Politics and Global Health in Guatemala
The night before my trip to Guatemala, I sat quietly with my youngest child, reading one of the Magic Tree House books and feeling delighted as we ventured on a trip through the jungles of Africa. For those of you that do not have children or have chosen other reading materials, this is a series of books where two children discover a tree house deep in their back yard and each time they set foot in the tree house, it spins wildly and sends them off into a new location and new time period for another adventure. And so, I fell asleep being chased by gorillas and woke up on my way to the airport. The airplane served as my magic tree house and, refreshingly, we actually landed in the city and country that were listed as my destination.
The next morning I was awoken by two events that quickly helped me realize that I was not in Kansas any more— about 5:30 AM, the hotel started shaking vigorously. The locals called this a “shake” in Spanish— I call it an earthquake! But no one was injured, so all was well. About thirty minutes later I heard loud music and blaring voices on a megaphone— a political protest that has been swelling for years and now threatens to shut down the current government as elections approach in two weeks. The spirit of revolution and the impact of politics/government on the average person were defining characteristics of this trip.
Given the massive protests taking place throughout the country, I had many conversations throughout the trip with our trip leader and with our two Guatemalan doctors that work with us—Drs. Carmen and Barbara. Their passion, warmth and kindness towards us and towards the Guatemalan people was truly inspiring. I quickly learned that the Guatemalan people endured a tragic and debilitating civil war that lasted over 30 years and finally ended in the late 1990s. Democratic governments have been in place since then, but over the last ten years at least, these governments have been dominated by massive corruption and the average Guatemalan has been debilitated by the fear of lapsing back into civil war— so, corruption has grown and dominated; so much so that the current election is felt to be a choice between multiple corrupt parties. But, after many years of complacency, the Guatemalan spring has arrived and the Guatemalans are out in peaceful protests, closing down roads, government buildings and schools.
Every day in our clinics we saw the tragic consequences of governmental policies. There was limited to no health care for much of the population, minimal education with the average child only schooled through sixth grade, contaminated water leading to constant parasitic infections, and an entire population of malnourished children. A nineteen year old woman came in with two children— a 2-month-old and a 4-year-old—complaining of exhaustion. When she told me that she was breastfeeding two children, I respectfully asked her if it was necessary to continue breastfeeding her four year old. She just laughed and explained that she was breastfeeding her two, two month old twins and caring for her four and five year old children! Nineteen years old and already responsible for four other lives. Another mother came in who had lost her son one year ago and could not understand why she cried herself to sleep most nights. Elderly men and women who carry thirty to forty pounds of products on their heads and were surprised that they have neck pain. At least seventy-five percent of the children were malnourished to the point that they would be below the first percentile if they were ever measured on US growth charts. Despite these adverse circumstances, all I saw were Guatemalans working hard and persevering and smiling and hugging us. The malnourished children that nourished all of our souls.
Certainly we had our share of adventures that we will remember. Our fearless van driver (nicknamed Yoda as his real name was far too ordinary), who navigated us through a small monsoon on roads that had 3 foot rivers trailing down both sides. Singing John Denver tunes in our van— ok, perhaps not a highlight. The famous rooster that woke us up at 4 AM , was spotted on our roof in a box later that morning, and was spotted again on our dinner plates in a fried batter. The infamous Black Cat Hostel across from our hotel that had a mysterious and disturbing insignia and spirit along with the best nachos in the world.
Despite our comical moments, I remained concerned about the political climate and the future of Guatemala. On one of the van rides at the end of the trip, my friend Mark and I contemplated the power of some of the great rock lyricists of our time— Dylan, Springsteen, etc. It occurred to me that all of us spend our lives partially enmeshed in reality and partially in alternate worlds that we reach through books or music or movies, etc. For many of us in this country, the magic tree house is a luxury or a pleasure cruise. For many Guatemalans, the magic tree house is needed to take them to a better reality; they are just climbing into that tree house now and I pray that their journey is safe and successful.
by Dr. Joseph Schwartz
Dr. Schwartz traveled with the Boston College student chapter to Xela, Guatemala in August 2015 as a volunteer medical provider. He has traveled on many trips with Timmy Global Health to Guatemala over the years.