The Guardian 19 October, 2005

Two approaches
to "reality" in Guatemala

Bob Briton

Rain is still falling over much of Central America in the wake of Hurricane Stan. To the tragedy of the death and destruction wrought by the storm is now added the threat of disease and, to make the relief efforts that much harder, the impassability of many roads. The infrastructure, financial and human resources of the economically troubled countries of the region have been pushed way past their limits by the disaster. One of the few bright spots in the grim picture is the quantity, quality and readiness of Cuban medical and other relief to a number of Central American countries.

Like everyone else, the Cubans have had to overcome a number of hurdles to swing into action. An initial brigade of new medical personnel arrived safely in the Panabaj in Guatemala while another 330 were already in the country; still working with poorer communities since their arrival in 1998 when Hurricane Mitch devastated the country. The latest brigade had been thwarted by the weather. "Unfortunately, the plane could not land and was diverted to Honduras, but if conditions don’t improve, we will use ground transportation, because the doctors need to be here today in Guatemala", Yoandra Muro, head of Cuba’s permanent medical mission in the country explained.

In Guatemala there have been 519 confirmed deaths from Hurricane Stan and resulting mudslides, 89,675 people have been evacuated in 288 shelters and 5,225 homes have been affected with 1,298 destroyed in 421 communities. One of the hardest hit provinces was Sololá, west of the capital, where landslides dragged away two villages and left an unknown number of dead. Rescue teams have found more than 70 bodies, but 1,400 people are still missing.

In a perverse twist of irony, Guatemala had already been put on the map for TV audiences in countries like the US and Australia via the "reality" game show, Survivor. The latest series, like previous ones in other locations, is something of a staged microcosm of neo-liberal society in which contestants carry out a series of tasks set by the producers while living in challenging semi-wilderness surroundings. They form temporary alliances with other contestants but are forced by the preset conditions to scheme and undermine one another for the chance to walk away an instant celebrity and millionaire.

The reality of Guatemala is that 56 per cent of the population lives in poverty, 37 per cent "survives" on less than $2 a day, and 16 per cent lives in extreme poverty (less than $1 a day). Survival is anything but a game for most Guatemalans. Especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Stan, many people are asking questions and drawing conclusions about the incursion of the latest TV fad into Guatemala.

Canadian journalist Marc Thibeault asks: "… how many Guatemalans will make the trip to the USA, risking their lives in the Arizona desert with unscrupulous "coyotes", so that they may have just a small chance of surviving with a little relative dignity? To those millions of Guatemalans, to the half of the children that suffer from malnutrition, to the women that have to suffer from machista violence every day, to the elderly abandoned without pensions or attention, the program Survivor and all of the racket surrounding it seems a bit obscene."

The further penetration of US pop culture will do little to help Guatemala overcome the ravages of Stan. Heads of developed countries will cry a few crocodile tears for the victims and write cheques to their counterparts in the economically dependent countries of the region, but there will be little spirit of solidarity in their gestures. In stark contrast to this approach are the strenuous efforts of the Cuban medical brigades to get to the affected areas.

A further 1,000 doctors are ready to go to El Salvador in the event of an outbreak of dengue fever and they may yet be called upon to go to Mexico. The Cuban people — who are themselves struggling to overcome the effects of storms, not to mention a crippling US-lead economic blockade — have already donated 24 tons of food and medical supplies to their Mexican neighbours.

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