GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala- “Vehicular chaos,” was how the newspapers described the bus driver strike in central Guatemala that occurred last Monday morning. But the strike was more of a blockade than an actual strike. The drivers drove their colorfully painted, artfully decorated buses out to each major highway artery into Guatemala City at 4 AM on Monday morning, and parked them at strategic locations across the road. And thus the blockades were created. Guatemala City awoke with no way in and no way out. The intentional traffic jam stretched for miles in all directions. The bus drivers had shut down the city.
The bus drivers wanted protection from gang extortions, as well as a cut of the subsidies that the government pays to municipal bus companies.
The authorities had to clear the blockades by force, guns were fired, one driver was shot, and tear gas was dispensed. The drivers retaliated against the police by throwing rocks, Molotov cocktails, and one patrol car was destroyed. “Some agents of the police lost their patience and used their guns and shot them in the air,” said the newspapers.
In a few hours the blockades were cleared, a handful of drivers sent to jail, and the rest went back to work shuttling passengers to and from Guatemala City.
This is the way of protests in Latin America: groups revolt, the police put them down, and life goes back to normal — until the next revolt. On Tuesday nobody spoke of the blockades, they were old news, I took a bus into Guatemala City on Wednesday, and nothing appeared to have changed: their were no security guards or military on the bus, they seemed to run their normal routes, though all of the passengers were oddly kicked off the bus 10 blocks prior to the intended final stop on Calle 18 in Zone 1 of Guatemala City.
Guatemala, as does most of Central America, seems to be perennially sitting on the verge of cultural upheaval. Where community is strong and central government not fully respected, in a society wrapped up in fear and without a feeling of security, in a country teetering on the verge of a potential deficiency in bread and circuses, uprising often occur.
Bus drivers, of all professions, are being executed in Guatemala, lynch mobs are still a common occurrence. Behind the scenes — which often look so regular, normal, and secure to a traveler — there is always something brewing. A single match can ignite an entire forest. I know that as I look out from my hotel balcony that all that I see before me — the people working, the smiling faces, the groups of men laughing over bottles of beer — can change drastically with a single spark.
This week, it was the bus drivers, who will it be next week?
Each day that I wake up in Guatemala has the potential to be a very new day.