guatemala city -- when the jets take off and land at the international airport, they swoosh straight over the roofs of the city centre, and the people across the table from you move their lips but you can't hear what they're saying. For 10 or 15 seconds, you wonder exactly where the conversation is going.
This is a country of such suspended animation, where the future is not readily discernible from the present. Its long saga of conquest and civil war is still unfolding. The 30-year chapter of genocide in which 200,000 people died still hasn't finished, really. If it had, the army general who ran the country when most of the killing took place might be in a prison for war criminals, not presiding over Congress.
Chances are, it will be economic collapse, not international law, that brings him down. As one student of the country's tragic politics says, this is the kind of place where everything can change in 24 hours.
Now being added to the list of unknowables is perhaps the biggest question mark of all -- the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). That's the pact to be discussed at the much-anticipated Summit Of The Americas in Quebec next month. Sure, we Canadians have our doubts, but what about the countries in the hemisphere without the good luck to be, like us, at the top of the international food chain waiting to export our value-added finished goods to the less fortunate?
There's no better case study among the 34 nations of the Americas than this. If the FTAA can make life better for Guatemala, as its corporate backers suggest, then something amazing will have been achieved. Then again, free trade may turn out to be merely the national story as it has always been -- poverty for most and comfort for those who get rich via corruption.
These are the questions on my mind during a week of meetings, shantytown tours and excursions to coffee plantations. I'm part of a delegation set up by the group Rights Action, which does solidarity work in Guatemala and the region.
We find no shortage of fear -- that Guatemala will be an easy target for international financiers who will suck the natural resources out of the country and leave little behind in the way of industrialization or technological development.
But I find something else, too. One theme keeps coming up -- in meetings with cooperatives, with women workers in the low-wage maquila zones and with union leaders. It's something halfway between despair and hope, a sense that there might be ways to use the mother of all free trade deals to their advantage.
It's quite different from discussions in Canada, where there's been less a debate than an assumption that the pact will pass without environmental and labour standards. The liveliest conversation has been internal: should we storm the barricades at the Quebec meeting or behave ourselves at the alternative "people's summit"?
That kind of talk doesn't get you very far here, says Max Cabrero, who runs a left-wing research institute. He blames exactly such pointless talk for the sad state of the political party formed out of the left-wing guerrilla movement. "The URNG has slogans like "I am against globalization.' But we already know that. How are we going to respond to it?"
On the ground in Guatemala, there are people trying to deal with the practicalities of life in the global economy. I meet one such group on a Sunday morning in Villa Neuva, a sprawling mess of shantytowns that has mushroomed along with the maquila zones. There, foreign companies -- mostly Korean owned -- have been attracted by an arrangement in which they can import raw materials and export finished products, all without paying taxes. Maquilas are expected to become even more numerous under the free trade pact as foreign companies take advantage of the low wages.
This morning, 15 maquila women are sitting around the table in a worker's home whose corrugated steel walls rattle in the wind. They've assembled as Agrupacion Mujeres en Solidaridad (Women in Solidarity). Taking a moment from their workbooks on Guatemalan labour law, they tell their foreign visitors that there have been lots of problems among the 300 companies operating here -- verbal abuse, dirty facilities, long hours and denial of overtime pay -- some of them at HK Textiles, where the women sew that polo player on Ralph Lauren products.
But they say some companies are better than others, and that they have been able to use the law to force the payment of overtime and vacation benefits and the provision of clean drinking water. There are maquilas that treat their workers well, they say, so why can't the rest of them?
There's one thing they want to make clear, though. They don't want the maquilas to leave -- they're a source of income, especially for women. Their slogan is, "Work, yes, but with dignity."
Many of the maquila women are Mayan, the native group whose descendants make up the majority of the Guatemalan population. Many of them are here because of the collapse of coffee prices, which has turned some communities into ghost towns. People who relied on the picking season for cash income have had to leave for the maquilas, where their traditional weaving skills make them an obvious fit for the garment industry.
Francisco Cali, a Mayan rep on the International Indian Treaty Council, says the growth of the maquila zones is eating away at the edges of a Mayan culture that has survived centuries of European colonialism, earthquakes and political upheaval.
Over coffee later in the week, he tells us that women who move away from Mayan villages are less likely to wear their traditional huipil dress, either because they don't want to or their employers discourage it. And he has heard women on the buses who don't speak Spanish well nevertheless bumbling through in the second language.
"We have to be very careful of all these changes," says Cali, because along with language and dress will go the Mayan view of the cosmos, which puts the interconnectedness of all things above the individual.
But Cali -- who spent 14 years in Canada working as a cleaner, tree planter and Mac's milk-store clerk -- is not anti-modern. "We need to accept the changes that are taking place," he says, and shows us a calendar with a Mayan version on one side and the Julian on the other. "Before, the (Mayan version) had to be done by hand, but it's much easier with a computer," he says.
In the same spirit of using the modern to preserve the traditional, Cali explains how his group has used its membership in international native organizations to explore the possibility of direct coffee sales to Indian-run casinos in North America, thereby cutting down the number of middlemen.
"Some people in North America are against the casinos," he acknowledges, mentioning the corruption and organized crime that have appeared along with the slots and blackjack in some establishments. But he offers that as a footnote, not as a reason to stay out.
A similar willingness to jump into the international marketplace greets us when we visit the palatial headquarters of the largest co-op federation in Guatemala. Rodolfo Orozco is interested to hear that many in our delegation plan to be in Quebec City next month for the summit. He says he wants to be, too -- not at the people's summit, but as part of the official Guatemalan delegation, to ensure that any agreement facilitates co-op-to-co-op trade between member countries.
Certainly, he would fit in just fine with the corporate crowd. He has the well-tailored jacket and the slightly manic manner of those who are anxious to close the next deal, and he receives us in a boardroom that seats 30 and has a fake waterfall, the rivulets of which flow over sculpted elephants.
Earlier this morning, he met with the head of the central bank to try to persuade him to allow a co-op contingent to join the corporate execs in the official entourage. "It's important for us to be present when they sit down to do business," he says.
The co-op federation has been doing a little free trading of its own, and not only shipping commodities like coffee and cardamom directly to co-ops in Europe. It has also set up a chain of three supermarkets with the help of a Swedish co-op. "We learned from them how to manage the supermarket and how to research the market, and (the stores) have had great results."
Of course, co-ops conduct a kinder, gentler kind of business. What's good for co-op workers isn't necessarily good for everyone else. Then again, there's the example of the banana workers who found themselves the victims of what UN reps in Guatemala have called one of the most serious breaches of human rights there since the signing of peace accords between the government and leftist guerrillas. A trade deal turned out to be a friend of the workers, not their enemy.
A year ago, the Bandegua company, which grows bananas for the U.S. company Del Monte Fresh, fired about 900 workers from three plantations, according to the union that represented them for more than 20 years. The day before a protest called in reaction to the firing, a group of armed men stormed the union hall and threatened organizers with death.
As well, union official Enrique Vielleda tells us, the general secretary was kidnapped from his home, brought to a radio station and forced to announce the cancellation of the protest.
But that wasn't the end of the story. We're talking to Vielleda in the Guatemala City office of the AFL-CIO. The federation of U.S. labour unions has a solidarity office here and took the banana workers under its wing. AFL-CIO rep Teresa Casertano says the affair has become a case study of what can be done with trade agreements.
It turns out that Guatemala is one of the "beneficiary developing countries" under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP for short), which gives poor countries a break from some tariffs and other trade restrictions that might ordinarily apply. The AFL-CIO's contention is that countries that have relationships with the U.S. under such pacts as the GSP must uphold international law -- or face the consequences.
Much to Casertano's surprise, U.S. officials shared the union's outrage about the incident. "For the first time, I heard the U.S. embassy say, "We believe you, and this is a problem.' Usually they say, "We have to investigate.'"
It's still unclear what the fallout for Guatemala will be. Casertano and Vielleda are to testify before the U.S. trade representative in Washington, and Casertano says she'll be surprised if Guatemala escapes reprisals.
The AFL-CIO rep draws a number of lessons from the banana cause célèbre. One is that a proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas that has labour standards -- the price George Bush may have to pay to get a deal through the almost evenly divided U.S Congress -- could spark changes for the better in the lives of Guatemalan workers.
But, she cautions, only if there's enforcement, which for her means all of a country's corporate sector feels the pain when one of its number offends.
"What counts is whether they tie up the ships or (impose) massive tariffs. When the private sector has to pay, that's when things happen."
A better future through free trade? Hard to say. For me, one image encapsulates the unknowability of the effects of an FTAA on Guatemala: the World Bank representative in a 14th-floor boardroom, holding the palms of his hands together and moving them to one side and then another as he talks about the delicate balancing acts of real life.
"You have to look at specific aspects (of any deal)," says Eduardo Somensatto. For example, "Is there going to really be free trade of coffee?" which would probably spell further disaster for the national economy. Could a Guatemalan government defend that to its voters?
On one question he is definitive. "Free trade over time will lead to higher standards," he says -- for labour, the environment and the quality of public administration. However, in the same breath he goes on to predict that it may take 20 or 3o years for that to happen.
Guatemalans might not wait that long. Already, so many are leaving that the value of their remittances -- that is, money sent back to the country from expats living in the U.S. -- rivals that of coffee. And, says Irena Palma of the Social Science Institute known by its Spanish acronym FLACSO, this exodus will only increase. "Young Guatemalans believe they can't realize their dreams here and they can do better outside the country."
As usual with immigration, it's the best and the brightest who are likely to leave. They tend to be the most educated, have worked within the last year and are between 19 and 35.
High-powered corporations can nix labour and environment standards if they want, and leave Guatemala in the same desperate shape it's in. But some forces are too powerful to control, even by corporate execs.
They and this hemisphere's governments can make this country a decent place to live or they can watch Guatemalans continue to stream across the border into Mexico and on to the U.S. Let's see how that plays among American voters nervous at the exponential growth in the hispanic population.
Maybe, as the corporate sector says, free trade is inevitable. So is the human drive for big-screen TVs, cellphones and all the other accoutrements of the good life. Welcome, free trade neighbours. *
firstname.lastname@example.org Goods on Guatemala
Population: 12.6 millionValue of exports from Canada to Guatemala in 1999: $170 million
Value of Guatemalan exports to Canada: $121 million
Major Canadian exports: newsprint, wheat, telephones
Imports from Guatemala: coffee, fresh fruit, clothing, cut flowers
Value of exports from Canada to Guatemala in 1999: $170 million Value of exports from Canada to Guatemala in 1999: $170 million
Value of Guatemalan exports to Canada: $121 million Value of Guatemalan exports to Canada: $121 million
Major Canadian exports: newsprint, wheat, telephones Major Canadian exports: newsprint, wheat, telephones
Imports from Guatemala: coffee, fresh fruit, clothing, cut flowers Imports from Guatemala: coffee, fresh fruit, clothing, cut flowers