Archive for the ‘South America’ Category

Nicaragua and Guatemala

Wednesday, March 31st, 2004

Nicaragua-Guatemala: –observing first hand the problems created by US interventions and local efforts to recover

Nicaragua and Guatemala in March 2004, I jumped at the chance. I had never visited either country, though I had used texts about the roles women played both in resistance and in rebuilding their societies. The politics swirling around those countries during the1980s are emblematic of current debates about how the US should use its considerable power abroad: big stick versus carrot, military interventions versus development assistance; trade and US corporations versus local enterprise.

The trip was organized by MercyCorps as part of their effort to provide donors and friends with a deeper understanding of their distinct approach to development by on site visits. Our trip was unique because all participants were women and we would focus on projects affecting women: the shorthand title was Women to Women, W2W. The headquarters of MercyCorps are in Portland, the largest of five nongovernmental international organizations in the city.

Many MC staff frequent my monthly Development Salons which provide a gathering place for the amazing number of residents of the area who are deeply involved in development projects or studies. After wine and cheese, someone talks about their work: about ICT linking Nepal residents and diaspora, new types of microenterprise in Afghanistan, community development in Tanzania, politics in Indonesia, immunization in the Philippines. The Salon has provided an international ambiance and contacts for all participants. At the salons, I heard about the distinct approach of MercyCorps to development assistance, and I was curious how rhetoric played on the ground. So I added days on both ends of the official trip to meet members of the local development community on my own.

Green Empowerment is a much smaller NGO in Portland that works with partner organizations in Central and South America and in Asia on renewable energy projects to provide electricity and water to poor villagers. Its Nicaraguan projects continue the work undertaken by a fund set up in memory of Ben Linder, who grew up in Portland; another component is the Borneo Project, started by Berkeley students. Jaime Enrique Munoz heads Asofenix, an affiliate of GE that receives Canadian fund to improve the living of poor women and children. His group promotes biogas, solar cookers, and improved Lorena stoves for household; they also install solar panels on community buildings and install microhydro dams for energy and potable water. Once a Sandinista official, he resigned in order to work with the poor; he runs a tiny pulperia (general store) out of his house and works on some renewable energy projects.

The original Lorena stove, made of adobe and popular in the highlands of Central America, was touted in the 1970s as an efficient stove that would reduce the amount of fuel consumed, espcially in the Sahel. The stove’s ambient heat was hardly an advantage in the Sahara; further, women lacked tools to chop the wood into small sizes. Nor do the poor in much of the developing world use wood for cooking; rather they burn fuelwood consisting of anything from leaves to straw to paper. Jamie says the Lorena stove doesn’t work well in Nicaragua because with poor quality dirt in the adobe, the stove actually burns faster. This fascinated me, as I was for a short time an energy “expert” arguing that most improved cookstoves did not work well outside the laboratories of well-meaning proponents of appropriate technology. Rather, these stoves often increased the pressure on women’s time. In that vein, I wrote “The Real Rural Energy Crisis: Women’s Time.” Jaime’s improved stoves, made of concrete with steel linings, saves 50% of the fuel. Because of its expense, street food vendors are the major purchasers.

Fundacion Solar in Guatemala is also a partner of Green Empowerment. Their programs seemed better funded than those of Asofenix. GE provided a technical review of a community-owned micro hydro project in Chel, Quiche, and then helped facilitate a $25,000 CO2 emission reduction credit trade between the indigenous community group in Chel and a Canadian foundation, EnerGreen. This trade is significant because it establishes a precedent for small non-profits in developing countries to benefit from the emerging greenhouse gas credit market.

I was equally curious about the Sandinist women’s movement in Nicaragua. Articles I had used in my Women’s Studies courses at UC Berkeley reflected both a revolutionary zeal and a social conservatism. Virginia Vijil, who organized the Nicaraguan part of the MC trip, arranged for an intoxicating series of talks by women leaders in Nicaragua that delved into these issues as background for our visit to MC projects upcountry.

On the first day we met for an early breakfast with Dora Maria Tellez, from 1985-1990 the Minister of Health in the Sandinista government, current member of the Nicaraguan parliament, and a recent candidate for mayor of Managua. In 1979, she was one of two comandantes who led the attack on the presidential palace in Managua which led eventually to the end of the Somoza regime. She is famously quoted as saying that the women who fought with her were “militants by day and traditional oppressed women at night.” This in an army that was one-third women and which had special uniforms for pregnant fighters.

While Dora noted that the revolution had opened doors for women in politics and education, and given them options for work, she reiterated how hard it is to change family and community structure. Her personal style and dress openly declare that she is a lesbian, yet she remains a commanding figure in the country. A local writer commented that “coming out” in a patriarchal country itself sends a message.

Dora is frustrated with the current political system. The 35 parties, which are grouped in parliament into five coalitions, make instituting new policies difficult. She argues that the closed list system encourages splintering among right and left by giving power to the party heads. Dora feels that voting for individuals in a single constituency system would require the winners to have greater response to the people. What about women in parliament? Because parties have informal quotas, 10% of members are women. Dora also commented wryly that many women are judges because the low pay discourages men.

When asked why the US supported the Contras, Dora replied “we are the backyard of the US.” During the revolution, our rhetoric frighted interests in the US, yet we tended to “talk hard and act soft. We need to reverse that.” Dora wishes the US elites would stop “cooking our power.” She continued: US policies such as free trade dominate us today despite the opposition by most parties, yet US supplies a mere 6% of international assistance; most comes from Europe. The contra war undermined the successes of the revolution: we eradicated polio, but now malaria is endemic, and 20% of the kids have no access to school. This reversal, after all our commitment and effort, is enervating: our enthusiasm is gone.

The exhaustion of revolution was echoed by several peasant women we met in Masaya who told movingly about making explosives in their homes, of the siege and bombing by Somoza in 1979 with the help of Israeli troops, of sons killed or disappeared, and of belonging to the social movement Cursillos de Christiandad –rethinking life– which preached social responsibility, and which Somoza attacked. Overall, they seemed to think that the revolution had been good for women, but they felt betrayed by Daniel Ortega. Today, they said that new revolution is against global forces, not local.

The elite women and men I talked with were equally ambivalent about the meaning and impact of the revolution. Oligarchy prevails in the country; these families often split between supporters of Somoza and the Sandinistas. Virginia Vijil invited me to her birthday the day before the trip began where three of her four siblings, and their families, gathered. Her sister had supported Somoza and continued to argue that it was the Sandinistas that bombed Managua; Virginia countered that only Somoza had airplanes. A brother and Virginia’s ex-husband had both been ministers in the Sandinista government.

Virginia’s house was the back section of the larger building that had once been occupied by her family. An early supporter of the Sandinist movement, she refused to use her husband’s position in the ministry to obtain scarce commodities while he enjoyed the fruits of power. Over time she became disillusioned with many of the Sandinista leaders, but also with the conservative head of the Catholic Church, though not with her religion: her house is filled with symbols and she gives financial support to nuns working in a nearby slum. After her divorce, Virginia rented the front part of the house to an international organization, then studied for a law degree. For 20 years she worked for the UN, primarily in the country; but her last assignment was in East Timor.

From so many voices, certain themes emerged. Sandinista supporters said “we were arrogant, tried to do too much too fast.” Literacy campaigns spread all over the country in the 1980s; but today schools and teachers are underfunded and peasants see no reason to send their kids to school. Peace allowed money to flow to the elite, encouraging corruption in government and outside. Most Nicaraguans are poor, 42% earn less than one dollar a day. NGOs, a new phenomena in post revolutionary times, are taking up the slack in social services. Without the heavy-handed US intervention, many think the revolution would have learned from its early mistakes and succeeded in establishing a more egalitarian society.

As in many revolutions, women participated and died, but the men still expected to assume their patriarchal dominance once the war was over. The conservative churches, both the dominant Catholic and the growing Evangelical, support tradition. Post-revolution, men migrated to the US for jobs. One third of households are women headed; 70% of the workforce are women; domestic violence is widespread. Electing a woman, Violeta, as president resulted in “air circulation,” commented one feminist, but now situations are stiff and it is hard to breath. A community worker summed up the malaise in the society: Nicaragua suffers from post traumatic stress disorder.

Many Catholics bemoaned the political role of the conservative church hierarchy and praised progressive orders such as the Maryknolls who promoted a people’s church. The continued hold of Catholicism in Nicaraguan politics is illustrated by the story of Rosa. In 2003, Rosa, the 9 year old daughter of poor Nicaraguans working on a plantation in Costa Rica, was raped and became pregnant. When her parents took her to a doctor, she was “held hostage” to prevent her return to Nicaragua. At this point, the story appeared in the newspaper and feminists from Managua were able to bring Rosa to a hotel room to discuss what she wanted to do. Once she said she “wanted the thing out,” the feminists were able to sneak her back to Managua. Therapeutic abortion is legal in Nicaragua under a law passed during the Sandinista period, but the publicity forced the government to set up a panel to decide the case. When the panel was indecisive, an abortion took place even though the Minister of Health objected. Soon after this incident, a ten year old Nica girl in Costa Rica was similarly raped; but she was forced to give birth.

During the two intensive days in Managua, before W2W began, I met local women and men activists and staff of international groups engaged in development, many of which arrange for volunteers from the States to come to Nicaragua for humanitarian projects. A teenaged group from a Canadian church was on the plane, headed out to build a playing field A medical doctor from Oklahoma was on his sixth trip in two years to train doctors in new techniques for hearing loss; he had also set up a clinic in Jinotega to treat what he feels is an epidemic of hearing loss among children in the region. Funds for his clinic come from friends, his church, and himself. Doctors who receive his training in Managua agree to volunteer in the clinic.

This use of volunteers is particularly significant in Nicaragua, though a glance at volunteer opportunities in Central America also lists many possibilities in Guatemala and Honduras. They come for weeks or years, a curious reverse flow as so many Nicas immigrate to the US because there are no jobs at home. The volunteers fill in gaps for construction of sports grounds and hospitals. I recall that after WW II, students took boats to Europe to help rebuild roads and schools. Later planes took students to Africa for a summer experience. Since 1961, Peace Corps has provided an more intense involvement for many people, but requires a two year commitment. Whatever the length of time volunteers spend in a developing country anywhere, their work clearly impacts more on their own lives than on the communities they come to assist.

Two projects stand out. A diminutive Italian school teacher, Zelina Roccia, had come to Nicaragua in the 1990s and was astounded at the number of street children, a post- Sandinista phenomena. After raising money in Italy, she returned to set up the Quinchos project, in many ways the most successful project for street kids I have observed, and I have visited such projects in India, Indonesia, and Brazil. What is different is the method first of weaning the kids from inhaling glue, and then of reinserting them in society by placing them in local schools in the rural town of San Marcos, away from the street influences of Managua. Two boys are now studying in Cuba. The girls’ houses are new, on the far side of San Marcos. But they join the boys and children of the local community at cultural events, dancing, singing, plays, at the community center placed half way between.

Lillian Hall arranged this visit. She came down as a recent Cornell graduate during the revolution and found herself volunteering for the Ministry of Agriculture in areas invaded by the Contras. Lillian recalled some near-misses, remarking casually that the Contras targeted those who were involved in education, health, or agriculture, hoping to undercut any advances by the Sandinistas. Young urban high school and college students, volunteering with the National Literacy Campaign, were particularly targeted. Lillian has remained in the country, except for earning an advanced degree. Supported by ProNica, a service project of the Southeastern Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, she identifies projects like the Quinchos for assistance and coordinates a center where volunteers who come to work on these projects stay when in Managua.

The Jubilee House Community (JHC) is another example of how a few dedicated people can make a difference. For over a decade, JHC worked with homeless and battered women in North Carolina; post-revolution misery in Nicaragua drew them, and in 1994 a group of five adults moved south with their children to begin community development in Cuidad Sandino, a squatter settlement on the outskirts of Managua that was overwhelmed by refugees from the 1998 Hurricane Mitch and has 80% unemployment. Volunteers are an essential part of their planning. The day I visited, students and faculty from Bucknell University were receiving orientation from Mike Woodard, one of the original founders. The university sends volunteers every semester who must have taken courses to prepare them for their two week project building a health clinic in Nueva Vida, a self-built housing community down a rutted road from the JHC center. Mike showed us the garbage dump, used by Nueva Vida residents, which is in a dry river bed. Rains carry the refuse throughout the area. He also pointed out the grafitti on many houses, tagged by former Los Angeles gang members who have brought their violence back with them when they returned.

A European NGO had built modern bungalows across the road from JHC for teachers, and I mistook them for Nueva Vida. No, said Mike, those NGOs imposed their ideas without consultation. So they made two major mistakes: the homes were connected but Nicaraguans like single dwellings. Also, they placed the septic tanks in the back yard right under the rooms that most occupants built to enlarge the homes.

Sanitation is a huge problem in this flat dry area. JHC itself built a type of latrine that was new to me. By siphoning off liquid waste and situating the curtained door toward the almost constant wind, this dry latrine had not yet needed to be dredged. Another innovation is an inexpensive water filters: ceramic lined with colloidal silver. Production has been perfected by JHC which sells the filter for five dollars! The filter is now reproduced globally.

Nearby, a huge shed housed a women-owned sewing cooperative “Maquilador Mujeres.” The women worked for two years with no pay to construct their future work site and today run the coop themselves. In 2002, the women made and sold over 60,000 organic cotton shirts and camisoles for Maggie’s Clean Clothes in Ann Arbor MI. Since my visit, the Sewing Cooperative has been designated a “free trade zone,” a first for a worker owned factory!

Both Quinchos and Jubilee House are run by foreigners and depend on foreign funds. In contrast, the MercyCorps project we visited in Jinotega, Aldea Global, a small farmer’s association that is now run entirely by its members. Started by MC in 1992 to increase food security and improved agricultural practices, and build small scale gravity flow irrigation systems, the association became an independent NGO in 1996 in order to reduce dependency on foreign leadership and funding.

After a few rocky years, the association is prospering. Our delegation was met with songs and a band when we arrived at their office: Virginia even danced with a board member! We then divided into three groups so that we could talk to the women and men who were the founders, the office workers, or board members. Coffee and beans are major crops; to increase income they have begun to grow organic coffee for export and have won several prizes for their product. MC is assisting in marketing this “single-origin” coffee. As VIPS, we were treated in the evening with a cultural program of traditional dance and skits.

Next morning we drove north into the dry farming area to meet women from a mircrocredit project. Songs and dances welcomed us to the community hall, decorated with balloons and a banner –perhaps the only one they had– that read “Happy Retirement.” The program opened with a prayer that was Catholic as compared to the Protestant prayer yesterday at the office; indeed the hall was on the grounds of a church and lunch was cooked in the church kitchen. One member described how they had increased egg production, and income raising a new breed of hen. Women had to build coops to keep these large layers from mixing with the tiny local chickens scrounging on the ground. They were taught to collect refuse from the coops to use for fertilizer, how to use old cooking oil to improve the feed; how to de-worm each hen twice a week.

As we walked to several villages to see the chicken coops, we attracted a procession of women, children, and a few men. All were dressed in odd combinations of second hand clothes often shipped by charitable organizations. Like too much food aid undermines local agriculture, these cheap clothes undermined the domestic textile industry. As we observed their carefully maintained chicken coops, the topic turned to the problem of water: for chickens and for people: kids sometimes stay home from school because they lack clean cloths. Gravity flow systems were overused and intermittent; wells were going dry lack of rain and high demand; lake access had been denied by a big landlord. What about family planning, I asked my escorts, as our procession walked up the dusty roads; the women laughed with embarrassment. A staff member said that Profamilia had a clinic but it sold condoms or pills which many could not afford. Contraceptives were free at the very public government clinic, discouraging women from going. Children were much in evidence throughout the day; they ran in and out of the hall or followed us to the villages: no school because of a teachers’ strike. Another example reflecting the poverty of the country.

Back in Managua, we packed for the early morning departure for Guatemala City. The transition from a colonial village to a modern city reflected the differing response of the US government to local yearnings for greater equity between wealthy elites and the poor villages. Through supporting the Contras, US bled the Nicaraguan revolution; through army support and training, the US backed Guatemalan dictators.

Instead of driving north to the MercyCorps project center in Coban, we waited for an afternoon interview with Wendy Berger, wife of the recently elected president of Guatemala. Tired from our early morning flights, we rested around a pool at the Marriott Hotel, then were briefed over lunch about MC programs and our agenda.

Arranged by the charismatic and politically savvy Guatemalan head of MC in the country, Borys Chinchilla, the meeting with the First Lady and her staff in the elegant reception hall in the executive office provided an opportunity for him to explain MercyCorps programs: the expansion of the Tucuru health center into a community resource and the new initiative to help settle land disputes between villagers and large, and usually absent, landowners. Such programs fit well with the policies of the new administration which reflected the longing for an end to the deep divisions in the country between the army and the Mayans. Berger had been the mayor of Guatemala City; his defeat of former dictator Rios Monte was a triumph for democracy. Wendy Berger, emphasizing that the country “needs it own recipe,” talked about the her desire to encourage more nongovernmental organizations and bring them together in a network to discuss priorities. Wendy underscored the importance of encouraging more women to vote, to for conflicts to be solved by mediation. To assist the poor, she wants to promote mircrocredit programs, health and nutrition, and improved cookstoves. Guatemala is the largest country in Central America with the most people in poverty.

The delay in our schedule put us into the worst of the almost all day traffic congestion caused by so much new road construction. We ate in a small café en route, arriving at our hotel late in the evening. With staff driving four cars, our trips in Guatemala were both more comfortable and more intimate than in the van we used in Nicaragua. After six days in close contact, our group was bonding despite the age span: two in their teens; three seniors; two in their thirties, and most in their fifties. Chair of the MC Board Linda Mason brought both her mother and her daughter; Cindy Albert Link brought her daughter. Six came from around Boston; six from the Northwest, including Mara Galaty, MC Director of Civil Society Initiatives. This variety was reflected as each woman introduced herself, and talked about her life and family, career choices, and expectations for the future. Our growing friendship enriched the trip immeasurably.

Coban is the capital of the province of Alta Verapaz, a remote and mountainous area north of Guatemala City which was never conquered by the Spanish. Security is still problematical, particularly in the valleys where rogue soldiers, demobilized but with no other jobs, continue the only job they know. For this reason, Borys enlisted a police escort for our four-car cavalcade as we descended toward Tucuru health center: two on motorcycles leading and a car following. Borys said he encouraged their participation by providing gasoline and a meal.

The drive was spectacular, but scary. I was in the front seat of the SUV that Borys was driving quite fast. Of course he not only knew the road well as he drives it several times a week, but waved to everyone along the way. I decided, if he does not die in an automobile accident, he might well become the country’s president. As we drove, Borys pointed out fields farmed by squatters who fought off soldiers to obtain the land. Now access to the road has been cut off by a fence across the path that was erected by the absentee landlord once peace was returning to the area. Such land conflict is typical of the type of dispute MC is trying to mediate. Hillsides were sprinkled with tiny churches that reflected the proliferation of Evangelical sects in the country. It was said that Rios Monte set up his own church in order to use the custom of tithe monies in his failed political campaign!

MercyCorps assumed control of the Tucuru health center in 2001 in order to fill the vacuum in leadership following the transfer of the founding Catholic missionary. The center serves some 30,000 primarily indigenous Q’eqchi and Poq’omchi, 70 % of whom are indigenous women living in rural areas. The goal is to provide sustainable health services by working in collaboration with local organizations, health practitioners, and government health officials. The MC project sees citizen involvement as a key to improving health status and reducing the high maternal mortality rates. This emphasis on strengthening civil capacity is what sets MC apart from many other aid agencies that focus on provision of services.

Community health centers have been set up beyond the reach of roads so that local women can walk to the weekly clinics staffed at least weekly by the project. The community itself must invest in the center by providing the space and small funds for medicines. My group of four walked from the jeep that had brought us high above the valley along narrow paths between fields to Sacpur. Overhead, a power line passed on its way to Tucuru. I wondered why the villagers did not help themselves to the electricity as people do in many squatter areas I have visited. Perhaps the scattered settlements lack the anonymity of urban slums. As the path wound downhill, erosion cut rivulets in the crusty sand and made walking difficult. Two local men gallantly supported me until we reach an adobe platform where a center, and Evangelical church and the padre’s house were congregated. A 36 year old woman was cradling her 8th child: she would have liked fewer but only recently did a woman Cuban doctor explain using an injectable form of family planning. She was wearing factory made clothes, probably second hand from the US. A few wore huiles hand made on a backstrap loom. One woman kept weaving as we sat on the porch talking to the health committee of four women and a man who was the head.

The village land was part of a large finca. In 1974, the community, with the help of a Copan cooperative, bought the land from the absentee owner who was having difficulty finding workers because of security problems. They grow corn, coffee, and beans. The church complex was a logical place for the health center since 75% of the people are Evangelical and church services are held three times a week and on Sunday. Catholics lack a church and meet in their homes, but use the center. Inside the clinic were posters of stick figures that tracked the health of each pregnant woman in the area.

This community outreach is grounded in the Tucuru health center whcih tries to integrate indigenous cultural practices into western medicine. A doctor and nurse are always available. While the government health system contributes some staff, most are project personnel, Cuban doctors, or volunteers. Sarah Dobra, a student from the U. of Oregon, was an interning at Tucuru for three months. The center handles about 30 births a month and keeps them for 24 hour observation. Children often suffer from diarrhea, respiratory diseases, or malnutrition. For sick men, the center has three beds. We saw student dentists at work, and were impressed wit the pharmacy organized by a local group. AIDS is a local problem, but lacking a laboratory, blood tests are sent to Copan.

As a delegation of women, we were greeted in the town hall by a large group of women from all the communities, colorful in the huiles. They were members of a women’s organization Amsat, “women going forward,” that started its branch in Tucuru in 2000. The leaders are demanding greater roles in local decision-making so that more houses will have water, improved stoves, and opportunities for income. The craft products they exhibited showed clearly the need for improved projects for income activities.

We gave a lift to staff member Olga who is a member of the indigenous Poq’omchi population. She told us that in order to go high school, she had to run away from home because 6 years of school are considered enough for girls. To support herself she worked in houses. She met “a nice man who was half German” and has 2 daughters. But after nine years she left him because he drank and became violent. Olga lived with her mom while going to college where she learned English, a skill that has opened up translation jobs with NGOs. She has nearly finished college; she came up to Copan to take a course the following day. MC encourages her by giving her time off to attend. Now she fears that her 18 year old daughter, just finishing high school, will just get married instead of studying more.

Another example of Borys’ astuteness came the next morning. Our schedule was again rearranged to arrive at the MC Copan offices shortly before, Glenn Anderson, the USAID director for the region, was to come by. After briefing about the land mediation project, Anderson spoke about US assistance to Guatemala was had been cut in the last budget because of continued human rights violations under Rios Monte? Now, with the recent elections and a democratic president, Anderson was trying to increase our aid, and asked for the help of our delegation.

The land mediation project and supporting an existing, but weak, network of NGOs in Alta Verapaz were ideas promoted by Mara Galaty in her capacity as director of Civil Society Initiatives. Her job is to incorporate the involvement of people in all MC projects; she helped with the transfer of control to the farmers of Aldea Global. This attention to civil society sets MC apart from many other aid agencies.

Land conflicts smolder in the region with 360 registered with the government. In frustration, 85 farms have been occupied by force and in one village the police were held as hostage. The MercyCorps project employs a two part strategy: to mediate disputes, and to build capacity for conflict resolution. Regional centers have been set up in 9 towns plus Coban which are staffed by para-legals; small grants are given to local groups for training in mediating land issues. JADE, an organizations of Guatemala City lawyers, is enlarging its base with the help of MC. JADE is “ha-day” in Spanish, but it is indeed a jewel. Of the five disputes settled under this initiative, in four the landowners either sold or donated the land; in the fifth, the squatters left peacefully.

Observing mediation is of course not feasible, but Borys determined to give us a flavor of the disputes. We drove north on the road toward Tikal with its Mayan ruins, and stopped for lunch at a tourist hotel with a swimming pool and cages of brightly colored tropical birds. Further on was a tourist attraction: the Candelaria Caves and a hotel with French food and charming cottages. The site was a national treasure, but the administration of the caves had been granted to a Guatemalan colleague of the French archeologist who discovered the caves and developed the site. He hired local men as guides and women to work at the hotel; schools were set up for children and a bus provided for older ones who wished to attend high school in town. Problem: the success of the caves provoked the villagers to seek a greater share of the profits so they petitioned the government to transfer the administration to them. When this was refused, they made a different entrance to the caves and are running their own tours. But that entrance is off the main road and has no hotel where visitors can rest.

To visit the caves, we walked through well tended paths, lined with tropical flowers and shrubs. The heat and ambiance reminded me of Indonesia. But not the caves. No lighted paths. After the lightbulb at the entrance, light came from the guides’ flashlights. Aided by a strong arm of a MC staffer Romero, I skidded down into the first cave. Only the promise that we were all going down and out another way kept me going. The cave itself was not spectacular, the footing was slippery, and often a guide had to join Romero to ensure that I did not fall. Of course I was paranoid about my two fake hips, especially since I had dislocated the left hip twice: the leg is useless until the bone is cracked back into the socket. Yet once we were down, we were told the only way out is back up. My memory of this escapade revolves around my delight at emerging out of the coolness of the cave into the humidity, and the cool beer we drank, waiting for the younger set as they explored the cave further. I kidded Romero that he was my Romeo!

For our last day together, we drove to Antigua Guratemala, a charming colonial city listed by UNESCO as a Heritage of Humanity and a tourist mecca with shopping, restaurants, and luxury hotels. We stayed at Casa Santa Domingo, built on the site of a monastery that was purposely destroyed by the colonial government after a series of earthquakes had so damaged this Spanish capital that the rulers moved the capital to what is now Guatemala City and insisted that the inhabitants also move. The present hotel is arranged around the old courtyards; lights are dim along the original walkways to simulate candles. Broken statues line these walks, contributing to the sense of place. Our visit was during Lent; to celebrate the approach of Easter, people from the surrounding villages brought their holy statues for blessing at the cathedral and carried them throughout the town, often walking over elaborate straw and flower designs drawn on the roads.

Tourists provide valuable income to the country, and great efforts go into providing a pleasant experience. American Airlines and several banks provide funds for cultural events – operas, plays, traditional songs and dance, come from all over Latin America. Profits from these events pay to have the streets kept clean and the houses to be painted in pastel colors every year. The town square is filled with women in huiles selling handicrafts; horse drawn carriages add to the photo ops. News that two tourists had been killed near Lake Titicaca was muted. Our farewell dinner was replete with margueritas and memories…and much insight into the challenges of socio-economic change in the backyard of the US which casts its shadow of inordinate power on these impoverished countries.