Last week during Spring Break 2012, I was lucky to visit the Lake Atitlan region of Guatemala. I am working on an interdisciplinary project with a group of Mechanical Engineers to help bring affordable eye care to rural regions of developing countries. Essentially, our goal is to establish a sustainable business in Guatemala (our first stop) that can provide affordable eye care to those who currently can’t afford the high prices. Our business would not conduct surgery but rather focus on diagnostics and prescriptions. Our colleagues in Mechanical Engineering are helping to provide the tools necessary to make diagnoses at an affordable price.
After visiting Lake Atitlan, I was struck by the strong indigenous culture and physical beauty of the region. Lake Atitlan has become one of Guatemala’s top tourist destinations. It is located in the department of Solola in the Guatemalan highlands. The lake is immediately surrounded by volcanoes and mountains which makes travel to the lake a bit more challenging. The three volcanoes which circle the lake are San Pedro, Toliman, and Atitlan. The lake itself was formed about 85,000 years ago as a result of a huge volcanic eruption which created a depression in the landscape. That depression filled with water and became the freshwater lake that we know today. There are several villages that border the lake. I was able to stop in five of them during my stay: San Pedro, Santiago, Panajachel, Solola, and San Juan. Panajachel is the most touristy of the lake villages and has about 14,000 residents. Despite the commercialization, Mayan culture and traditions remain a strong influence in the other towns around the lake.
I want to revisit Guatemala because I feel that I have a lot more to learn. More time in the Lake Atitlan region would be beneficial; however, there is a lot more to see. Cities like Antigua would add to my understanding of the culture. In addition, I was disappointed that I didn’t get to see any Mayan ruins. Cities with the ruins, Tikal and Yaxha, are on the other side of the country. Also, our team only spent one day in Guatemala City, visiting hospitals and universities. Additional time in the capital to visit with politicians, lawyers, and micro-finance initiatives would be incredible.
Where I need to go:
Through the Kennedy School website, I was able to find an essay on Guatemala from the Center for Global Development. The essay entitled “Guatemala… Teetering on the Brink?”by Carol Lancaster details what the author identifies as very promising changes occurring in both Central and South America which are not necessarily reflected in data from the regions. Lancaster goes on to describe the challenges to future development that Guatemala and other countries in Central America face. She argues that what happens in Guatemala should matter more to the United States and that the U.S. should broaden the scope of its policies to focus on topics other than Migration and Drugs. Her main point is that the beautiful and culturally rich country is at a turning point. Guatemala may be just beginning to realize its true potential or it could be confronting challenges to its progress which may be too difficult to overcome.
Lancaster references improvements in education, health services, infrastructure, tourism, and agriculture as indicators of improvement since the country’s long civil war ended in 1996. The rise of the middle class, expansion of Guatemalan NGOs, and increasing number of female professionals support this assessment. Nevertheless, she identifies several challenges that may not be apparent in the available data. First; “Guatemala is the second most unequal society (after Brazil) in the most unequal region of the world, in terms of distribution of income.” In Guatemala, poverty exists in 40% of the population, mainly the indigenous highlanders. Although some have acknowledged this problem, very little progress has been made. A second, she argues, is a high level of insecurity in the country. Drug rings and violent unemployed youth plague the country and often influence the government. Lancaster references ‘ungoverned spaces’ in the northern part of the country as the perfect haven for these groups and others from bordering Mexico. Finally, she references growing petroleum prices for importation and stagnant prices for agricultural exports as a growing concern. The US recession has also hurt the situation, as 10% of the Guatemalan population lives in the US and sends money home. Lancaster concludes by emphasizing that the US must stop ignoring nations like Guatemala and by stating that the next administration will have to address this issue.
I found this essay very enlightening, honest, and well researched. The sources used by the think tank are reputable and the statistics are very telling. While the challenges outlined in the essay are somewhat scary, they really are no different than struggles we face in the US. In the end, this article makes me want to visit Guatemala more. I feel as though our work in Guatemala can really make a difference in the lives of those who are marginalized.
US foreign policy in Guatemala over the past 60 years has been very damaging. It supported the overthrow of a democratically elected “communist” leader at the request of the United Fruit Company which later lead to years of military dictatorships. These dictatorships oversaw the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, essentially a mass genocide. (Part 1 of Documentary “A Coup: Made In America”)