Israel-Guatemala, a surprisingly close friendship

It is no coincidence that Israel has always been the first to offer humanitarian aid to Guatemala after natural disasters.

Guatemala (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Even before I arrived in Guatemala, a country mysterious and foreign, I stumbled upon evidence that Israeli fingerprints can be found in many aspects of everyday life in the Central American country.
Why, my curiosity asked, did Israel feel such an ethical, historical and economic obligation to help Guatemala resolve its day-to-day challenges? While on the plane, I met an Israeli delegation of doctors making their way to Guatemala for a unique mission – volunteering their time and expertise to perform surgery on children from poor neighborhoods in Guatemala City. I was immediately reminded of wisdom I had heard from former Israeli ambassador to Guatemala Eli Lopez. He explained that the two countries share a unique history.
As such, it is no coincidence that Israel has always been the first to offer humanitarian aid to Guatemala after natural disasters.
The Jewish state owes a debt of gratitude to the Central American country.
Many well-informed Guatemalans I met proudly reminded me of their country’s role in the establishment of the State of Israel.
One was Jorge Garcia Granados, the Guatemalan ambassador to the UN, who was a member of the UN Special Committee on Palestine and lobbied for votes on behalf of the Jewish state. In fact, Guatemala was among the first countries to recognize Israel. In doing so Guatemala created a “butterfly effect,” bringing many other Latin American countries to join in the support of the establishment of the new state.
My lesson from this was very clear – my tiny country, Israel, has a wide historical reach, and always finds creative and meaningful ways to maintain friendships that are important to our nation.
Many Guatemalans tend to speak very fondly and in the most sentimental way about Israel, a fact that managed to surprise and touch my patriotic heart. It seems the Jewish state tends to capture their souls and their imaginations.
I have also learned about the Guatemalan activism of supporting Israel from a bright young man and owner of one of Guatemala’s largest home goods stores. He declined to be named for this article but he told me about two bold initiatives on Facebook that show support of Israel from Guatemala and throughout the Spanish-speaking communities of the world. The first is Reporte Honesto (Honest Reporting), with 48,134 followers, and Unidos Por Israel (United for Israel), with 114,027 followers. There is a fascinating collaboration between the Jewish community and the Evangelical community of Guatemala, in support of Israel.
Gathering all these valuable pieces of information, I thought that Israel should use the historic momentum that was created by the recent trip to Israel by Guatemalan President Otto Perez-Molina, to strengthen the genuine support that the Evangelical community provides us. We shouldn’t take for granted that Guatemala is considered a pro-Israel country. For that reason, Israel should constantly revive our political and economic relationship with Guatemala, before Islamic extremists fill the peaceful vacuum with their hateful and violent messages.
While traveling outside Guatemala City, I uncovered the richness of the country’s tropical and exotic nature. Surprisingly, I found Israeli fingerprints in every place and in every industrial field within this wild and untamed country, even at Volcano de Pacaya. Evidence of the creative and entrepreneurial Israeli spirit can even be found on this volatile terrain. During our visit, our guide rushed to point out a power plant at the base of the volcano, and was excited to share that this plant is run by the Israeli company Ormat. Located 26 kilometers from Guatemala City, the Amatitlan Geothermal Power Plant produces electricity out of the steam from the Volcano de Pacaya to the small local villages.
I was mesmerized by this fact, and filled with a giddy Zionistic pride.
Israeli influence and involvement are very prominent in Guatemala, and include civil infrastructure, water purification solutions and modern agriculture technologies. But it is especially felt in the field of security. Many Israelis coming from elite combat units in Israel, and with a significant security background, realized that their experience is a great added value in Guatemala. As a third world country struggling with significant challenges of personal security and public safety, many Israeli security companies were established to help combat these problems.
Guatemala suffers from high levels of violence, murder and robbery, plaguing the country and causing a daily feeling of insecurity for the people; the largest share of this violence is related to drug trafficking, urban crime, gangs and illicit firearms.
In fact, Central America has long suffered from high levels of violence and has never fully recovered from the civil wars that ended in the 1990s. The most recent wave of violence began around 2000, which particularly affected the northern part of Central America, and Guatemala in particular, which is considered to have one of the highest murder rates in the world today.
Despite this fact, Guatemala has a great historical richness and the most beautiful nature. Above all, I was fascinated by the city of Antigua, the former capital. It is listed among UNESCO’s World Heritage Preserved Cities, founded in 1524, built in an earthquake-prone region. It was largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1773, but managed to survive many other natural disasters of floods and volcanic eruptions.
My imagination rushed to parallel it with the history of the Jewish people, which always managed to survive against all odds.
Apparently, Antigua was the cultural, religious, economic, educational and political center for the entire region, and served as Guatemala’s capital for 223 years. Yet due to continued environmental risks, the capital was moved to Guatemala City in 1773.
Contrasting the toxic city pollution and scintillating the wild fauna of the rainforests, feeling the insecurity but experiencing the warm hospitality of the Guatemalan people, and learning about the country’s cultural richness at the same time as its tragic past, brought me to appreciate my homeland of Israel. An endearing aspect of Guatemalans is their tranquilo (quiet/relaxed) way of life. In a country surrounded by 33 volcanoes, where three of them can erupt violently at any moment and with the constant threat of earthquakes and floods, you try to hold onto your peace of mind and calm before nature brutally breaks the silence one day.
Similarly, Israel lives with a different threat to its citizens’ way of life, surrounded by hostile neighbors that have threatened to wipe us off the map. Instead of enjoying a tranquilo way of life, many Israelis live each day as if it could be their last, with an intense and positive enthusiasm.
Despite the fact that many Israelis are not aware of the significant role Guatemala played in our history, the Spanish- speaking country still seems to captivate the Israeli traveler’s attention, mainly for its spectacular nature and the colorful traditional culture. Israeli companies and entrepreneurs have found many economic opportunities in Guatemala, where they can implement their innovative spirit while helping Guatemalans deal with their most pressing challenges.
While Europe is becoming increasingly Islamized, now, more than ever, we need to cultivate our ties with the Latin American countries and use the historical momentum of the Evangelical support in our favor. Guatemala is an example of a loyal friend that has supported us from our first baby steps, and as Israelis, we need to nurture this friendship through strong economic, political and cultural ties.
Like Israel, Guatemala may not be for the faint of heart, but those with vision, patience and an open mind can enjoy her vivid colors.
The writer is a former spokeswoman at the Knesset, now living and working in Guatemala.