In Praise of Guatemalan Paperwork

By Steve Mullaney

In Guatemala we have many shortages, but no one can accuse us of having a shortage of paperwork. After all, you can’t buy a Q4 ice cream cone at Pollo Campero without getting a receipt that has two stamps – one to prove you paid and another to confirm that you got your cone. Recent arrivals probably had to fill out a “health survey” where you are told (after arriving in Guatemala, of course) that if you are sick you should not travel to Guatemala. No word on whether the government is planning a survey to tell dead people that they should not die in Guatemala.

Paperwork, however, is a major source of employment here in Guatemala. From typewriter academies to border officials to bureaucrats, paperwork is the biggest creator of jobs in the country. For instance, on a recent border run I saw firsthand this economic engine at work. On the Mexican side of the border there was a solitary official; but in Guatemala there were four people doing that man’s work: one to receive passports, one to walk the passport from the front desk to the computer, one to stamp the passport and a fourth to explain problems to travelers. These three extra employees can attribute their jobs to paperwork, without which they would be unemployed.

Sometimes there can be major life complications posed that can be solved with paperwork, specifically certificates. Walk into any Guatemalan home and you will notice that there is at least one room that is half-covered in certificates of one sort or another. Yes, you should expect to see first communions and marriages, but you will also find the “4th Place Spelling Bee 1988” and the “Participant in Guitar Tuning Class” certificates up there as well. For the paperwork-crazed society, getting a certificate – no matter how pointless – is like eating dessert, there’s always room for more.

How can you use this to your advantage? Great question. Let’s say, hypothetically, that you’ve been pulled over and have a cocaine-covered prostitute in the front seat and five open bottles of liquor in the back seat. What can you do? By offering the police officer a certificate of some kind (neatest uniform?) you can buy the goodwill necessary to get let off with a warning. It’s always a good idea to keep a large number of certificates in your backpack to make sure that you can get off the hook if need be.

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