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Op-Ed Columnist

The Rise of Popularism in Guatemala

Guatemala City

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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Last week's events in Guatemala were unique, although we may not know for years or even decades what their final meaning is. It is impossible not to be tantalized by the potential of these events to change the course of Guatemala's history. What's important, however, is that we focus on what this means to the citizens themselves. The media seems too caught up in dissecting the macro-level situation to pay attention to what's important on the ground. Just call it missing the fields for the wheat.

When thinking about the recent turmoil, it's important to remember three things: One, people don't behave like billiard balls, so attempts to treat them as such are going to come across as foreign. Billiard balls never suddenly shift their course in order to fit with a predetermined set of beliefs. Two, Guatemala has spent decades being batted back and forth between colonial powers, so a mindset of peace and stability will seem foreign and strange. And three, freedom is an extraordinarily powerful idea: If ethnic conflict is Guatemala's curtain rod, then freedom is certainly its flowerpot.

When I was in Guatemala last week, I was amazed by the people's basic desire for a stable life, and that tells me two things. It tells me that the citizens of Guatemala have no shortage of courage, and that is a good beginning to grow from. Second, it tells me that people in Guatemala are just like people anywhere else on this flat earth of ours.

So what should we do about the chaos in Guatemala? Well, it's easier to start with what we should not do. We should not lob a handful of cruise missiles and hope that some explosions will snap Guatemala's leaders to attention. Beyond that, we need to be careful to nurture the fragile foundations of peace. The opportunity is there, but I worry that the path to peace is so narrow that Guatemala will have to move down it very slowly. And of course Guatemala City needs to come to terms with its own history.

Speaking with a small business entrepreneur from the unpopular Palestinian community here, I asked him if there was any message that he wanted me to carry back home with me. He pondered for a second, and then smiled and said, shakka-do-lakka-the, which is a local saying that means roughly, "A happy heart makes the face cheerful, but heartache crushes the spirit."

I don't know what Guatemala will be like a few years from now, but I do know that it will probably look very different from the country we see now, even if it remains true to its basic cultural heritage. I know this because, through all the disorder, the people still haven't lost sight of their dreams.