Trading Guatemala for Cuba

Two extremes of Latin American politics are represented by Guatemala and Cuba, the former a country where, in 1954, the CIA succeeded in overthrowing a government that offended Washington and the latter a nation that has resisted CIA covert operations for half a century. Writer Jo Wilkie, who lives in Guatemala now and is planning a move to Cuba where her husband will be director of the International Film School, contemplates the differing challenges.

By Jo Wilkie

June 13, 2011

Everyone is telling me that I will be arriving in Cuba for a time of great change and not all of those changes for the good, depending on who you are talking to.  

The Cubans apparently are going to go through some tough times as the paternal arm of communism untangles itself and they are left with … who knows what?  

Rations are going, enterprise is arriving, property can be bought and sold, and a lot more tourists will be coming, they say. But in the meantime I think your average Cuban will have to suffer to move forward and that does not always seem fair.

Meanwhile, in Guatemala, the elections are approaching and I realize once more how right-wing this part of the world is. It seems incredible that voters could elect right-wing candidates involved in the genocide of the 1980s.

The Right is also engaged in finger-pointing at people who were involved with the guerrillas, as if it is an automatic given that to be involved in the guerrilla movement makes you more dysfunctional than the people involved with the genocide.  

Otto Perez Molina, you know what you did in the name of God. We have film footage! (Otto Perez Molina is a retired army general and a political leader of the Patriotic Party.)

When I talk about what I call the right-wing here, they are the kind of people that make Margaret Thatcher look like a pussy cat. I do not think that even she would have wanted to kill a trade unionist. Maybe bop them over the head with her handbag if she got the chance, but I don´t think she would have been up for massacring a few mining villages up North where I am from, even though they gave her a big headache and did not go easily into a future of mass unemployment and social deprivation.  But I digress …

When I mention that I am going to live in Cuba, a lot of Guatemalans (most of my friends excluded) have a reaction that I am beginning to find of sociological interest. It is a kind of trigger response. The very mention of Cuba seems to make them nervous.  

It is as if they have to justify Guatemala´s inability to move out of its poverty and narco-violence and corruption by pointing out how great it is that they can buy what they want in the ever increasing shopping malls in Guatemala City or in the pretty tourist shops and delis of Antigua. How they are free and can fly wherever they want.  

(I do correct them on this one although now any Cuban can leave Cuba for a holiday but like most Guatemalans they don´t have the money).  

Anyway, these Guatemalans don´t seem to have a clue how most of their country lives and that maternal mortality, malnutrition and domestic violence and murder rates are all on the rise, just to name a few social problems.  

But evidently as long as the richer people can buy what they want and even fly to Miami to do it, that makes all the other things okay, because they are free to consume. But right now in Cuba nobody is starving, Guatemala however has a child malnutrition problem that is worse than a lot of African countries.

I began to think about it a lot this week, in the last balmy days before the rains arrive as I watch the fireflies play in the back garden. Thinking, am I one of those people? Selfish and happy to live in a bubble.

I have to admit I do like shopping (but in the markets and boutiques of Europe looking for a steal or something entirely unique that I will treasure all my life … rather than in Gap or Target or Dolce Gabana).  

As long as I can buy nice things for myself and my family, am I happy to live in a country blighted by violence and poverty? Can I ignore the realities of Guatemalan society, as long as I surround myself with good people and beautiful things and fine wine?  

Issues such as gendercide and chronic malnutrition. A people who have grown stunted for generations due to the slavery and apartheid they find themselves born into, surrounded by excuses of the better-off: It is their fault they should have fewer children. It is their fault they don´t know how to eat properly. It is their fault for getting involved with the rebels.”

I have heard it all! I am still baffled as to how people can be starving in a country like this where everything grows. But one thing I am sure about: It is not their fault.

But in the end what can I do? I have three little ones to bring up and that overwhelms me most days. But I can try to always be informed, know the truth, try to see other people´s arguments and make sure that my children know the truth about both their countries and their adopted ones. Just keep learning I suppose.

I am not sure why, but certain people from the U.S. think that they are the oracle of world opinion, as they quite clearly are not. Just go and read some Chomsky, Democracy Now or ConsortiumNews or any quality European paper and you can see that a lot of us have different opinions and we are not crazy foaming at the mouth commies or fundamentalist “ragheads” (a derogatory but sadly popular term for Arabs in the U.S.).  

A rich suburban gringo in Antigua told me with great authority that Cuba has been a disaster since they kicked the U.S. out. By that I suppose he meant the Mafia, Batista and the CIA. And don´t get me started on the weird and shameful existence of Guantanamo. Obama´s promise to close it is still pending. And Cuba has human rights issues!!!

I don´t profess to be an expert in geopolitics and certainly not in the unique and fascinating history of Cuba, but I think there is one thing that I will never stop thinking: For better or for worse, Cuba is an ideological miracle and still is.  

How the hell did the CIA never manage to poison Fidel? Just that is a miracle. I know the Miami Cubans and a large part of U.S. population won´t agree with me but I’m not sure I care!  

In fact, I have never met people so full of hate as the Miami Cubans. That can´t be good for them or anybody. And unfortunately their bad taste and bad humor does get transmitted back to Cuba along with an extra layer of white-trash mentality born in the USA.

And yes I am packing carefully for our move to Cuba and I am slightly nervous about being in a no-consumer zone.

But I hope I can survive happily without faceless shopping malls, guns on every street corner, apartheid, darkened car windows, suited bodyguards, awful cable TV with more advertisements than programs, schools like prisons with armed guards at the gates … and all the rest that goes with a narco-capitalist state like Guatemala.

I can only promise the Cuban people that I will try to understand and not to judge them when I am living as a guest in their country, at a time when they are going through yet another sociological challenge.  Good Luck Cuba!  

I will write about and record your hardships and your happiness and your apparently famous ability to resolver.

Jo Wilkie is a social psychologist, writer and mother who married into Guatemala’s history. Her blog postings can be found at http://serendipityormadness.com/ .

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