Mon Aug 20, 2018 | 02:06
Guatemala's Ordeal of Fire and Water
Sat, 05 Jun 2010 08:41:15 GMT
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Pacaya lava
By Tahereh Ghanaati

South of the Mexican border lies a country so breathtakingly beautiful, one would think upon entering it that he had been transported to Paradise. This land of mist-veiled mountains and lush, verdant jungles bursts with a profusion of rich and brilliant color from the riotous waterfalls of its tropical flowers to the shimmering plumage of its rare Qetzal birds. The country, of course, is Guatemala. And far from being a Heaven on Earth, it is a turbulent land that has been plagued with years of unremitting tragedy. The latest, a double whammy, may very well set the country's fragile economy, which was just beginning to recover from a decades-long civil war, into a tailspin.

Late on Thursday, May 27, Guatemala's Pacaya volcano erupted, shooting columns of ash and debris up to 1500 feet into the air. The volcano then began to pelt lava and rocks onto the surrounding countryside. At least two people were killed in the initial blast (one of whom, was a TV reporter, who was killed by a 'lava bomb' while covering the event,) and 65 were injured. At least 2000 people were forced to flee their homes.

The eruption soon began raining ash onto the nearby capital, Guatemala City, forcing the closure of the country's main international airport and prompting President Alvaro Colom to declare a 'state of calamity.'

A couple of days later, on Saturday, as the fiery mountain continued to pump ash into the atmosphere (Pacaya continued to rain ash onto Guatemala City and the surrounding countryside till the following Tuesday), Tropical Storm, Agatha, the Pacific's first named storm of the season, slammed into the beleaguered country's west coast.

Packing sustained winds of over 40 mph, Agatha brought torrential rains that continued even after the force of the storm died out. The rain caused flooding and mudslides, which swept away sections of roads, bridges and entire villages. The storm is also believed to have caused a giant sinkhole, which suddenly appeared in Guatemala City, swallowing a three-story building.

The storm's confirmed death toll in Guatemala now stands at 123. Moreover, the flooding and mudslides triggered by Agatha prompted the government to evacuate an additional 100,000 people from their homes.

Though no estimates have yet been made, the financial damage done by the volcano and the tropical storm must be sizeable and will most likely send the Central American nation's already fragile economy reeling.

According to one (unconfirmed) report by a native Guatemalteco, the storm, alone, destroyed 300 bridges across the country and put 400,000 people in need of food, clothing and fresh water.

One of the 10 poorest countries in Latin America, Guatemala was just beginning to emerge from the economic morass of a 36-year civil war when the double disaster hit. Though the war has been technically over for 14 years - it ended with the signing of the 1996 peace accords -- the Central American country, prior to the recent calamities, still had a long way to go.

More than half the population, 56.2 percent, to be exact - lives in poverty.
The long-running civil war, a conflict between the right-wing military junta running the country and the majority of the population, discouraged foreign investors and tourists, alike. The fact that the United States government aided and abetted the right-wing government during the height of the Cold War (declassified CIA documents reveal that Washington was instrumental in the 1954 coup, which put the junta in power and sparked the civil war,) only exacerbated the problem.

According to analysts Kate Doyle and Peter Kornbluh, the United States, after helping overturn the popularly-elected government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, then went on to further help the military leaders, who replaced him. The result was 36 years of state-sponsored terrorism and repression as the junta ruthlessly stamped out any hint of a popular uprising.

It has been reported that during this time, more than 450 Mayan villages were destroyed and over 200,000 people, mainly Mayans, were killed. In fact, the Historical Clarification Commission (established by the Oslo Accords, which finally ended the war,) maintained that in some areas, such as Baja Verapaz, the government of the time actually engaged in an intentional policy of genocide against certain ethnic groups.

It is little wonder that such goings on would wreak havoc on a country's economy and discourage both foreign investors and tourists. After the establishment of peace, however, the Guatemalan tourist industry began to slowly gain ground and foreign would-be investors began eyeing the country's vast potential.

The trend picked up speed in recent years, at which time the exporter sector of nontraditional products took off like the proverbial rocket, representing more than 53 percent of global exports. By 2006, the Gross Domestic Product's (GDP) purchasing power parity (PPP) was estimated at $61.38 billion USD and inflation was at 5.7 percent.

Those figures, of course, reflect a different reality - a reality that existed before the Wall Street meltdown followed by the Greek insolvency problem caused an economic crisis that swept the Globe, sending world markets reeling and affecting virtually every country in existence to some extent.

The economic crisis did indeed put a damper on Guatemala's rate of economic growth, slowing it down; but despite the adverse conditions, the trend continued -- albeit at a slower pace.

The effects of the recent natural disasters, however, are a different matter altogether and will most likely deal a major blow to the country's fragile, though growing economy.

As was mentioned earlier, tens of thousands of people, many of whom were already living in poverty, have lost what little they initially had and been rendered homeless. And providing the necessary food, clothing and shelter for those people are expenses the government can ill afford.

Then the repair and rebuilding of highways and bridges will be another expensive task -- and the costs will not be limited to the work alone, but to potential tourist revenues lost, as well. As has already been pointed out, a sizeable portion of Guatemala's revenue comes from its tourist industry - an industry, which will grind to a near standstill as highway networks and bridges are repaired. For each day these time-consuming tasks take, potential tourist revenues will be lost.

Thus, a country, which had been torn asunder by decades of civil war and was anticipating a future of relative peace and prosperity, has once again, been sent reeling. This time, the culpable party is not a homegrown terrorist, aided by a foreign government. And the terror inflicted is not in the form of bomb blasts or gunfire or any devastation wrought by modern man. Instead, it is in the form of an ancient trial, older than human memory - a trial known as the 'ordeal of fire and water'. And the one responsible for inflicting the damage is Mother Nature, herself, who is known to be cruel and capricious as well as kind.

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