A Tale of Two Countries


Aaron Aalborg is a retired international banker, economist and business advisor now living in Grecia. He wrote this on return from a birding trip to Guatemala last week. He has written a number of thrillers available from Amazon.com

It is eight years since my wife and I flew to Guatemala as tourists from New York. Then, we were shepherded to see the best aspects of Guatemala. After a further visit is a good time to review parallels and differences from our Costa Rican home.

On this trip, we visited rural communities too, with more interaction with the locals. This real Guatemala is more depressing than the façade for tourists. According to the World Bank, income per head is less than half that of Costa Rica’s. Most of the people live in conditions similar or worse than Nicaraguan migrant workers here. Corruption and income inequality are seen as even bigger problems than in Costa Rica.


Published statistics do not accurately record income from the black economy, such as narcotics dealing and money laundering. Despite dodgy data, the lower standard of living of the average Guatemalan is obvious.

Despite this, Guatemala’s main airport and arterial roads are far superior to those of Costa Rica. Some highways have four lanes in each direction. Most do not narrow to choke points at bridges. Nonetheless, traffic jams are horrific.

Both countries need congestion management. That requires better public mass transport, highway improvements and road pricing. Road pricing means that every car has an electronic device, read from overhead gantries. Cars do not need to stop. Charges are billed according to traffic density. So, driving in the center of cities and in rush hours costs more. This encourages travelling off peak. Illegal driving is easily eliminated. Singapore has demonstrated the effectiveness of such a system for over 30 years.

Driving in both of these Central American countries is always an exciting experience. Buses in Costa Rica are carefully driven, more modern and less crowded.

Being overtaken by swarms of smoke-belching, gaudily painted and dangerously overloaded ‘chicken buses ’in Guatemala is a hair-raising experience. The prospect of poor passengers falling into the carriageway, from their precarious hanging on through an open back door, is just part of it. We debated why they are so named. Our driver claimed they provide transport for all goods, including chickens. Our theory is that the crazy drivers play high speed chicken with other road users.

Currently, Guatemala has over double the land area of Costa Rica. A referendum was in progress during our visit to encourage an a land grab from neighboring Belize. It would be around half of Belize. The idea is to go to the international courts on the basis of pre-independence Spanish territories. The motivation is on-shore and maritime oil and mineral rights. The People of Belize might have different views. Costa Rica’s border disputes with Nicaragua seem relevant.

Government and international statistics are questionable, especially in developing countries. Guatemala City officially has over 2.3million people and our San Jose only a third of a million. These numbers take no account of unrecorded, poor migrants, nor the urban sprawl beyond the cities’ boundaries. Guatemala City is big, pleasant in the center and nasty for those in corrugated iron hovels, clinging to precipitous surrounding mountainsides. Much of central San Jose is less attractive.

Most of us in Costa Rica benefit from a safe water supply, which we take for granted. Drinking water in Guatemala is dangerous. The well-off buy it bottled or filter their water. Most of the poor play Russian roulette with their health.

Which brings us to the big racial divide. According to the CIA World Fact Book, Guatemala has 41% Mestizos, 41% indigenous peoples and most of the rest are classified as, ‘white’. Due to the ethnic cleansing by the US backed government during the civil war of 1960 to 1996, the indigenous population went down from over 50%. The irony of referring to dubious CIA data, when they played an important supporting role in this, should be noted.

The indigenous people make up most of the poor. They have Mayan features, darker skins, smaller stature and speak a variety of local languages. Languages often differ just across Lake Tikal or in the next valley.

Times change. A guide related that his grandfather spoke no Spanish but three local languages. His father spoke a little Spanish. He Speaks Spanish, English and the local dialects.

His children understand little of the old tongues.

The CIA reports that 54% of the total population was living in poverty in 2009. We visitors towered above them. But they are tough, carrying enormous loads of wood bundles down from the lower mountain slopes for fuel.

In nature, the tops of high mountains are bare and trees dominate the lower elevations. In Guatemala the opposite is true. The government prohibits cutting wood higher up.

There are less tropical trees on the slopes and more conifers than in Costa Rica. This is due to a more northerly and elevated terrain. Cacti are scarce. Nights are chilly.

The benefits of Costa Rica’s 50 years of peace and not having an army are manifest when visiting Guatemala. Locals told us that during the vicious civil war of 1960 to 1996, people moved for survival. Those who could left the country. Many indigenous ran for the hills, to avoid torture, rape and massacre by the militia and armed forces. The government saw reduction of the indigenous population as part of its war aims. Those who felt safer in government-controlled areas fled to the cities. The guerillas roamed the mountains.

The war was everywhere, with government forces defending the cities and seeking to keep the roads open. As is commonly the case in Latin America, the landless and lowly paid wanted reform. The rich, the military leadership and US business interests rather liked the low wages, their minimal taxes, absence of social security and no responsibility for their workers welfare. Add the racial divide and it was a recipe for horror.

When President Carter stopped the US funding and arming of the Guatemalan military, supplies were brought in from Israel. We were told that after the peace accord many of the best weapons likely remain buried.

A farmer remembered these traumatic times. Like many, his farm was in a boundary area, because his finca included mountain and lowland terrain. The army occupied a few of his buildings. Some of his laborers were forced to act as mules, carrying supplies for the rebels in the mountains above.

The air force strafed some of his workers, as they labored in the coffee fields. A neighboring farm was burned and its occupants slaughtered. On another, the manager was murdered.

So how safe is Guatemala today? It was disconcerting to stay in city hotels with gates that need opening from within and are guarded by armed doormen. We were assured that it was safe to walk in the tourist hotel areas of both Guatemala City and other towns. There were cops on the streets, who seemed to stop and check on all motorbikes. With due respect to my biker friends, this should be emulated in Costa Rica.

We climbed halfway up an enormous mountain to be greeted by two black-clad, balaclava men with shotguns. They looked like terrorists or special forces. We were assured that they were also there to protect us, though we would not need it. Mmm. On balance, drug crazed, gun toting bandits in Costa Rica are at least as much a concern.

One advantage Guatemala has over Costa Rica is its enormous flat valleys between the fire spewing volcanos. The soil is rich and perfect for agriculture. This is why the notorious United Fruit dominated the country and encouraged US involvement in its politics for so long.

The main crops are coffee in the hills, bananas and vegetables. Much is exported to the US. Curiously, remittances to families in Guatemala from workers in the US are classed as ‘exports’. They account for an astonishing 2/3 of total official export figures. If the US says jump Guatemala is likely to leap high.

There are around 1.8million tourists visiting Guatemala compared to much smaller Costa Rica’s 2.6 million. Frankly, Guatemala’s exquisite Mayan sites are far more interesting than our mysterious stone spheres and primitive, paltry ruins. Guatemala’s towering volcanic mountains, trembling and noisily belching smoke and ash are disturbing, but spectacular.

Perhaps religious changes in Guatemala are a harbinger of things to come. Costa Rica recently avoided an evangelical Presidency. The number of Evangelicals in Guatemala is already rapidly approaching that of Catholics.

The biggest mega church in the country is run by Cash Luna. His church is more like a rock star’s stadium and holds ten thousand congregants. He says he is in direct communication with god, performs what he claims are miracles and promises wealth to those who give to him. Meanwhile, his church has a private jet and expensive vehicles. He says he is blessed and the evidence of his wealth and lifestyle support that. An excellent BBC investigation into such churches in Guatemala is worth watching, scathing and amusing.

One farmer complained that his poor workers were asked to declare their income and give a tenth to the church. On reflection, this was how Catholicism spread. Tithes were collected, indulgences and other spiritual benefits were sold. History is repeating itself amongst the superstitious. An evangelical government in Guatemala may not be too far off.
We who live in Costa Rica often list its many shortcomings, but Guatemalans are much worse off.

Let us hope that Costa Rica can resolve its difficulties, before our economy crashes under its burden of public debt, corruption, inept and expensive bureaucracy, inefficient public services, poor infrastructure and overvalued currency. But at least it is better than Guatemala.

Pura Vida!