Fijate Vos: The State of the City, Part 1

Welcome to the shortest month of the year, Faithful Reader!

Here we are in February, and we can now look back on the previous year… the political year, that is. As of the middle of January, Guatemala’s currently serving politicians at all levels – mayors and city councils; congressional diputados; and the President, the Vice President and the rest of the national administration – reached the one-quarter mark in their four-year terms.

This month, I want to start by focusing on the local level: the municipal government, including the mayor and the city council. Traditionally (and debating whether this is a good tradition or a bad tradition is pointless; the tradition simply is), in most municipios, a brand-new municipal administration spends its first year getting to know how things work and getting a handle on the real state of municipal affairs (as opposed to what may have been said during the electoral campaign). There’s also usually an attempt to do one or two showy projects – things that can be accomplished relatively easily and that will be very visible to everyone. And it’s here in the first year – right from the beginning – that the “traditional” path forks, with one path leading to corruption and the other to honourability.

If the administration takes the honourable path, by Year Two it should have attained a solid footing and begun in earnest to enhance municipal strengths and correct weaknesses, as well as being actively working to improve the lives of its inhabitants. (And especially in the case of tourist destinations like La Antigua, the local government should also be working to enhance visitors’ experiences in the hopes of encouraging more tourism – and the income that those tourists will bring.) However, too many corrupt administrations of far too many municipios take the other path, and it’s in the second year that these “public servants” fully implement their more complex schemes to quietly sack the municipal treasury.

The public works – or the underhanded thievery – continues into the beginning of the third year. Then sometime in the middle of Year Three, the administrations along both paths begin to get their campaign machines ready. (Almost all municipal administrations seek to be reelected; very few voluntarily withdraw from power without being defeated in an election.) As the focus turn to the election, administrations along both paths – honourable and corrupt – again turn to hyper-local infrastructure-improvement projects like paving streets, filling potholes, and improving water-supply and public-lighting services. While these public works are designed to enhance the incumbent administration’s image with voters, they differ in their execution. Are they truly aimed at enhancing residents’ lives with quality improvements or are they in essence a way to buy votes while providing shoddy work and filling the pockets of contractors who are friends and allies of the administration?
This image-enhancement or vote-buying – take your pick – continues into Year Four, up to and, frequently, into the actual campaign period. And sometimes, in the more corrupt administrations, municipal employees are pressured (or in the most egregious cases, outright ordered) to campaign for the administration. “Nice job you’ve got there. It’d be a shame if you lost it.”

Then comes the election, and if the administration is returned to power, things continue as they were in Years Two and Three. If, however, the populace decides to “vote the #$@&*%s out”, then after a ridiculously long transition period (by which time the coordination between the outgoing and incoming administrations should allow the new government to be well prepared and “hit the ground running” – but which never seems to happen), the whole cycle starts again.

So, here we are at the end of the first year of the administration of Susana Asensio, the Mayor of the municipio of Antigua Guatemala. She’s the first female mayor in La Antigua’s 473-year history – a truly historic achievement in an important city in a country and culture rife with misogyny, discrimination, and gender-based violence. She and her Civic Committee* Antigua en Buenas Manos (Antigua in Good Hands) were elected on an implicit platform of technocratic expertise – after all, the Mayor is herself an architect and a specialist in urban planning. (And anyone who’s spent more than just an hour in La Antigua or its surrounding aldeas is well aware of how much urban planning is lacking.)

I plan to delve into more specific details in next month’s column and explore how the current state of our municipio compares with Mayor Asensio’s campaign promises and platform. (I knew I’d saved that campaign literature for some reason!) But as a bit of a preview I have just enough space left to point out that – following the “traditional” path of a new administration – there have been a few highly visible changes in the city (the newly titivated and quite beautiful Parque Central is the centerpiece of these) and a few less obvious ones (like the seemingly never-ending saga of garbage disposal at the mercado) but there are many other issues where the current state of affairs doesn’t line up with pre-election proposals.

So for this month, suffice it to say that, while I am by no means a starry-eyed utopian dreamer (and if you’re a regular reader, you’ll know me to be a grumpy old curmudgeon, and proud of it!), I’m disappointed but still guardedly hopeful that some of the pressing problems that confront our City of Perpetual Roses can be successfully solved during the remaining three years of Mayor Asensio’s term of office.

Stay tuned for more next month
– same bat-time, same bat-channel.

* A Comité Cívico is basically a local political party in all but name. Specifically created as an alternative to traditional political parties, a Civic Committee is an organization that proposes candidates for mayor and city council, and which – at least in theory – is supposed to facilitate citizens’ political participation and representation. 

If you have a question, a comment, or a suggestion for a topic for Charlie, you can write to or friend him on FB: /CharlieChisme.

Just to set the record straight (and to keep anyone else from being sued):
All opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policies and opinions of Qué Pasa, the rest of its staff, its advertisers, or of anybody else who wants to go around painting bras on all the topless mermaids in the colonial art of La Antigua.

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