Saturday, January 30, 2010

Banana Republics and the U.S.

It would be overly harsh to say that the Central American countries are failed states. Based on two weeks touring through Belize, El Salvador, Honduras and mostly Guatemala, it may be too presumptuous to make any definitive conclusions but one cannot avoid the impression that these countries do not function very well.

Everywhere our tourist bus went in Guatemala, the national tourist police in massive black 4-wheel drive vehicles shadowed us. Although these visibly armed escorts were at the invitation of our tour guide, the need for their presence in order to reassure the tourists was, in itself, not too comforting.

We were taken to see schools in the hills. Despite entitlement of free public education to everyone up to 8th grade, we learned that the funds allocated to the school were dissipated along the way by leakage to greedy pockets of officials and very little reach the intended destination.

On the shore of Lake Atitlan, we saw a beautiful estate with its own heliport. On the outskirts of Guatemala City we saw districts of tin shacks and mud hovels. If there was any doubt, the diminutive, clearly undernourished Mayan women hawking their handicraft on the streets confirmed the existence of a great unequal distribution of wealth.

All the countries on our itinerary seemed to share a common characteristic, namely, a small wealthy ruling class of European stock and a vast general population of underclass consisted varying shades of darker skin tones. The ruling class has not shown any inclination to advance the economy of their nation by improving the lives and therefore productivity of their people.

Rather, the ruling class seemed to depend on suppressing the potential of their general population as their way of staying on top, politically and economically. Inevitably, this means the need to control the populace via the military resorting to customary tools of brutality. Inevitably the people rebelled with bloody consequences.

The governments promptly informed Washington that the ensuing civil war was actually counterinsurgency against leftist guerillas trained by the Cubans. Reflexively, Washington sent arms and local conflicts become massive conflagrations. People, many in the professional class with critical skills, emigrated out of their home country and another banana republic was born.

While these destructive internal conflicts have been resolved a decade or so ago, the surviving governments have not found their way to a more effective and perhaps enlightened rule. Most of the poor continued to be trapped in their cycle of poverty and seemingly no prospects for a better life.

One can argue that the America is becoming more like a banana republic than these Central American states becoming more like free and open societies that the United States once was. In America, power is now concentrated in the rich who can make big campaign contributions. The governments, local, state and federal, are doing increasing less for schools and students in the ghettoes are condemned to a future without hope.

Of course, the main reason for touring Central America was to learn about the ancient Mayan civilization. We learned that Mayan were very hierarchal with clear separation of classes and professions. One guide even suggested that the Mayan royalty practiced close kin marriages in order to breed giants as a distinction between royal class and the (figuratively) lowly commoners—and most Mayans were quite short, well under 5 feet in stature.

I suspect the use of complicated hieroglyphic form of writing was also consistent with a culture that prized privileges and exclusivity. The complexity was a way of keeping the ability to read from being widespread and limited to the handful in the learned class. Whether its astronomy or calendar or religious ceremony, the Mayans seemed to thrive on enveloping everything in mystery and secrecy.

Perhaps the very restriction of knowledge to only a handful of people in each generation ultimately led to the extinction of the culture when some miscalculation or accident snuffed out heirs to carry on the traditions.