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Dragons students hand-carving a dugout canoe. Photo by Micah LeMasters, Indonesia Semester.

Adventures in Local Government

“No tourists after 6 pm” a grave-faced man standing the door to Antigua’s municipal government building told me last Thursday night. “I’m here for the public meeting with the mayor at 7 pm, though” I responded. Unconvinced, the man reiterated “No tourists after 6 pm.”

Although I was a little disappointed, I was in no rush to get home. My host mother had made me a sandwich, and it was a lovely, cool evening, so I sat down on a bench in front of the door and calmly ate my dinner. A police officer who had seen me be turned away watched me eat, and in an act of what I assume was pity, informed me that he would make some calls to see if I could get into the meeting. After several hushed conversations with his partner, and then what seemed like an intense phone call, the police officer told me to wait a few more minutes. About half an hour went by, and when I looked up, I realized that the police officer had been replaced by another. It was almost 7 pm, and by now, a couple of locals had also come for the public meeting. When one of them asked the new police officer if we could enter the building, she informed us that no one was being allowed up. The police officer said something into her radio, and asked us to wait a little longer. After a minute, two members of the city council walked by on their way to the meeting. A woman in our group recognized them and asked if we could go in. “Sure!” they said enthusiastically, and the police officer just shrugged and opened the door. Ah, local government.

I chose to research Guatemalan politics for my independent study project with Dragons. I’m in the process of writing a very short book summarizing the national political scene, and am also spending some time getting to know local issues. Early in the week, I had met with the head of tourism in Antigua, and he suggested I come see the city council session, which is how I found myself at the municipal government building on a Thursday night.

The session took place in a beautifully-decorated chamber, an homage to the Spanish-colonial character of Antigua. There were heavy velvet drapes, intimidating paintings of conquistadors, and elaborately-carved wooden chairs for the seven city councilors and the mayor, that looked like they just stepped out of 1560s (although a government employee informed me they were commissioned around 1960). In total, about a dozen Antigüeñans came to the session, including a stylishly-dressed woman in her 50s, a teenager on his phone, and an an older man with a pony-tail and a sports jacket. I was the only American in attendance.

From start to finish, the session lasted about two hours. They began by reading the minutes of the previous council meeting, and then quickly worked through at least half a dozen proposals. One woman on the city council shared that some female employees of the local government feel uncomfortable with the lack of some type of infrastructure in the municipal building, although I did not understand what they were specifically referring to. A few minutes later, the council voted to ban the sale of alcohol during Holy Week in Antigua. As I understand it, tourists treat Holy Week in Antigua as a large party, not the solemn religious event that it represents for Antigüeñans, and this was the first time in city history that the council voted to restrict alcohol consumption during the holiday. There was also a very subtle argument between the mayor and a councilor of the opposition party. At the end of the evening, the head of tourism introduced me to the mayor of Antigua, who dutifully welcomed me to the city, and asked me a couple of questions about my program before walking away with his wife and a few advisors. I was in nerd heaven.

If you Google Guatemalan politics, most of the articles you’ll find will be negative. A prominent presidencial candidate last year was just sentenced yesterday in a federal court in New York City to 15 and a half years for offering to rent Guatemalan ports to the Sinaloa Cartel in exchange for funds to assassinate his political rival, Thelma Aldana. Last year, former president Jimmy Morales expelled the hugely popular anti-corruption commission CICIG from the country when they opened an investigation into his campaign finances. Even the mayor of Antigua has been accused of illegally contracting a private company to collect a real-estate tax during his last term in office.

But despite these gloomy headlines, I’ve encountered several signs of a flourishing democracy. Yes, the mayor of Antigua may have shady back-room deals, but at least there are public sessions of the city council, broadcast on Facebook live, for everyone to see. Yes, an unknown entity is probably siphoning off water resources in my town, resulting in our frequent loss of running water, but at least a group of passionate citizens is legally canvassing the government to investigate the issue.

Last night, a passage in a book I was reading caught my eye. It said “Despite the continuing tendency of many ‘Developed World’ countries to judge political developments in Central America by their own standards, Guatemala is a true and dynamic (albeit flawed) experience in popular Democracy.” There are certainly many things to criticize, but there are also many things to praise. Instead of embracing the popular American narrative that Guatemala is exclusively a dangerous, lawless country, it’s worth considering some of the nuances that don’t often make headlines.

Other Updates from the Week

  • I cut coffee for a second time, and somehow only ended up with 30 lbs. A 12-year-old who came with us since he didn’t have classes that day cut 52 lbs. Here is a link to a video of the day that two volunteers from Holland made: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3WxYOmVwlMY
  • My host grandmother cooked fried chicken that literally brought tears to my eyes it was so good
  • I went to a massive extended family dinner and attempted to help cook carne asada, fried potatoes, roasted scallions, and guacamole.
  • We ate out at a pizza restaurant, and I learned that its common to put ketchup on pizza in Guatemala. I have enthusiastically tried everything put on my plate since I got here, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to opt for ketchup on my pizza.