Friday, October 26, 2007

Elección Guatemalteca

As a destination for frequent trips over the past several years, Guatemala holds a special place in my heart. With great interest, I have been following Guatemala's presidential campaign and it's wake of violence and political fallout. Just 10 years removed from the peace accords that ended a 36-year-long civil war, this small country is in the midst of the deadliest presidential campaign since that war ended. Leading up to the presidential primary in September, 59 murders and 89 attacks on political leaders and their families were recorded (and those are just the reported attacks in a country notorious for unreported violence).

The winners of the primary, Otto Pérez Molina and Alvaro Colom, will face each other in the November 9th final election, and along with 12 other candidates from various parties, they spent nearly $100 Million US leading up to the primary. This is an alarming number for such a small (13 million) and poor country, leading many in the international community to criticize Guatemala's fractious and inefficient multi-party system. Among the candidates was the first indigenous female presidential candidate, internationally know Rigoberta Menchú. In a country with 22 different ethnic Mayan populations, her indigenous status did not seem help; part of the reason stems from the fact that machismo is still rampant in Guatemala, but more even, I think, because of those ethnic divisions.

Now that Colom and Molina are set to face off on November 9, the number one issue of the campaign has resurfaced: violence. With organized crime on the rise in the capital city and other urban areas, and the murder rate increasing at an alarming pace, Guatemalans seemed to be leaning toward the former-military authoritarian Molina, who has promised to be tough on crime and whose Patriot Party's logo is a clenched fist. During the civil war, Molina led troops in an area of Guatemala that saw some of the most brutal treatment of indigenous peoples, though as is often mentioned, he also played a key role in the 1996 Peace Accords. Colom is a bit more of a mystery, and I've seen several articles refer to him as "gentler" and seeking to reduce crime by reducing poverty and improving the quality of life for all Guatemalans (ie, more free trade and allowing more foreign business investment). Both candidates are from Guatemala's rich, isolated ruling elite.

In the end, I will always be skeptical of progress in a Guatemala that allows Effrain Rios Montt, former dictator and perpetrator of some of the worst war crimes in the Western Hemisphere, to continue serving in the legislature. This is a man who does not dare leave Guatemala for fear of being detained and charged by Spanish Courts, which have brought several indictments against him. This is a man who learned how to oppress the lowly at the School of the Americas. Wasn't Ronald Reagan prescient when he said of Rios Montt in 1982: "President Rios-Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment. I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice." Some of the worst years of the civil war happened under Reagan's watch. And as if we needed any further proof that Rios Montt still has ties to US conservatives, his daughter, Zury, is married to Jerry Weller (R-IL), he of the House of Representatives who was recently called as a witness in the Randy "Duke" Cunningham scandals and is being investigated for shady Central American land deals. Birds of a feather.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Weekend in DC

Spent this past weekend in Washington, D.C. visiting with an old friend and his fiance, who were likewise in town to visit his brother. Paul (said friend) and Teresa were recently engaged, and seem as happy as can be. His brother, John, and his wife Jaimie have two great kids--Crister (4) and Annika (somewhere between 1 and 2)--and seem to be doing very well. And they were so generous as to allow me to stay with them, providing a level of hospitality I do not often experience--thank you, John and Jaimie!

I took an early morning Saturday train, and this was really my first time out of the city since arriving 6 months ago. The train ride was not generally spectacular, though there were some amazing scenes as the sun was coming up. Arriving in Washington's Union Station, I then took the Metro out toward Alexandria Virgina, where John and Jamie live. Let me just say that the DC Metro is really quite ingeniously designed, incredibly clean, and even had padded seats. Though it doesn't have the character and bustle of the NY subway and is a bit more expensive, it seems comfortable and convenient.

In a stroke of luck, Brother Paul, a former teacher at my high school (Bellarmine Prep) now lives on the East Coast and visits John occasionally; and this Saturday morning he'd decided to come down from Baltimore for a visit. It was great to see him, reminisce a bit, talk politics (he's not a fan of the current crop), and get another taste of his great facility with language. I think the first time I really began to appreciate language and how words can be used was in his World Cultures history class. He now runs the library at a Catholic middle school an hour outside of Baltimore and does not miss teaching one bit!

We eventually headed into DC, since it was my first time in the area, and made it to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, which would have been so cool to visit as a kid, and was just as amazing (in a different way) as an adult. After a very nice meal at a lovely Indian restaurant, we walked the Mall and saw many of the monuments at night, which is the best way to see them according to some. I most enjoyed the Lincoln Memorial--it's huge doric columns, subtly wonderful murals, and well-chosen excerpts from Lincoln's many speeches. Of course, the Gettysburg Address, but also his Second Inaugural Address, given mere weeks before his assassination. It is a mastery of American statesmanship, acknowledging the hard-fought ravages of the Civil War to both sides, bearing the burden of such sacrifice and uncertainty on his shoulders, and longing for the peace that would only come after his death. I was struck by my experience of it for the rest of the weekend!

Sunday was spent in almost total leisure (besides a woeful game of tennis), which was actually very nice. A trip to mass, a quick jaunt around Alexandria, a fresh Thai meal, and a frenzied trip back to Union Station rounded out the weekend. Just one hiccup: on the way home, we were delayed on the tracks for almost an hour in the middle of nowhere in Delware; when we resumed, we were slowed due to a signal problem, and I arrived home just after 2am. Thanks, Amtrak!

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Missing You Already

Stephanie (Paige to some) was here from Tuesday to Saturday last week, and shortly after the last wave at the airport, I was missing her all over again--it had been four months since I'd seen her and it'll be another four before she moves out here.

I had to work all week (the job at which I do next to nothing and where the motto seems to be "go with the flow") so we had only the evenings and Saturday to hang out and have fun in the city. Steph spent some time shopping (ahem, NYC must be shoe shopping heaven) and was able to see her friends who are living out this way--Mikey (a student at a graphic arts school here in the city) and Allison (an aspiring Veterinarian who lives in New Brunswick, NJ). She and Allison have been friends for many years, so I know it was a highpoint to hang out with her.

I was absolutely dismal at planning our short time together, so I've promised myself to redouble the efforts for her arrival in January. Lots of warm surprises and sights of New York are in store.

Monday, October 1, 2007

I Read Good

The Strand Bookstore, a famous New York City purveyor of all things printed, has a service called "Books-by-the-Foot," which will provide your movie set, living room, study, or personal library with a veneer of well-read elitism, studious dedication to your field, quirky intellectualism, or whatever image you might be hoping to effect by shelves of books you've never read. After all, why choose and read the books you want when you can pay someone to help you, without uttering a word, scream "don't even try to debate the merits of the Industrial Revolution until you've read each and every book you see on that shelf" or "yes, I'm pretentious, but that's because I read Aristotle in the original Greek!" or "yes, I own every book ever written by Ann Coulter, and all books written by liberals should be burned!"

While these may provide convenient clues to your guests as to which topics should be avoided over dinner, it also seems dangerous should a guest be intimately familiar with a particular volume and begin asking your thoughts on, say, why Louis XIV is simultaneously the most celebrated and reviled of the French kings. That's when you thank God for wine and pour generously, I suppose.

What's on your shelf these days? Have you read those books? Is it your fantasy to have a leather-bound library? (snicker)

I'm now reading: West of Rome by John Fante
I finished not too long ago: 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Been trying to get though: Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal (1st Harry Potter, in Spanish)
Up next: Re-reading a favorite, Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie