“Public services that Canadians are accustomed
to are not provided in Guatemala”
When I first arrived in Guatemala City, I noticed how beautiful the gardens and flowers were along the street sides. But there was garbage piling up in the ditches that were not collected. As a Canadian, I expected such public service to be provided by city employees. Obviously the difference between Guatemala and Canada are more than just culture, language and temperature. Public services that Canadians are accustomed to are not provided in Guatemala.
The most noticeable public service that is lacking in Guatemala is garbage collection. At home, every Friday, my husband puts the garbage and recyclables at the end of our driveway. A large garbage truck comes by to pick them up, as well as those of my neighbours. When they’re done, we're left with empty garbage bins neatly lined up along our street.
In Guatemala, garbage collection is pay-for-service (about 40 quetzals, or $6.83 a month). Each individual home and business needs to make this monthly payment for "automatic pick up." Otherwise, they are left to their own means to get rid of them. This usually entails leaving them on dumping grounds and/or burning them, creating a health concern. However, those who pay for the service aren’t guaranteed a garbage pick-up. Many end up taking care of their garbage on their own or with the help of neighbours. I did, however, see city workers on the sidewalk sweeping away leaves, and as I mentioned before, the greenery lining the streets was beautiful. Each street had the same flowers. It gave me the impression that the greenery is a city-provided service.
In the rural areas, garbage pick-up is even less likely or non-existent. Along the streets and in the valleys, there are mounds of garbage which mostly consist of plastic bottles. They were disappointing to see in areas that are so lush with greenery.
Public hospitals and health care are things Canadians tend to be proud of. Although our system can often be slow, the services are mostly "free" and all Canadians are generally provided the same level of health care and options. Whether rich, poor or middle class, we all have access to health care.
In Guatemala there are different tiers of health-care services. The lowest level, which is provided by the state to the poorest Guatemalans, is considered a last resort. The hospital that I saw was extremely underfunded. Doctors and nurses were often not paid, and the medicines were expired. One woman I spoke to said, "If you go there, don't expect to come out alive." It's said that the money that should be put into the medical system is transferred to the military.
The next level of health care is for the working people. Employed people can (and many do) pay a portion of their wages to have access to these hospitals. While the services may be somewhat better than the first level, individuals still have to pay for medicine, and many cannot afford the required treatments.
The top tier would be hospitals which only the rich and/or foreigners have the funds to access. The same woman above told me that these are the only places she would ever recommend anyone to go to. Unfortunately, very few people can afford the proper health care provided by these hospitals. Thus many people often tend to try to get better on their own, without medical treatment. However, what we consider to be common, easily treatable illnesses could lead to more serious health issues and even death if not medically treated.
The education system in Guatemala also has some differences from what we are accustomed to in Canada. While some schools are free, uniforms and books are requirements, and many parents cannot afford to pay for their costs. I personally visited a school in a rural area in Guatemala which costs only 20 quetzals ($3.41) a month for students to attend. Many parents were unable to make that monthly commitment, so many young children were not able to attend school. Other children had uniforms with large holes in them, but at least they were sitting in a classroom. These children seemed very pleased to be able to attend school.
I also visited a village where the teacher had not been paid for more than a year because the government had refused to recognize the community’s makeshift school. The village built a new school in one year due to the teacher’s dedication and commitment to the students. Today, the new school is officially recognized, and the teacher is now being paid. However, this situation of having an unpaid teacher is not an isolated one. It's just one person that I personally met that had gone through this experience. Some teachers were aware of the inconsistent payment system, so they stopped coming to work. Not because they want to, but because they needed to find regular paying jobs to pay for the most basic needs for their families. I am proud to say PSAC donates funds to build schools (one of the reasons we were there).
There are private schools available for middle-class families that charge fees, and there is a demand for these schools with superior quality of education and access to televisions. Parents are scrambling to sign up their kids for these schools before their children are even born. This reminded me of our Canadian child care system. With limited spaces for affordable and regulated child care, many Canadian parents sign their kids up for day care years in advance, even before the birth of their child.
Other Public Services
These were some of the more obvious differences Guatemala’s Canada’s public services. There are plenty more differences including in policing, transportation, hydro, water (which isn't available to everyone from a tap inside their house), and even in the tax system. While taxes aren’t exactly a public service, they are the source of funding for them. In Canada, we pay income tax regularly each month, but in Guatemala, they pay taxes from whatever money they are able to save. This opens the door for tax fraud and corruption.
It was interesting to visit another country to see what services are available to the population and compare them to Canada’s. While I noticed these significant differences in Guatemala, I still found the people to be happy. People in the communities are close to one another and help each other at all costs. Despite lacking accessibility to better health care and education — public services that we take for granted — Guatemalans still have determination and drive to overcome their obstacles.