Tuesday, March 20, 2012

It's the economy, stupid (first part)

Since I left, prices have gone up for many basic goods -- in some cases just a few cents or a few quetzales. But when a day's pay for a laborer is about 35 quetzales, and a half-hour inter-urban bus ride (say, from Chinique to Santa Cruz)  runs about 5 or 6 quetzales each way, a small jump in price can make a big difference. Gasoline prices increased throughout the year I was here; they started out around Q27 and then had reached about Q34 or Q35 by the time I left (occasionally dipping down to around Q31).  Gas prices vary around the country: they were always higher in Quiché than in Xela, and there were a few very cheap gas stations right at the edge of Guatemala City along the highway. Some other cheap gas stations in the towns leading up to Chimaltenango.

When I came back, gas was over Q36, and prices edging up towards Q40 in parts of Huehuetenango (where I have been visiting a community radio station up toward the Mexico border in Santa Eulalia). And the contraband gas industry has grown alongside it. During 2011, one occasionally saw people selling contraband gas alongside the road. At first I saw the vendors on the Periférico in Xela, and then as the year went on I saw vendors in other places, such as the highway between Chichicastenango and Los Encuentros. The gas is brought over the Mexican border and I don't know exactly how it is distributed, but I never saw an evidence of an effort to stamp out the trade or the businesses. The vendors set up along the highway; they set up a plastic gallon jug of gas or diesel with the price written on the side in marker (up here in the altiplano the price for a gallon of regular runs between 25 and 28 quetzales. Some stand alongside the roads with a funnel in hand and wave it to attract passengers. Police travel along these roads all the time but I have never seen one harass a vendor. Oh, and I purchase gas from them. As one of my friends said, the vendors are just poor people looking for a way to earn a few quetzales. The gas doesn't seem to be any worse or better than what is sold in "legitimate" gas stations.  I haven't asked any of the vendors about how they got into this, where they get their gas, how much they make ... partly because I am in a hurry most of the time when I am traveling the roads, and also since I am enough of an oddity in most of the places I travel, I don't want to make folks uncomfortable by asking questions.

Over the last week or so there has been a big controversy about meat prices. Complaints about the butchers and the prices they charge. In response they blame the wholesalers. In Guatemala City the butcher shops have been closed (they are open up where we are), and it's not clear what will happen.

The other big economic issue are the new taxes that the government is imposing on small business. This is the name of cracking down on corruption. A lot of small business owners who just scrape by don't pay taxes (nor do they collect them from customers). And the government is apparently going to go after them, which has a lot of people upset. More on this later.

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