Guatemala’s Image from Inside the Tourist Bubble

An indigenous woman vending her wares on the street in Antigua, Guatemala.

by Rick Rockwell

Kenny G. is softly wafting over the speakers inside El Sabor del Tiempo in Antigua, Guatemala.  A group of French women are chattering as they make their way through the Old World-style bistro.  A look at the menu reveals a sophisticated range of cuisine from duck confit to rabbit to venison.  You can even get a hamburger if you wish.

Antigua is one of the tourist hubs of Guatemala, a mecca for backpackers from the U.S., Europe, and increasingly Asia too.  Filled with language schools, hostels, restaurants featuring international cuisine (like El Sabor del Tiempo) and up-scale hotels too (most of these locations advertising wi-fi availability), Antigua is what Guatemala aspires to be:  cosmopolitan, a trendy mix of history and modernity, relaxing but yet plugged-in.  El Sabor del Tiempo is a microcosm of that aspiration too:  Old World European charm blended with New World sensibilities, even if they do connect with visitors via the soft jazz wavelength.  The waiters’ uniforms of berets and a modern-style German lederhosen are certainly a bow to that too.  (And this acknowledges the contributions of German immigrants to Guatemala’s agricultural and mercantile sectors in the early 20th Century.)

But inside El Sabor del Tiempo you won’t see anything referencing Guatemala’s deeper ethnic roots, it’s Mayan traditions, unless, of course, you look closely at the mestizo facial features of the waiters.  No, you have to go outside the restaurant to find any real indigenous presence:  Mayan men selling trinkets in the street, dressed in traditional pants that look like embroidered pajamas.

This is just one example of the bifurcated Guatemala:  the aspirations of a modern, white criollo world with all the latest communication features from internet access to cable television, with more than 100 channels, contrasted against the world of the poor, indigenous majority who depend upon radio, and the stations in their language are pirate operations, pressured by the government.  (For more on the indigenous experience, please see:  “Mayan Radio in Guatemala:  Fighting for Identity.”)

In Guatemala, only about 17 percent of the population is connected to the internet on a regular basis.  That flips the reality of the U.S. internet penetration rates on their head.  The rich and the middle class in Guatemala City can enjoy cable television where there are plentiful choices (64 percent of the urban population is connected) but outside the capital cable is mostly for the affluent and connection rates fall drastically.  On cable, at least, Guatemalans can see news and other programming from various sources, although Guatemala’s over-the-air television monopoly owned by Angel Gonzalez still dominates the ratings.

The one area of hope for a pluralistic media system lies with cell phones which are almost ubiquitous, even among the indigenous: 94 percent of the country owns a cell phone.  A group of indigenous women huddled around a cell phone giggling over their shared conversation isn’t such an unusual sight any longer in the country.  However, for now those phones are basically for voice calls and text, not for the more advanced internet uses, not yet.  Once the cost of smart phones decreases, that’s when Guatemala’s population can eventually catapult into this new millennium.

So a tourist visiting Guatemala gets immediate entry into the elite tier of the media system.  For the poor majority, (Guatemala ranks as 131st on the U.N.’s Human Development Index as the second poorest country in the hemisphere) communication is two-fold:  basic cell phones, usually with no internet connectivity and radio.

And what would tourists find in Guatemala’s media universe if they felt inclined to leave vacation mode and connect with the country around them this week?  Guatemala’s foreign minister floated the idea of drug legalization or decriminalization as one way to combat the Drug War swamping Central America and Mexico.  (Some complain drugs are the only engagement issue between Central America and the U.S. so perhaps another topic should be considered.) Guatemala’s Congress will begin debating more fiscal transparency.  This is certainly welcome for a country that ranks 120th in the world on Transparency International’s Corruption Index.  (The higher the number on this scale, the worse the corruption.)  This also points to more positive fiscal developments from the new administration of President Otto Perez Molina, although questions of human rights concerns from the past still linger.  (For more on this, please see “Re-examining the Media & the Military in Guatemala.”) And on that front, the judge presiding over the genocide trial of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt recused herself from considering the case.

President Perez actually moved to honor the country’s indigenous this week by attending ceremonies marking the Mayan new year.  The president also officially turned over the television frequency of Guatemala’s former military television network to the Guatemalan Academy of Mayan Languages to develop programming for the country’s indigenous.

Real, positive change could finally be on the way for a country that has endured an uneasy peace after its civil war ended 16 years ago.  However, inside the tourist bubble, one might never know any of this has happened.  The indigenous are an afterthought or quaint local decorations.  From this vantage point, certainly vacations are designed to disconnect with our fractious world, but there should also be some social responsibility from those who come from the developed world to understand their context and surroundings while traveling and at least make some gesture to better the developing world around them.  But that might not go down so well in the smooth jazz climate in Antigua.

(The photo is by Abe Kleinfeld via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.  To hear a program about Guatemala’s new tax laws from Latin Pulse, please check below.  Also, to see U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s meeting with Guatemalan Foreign Minister Harold Caballeros, please check below.)

About rickrockwell2011

Rick Rockwell is the Director of the School of Communication’s International Media program at American University. Rockwell is an award-winning journalist and author. His book, Media Power in Central America, won an award from the American Library Association. Please see the additional links for a full profile.
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