Guatemala’s new president, Alejandro Giammattei, took office on January 14, and in his first couple weeks in office we saw what kind of leader our neighbors to the west will likely have for the next four years. Giammattei came out of the gate at full gallop.
Three days after taking office, he declared a state of emergency in two cities on the outskirts of Guatemala City. A doctor by profession, Giammattei was once in charge of Guatemala’s prison system, and one of his campaign promises was that he would be tough on crime. The new Guatemalan president wants a law declaring gang members as terrorists, and he supports prison labor and the death penalty. He is against conjugal visits for prisoners.
The Guatemalan president has asked the OAS to facilitate a meeting with the Prime Minister of Belize, Hon. Dean Barrow, because he wants to improve the relationship between the two countries and increase trade. Belize’s Foreign Minister, Hon. Wilfred Elrington, said he approves such a meeting. We would ask the Foreign Minister to inform the Guatemalan leader that Belize would better appreciate his offer of friendship if his country would stop acting belligerently in the Sarstoon River.
On January 27 Reuters reported that Giammattei offered El Salvador the chance to build a port on the Atlantic Coast of Guatemala. Reuters also reported that the “the presidents [Guatemala and El Salvador] said that they are working to achieve the free movement of people across borders, harmonize customs and coordinate security plans to fight gangs and criminal groups operating in the region.”
Mr. Giammattei, who is neoliberal (right wing) in his economic views, has plans to address the poverty in Guatemala through increased foreign investments and exports, tourism, encouragement of micro businesses, and transparent government. We looked through his promises to the Guatemala people and, as expected, we didn’t find the pro-business leader saying anything about land reform in a country where it is said that 2% of the people own 98% of the land.
The new president of Guatemala said he will tackle corruption and that he will increase transparency in government activities. We hope, for our neighbors’ sakes, that Giammattei is more sincere on those fronts than our present leadership. Guatemala under Giammattei wants greater commercial ties with China, while maintaining diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
There is likely not going to be any change to, or reversing of, the “Safe Third Country” agreement that his predecessor, Jimmy Morales, signed with the US on July 27, 2019. Giammattei had said that he reserved judgment on it, but nothing has changed on that front in the two weeks he has been in office.
Influenza troubles for Belize on two fronts
Experts say the latest disease to put the world on alert, a new strain of influenza that is reported to have originated in Wuhan, China, is not as virulent as the flu virus called SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) which caused a scare in the world in 2002 that it might be the next big one.
A swine flu which originated in Mexico had Belize on edge in 2009, just a decade ago. Flu viruses usually are more dangerous to the very young and the old, but the swine flu killed many healthy young adults. The Mexican government shut down schools and theaters to contain the spread of the disease.
The first big one in our part of the world came with Columbus and his men, and it helped the Europeans conquer the Plains Indians, the Aztecs, the Maya, the Arawaks, the Caribs, the Inca, and other civilizations in the Americas. Columbus and his men brought many new diseases, including the flu virus to the Americas, and the peoples here had little or no natural resistance to help fight them off. Some estimates are that as much as 50% of native populations died or were scattered by the new diseases.
The bubonic plague, which was at its most virulent in Europe between 1347 and 1351, wiped out more than 30% of the population on that continent. The Spanish Influenza in 1918-19 affected over 500 million people and killed between 20 and 50 million, a sizable number of them from our country. There have also been a number of serious cholera outbreaks in the world, many of them affecting Belize.
The greatest disease threat to the world has been malaria, a mosquito-transmitted disease that is endemic to tropical regions. Ross Pomeroy of RealClearScience says: “Our planet has been home to an estimated 109 billion human beings … and according to another oft-repeated factoid, half of all the people who have ever existed were killed by malaria, the worst mosquito-borne illness.”
UNICEF says that in 2016 alone there were over 200 million new cases and 445,000 deaths, mostly children on the African continent. Insecticides and improved cultural practices have greatly reduced mosquito populations in inhabited areas, and the number of countries that have reported decreased malaria cases has been increasing.
Belize is one of the countries that have achieved outstanding control of malaria, but other mosquito-borne diseases, Chikungunya and Dengue, have been on the rise.
Every year, known influenza viruses kill a small percentage of the millions of people they sicken; the new influenza viruses are of particular concern because human beings haven’t built up any immunity to them, and there are no vaccines to reduce their virulence. The SARS outbreak, which didn’t last long, killed about 10% of the persons it infected, and the new Influenza virus that has everyone on alert is killing people at a rate of about 2%.
The Chinese government is going to great lengths to contain it, but already the disease has appeared in 13 other countries. Our medical authorities are on the alert too. The Amandala reported the Director of Health Services, Dr. Marvin Manzanero, as saying on January 22 that his office was monitoring international alerts.
Our physical health is paramount, so we have to put up our best defenses, all the while praying for the containment of the new virus and that it doesn’t mutate into something more serious. If it does, we will have another front to worry about, and that is the effect it will have on tourism, our country’s number one earner.
If tourists feel insecure, they won’t travel to our country. Violent crime is a huge security issue for Belize, and so is the recent appearance of cases of Chikungunya and a sudden uptick in cases of Dengue. If this new strain of influenza spreads and becomes more virulent, it could be a big threat to our economy.