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On the Campaign Trail With Enrique Rodriguez

GUATEMALA CITY—We came down out of the mountains, down the curves and switchbacks on the outside of Lake Atitlan’s caldera, dropping out of the highland fog into the thick night of Guatemala’s subtropical rainforest. Tall trees, dripping water, lined the road. It was late and the Central American night was unrelieved by light pollution so far from the city. Cloud cover blocked any star or moonlight and the night was dark and close. The powerful beams of the flat-black Toyota 4-Runner’s headlamps cut a fast-moving wedge out of the blackness and into this wedge stepped a wandering armadillo.

Enrique Rodriguez at an early campaign strategy meeting.

The prehistoric beast looked up and saw the end of his days in the headlamps’ glare but Enrique jerked the truck to the left, slid neatly around the armadillo and sped straight on into the night.

“That was a smooth bit of driving,” I commented.

“Thank you,” replied Enrique Rodriguez, “I’m surprised I didn’t hit it. I am very tired.”

Earlier that day Enrique had delivered his first public campaign speech in the town of San Jorge La Laguna, officially beginning his run for one of the three Diputado seats for the Department of Sololá. San Jorge is set into the cliffside overlooking the volcanic Lake Atitlan in the highlands of Guatemala. A fair was in progress, with a bandstand and Ferris wheel constructed in the dirt square in front of the old church. The band introduced Enrique and he spoke for a few minutes, announcing his candidacy and outlining his campaign promises. The audience was almost entirely indigenous Kachiquel Mayans. They stood silently on the church steps while listening to Rodriguez’s plans for economic growth, job creation and improved security. When the speech was finished, the band struck up again and Enrique spoke with people, shook hands and grabbed a quick lunch of tortillas and chorizo from a food vendor’s smoking grill. From San Jorge we returned to his apartment in Panajachel and packed the truck for a later political meeting in San Lucas Toliman and the trip afterwards to his family farm. We drove up into the mountains, following the highway that skirts the edge of the Atitlan caldera as the sun set and night fog began to gather.

The Central American Republic of Guatemala, with a population of around 14 million, is divided into 22 Departments. These are represented in the country’s unicameral legislative branch, the Congreso de la República, by Diputados, elected to four-year terms. Rodriguez, who is entering the political arena for the first time, is running for PAN (Partido de Avanzada Nacional) or the National Advancement Party. The PAN Presidential candidate is businessman Juan Gutierrez, also a newcomer to the political arena. Rodriguez describes the PAN party as essentially moderate conservative, pro-business and free market, staunchly anti-corruption and, in treading a centrist line, distinct from both the far right Partido Patriota (Patriot Party) headed by retired Army General Otto Peréz Molina or the leftist UNE (Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza) or National Hope Party represented in this election by Sandra Torres de Colom, the soon-to-be-ex-wife of outgoing President Alvaro Colom. Guatemalan law states that a President can only serve one term and that a spouse cannot succeed the President in office so, in a bid to retain power within the family, Sandra Colom is divorcing her husband with the immortally cynical sound bite, “I love my husband, but I love my people more.”

The feria in San Jorge La Laguna while candidate Rodriguez delivers his first speech.

The Department of Sololá, located in the Mayan highlands of Guatemala, has a population numbering between 300 and 400 thousand. A census is currently underway, which may eventually result in a fourth Diputado seat being added due to significant population growth in the region over the last decade. The capital of the Department of Sololá, also named Sololá, is a city of around 100,000 people. The Department encompasses some 400 or so communities as well as the entire area of Lake Atitlan, a large volcanic caldera lake, religiously significant to the Maya and of great potential to the tourist industry.

Rodriguez announcing his candidacy for Diputado of Solola.

As night closed in on our way to San Lucas, the road got worse, its two lanes sometimes constricted to one by recent landslides. On the shoulders, such as they were, walked people going home after long days in the fields, wandering cows and chickens, couples holding hands, bicyclists and motorcyclists, mating dogs and running children. Just as Enrique said, “Often the fog is much worse,” we turned a corner into a bank so thick visibility was no more than a car length in front of us. We continued on. There was no stopping or going back and the candidate had a meeting with the party leadership in San Lucas on the other side of the lake. So for an hour there were white knuckles, the vain attempt to pierce the white blanket with straining eyes and no talking except to call out the sudden appearance of obstacles, drop-offs and cliff walls. Finally we dropped low enough so that the fog thinned to heavy mist and the road straightened out as we entered San Lucas. Enrique pulled up to a building painted the bright yellow and blue of the PAN party. We got out and met the six men and one woman who would be working on the campaign in that area. Inside, the room was painted the same yellow. The people sat around the edges on wood benches and spoke one at a time, expressing their concerns and asking for various assistance and favors.

After over three hours in the fluorescent-lit yellow room, the meeting broke up. Hands were shaken and campaign materials passed out, future meeting dates agreed upon and we were back on the road.

Enrique sighed as we regained the highway. The fog was gone as we dropped further out of the highlands, speeding down the night highways into thickening jungle.

Rodriguez speaks with a supporter and campaign worker at a meeting in San Lucas Toliman.

“I am tired,” he repeated, “What a day. I really could use a rest,” he said, then, with a smile in his voice he added, “But it’s exciting. I think we have a chance to make a real change in this country. And at least the fog is gone.”

Just after saying this, the armadillo stepped into the high beams and after dodging it we had a good laugh imagining the poor beast sweating and shaking back in its burrow, telling his family and friends to repent of their evil ways, that the bright, roaring light had spared him that night. After more twists and turns on bad, dark mountain roads, Enrique pulled over and got out to lock the hubs into four-wheel-drive. He got back in, turned off the music and told me to roll down the window. I did and we drove off the highway and down a deeply rutted track, immediately engulfed by the forest.

“When I was young,” said Enrique, “and we would come here with my father, he would always do this. He would turn off the radio and make us roll down the windows, Listen to the night, my father would say, Listen to the jungle.”

All down the two-kilometer track we did that, listened to the buzzing, the calling and rustling, the mutters and whispers and shrieks of the subtropical rainforest after midnight. The headlights illuminated huge piles of mossy stones, the glossy green of coffee plants against the myriad greens of the jungle and finally buildings, houses and warehouses, a bridge and the sound of rushing water. Finally we pulled up to the family house and were greeted by a maid who took my bags away. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting but a spacious series of rooms in the Arts and Crafts style in the middle of the Guatemalan jungle wasn’t it. Four old Morris chairs surrounded a low table, and a wood bar stood in the corner with a photo of the family patriarch looking on. There were well-worn couches that spoke of comfort rather than ostentation and hanging next to an oaken desk was Enrique’s grandfather’s pith-helmet, worn and battered from years tending the farm.

Rodriguez examining a mature coffee plant at Finca El Retiro.

Finally, home and safe, some of the fatigue lifted. We sat in the Morris chairs and drank fresh juice squeezed from jungle fruit and Enrique began talking about his farm, his campaign and other projects,

“This farm, Finca El Retiro, has been in the family since my grandfather Daniel Rodriguez bought it in 1945. It produces coffee and bananas and the earliest records we have go back to the 1870s. When I say I have a lot on my schedule I mean it. In the middle of running for office I am also working to bring the farm back to life. The coffee plants are all old and, well, coffee prices worldwide went into a slump in the 1990s and we sustained a lot of damage in both hurricanes Mitch and Stan… Much has been neglected for many years and now I am working to replant the entire farm, replace and update the processing machinery and figure out the way forward in the years to come.”

He was silent for a moment, before continuing, “It is much like my country today. I hadn’t ever thought of politics until the party asked me to run for Diputado. I studied Business Administration at Seattle Pacific University with the goal of renewing the family business but I also realize that my country needs a renewal. So much has been neglected, let fall to ruin. There is so much corruption. So many men have taken all they can and given nothing back and the people have lost faith. I am young, a non-traditional politician who has gone from business to politics and has the political will and principles to work for social, economic and environmental sustainability. But of all the things Guatemala needs, jobs are most important. Jobs on the local level and small business lead to economic growth on a national scale.”

“How do you plan to create these jobs?” I asked.

Rodriguez planning the replanting of Finca El Retiro with his overseer.

“The poor rural towns need access to productivity and knowledge. And they need access to markets. The government has allowed the country’s infrastructure to so deteriorate that even when goods are produced they have trouble making it to the buyers. We would help to provide seed capital for small agrarian ventures and micro-enterprises and invest in community development, all, of course, with the approval of the communities involved.”

We talked long into the night. Enrique’s plans and vision for the future of his farm, his country and the Department of Sololá seeming to give him energy.

“I love Sololá Department. Finca El Retiro produces coffee and will produce much more when these new plants come to maturity, but for years I have done business with the Mayan growers in Santiago, Atitlan, working with them, buying from them, the individual fair-trade growers who work with traditional methods. It has helped me know the people in the region and understand their unique character and concerns. Recently the Antigua region has been awarded the status of an official coffee growing region–which is a huge boost to their prestige and the potential prices they can command; I hope to attain the same recognition for the Atitlan region.

“Sololá is rural and 95% indigenous. It is rich in nature and beauty but poor in education and living standards. It is war-torn and prone to natural disasters yet optimistic and proud, a diamond-in-the-rough in a post-conflict zone. Sololá has been excluded and marginalized from any real development, sustained by paternalism and pity. It is this I plan to change.”

Finally the day and the days before caught up and the conversation wound down. I went to sleep and woke by 6 a.m., the sunlight streaming through the screened windows and the morning already hot. Enrique was already up and hard at work. There were infrastructure and personnel problems to solve around the farm, an engineer to meet with concerning the installation of the new coffee processing equipment and details of the replanting operation to finalize with the overseer. After coffee Enrique took me on a walking tour. Originally Finca El Retiro had been a true plantation, complete with houses for the employees, a church and a school: a farm containing a village. A few people, mostly elderly, still lived in some of the houses but other than a core staff most of the labor was now seasonal. We walked by the village, past the old stables and toured the processing facilities. The farm’s power was derived from its own hydroelectric plant, turbines powered by the steady, strong flow of a natural stream on the property, the source of the rushing water I had heard the night before.

Enrique stopped to talk to the electrical engineer about the power plant, consulted with the structural engineer about a new floor needed to support the modern sorting and drying machines and went over maps with the overseer that showed the order in which the plantings would be renewed. When this business was taken care of, we started up the road we had driven down the night before. It was 9 a.m. and the day already over 90 degrees. After a mile or so Enrique stopped a moment, “You know,” he said, wiping his forehead, “After being in the city you always think you won’t be able to handle the farm, the jungle, but really it is just what you need!” He smiled, looked for a path almost indistinguishable from the surrounding greenery then plunged into the forest and down a steep trail. I followed as he pointed out details of the coffee plants, the shading banana trees, landmarks he had grown up with. At the bottom of the valley he stopped and talked to a worker and a little farther down the trail ran into the property’s ranger.

“This man,” he said, “knows every trail, every plant, every animal that lives in this region. He keeps the trails open, watches for any problems.” They shook hands and we took off again. Suddenly Enrique charged up a hill and I followed, practically running up a nearly 45 degree slope planted with coffee trees. At the top of the ridge we caught our breath and started down again. We passed through a section of heavy vegetation and suddenly emerged in a gently sloping field filled with thousands of young coffee plants, bright green in the sun, nearly ready to replace the old and tired plantings. Enrique explained the different varieties, what did well at what altitudes, what was good for blending and what by itself, the intricacies of the coffee market and of running an organic operation.

Rodriguez speaks with his ranger on the trail through the farm.

When we returned to the house there was a simple lunch of refried beans and cheese-filled tortillas with cool horchata and a pitcher of ice water to wash it down. Enrique went to deal with some issues involving staffing and supply and I sat and took notes, watching the flights of bright-plumaged birds gliding and dipping over the vine-covered trees. Rainy season had just begun and dark clouds moved over the steep ridges that rose all around the valley.

In the afternoon we packed up the truck, headed up the rutted track out of the jungle and back onto the highway. The road took us quickly down out of the mountains, past chaotic crossroads towns and into the fertile plains. As we headed to the city Enrique continued speaking of his campaign plans and the history of Guatemala and its politics, the challenges he and his country faced. Almost imperceptibly the rural fields gave way to urban sprawl and as the sun again began to set we found ourselves in the evening traffic of the capital city. He navigated to Zone 10 and found me a hotel near some good restaurants. I checked in and shook hands with the young candidate, wished him luck. He had a meeting that night with supporters in the capital. I had a plane back to the US at 9 a.m. the next morning. He had meetings before that.

“Come back soon,” said Enrique from inside his truck, “Come see what we do with the future.”


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