Sunday, November 12, 2006

Of Glorious Workers' Paradise

There are not very many Guatemalan institutions that one would feel good putting a lot of faith in. Without veering into actual verboten editorializing about any particular government or political party or subcompartment of the bureaucracy, I think even those in the employ of the State Department could say that it is a matter of public record that Guatemala's public sector has some serious problems with corruption and inefficiency.

Which is what makes the Instute for Workers' Recreation such a surprise. The Instituto de Recreación de los Trabajadores de la Empresa Privada (IRTRA) is basically a public version of Six Flags. A payroll tax funds a small amusement park, water park, and complex of hotels and restaurants in Retalhuleu, a few hours toward the Mexican border from the capital. We figured that Veterans' Day would be a perfect time for a visit as we'd have the day off and the Guatemalans wouldn't so there would be no lines for the Guate version of Space Mountain. Many in our traveling party had heard that the parks were nice, but I was still shocked.

The hotel was of a quality that is seldom seen in Guatemala, the grounds of the parks were meticulously maintained, everything was clean, and the staff were all friendly and professional. There were no ferris wheels rotated by hand like the ones seen at small town fairs here -- all the rides appeared to involve actual safety equipment and one could ride them with only the fear they were designed to produce, not the fear that they were going to fall apart because they hadn't been oiled in years. At one point when we were trying to walk back to our hotel from the theme park, an employee ran out and yelled to us that we were going the wrong way -- we all agreed that it was perhaps the first pro-active, informative, and conscientious action we'd seen by a Guatemalan public employee in... well, perhaps ever.

We payed nearly extortionate rates at the hotel since we were not paid into the IRTRA tax system, and rates at the amusement park and water park that were high for Guatemala but certainly far less than we would pay for similar attractions in the U.S. The Guatemalans who pay the IRTRA tax get into the parks for free and pay next to nothing for the hotels.

Let's put aside for a moment whether or not building amusement parks is an appropriate public-sector activity or maybe something better left to private enterprise. If they want to tax everyone so that some people can ride a roller coaster until they puke, I guess it's only different from our National Park system in degree. More important was the demonstration that the Guatemalan public sector can actually put together an enormously succesful operation when they want to. If they put the guy who runs IRTRA in charge of the Public Ministry here, who knows what they could accomplish?

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