Saturday, April 21, 2007

Talking Local Politics with Don Manolo Mendez

My father, Virgilio Mendez, was once the mayor of El Tejar. He held office during the civil war, so there weren't really many resources. The city received 10% of federal taxes, as guaranteed by the constitution, but to complete his projects he also needed to go out in search of additional resources. You could say his style of governing was as a social promoter, but his work was pretty severely restricted by la violencia. In the years after my father was mayor, I began to become involved in politics. I felt it was something I was inheriting from my father. By profession I am a teacher, and this has taught me to become involved in places where there is a necessity. I am concerned with the problems we have that are the result of deeper problems in our society. I also like sports, and for a while now I've been working as an organizer to support the local indoor soccer associations.

Seven years ago I was part of the planning committee in the elections, and when we won I was given a position on the advisory council. At twenty-nine, I was the youngest person involved in local politics. During this term, we worked to pave the roads in some of the outlying communities in El Tejar, we built two bridges, and we made some pretty big improvements to the schools in the area. Also, we worked on improving the teaching contracts in the area, because the federal government doesn't give much support to teachers.

In El Tejar it is customary for local political parties to paint their
logos directly onto the houses in their constituency, and these pain-
tings remain for many years after the election. Above is one of
Manolo's murals from his 2004 campaign. Throughout the following
text I have included other examples of campaign murals.

In 2004 I ran for mayor at the head of a civic committee, with my father as my political advisor. The civic committee was a good way for us to develop our own strength, and to have room to think the way we wanted to. We ran without the assistance of any official parties, and we funded the campaign ourselves. We made local development the main focus of our campaign. We only lost the election by 87 votes. This time around, I didn't really want to run, but a group of people here asked me to participate. So far, we have no economic support from anyone, but I can surely say we have a unique vision about the work that needs to be done in our town. It's an adventure. No one is thinking for us.

In the US you have the Democrats and the Republicans. In Guatemala we have the left, the right, the center, the center-left and the center-right. More or less, our two countries are the same: politics is about ideologies and party-politics. Our civic committee aims for a more social program. We have all different sorts of people working together on our campaign, and we are talking a lot about what it means to seek the common good, rather than individual wealth. Our idea is to have a government that operates from below and addresses all sectors of the population. We are trying to make the reality of the people in El Tejar the foundation for our political work.

A mural for Partido Patriota, a hard-right candidate both locally
and in the coming national elections.

Right now we are in contact with three of the national political parties. Since we came so close to winning the last election, we have attracted their attention. In the next few days we will be discussing whether we should convert our committee into one of these legally established parties. We'll have to see which party most pertains to our form of thinking. We aren't just looking for help with publicity from a major party. We need to be sure they won't become an obstacle to our project once we arrive in office. People in town are tired of how corrupt some of these campaigns have become. The candidates from the major parties can throw a million quetzales into their campaign, and that is really a lot of money to people here.

Personally, I believe that the world moves according to the will of a supreme being. If it is His will, I will be mayor. Even the president operates in this way. What is the difference between the powerful and the weak, if we all have the same faith?

Concerning Life in the Space Between Factory Walls

Guatemala is known as a place of many distinct ethnic identities. However, our community roots are not purely indigenous, nor indigenista, but also are the result of mestizo culture and the mix between ladino and native cultures. El Tejar is a zona franca, a free trade zone, which means there are a number of factories here. The ethnicity in the area is kaqchikel. Before El Tejar was declared a zona franca, farmers here were growing corn, beans, squash, huisquil, and other vegetables. Artisans here were producing bricks and pottery, as well as small clay sculptures of different animals. Lots of people here also dedicated themselves to weaving textiles. There was a lot of work here in producing traje , the traditional clothing worn by women from other regions in Guatemala, like Escuintla and Sacatepequez. Women usually worked in the home, and helped produce various crafts. Children here have always attended schools, and we have a relatively high rate of literacy here in El Tejar, when compared to other parts of the country. A certain percentage of the town attended colleges and found work in town as teachers, secretaries, lawyers, and accountants.

We have somewhere around ten different factories here: Bimbo, Zeta Gas, Lamale, Nylontex, Dong Bang, Alianza Fashion, and Maseca. We also have Inapsa, where they grow broccoli, and for a long time there were industrial rose-growing operations outside of town. The maquilas and other industries began arriving about fifteen years ago. One result of these industries' arrival in town has been a change in the community so that very few people here identify themselves as Kaqchikel. When people started to work in the factories, they started to wear pants, jeans, and t-shirts. Women who wore huipiles and cortes are wearing modern clothes. They used to wear their hair in traditional braids, and now they have fancy new hairstyles, or they dye their hair. Some of this change is from the television, but really it has to do with where they work. You can't really expect to work for fifteen hours a day in an overheated factory wearing traditional clothing.

Liria, a tejareña who works at the market, is wearing
the heavily embroidered traje that was once the tradi-
tional outfit for all women in the community.

Roca and his family visit the market together before
Wendy goes to work at the University in Chimaltenango.

Doña Isabel, in front of the beauty shop she owns
beside the Panamericana.

People here would rather make bread at Bimbo, or flour at Maseca, rather than going to work in the fields. The problem, though, is that the factories are often directed by people from other parts of Guatemala, and when they are filling important positions in the company they hire people they know from their homes, rather than hiring people from El Tejar. This means that we have a lot of migration in town, from Retalhuleu, Suchatepequez, Coban, and Quiche. El Tejar is really becoming a mix of different cultures and identities.

There are some advantages to being a zona franca, but we have lost a lot as well in terms of our own culture and what we are capable of producing by ourselves. The weavers have all gone to work making jackets and pants, and the farmers all want to learn how to use a sewing machine. They've got the right idea, which is to look for a way to get a better position in the world. But when these jobs go away, or end up going to people from other towns, then the locals end up unemployed, and they're stuck. I'd say that this is somewhere the local authority could direct its efforts, to ensure that the majority of the jobs in the factories here are going to tejareños.

From my perspective it's a good thing for them to be bringing jobs to the community. That's where we begin our negotiation. But if the people don't have work, then what is the use in having the industries here? Instead of coming to help, they might be taking away part of our culture, and our heritage. We are in a zona franca, which means they don't contribute anything to our community. They don't pay taxes. If we ask them to participate in a project financially, we don't get any help. It's a challenge for us to find a way to negotiate with these businesses so they are making a contribution to our town.

We provide services to the factories. They use the same water as anyone else in El Tejar, and they pay exactly the same rates for their usage. We have eight pumps in town, and the water in my house comes from the same source as the water they use. They also have their own well, of course, but they use our water. They are using our drainage systems, our sewer lines. Perhaps all we need is someone who will devote themselves to working with these companies, who will ask them to make some changes. I say all of this depends on the local authorities.

The road past Inapsa and Maseca, behind Dong Bang, is an example of a place where we've had some problems. There is a new community back in that area, the Colonia Patricia Arzú. We had a project ready to pave the road, but when we started we were told by the management at Maseca that they weren't going to halt production while the road went in, and they would charge the city for all product lost as a result of the road closure. So, for the simple reason that they were up and running, we couldn't go ahead with our paving project. I believe there must be an alternative to this way of working. It's a question of conscience. We could hold some meetings, try to reach a consensus, and avoid a lot of these problems.

Above, the road past Inapsa and Maseca, behind Dong Bang.

In Patricia Arzú there are a lot of children who are suffering from intestinal problems, as well as throat and lung infections. They all live right behind these big industrial plants, where they use all sort of contaminants. For example, they are using ammonia gas as a fertilizer in their fields at Inapsa, and it is causing contamination. Maseca's waste water contains all of the material left from washing their grain, and their waste from making flour. They have settling ponds on the back of their property, and the water soaks down directly into the town's water table. If you go to Patricia Arzú around ten in the morning, the smell coming from the waste ponds is overpowering.

The other problem is that we don't really have too much control over the sort of people who come to work here. Sometimes they are coming here from places with a real violence problem, and they bring these problems with them. We have people working in the factories who have just come from prisons. A while back we had a problem with a group of men who were robbing gold, jewelry, and cellphones from people's lockers at the factories. For a while they had even started some extortion here, threatening people's lives. They weren't really from a gang, they were sort of a mix of different delinquents. We managed to get that situation under control, and the town's been fairly peaceful lately.

The people running these companies might be really big investors with a lot of money, but they need to make some allowances to the people here in town. They might threaten to leave, but I believe even so we should conduct some studies of the environment. There are some pretty serious problems, sometimes with crime, and sometimes with the allergies we are seeing in our children. We might also expect more from our central government. I believe it is right to provide the factories with certain guarantees to make sure they do not leave our country for somewhere else. I also think it is important for the government to ensure the safety of foreign investments. Our work, locally, is to find a way to live with the industries, work with them, and share with them so that we can all continue to do our jobs peacefully.

A mural supporting CASA, a conservative party led by the dean of
a local university.

Bootstraps and Handshakes: El Tejar's Future According to Manolo
Here in El Tejar we have a good location, geographically. We are three kilometers from Chimaltenango, which is the departmental capital. We are eighteen kilometers from Antigua, and only fifty-one kilometers from the national capital. With such a good location, it should be easy for us to find ways to bring more economy into our town. We should learn how to attract tourism, so instead of seeing them pass by in their vans, they are stopping here as well. I would like to see someone try to rescue the craft industry in town. The artisans in town make their products and take them to other markets, where the sell them for very low prices. The ones making the money are the wholesalers and middlemen, and I'd like to see some of that money come back here to El Tejar.

I've heard that in the US the schools are very focused on preparing their students for vocations, rather than solely focusing on their academic development. Also, they prepare their students psychologically, so they will later be more productive in the workplace. I would like to see some programs for carpentry, plumbing, and mechanics in our local schools. For the women, we could have baking classes, sewing classes, and develop other domestic skills. Here the students are well-prepared for an intellectual career, but if they can't find work in the right field it would be helpful for them to have more practical skills.

In Guatemala there are very few Industrial Technology Schools. People who would like to attend these schools must go all the way to the capital, or to Retalhuleu. I'd like to see an institute like that in El Tejar. Of course, to establish a school like this would require huge amounts of investment, but I think that the local authorities could contribute to the process by looking for outside resources as well as those we receive from the government. One example of this process is over at Dong Bang. The original owner has passed control of the factory over to his children, and they've divided up the facility amongst themselves. They've shut down one of the factory lines, and the workers are all on vacation, or suspension, or else they have actually been laid off. People say "Oh, Dong Bang is finished in El Tejar," but actually they are in a development phase, and they are investing a lot more money here. Where the closed factory is, they are going to build a high-tech school that operates in a Korean style. They are looking for personnel and teachers, so they can start to provide a higher quality education to people here in Guatemala. Of course, it will be a private school, and it will probably be pretty expensive, but even so I think if we negotiate we can bring some benefit to our community.

Sometimes I wonder why we aren't making more shoes in town. Guatemala has this huge shoe industry that is growing annually, and I think we should say "Hey! We have lots of space for another factory! Let's go to work!" We could bring in some people to teach us what we need to know about making shoes, and we could start making components. We probably wouldn't make the whole shoe, but we could start making some pieces. Similarly, I think that we should be setting up workshops so that people here learn how to make more automotive parts. There are a few guys in town who have their own lathes. They are machining parts on demand and making a pretty good living doing it. It would be good if we could get a group of people together to do this work, instead of a just a few individuals.

We also face a wide variety of social problems. In this part of Guatemala we are working to reduce domestic violence. The high death dates for adults means we have a correspondingly high number of orphans who need assistance. We need to improve health education, especially around the issues of maternal health, and post-partum care. We had a study recently in town that showed inadequate health care for pregnant women. Many young mothers, even though they are pregnant, are only eating tortillas, beans, and salt. Sometimes the father of the child is no longer in contact with the mother, or else the family already has many other children, and their incomes are stretched too far to provide more to the mother. The average family has seven children, here, and those numbers are hard to support on a small income.

The local headuarters for GANA, the center-right party led by
Guatemala's president Óscar Berger.

On the municipal level, we don't really have any good figures for the number of tejareños who are in jail, or for what reasons they are in jail. Sometimes they get drunk and get into trouble, or they try to steal something, or they are in jail for murder. We don't have any information about any of this. If someone commits a crime, they need to be punished, but we need to ask whether the father ended up in this situation because he didn't have a job. With a father in prison, it seems likely his children will have a harder time in school, and will end up being more likely to become involved in maras and gangs. I'd like to bring in some social workers to get a better understanding of these issues. I find it hard to believe in the phrase "integral development", because this sort of thing is really hard to accomplish. However, with this goal in mind, I would like to see a team of workers get together here to start to address the deeper social problems that exist in our community.

I have seen some communities in the region make real progress in all of these fields. The mayor of San martin Jilotepeque is an example of someone who has had a lot of success finding support for his work. Primarily, he has managed to find a lot of support from the international aid community, and he has a lot of NGOs working for his community. This means he is sharing the responsibility of working for the environment, in health and education. He has help finding financial support for projects in his region. I think we should try to bring in similar help in order to identify and solve problems in El Tejar. As I see it, NGOs are playing an important role in the development of Guatemala. I don't want to say too much about those groups who have used the NGO model as a way of laundering money. From what I've seen, in San Martin, I don't really care if they are getting rich at the same time, as long as they are bringing support to the community. They have some high-profile organizations there like Caritas, World Vision, and Intervida*. The question I think is important to ask about NGOs, is how to integrate them into municipal funding structures. They are officially private enterprises, so it remains difficult for us to provide funding directly from the municipality. I think we need to better integrate the NGOs we already have working in El Tejar, so they are supported by our city administration.

*It is worth mentioning here that in recent weeks the director of Intervida, a Spanish children's charity, has come under invesitgation for the misappropriation of approximately sixty million dollars in donated funds over the past decade.

Guatemala is a very paternalist society, and as a result it seems we are always waiting to see what we will be given, and we are waiting for someone to arrive and solve our problems. This culture is a product of the earthquake, in '76, and the civil war years. These both really had an enormous impact on our society, and at the same time we learned to depend on the aid that was coming from all over the world. The economic powers in Guatemala became a very small group during these disasters, and they are protective of their wealth. The governments in the past fifteen years, since the peace accords, have been organized around accepting large quantities of international funds, but not really investing those funds. And, of course, when the term of each government is ending, they have usually devoted themselves to plundering the state's financial resources.

When the Inter-American Development Bank comes to loan more money to Guatemala, we all say "Ah!" but we aren't thinking about the fact that the next three generations will be burdened with paying back this debt. Will we use this money to educate our communities and increase our technologies? I think, as usual, this money will not be invested. If you think about it, there is an awful lot of money in Guatemala already, in the hands of a very small number of wealthy people. We need to direct our attention to getting this money into use, and not taking on more loans.

I don't really believe the current government is doing a good job in its role as moderator between the welathy and the poor. When Alfonso Portillo was president, there was a lot of money coming into the country, and we know he was stealing a pretty large amount of that money. But even so, there was also a lot of work to be had, and at least some of the money coming in was being invested in our country. The current president, Berger, is only bringing in opportunities for the rich. For example, they are building a bridge on the edge of the capital, so that commuters can get to the denter without driving through the poor parts on the edge of town. How is this project helping me? The money from this project is going directly to financial institutions and upper-level contracting firms. Why couldn't we invest those hundreds of millions of quetzales in projects that bring more benefit to the community? National construction companies use lots of machines, they come through and leave behind a poor-quality project, and then they disappear. On the local level, we have the capacity to do these projects ourselves, and the money coming into the project would remain in our community.

An advertisement for UNE, the party of Miguel Ruíz who is currently the mayor of El Tejar.