Letter 11 from Belize: Border incursion
I have mentioned in previous letters the border problems between Belize and Guatemala. When Spain relinquished ownership of its colonies, Guatemalan sovereignty included much of the Belizean territory, but that was without the consent of the British occupiers. Wrangles have continued ever since and even though the current borders have been ratified by international agreements, Guatemala is still pursuing its claims via the International Court of Justice. The implications of this are filling column inches in all the national newspapers, and are a hot topic of conversation in any gathering.
Our border incursion
So we decided to get in first, and make an incursion across our neighbour’s border! The purpose of our incursion was to go in search of a vehicle. Why to Guatemala? Well, simply because the choice and supply of vehicles in Belize are very limited, and the after-sales taxes and importation duties are prohibitive. To get to our objective, Guatemala City, took us a day and half of hard driving and, once there, we got down to business immediately.
As this was an important purchase, Fr Dominic and I were accompanied by his trusted and knowledgeable mechanic, James, who also needed to buy spare parts in Guatemala. James cannily had a good business contact in the city, Juan de la Roca (a descendant of a Catalan family) who drove us everywhere, building into our schedule some welcome sight-seeing and interesting meals.
The vehicles the community currently has are fast wearing out, due to the tough driving conditions and the high mileages. (As I write this, of the five vehicles currently standing in the yard, only one is operational for a variety of reasons). Because of the varying needs of the parish, schools and HIV clinic, a vehicle that can cope with rough tracks and river crossings, can tow a laden trailer and carry up to 12 passengers safely, made the Land Rover Defender an obvious choice. The first one we viewed, however, was 7 years old with an asking price of nearly US$30,000, which was well over budget. Fr Dominic realised that the viability of such a vehicle was seriously in question if that was typical of the pricing. Another option would be to import a new one from the UK, actually costing less, and asking Fyffes to ship it out free of charge. That decision now is still pending.
Compared to Belize, Guatemala is a vast country of over 21 million inhabitants. Although its infrastructure (roads, amenities etc) seems modern and well-maintained, the poverty levels, especially amongst the indigenous Mayans, are extreme. Millions of families are living on less than US$2 a day, and the adult literacy level is only 65% in the general population, but as low as 5% amongst Mayan women. Social and economic inequality is endemic throughout the country, most of the wealth resting in the hands of a small percentage of ‘ladino’ citizens.
The bloody civil war of the 60s and 70s cost the lives of over 60,000 people, and the ruthless dictatorships of the 1980s saw a ‘scorched earth’ policy exterminate the populations of over 400 Mayan villages. Emerging from this traumatic period, they finally held their first peacetime election in 1999 and, almost ten years later, the country now has the air of stability and demilitarisation.
Lying 40kms to the south of the capital, this ancient colonial town was once the capital until it was razed to the ground by the earthquake of 1773. Overlooked by three volcanoes, one of them still active, its cobbled streets are lined with opulent buildings and crumbling ruins, some bedecked with sprays of bougainvillea hanging from terracotta rooftops.
Having spent our three nights in two different Claretian Houses, we decided to do the 450 mile return journey in one day, making another brief stop at the Claretian
House in Izabal near Rio Dulce. This parish had been established by the late Fr Chris Cutler in the 80s who, on arriving, was presented with little more than a vacant plot of land. He was followed by Frs Chris Newman and Paul Smyth, and today there is a bustling community with a complex of buildings that provide facilities for workshops, dentists and pharmacy, as well as providing for the varied needs of the parish and community. When we arrived, there was a large crowd of lay ministers busily renewing their promises of duty while some of the womenfolk in
the background prepared the tortillas and huge pots of meat and beans.
SUMAN 168 PILOTOS DE BUSES URBANOS ASESINADOS EN EL 2008
When I saw this headline in a Guatemalan newspaper, I knew there were certain risks
about driving through the country, and especially in the capital. Bus drivers and their assistants were being murdered at an alarming rate, and cars are frequently held up on the highways by armed robbers. I recalled the
occasion when Frs Chris and Paul ventured into Guatemala once, and were held up at gunpoint, robbed and a gun was discharged inside the car. Fortunately they were only ‘shaken not hurt’, and they found the cartridge casing in the car sometime after the event. I was glad we had James doing the driving for us. He had a reassuring command of his own space on the road.
Frank, Dangriga, Belize December 10th 2008