One of the more interesting social connections we made during our time in Antigua was actually through some friends of ours in the states, both writers/professors. They strongly encouraged us to contact Carolina while we were in country, and so we did. She and her husband drove up from Guatemala City, and met us for dinner in what turned out to be one of the most expensive restaurants in Antigua. When they arrived, they seem to know half the people eating there that night. We exchanged the usual pleasantries over drinks, including how they knew our friends, and then got down to the usual question, at least in the states, of what we all did for a living. As it turned out, Jorge is the owner of one of the largest supermarket/department store chains in all of Guatemala. This was somewhat surprising to us as our friends are left wing and don't usually befriend people with this kind of wealth. We later understood that they barely know him, and had spent far more time with his wife, who is a poet and novelist, and is frequently in the states to visit her children. We spent a few minutes discussing the family business, and Jorge was understandably proud of his father who had started it from scratch. It was however, clearly Jorge's own hard work and competence that enabled it to expand to become such a large corporation.
None the less, it was somewhat disconcerting to be having dinner with people who were obviously among the 20 wealthiest families in the country. My wife, who was chattering away in Spanish to Carolina, revealed my own red diaper roots before this was apparent. The conversation became still more interesting when we began to discuss the current political situation in light of the 35 years of civil war. They felt that the present government was doing the best it could under difficult circumstances. This opinion was in marked contrast to that of our teachers, who felt that it was just as corrupt as the others that preceded it. While saying they were not apologists for the military, Jorge told us how one member of his extended family had been kidnapped and then ransomed by the guerrillas. As a result, he felt that the true story of what happened during the war was not completely one sided.
Jorge went on to tell us that he had just entered into a partnership with a large US multinational. While I understood this from a business perspective, when he defended how progressive this company was in its treatment of its employees, I had to disagree. After I questioned the actions of this corporation, he and Carolina told us how well they had treated their own employees, as well as the other philanthropic things they have done throughout Guatemala. I had no reason to doubt their veracity or sincerity, and they were also lovely people who insisted on treating us for dinner;a good thing since it was out of our budget. They invited us to come down and visit them in the city, and said they would send a car to pick us up and bring us back. They then insisted on walking us back to our room, and it occurred to me that our teachers may have viewed us in the same light that we saw Jorge and Carolina.
A few days later, we took the tourist bus into the City to have lunch with our Guatemalan friend, Alphonso. We had met him the year before in the air airport, after which he was kind enough to drive us to Xela, a trip of about five hours. Alphonso divides his time between Guate and Utah, where he lives with his wife and children. He has a business importing fabric from the states and other countries to Xela, a bit ironic since most of us think of the beautiful Guatemalan fabrics that are imported to the states.
We told Alphonso about our dinner with Carolina and Jorge. He asked if we saw their retinue of body guards. "No, we hadn't." "Well, I'm sure they must have been there," he said. "Two or three at least. With machine guns." We explained that we had entered the restaurant first, but where were the guards when we walked back to the apartment. "Must have been damned good body guards. Kept out of sight until they are needed, but they were there, believe me. People like that can't go anywhere in Guatemala without body guards. Everyone knows who they are and how much they're worth, so they're always targets. They can't walk around the block without guards."
This seemed to put Jorge's story about the kidnapping of his relative in a somewhat different light. It must be very difficult to have to live like that all the time.