Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Immigrants, Ex-Pats and Non-Doms

"Are there many immigrants in Antigua?" a Dutchman asked me the other day on the bus.

I chuckled to myself at his use of a term that many foreign residents in town would probably feel a little uncomfortable with. Yet I suppose I would tend to regard someone whose primary source of income is here in Guatemala as an immigrant, regardless of whether or not they've actually bothered to get themselves a cédula yet.

Being British the term 'ex-pat' inevitably brings to mind an individual with a gin and tonic and Panama hat who strolls up and introduces himself with an "air hallair". Other nations will surely have their own expatriate stereotypes, but judging from my experiences here, a grumpy, misfit personality and rudimentary Spanish appear quite widespread.

We Brits also have another handy distinction in this category: 'non-dom' — being an individual who, whilst resident in a particular country, is in fact domiciled somewhere completely different.

One's domicile is the place where one prefers to pay tax on one's global income, thus usually somewhere fiscally undemanding. Unfortunately Guatemala lacks such a useful status option for non-nationals, hence the phenomenon of the 90-day renewable immigrant.

"Welcome to my office," Bruce said to me with an expansive movement of his right arm when we first met in the bar of the Panzón Verde, one of several boutique hotels he owns in the region. This ice-breaker was certainly laid back and amusing, but it was surely also intended to issue me with a clear pointer to the status of the man who uttered it.

How ex-pats or immigrants here in Antigua present themselves to each other and to Guatemalans is an endless source of fascination for me. Not all have the easy access to the familiar signs of success which Bruce enjoys. Where there is doubt (or indeed mystery) some seem compelled to make stuff up, displaying either a residual need for pecking order, or a tendency to outright fibbing and fantasy.

One eccentric character I've met here is a talented artist and decorator and very gainfully employed in the city's wealthier millieu, and yet is incapable of giving an account of himself that isn't like a trip to fairyland.

Us Brits are prone to underplay the aspects of our lifestyles which are not immediately obvious. Yanks, as we all know, are inclined to exaggerate. Even the most insignificant gringo pushitero here in Guatemala is likely to describe his day job as if it were an international business empire.

Americans also appear more prone than other foreign entrepreneurs to the setting up of businesses that a cynic (such as myself) might describe as exploitation posing as charity: adoption agencies etc.

One fine example I recently uncovered is the brainchild of a lady recently profiled in Antigua's second most useful listings magazine: she invites impressionable gringos to help clean up Guatemala's Pacific beaches and other areas where litter might be posing an ecological threat. These volunteers go home with a nice little certificate testifying to their good deeds down in Guatemala, while la directora pockets a fat fee from the hotels and other private organisations that need their beaches cleaning up. This is in addition to the NGO-funding this upstart start-up already receives.

The latter appears to be at the root of countless scams. A neighbour in Jardines (though not in this instance an immigrant) once spent a whole afternoon pitching to V all the different ways 'we' could rake in the cash by working with one NGO or another here in Antigua. She politely declined this offer of a business partnership.

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