ANTIGUA, Guatemala- The people of Guatemala’s central region answered the call this morning when they woke up to a bus driver’s strike — one that waxed complete with road blocks — with their own forms of public transportation: personal pickup trucks turned into taxis, vans were crammed full of passengers, and people with cars offered their empty seats to their neighbors who were left stranded by the lack of public buses.
For the early morning hours Guatemala’s capital city slowed to a halt: the buses did not show up, thousands of people unexpectedly could not get to work, and the most populated region of the country hung in limbo.
Read the first part of this story at Guatemala Shut Down, Bus Drivers on Strike
But by 10 AM, most passengers were able to get to where they wanted to go — somehow. Within a couple of hours of discovering that the bus drivers were on strike, errant pickup trucks, political party sponsored free shuttles, and government vehicles filled the region”s need for transportation.
The bus drivers went on strike this morning in a bid for protection from gang directed extortion, which often results in murder if the driver can not pay. They have been asking their government for assistance for many years, as it is a regular occurrence for driver’s to be murdered in the course of their duty for not being able to pay the exorbitant amounts of money that the gangs have began demanding. Two complete districts of Guatemala City were shut down to public bus transport a few days ago. Today the bus drivers went on strike:
We will not die to shuttle people around, the government needs to protect us.
In some places in the world, bus drivers go on strike for more money, here in Guatemala it is because they are being murdered. The bus drivers around and in Guatemala City have appealed for help before, but little has been done to curb the gang sponsored extortion and killings. Now the drivers have taken more drastic action:
They left their buses standing idle, they tried to shut down the the country’s capital city.
I walked down to the area of the Antigua market where the buses usually pickup and drop off their passengers. I found a very different scene before me than I had witnessed before: there were no bus conductors yelling, “Guate!! Guate!” the army of colorfully painted, converted USA style school buses that usually bull their way through these cobblestone streets were nowhere to be found, and the usually loud and riotous market rang with an eerie sense of quietude.
I walked to the usually bus depot lots behind the market, and there was not a single public bus — they had apparently vacated the area in the action that began last night. In their place were pickup trucks, vans, and political party sponsored flat beds and vans (complete with political slogans and fresh printed signs saying “Transporte Gratis” slug all over them) were picking up and hauling away passengers to various places in the country. I even saw an ambulance filling up to full capacity with passengers.
The police were also active, as many of the impromptu pickup truck taxis had one police officer in a shiny florescent vest riding in the back with the passengers. The country was responding to the strike which took them off guard, and within hours had come up with full functioning, though temporary solutions.
“Are you riding in this truck because there are no buses?” I asked a young man who just jumped into the open bed of a pickup. He answered that he was. I asked him if the amount of money that he paid for the ride was the same, and he replied that he paid a little more, but it was more or less the same.
The pickup truck is a common form of public transportation in Guatemala, but many of the trucks that I observed in the lot before me were called into service to fill the demand left vacant by the buses. And they, along with the government shuttles, the ambulances, and small army of minivans, apparently, filled the gap in full.
“Is everyone able to get to where they want to go?” I asked a guy sitting on the tail gate of a pickup truck.
“Yes,” he responded, “they go in pik-ups.”
In this way, a catastrophic morning was more or less smoothed over by ten AM by these minuteman forms of public transport. It is my impression that many people did not make it to work today, it is my impression that only travel that was deemed a necessity was embarked upon: the regular passenger load did not seem to be going through Antigua, and the market seem overtly calm.
Though the fact remains that the people, the government, and special interest groups responded and filled an absolutely necessary void in a matter of moments — they provided transportation.
I thought at first that these bus driver strikes may have happened all the time in Guatemala — I have heard of them happening before in other Central American countries — and the quick response time of alternative forms of transport may have been due to this being an ordinary occurrence.
“Is this common?” my wife asked a man who offered us a ride in his pickup truck that we were discussing the bus driver strike with. He just laughed and shook his head with an exasperated expression on his face, he replied that this was not common, that bus strikes did not happen very often.
Guatemala is a country that has the ability to mobilize in a moments notice. The verbal communication avenues of this culture are vast — the people talk to each other here, they know their neighbors, they see possibilities, find alternatives, take opportunities when they present themselves. The governance of this country is at the community level, and the people are able to be alerted to changes, provided with news, and converted to new roles with vast haste.
I have been to many other countries, particularly the developed ones, that do not have this ability — a transportation strike could easily shut down NYC. But strikes are next to useless in a country of poor people — as there will always be somebody willing to fill the employment gaps left vacant.
I once read that “there are no empty lots in nature,” and the same goes for the economies of poor countries — if a lot is left vacant, if someone does not show up for work, their job will be filled by somebody else, in some capacity. This is a given. The bus drivers going on strike provided an opportunity for any person with a pickup truck to not only fill their community’s need for transportation and keep the wheels of their country spinning, but also to make some money.
“These pickup truck drivers are basically scabs,” my wife observed.
Political issues of the bus driver’s strike
“Are the people here angry at the bus drivers?” I asked a man arranging transportation from the market in Antigua.
“We understand that the drivers need attention from the government, but this only hurts the people.” He continued, “The owners of businesses will not pay people who don’t go to work, so the people are angry.”
I asked the same question of another man who was sitting on the tailgate of a pickup truck. He provided a similar response. I then asked if he was angry with the government and with the gangs. He shook his head to indicate that the people of Guatemala were not happy with any party in this conflict — they seemed to show little allegiance to any side, they just want to go to work and live without problems.
Neither the bus drivers, the government, nor the gangs seemed to have many allies here in this marketplace in Antigua.
“Why doesn’t the government fight the gangs?” I asked.
“They are afraid,” my question was answered with a laugh.
“Yes, that is obvious,” I laughed, too.
The end of the strike, the buses return
“When will there be buses again?” my wife asked a few different bystanders in the Antigua market transport lot. They all responded that they did not know, but seemed to think that the problems would be resolved relatively soon.
“Where do you want to go?” they asked.
“Rio Dulce?” we answered more to see their response than to book a trip.
They seemed to think that our proposition was not out of the question, they seemed to think that we would be able to travel across the country the next day.
At this point, around 10 AM, the road blocks of the early morning were cleared, the roads were all open.
By 3 PM I heard a familiar sound in the Antigua market:
The buses returned. The strike was over. I do not know if the drivers went back to work by force, by guile, to maintain their niche in the economy, or because there was just nothing else for them to do. I cannot report if any agreement was reached with the government to provide bus employees with protection, or if only selected routes are currently being serviced, but I do know that the buses are running in Antigua, they are again taking passengers going into Guatemala’s capital city.
The knee jerk effect of this strike has yet to rise to the surface.