Saturday, July 30, 2016

Reassuringly expensive?

There are various obvious reasons why goods and services in La Antigua can sometimes appear to be more expensive than they ought to be. 

One of the most obvious reasons is the general over-exploitation of opportunity relative to demand. So, in restaurants which are largely empty almost every day of the week, you pay for all the people who aren't dining with you. 

The second reason is more subtle, but equally prevalent. This is a pricing system in which quetzales are disguised as dollars. In this way businesses enjoying developing world rents and overheads charge developed world prices and pocket the difference. 

This has the effect of creating a disguised de facto dual currency system along the lines of the one that operates in Cuba, with its convertible pesos pegged to the dollar and its moneda nacional, which is what ordinary Cubans are paid in. It is utterly deplorable because it extends the gap between the living standards of the masses and those of the middle classes and thus makes it harder to breach, which in turn has a negative developmental effect on the country as a whole. 

The worst offenders are big, foreign-owned chains like Domino's and McDonald's, but it appears to be going on down at the level of supposedly 'ethical' retail too. 

El Panorama is bookended by a pair of farmers' market-style emporia which take place on Saturdays. There is nothing wrong with these in principle I have to say. Indeed we get our eggs (and more occasionally gallina criolla) from this outfit, which is run out of a small finca on the outskirts of town by a Chapin couple and their product is both superior in quality and competitive in terms of price compared to anything we have been able to source elsewhere. 

However, you don't have to browse these markets for long before you get a glimpse of something a bit less admirable - foreigners selling locally-produced goods to other foreigners at premium prices. The pretext is usually 'ethical consumption' (organic greens etc.) but the reality is actually morally questionable, because this trade is diverting income away from the local economy in a completely unnecessary manner. 

It's not just because people who are too snooty or too lazy to source criollo produce in the mercado municipal are being siphoned off into this alternative market, it is also because comestibles are being sold at gringo prices, but you can be damn sure the producers are predominantly local and being paid at local rates. Why would you come here to Guatemala to buy honey from a retired old lady from Texas or Bavaria?

These profits may find their way back into the local economy by other means, but the immediate effect is to remove a potential source of income from locals who grow and sell some of the best fresh produce in the world.  

And by way of a side effect it also encourages inveterate snobs : whom I would define as individuals with a firm idea of what sort of things other people ought to want. These people are actually inveterate amateur snobs, because they look down on those of of their peers who shop at Walmart and Costco in Guatemala City, yet what they do is in some ways worse. 

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