, where the highway veers off to the west and Xela and a smaller road goes up into Quiché, there were several small mudslides along the road, and then traffic ground to a complete halt just as I passed kilometer 125.  There was a long line of cars, trucks, and even a police vehicle, winding around a big curve of road in the mountains. Already a handful of enterprising vendors were making their way between the stopped vehicles, offering everything from donuts to cell phone chargers and pirated CDs and DVDs. After a few minutes, I decided to get out of my car and walk around and see what was going on. I exchanged pleasantries with other drivers and passengers who were doing the same thing: getting out of their vehicles, trying to get information, frantically making calls on their mobile phones to friends, supervisors, families.  We shrugged shoulders and smiled as we passed each other: what are you going to do under such circumstances?

I stopped and chatted briefly with a pleasant-faced man who was also heading to Quiché; he said that he had been told that it was going to take three hours for a plow to arrive to clear away the mudslide.

Before launching into my tale about how I eventually made it to my destination, I want to return to the theme of Guatemala as a failed state.  Why would it take three hours for a truck to arrive, along one of the major highways in the country?  And why have there been so many deaths in the space of the last 24 hours (around 20, but the count might go up)? And why are the highways and the hillsides collapsing so readily in the first place?

So, if we are going to judge a state by its ability to take care of its citizens' basic needs, it seems that the Guatemalan state falls far short of the mark. The health care system, as I have noted in earlier entries, is bankrupt. There are virtually no medicines available in the free public health clinics.  There are numerous highway construction projects underway, which means that even if there were no heavy rains and landslides and floods and avalanches, there would be a lot of detours. However, even as new stretches of highway are being paved, pieces of other highways are toppling. On the very new highway between Totonicapan and Santa Cruz del Quiché, there is one small part that has fallen down (just one lane, but still). As I have noted earlier, cronyism is rampant in public works. In addition, there is money skimmed off directly by state officials. It's really impossible to give an estimate of the amount of public funds that are misspent or misappropriated or just plain stolen. Millions of quetzales. I think people have nearly lost the capacity to be outraged about this. After all, it's what everyone expects of the government. There is a lot of cynicism about politics and politicians. Meanwhile, the state agencies responsible for disaster response have run out of funds.  I am not certain whether this is due to corruption or just that they were never adequately funded in the first place, and that there was never adequate planning so that whatever funds had been allocated ran out much more quickly than anyone thought -- if anyone, indeed, was thinking.

It also seems that there was little advance planning. Even though the rainy season comes every year, every year there are floods and landslides and highway collapses, the state does not seem to have been prepared. So, into the breach rush private citizens -- several friends in the Xela area, for example, are involved in citizen or civil-society sponsored relief efforts. Radio stations, banks, and other organizations are putting out calls for supplies and funds. All of this is well and good - but the state should be better equipped to respond.

The state also seems ill equipped to do much about the persistent violence -- I've written about violent crime in the past, and it does not seem to have abated. There are still nearly daily reports of bodies, killings, armed assaults.

I recently came across a rather sobering, if not depressing, report about the Guatemalan elections, prepared by some international NGO (I don't remember offhand which one). The report noted that most of the money for the electoral campaigns of the major parties comes from organized crime. And that much of the violence in the country is simply the war of the 1980s carried out by other means. That is, the "brains" behind the current violence are mostly former or current military officers who were involved in the genocide of the 1980s.  This is what all of my friends have said to me as we have discussed the situation in the country over the last 10 months, but it was sobering nonetheless to see it written out and documented.

At the same time, there have been more arrests and legal cases against those responsible for the genocide: just yesterday one of the generals who was responsible for the Dos Erres massacre in the Petén -- the one for which the 6,060 years sentences were handed down - was arrested, and today a judge sent him to prison, for preventive detention while awaiting trial. Preventive detention seems to be a good idea in this case -- today's papers also carried the news that another ex-military leader,  General Mejía Victores, who became president after a military coup removed General Efraín Rios Montt, had disappeared after an order for his arrest had been issued and he is considered a fugitive from justice. So the justice system seems to work, sometimes... but policing is certainly uneven at best.

Which takes me back to the question of whether this is a failed state. The state functions on some minimal level. There are police cars along the highway, and they occasionally actually stop cars and check that their papers are in order. Sometimes they show up when there has been an accident.  Transit cops are highly visible in cities. Health centers are open and people show up for work there.  Public education is extremely uneven, but there seems to be some basic functionality in the educational system. At the same time there is a lot of criticism of the educational system, especially in rural areas, where schools are poorly financed, have few materials and many parents say that their children are given a very substandard education, fitting them for very little when they complete their schooling.  I do know a lot of people who are teachers and health care professionals; many of them are very dedicated and caring people, so I don't want to say that the entire system including everyone who works in it, is worthless. But the public sector is deeply, structurally flawed, and people have very little confidence in it.

This is getting to be very long for an entry, so I will stop for here and continue this reflection at a later date.

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