Development through capitalism
category: Jims Guatemala

We’ve had a few triumphs and a lot of setbacks in our time here. Now it’s time to play rough; we are going to unleash one of the most powerful forces on earth to help bring a project to a happy ending. That force? Capitalism.

pedro1SM.jpgI’ve spoken before of Pedro; he was our Q’anjob’al teacher for our first six months of service, and he and his family have always gone out of their way to help us, never asking for anything in return. One time when Emily was away at a conference overnight, he drove all the way out to our village just to play chess with me. On my birthday last year, he had a barbecue and we made hamburgers- and he somehow found a bottle of ranch dressing to put on them. I’d say he’s the only real Guatemalan friend I have. So when he mentioned last year that he was dreaming of opening an internet cafe in town, the wheels in my head started turning. The next day, I emailed Don at Computers for Guatemala.  

“I have a friend in town that wants some computers,” I began. “But he’s a private individual. I know you only work with schools and community groups, but I was hoping you might make an exception.” I explained further that Santa Eulalia has a real lack of publicly available computers, but many teenagers are now starting to get computer-based homework in the schools.

To my great glee, Don was open to the idea of trying out capitalism as a quicker, more efficient route to sustainable development. “There is a lot to be said for the free market,” he emailed back. “This will be a good test of what results you get.” Don is pragmatic, and knows that the end goal is to get computer access for Guatemalans. A fair-minded, community-oriented private business might do this faster and more efficiently than a committee of volunteers. And if someone were to make a quetzal or two along they way, that’s fine… and it’s very sustainable, because the business will continue after the foreign money has left.

I cautiously approached Pedro about it. “These aren’t gifts,” I explained. “You have to pay the shipping fee. It’s gonna cost about 500 quetzales per machine.” I winced; asking Guatemalans to pitch in their own tumin is usually a deal breaker.

He pondered a bit, and to my surprise, said he was still interested. That is a lot of money by local standards, but unlike most people here, Pedro’s good about saving and can visualize how an investment will pay itself back and eventually make money in the long run. He asked me if I could get him six, and paid the 50% down payment before anyone else in the country.

computersFOGSM.jpgThen began the waiting. Computers for Guatemala faces an incredible task: they receive donations of outdated computers from all over the US, stage them in a big warehouse, clean the hard drives, repackage them, load them into a 40-foot shipping container, arrange international maritime transport, negotiate customs at the port of arrival, and hire a semi to move the container to the staging facility in Guatemala. While this is all going on, Don and his very small staff are collecting the fees to cover shipping, in both quetzales and dollars, and moving the money to all the people they need to pay along the way to make this happen. In all, a pretty monumental, months-long undertaking with little thanks or recognition.

pedros computersSM.jpg

This Friday, however, all the waiting finally paid off. Pedro rented a microbus to make the 7-hour journey to Chimaltenango to pick up his machines. It was a festive occasion; he took his wife and two kids along for the ride, and Emily and I bought everyone lunch at our favorite falafel and schoarma joint in Antigua. Mario, who drove our parents around when they came to visit, was the low bid for the trip, so it was fun to hang out with him again… and I think he gave us such a low price for the trip because he likes traveling with us. Gringoes are fun!

At the pickup, we met Kirk, a friendly American who lives in Guatemala and runs the IT department for a large seminary. He volunteers his time and the seminary’s gymnasium every time a shipment comes in, sorting the boxes and helping everyone get what they’ve ordered. Since we live so far away, we couldn’t get to Chimaltenango on the official pickup day, but Kirk held our machines in his office for a few extra days to help us out. We loaded the boxes (about a dozen, all told) into Mario’s microbus, Pedro paid the balance, and we started the journey back home.

pedro lookingSM.jpgFinal note to parents: the child seat requirement in the US not only keeps your kids alive, it keeps them found! At one point in the return trip, Pedro’s 2-year-old was playing on the floor of the bus and we went around a hard corner. She slid all the way to the back of the bus, under all the seats and the boxes stacked upon them. She was trapped and scared in a dark cave under piles of computers, crying, and couldn’t figure out how to escape. We were all trying not to laugh as the car pulled over and we tried to unload all the boxes to get at her. In the end, Pedro decided it would be easier to go in himself and pull her out… and here is the picture to prove it.

Posted by: jfanjoy