Thursday, November 20, 2008
Guatemala...on the Rise
Over the past year I have been hearing bits and pieces about growth and progress in the Central American country of Guatemala. Since I have now spent almost 10 years of my life in Central America, from Mexico to Costa Rica to Panama, my ears are always attuned to what makes this whole region cook...or not.
First, a few observations from the macro level. Latin America represents a significant percentage of the world's population and strong emerging markets. While "Latins" or "Hispanics" share a common language and many common traits, each country I have experienced between Central and South America harbors unique and special cultures that need to be understood and respected if one wants to interact with them. Since North America's melting pot has now become a second home to so many disparate groups in this demographic, it is even more important for "Americans" to know and understand their neighbors...even if they may be "Distant Neighbors".
One of the best books I first read when moving to Mexico in the early 90s was called "Distant Neighbors". To this day the book remains one of the best reads I have found to help understand the vast differences in culture and thinking between the USA and Latin America. Though this book focused on real life experiences of a "Gringo" couple trying to adapt to a new life in the country of Mexico, I have come to believe the same lessons can be applied to most any Latin country a foreigner or "gringo" (common term for USA tourists) may want to travel or live in.
While I feel my home country has developed unwarranted immigrant "phobias" and outright repugnant forms of bigotry and racism on many levels, the reality is that the USA is now irrevocably challenged to mold and blend with the new demographics of Hispanics who now make up the largest block of "minorities" in the USA. I will save the discussion of the immigration issue and racism for another day, but for the sake of simplicity and focus here, I want to suggest that we American's cannot just blanketly lump all Hispanics or Latinos together in one "camp" of race or culture. If you've studied ANY reasonable amount of world civilization history, you become quite aware of the unique and varied cultures that over a couple thousand years have melded into a unique and diverse culture now called "Hispanic". Their traditions go back much further in time than the comparative history of North America as we know it, and I personally think there are many positive traits we North Americans can learn from our "Distant Neighbors" and that their presence in the USA has been a positive stretch of our own culture and ideals. Let's face it, much of our Western USA was part of Mexico less than 200 years ago. On to Guatemala...
Guatemala is a country of about 13,000,000 people bordered on the north by Mexico, Belize to the northeast, and Honduras and El Salvador to the southeast. While being colonized by Spain in the 1500s,they proclaimed independence from Spain in 1821. In the 20th century it was run by a variety of military juntas and dictatorial leaders. It has also had long periods of civil war and unrest. Guatemala had a long history of fighting between their government forces and insurgents from 1960-1996 until finally a lasting peace agreement was reached in December of 1996. Since then there has been continued corruption and a history of civil rights violations. The USA via the CIA has also had significant roles and manipulations of the country’s leaderships and military controls over the past 40 years as well. In the past 4-5 years, free trade agreements have been put in place and the country seems to be on a new path of sustainable growth and development even while the gap between rich and poor continues to be quite dynamic.
On January 14, 2008, a new, younger President was elected, Alvaro Colom. While coming from leftist leaning, socialist roots, he seems quite focused on business and economic development. This is a refreshing change from military rooted and corrupt Presidents of the past. A special report on Guatemala is available at this link…and seems to spell a bright future for this newly emerging Central American country. President Colom's core focus seems to be lifting the masses from poverty, pushing for inclusion of all elements of civil society to reconciliation and unification, and has aligned himself more strongly with the fight against narco-trafficking and better relations with the USA in that and other agendas. With their GDP growing 5.7% in 2007 and external debt dropping to 12% of GDP, they seem to be going the opposite direction of our own USA economic system.
It seems that Guatemala is poised to benefit from its rich natural resources and energy production with this new leadership. They are pumping a lot of money into their tourism sector and along with that, security measures to lessen the crime and corruption that so long kept much of their growth in check. Guatemala also seems quite committed to growing their financial services and real estate sectors and compare quite favorably with the corporate and bank privacy laws that Panama has grown up on for a long time in this region. If you believe everything this article states about the current and future development of Guatemala, Panama should be watching in its rear view mirror as Guatemala is bigger and closer geographically to the North American markets that have arguably driven the tremendous growth in both Panama and Costa Rica the past decade.
With all that I have hearing and reading about Guatemala, I will plan to visit soon to see things for myself. Who knows…if the dollar keeps falling against world currencies, the “quetzal” might not be a bad currency to have a position in.