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The situation in Guatemala

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By Lewis Diuguid
Saturday, April 26, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Our flights into and out of this Central American country were crowded with youths on spring break mission trips. They traveled to Guatemala to build homes, improve education or do other important work to benefit this country where more than half the 15.4 million people live in poverty. It's a noble, long-standing gesture by many U.S. and international governments, charities, church groups and private organizations.

But it also is part of the problem, said anthropologist Robert Hinshaw, who has studied this country, its people and culture since 1963. He and his wife, Linda, invited my partner, Bette, and me to see the nation and its people. All the while, we wondered how life could be better.

Topping the list, all groups providing aid should “endeavor to walk a tightrope” respecting Guatemala's people, culture and traditions. Often that doesn't happen.

On our cross-country nearly 10-day journey, Hinshaw described the well-meaning but sometimes counterproductive foreign involvement. Many Christian groups proselytize and the foreign money causes the Guatemalan government to not devote its taxing structure and policies to the health, education, welfare and other needs of the poor.

As we traveled from the lowlands to the mountains, to the tropics and through the Mayan ruins, Hinshaw pointed out that what this country also badly needs is a railroad to efficiently and safely carry commerce and people.

Agriculture and tourism are Guatemala's chief industries. If crops such as coffee, bananas, flowers, sugar and vegetables could get to market faster, lives would improve.

In walking through several Mayan ruins, Hinshaw noted how the writings, art and other historical work had deteriorated greatly in the last few years. Decades of archaeological work unearthed the ruins but it also has exposed the priceless outdoor antiquities to today's man-made scourges. The damage is heartbreaking. Huts with thatch roofs now partly shield many artifacts.

Guatemala must purify its water, end the illegal drug trade fueled by U.S. demand, stop human trafficking and reduce crime. Hinshaw said crime includes thieves taking and selling tourists' eyeglasses. Private security guards with pistols and shotguns protect wealthy people and companies.

Many young men serve in the military, walking the streets with assault rifles.

But a country that spends so much money guarding against its own people cannot advance. All of the people must become more democratically involved in running the government for that fear to end, for the separation to dissolve and for this country to finally grow to its potential.

Lewis Diuguid is a member of The Kansas City Star editorial board.



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