Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Remembering May Day in Guatemala

It's hard to believe it's been 14 years ago.

To most Americans in 2007, May Day is just another flip of the calendar, the first day of another month. There will, no doubt, be a few demonstrations in the U.S. and elsewhere in support of organized labor and against inhumane corporate practices, but May Day as a alternative social institution seems to have largely unraveled.

That wasn't the case in Guatemala in 1993. The Cold War was over, but the Marxist guerillas doing battle with a heavy-handed government hadn't gotten the memo. A camouflage-clad soldier with an Uzi stood on nearly every street corner in downtown Guatemala City, some of them not even old enough to shave. The overall vibe was menacing.

I had gone down there with a Lynchburg nurse named Betty Gorman, a remarkable woman with enough courage for three people. The story I was tracking was about how she collected donated medical supplies from doctors' offices and hospitals in Central Virginia, shipped them down to Guatemala, and distributed them to remote villages. She did this despite having survived three different types of cancer (a fourth eventually killed her a few years later).

We had known each other for years, and I was always intrigued by her missions of mercy. Then, one day in the early spring of 1993, she called me up and announced: "Someone just gave me a free airline ticket to Guatemala City that I don't need. Would you like to come along the next time?"

The thought both scared and excited me. But after talking to my wife and my editor, both of whom gave their reluctant blessing, I told her "Sure."

It was Betty who taught me that it's possible to have a warm personal relationship with someone despite clashing politics. As a conservative Catholic Republican, she would have made Rush Limbaugh seem liberal. Her contacts in Guatemala were all with the Guatemalan Army, which was depicted in some segments of the American press as a Latino version of the SS. She talked about Oliver North as if he was a rock star, and the people who first turned her on to Guatemala were soldier-of-fortune friends of her ex-husband.

All this was cancelled out, in my mind, by her basic generosity. We kidded each other about our differences and agreed to disagree.

When our plane landed in Guatemala City, we were met by a group of soldiers who threw all the medical supplies into the back of a half-ton olive drab truck and took us to a walled citadel in the middle of the city. When the gates swung open to admit it us, there were three guys with guns waving us through.

As it turned out, though, any friend of Betty's was a friend of theirs, and the military treated me like an honored guest (once they found out I didn’t write for the Washington Post, which they despised). We got rooms at the Hotel Sentenario at one edge of the city's main central square, right across from the National Palace -- Guatemala's White House. As I recall, the rooms were $15 a night.

Still recovering from recent chemo treatments, Betty would be worn out from the daily trips into the hinterlands and would go to bed early. Consumed by the adrenaline rush of being in a new country, I would go out and walk the streets of the city by myself, stopping to eat strange foods and jotting down impressions of this exotic place.

This, I learned later, was sheer stupidity, because foreigners were routinely kidnapped there in those days. Maybe I just looked like someone no one would bother paying a ransom for.

At any rate, I was headed out the door of the hotel on the early evening of April 30, 1993, when one of the desk clerks waved me over.

"Senor, are you going out tonight?" he asked in a conversational tone.

"I thought I would," I said.

"I would not advise it, senor. Tomorrow is May Day, and there are a lot of people in town tonight who do not like Americans.”

"Thanks,” I said. “I’ll think about it.”

Betty and I took most of our meals in a small cafe attached to the hotel. I strolled in there alone after my exchange with the clerk, and found it filled with hard-eyed young men I hadn't seen before.

The average Guatemalan is around 5-foot-6 in height and dark skinned. I was a sunburned Caucasian well over six feet. Almost immediately, I became aware of a swelling murmer of angry conversation and felt disapproving eyes fixed on me.

I got my food, went back to my room, and watched a baseball game on TV.

The next day, the central square was the scene of a massive anti-government May Day demonstration. Betty wanted no part of it, but I grabbed my notebook and went out to see what was going on. The square was seething with people, many of whom had been bussed in from outlying areas. I remember seeing one barefoot demonstrator who wore ragged shorts and a T-shirt that proclaimed: "I Survived General Electric’s Management Training, 1986." (A hand-me-down from up north, no doubt).

The crowd rocked, and it rolled. The more flamboyant and charismatic members took turns mounting a flatbed truck parked right in front of the National Palace and screaming invectives at whoever was inside. The president, Jose Serrano, was burned in effigy.

Oddly enough, there was not a single soldier or police officer visible between the flatbed and the palace. They were all inside, armed to the teeth, just in case things got out of hand.

And with no one to confront directly, the crowd soon lost its fire. After a couple of hours, they climbed off the flatbed truck, reloaded the buses, and left. Amazingly, they picked up all their trash during their exodus.

"Nothing but Communists," Betty spat when I met her later.

Maybe so. Yet in a strange way, that May Day rally in a divided and violent country gave me a glimpse into true democracy.

As for Betty, she was interred in a Guatemala City mausoleum reserved for military heroes. Now that things have quieted down there a bit, I’d like to visit her sometime.

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