Antigua, Guatemala. CREDIT: <a href="">josephhill/Pixabay (CC)</a>
Antigua, Guatemala. CREDIT: josephhill/Pixabay (CC)

Guatemala's German Connection & Latin American Unity, with Henning Andrés Droege

Jun 26, 2018

What is Guatemala's German connection and how has it changed over time? What is Guatemala's role in geopolitics? Could Latin America form a similar organization to the EU and thus tap into the tremendous potential for synergy among Latin American countries? Learn more, in this fascinating conversation with entrepreneur and former diplomat Henning Andrés Droege.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: I am connected to Henning Andrés Droege in Guatemala. He is one of the representatives of the new generation in the country in economy and entrepreneurship, and he also has a firm relation to both the United States and to Europe.

Hello, Andrés. How are you?

HENNING ANDRÉS DROEGE: Hello, Alexander. Very good. Thank you for this invitation. I am very happy to be connected with you tonight.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: It's a great topic, and a relevant topic of our days. I was wondering if you might share a few words about yourself, about the connection you have to Europe, and how these Europeans you are connected with arrived in Guatemala in the first place, just a brief introduction to yourself.

HENNING ANDRÉS DROEGE: Yes, very brief, to bring in some context.

I am a third-generation German from my father's side. My grandfather came in 1920. I was born in Guatemala, I lived in Guatemala, did my high school in Guatemala, and then I moved to Europe. I moved to Germany and lived in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. I also had brief experiences in Mozambique and South Africa.

I think I can say I really feel Guatemalan, but I also really feel German. Especially when it comes to football and to enjoying a beer, I feel German. When it comes to some Latin things, I feel more Guatemalan.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: That's maybe the reality for many people nowadays that you don't have just one single, monolithic identity but a shared or mixed identity. I was wondering because when we speak in this series about Latin America and the West many of the people I do talk to have a clear inclination toward being part of the West in Latin America, but they divide these sorts of experiences between a European side and a United States side of belonging.

If I remember what we talked about earlier, there is also something in regard to your family and to the United States and to Europe that is applicable to the recent history of Guatemala. Maybe we can talk about this history and also this involvement with the German community in Guatemala.

HENNING ANDRÉS DROEGE: For sure. If we go chronologically to the history, there was a very big wave of Germans coming to Latin America, not only Guatemala, but Guatemala was one of those countries. I would say in the 1870s most of these Germans came. They came to invest in the agro-industrial sector, mainly coffee.

There was a second wave in the early 20th century before and after the First World War. This was when my grandfather came. He started a business in coffee and cardamom. Actually, he was one of the first people to plant cardamom in Guatemala.

He was very successful up to the years 1941-42. There is where history starts and geopolitics becomes so important in Guatemala and in some other countries in Latin America. There was a policy called the Good Neighbor policy by the United States. It was based on the idea that Germans in Latin America were organizing themselves to attack the United States, basically a Nazi risk in Latin America.

Now with time and some investigation we found out that this actually was rather for the predominance of geopolitics in the Americas. My grandfather did not have a political inclination back then. He was forced to leave Guatemala. He was forced to leave his businesses. He left his family in Guatemala, and that happened to many German families, mostly the German families that were very influential in the country.

As I said, it is not only in Guatemala. Even if you see other countries, let's say, Colombia, Avianca, one of the main airlines for the region, was started actually with German investments, and then it was seized and passed to other local investors.

Basically I would say that during the Second World War America took the dominant role in the region. I believe it has been since that time it has been extremely important in the political affairs of most of the countries in Latin America.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: But that also continued in the time of the Cold War, right? You would be having what led to the so-called "banana republics" and the influence of the United States over these countries in the wake of the Cold War, right?

HENNING ANDRÉS DROEGE: Yes. Even before the United Fruit Company (UFC), I think f the banana republics come from that time because the UFC owned large parts of the countries to plant bananas, so this is something historical and very important.

Then with time they also had their influence in the region, especially during the Cold War. At that point it was something also ideological, the United States pressing for a more capitalistic, military regime, and obviously in some countries some guerrillas advancing, some of them a bit more successful than others, let's take Nicaragua or Cuba. In Guatemala we had for just a brief period a socialist government. But in general, the United States has been absolutely the dominant actor in the political arena in Guatemala.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: Even leading up to supporting their candidates and also especially in the case of Guatemala leading to a more than 30-year long civil war, I was wondering how today the perception of Guatemaltecos and especially the young generation is when it comes to the United States.

HENNING ANDRÉS DROEGE: It was not only influencing in elections. It is a fact that in the year 1944 Castillo Armas came with the help of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that was recently established in the United States. So there have been some coup d'états that were supported or pretty much coordinated from the United States. It is without question that they have been very important in making sure that the people who are in power are aligned with their interests.

Today I would say that the United States continues to have a very particular role. In the case of Guatemala, we are in a transformation phase I would call it. We are passing through system clearance because of corruption, may I call it. We have a UN body that is a parallel attorney general's office but is managed by UN international people. It is the first case in the world. Obviously, even though it is under the umbrella of the United Nations, the United States has a huge role there.

So we have been seen like a chess game in politics where the fight against corruption is the focus. The United States plays a very important role. There are politicians who are under investigation; there are powerful groups that are under investigation, including in the private sector. So some people say there is some Machiavellian management behind it and that the United States is behind it. I myself believe that they play a very important role. I believe that they have an agenda for Guatemala, and that this is according to their national interests.

Guatemala, remember, is just one country away from the United States, and it is a much smaller country than Mexico, so if you put into discussion the point of narcotics, drugs, and you put also migration into the equation, then you will see how important Guatemala is for the United States.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: Also, nowadays where the People's Republic of China, when we look at the case of Panama, is also trying to expand its influence in the so-called "backyard" of the United States, is there something like a new, let's say, battle of systems that one can feel when he or she is in Central America in that the United States is trying to reassert influence over the region in order to not get China too much involved there?

HENNING ANDRÉS DROEGE: That's right. We have seen in Latin America a much more important and powerful China.

In Guatemala specifically we do not have diplomatic relations with China. We do not have it with continental China. I would say that it would be something that we should evaluate as Guatemalans. It could be a factor that balances this power in geopolitics. We do have a Russian political presence with an important mine in Guatemala.

But yes, I believe that the United States is putting a lot of attention on these latest developments. The last country to welcome China was Costa Rica.

I believe the only country with over 10 million inhabitants right now in the world that does recognize Taiwan as an independent nation is Guatemala. Most other countries are much smaller and more dependent on the hope of international aid of Taiwan, but I believe that this is something that we should leave aside. China is already the second power in the world, and it is going to be fighting for taking its place very soon.


HENNING ANDRÉS DROEGE: I am a career diplomat, and this is one of the points that I have been trying to open for discussion. We cannot continue having such important topics only left aside because that's how it is. We need to open for discussion and try to evaluate what is best for Guatemala from a very strategic point of view.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: Would you then say in this context it kicks in what we call the Western or the Occidental connection as in sharing very similar yet also of course different identity, a stronger sense of belonging together? Or would you say now actually, given in Europe that as you mention already that seems to be the case, that many Latin Americans have a—that's what I know from my interview series and from other conversations—strong inclination toward Europe and Occidental Europe and the philosophy and the languages and whatnot, but when it comes to the United States, also from the United States side there seem to have been lots of issues about a shared identity.

So would you say that it is now a moment to reevaluate the common identity with the United States or to just say: "You know what? There is maybe China, and China maybe not having the same identity as us as Christian, Occidental, and Hispanic, but we may get along much better"?

HENNING ANDRÉS DROEGE: Let me answer this in two ways. I think first historically if you go to Latin America and you see all the cities, you will see that there is some European planning. Our religion is mainly Catholic. It is Christian. If you see our habits, we are the closest to Europe. Also our political systems are very similar to Europe. So we do feel close to Europe.

That said, we also believe that we need—and this is going to be part of this new generation—to get closer as Latin Americans. This is not only going to be good for Latin America, it is also going to be good for the Occidental values for sure. Why? Let's use an example, the United Nations Security Council. The region has two non-permanent members in a council of 15. You have the Europeans and you have the Americans, but these two members are very important. They have been quite influential, at least in putting a moral and ethical balance in some decisions.

Let me give you another example where Latin America has played a very important role, in the creation of the State of Israel. Back then, a council was created to find a solution. One of the most influential members of this council was Ambassador García Granados from Guatemala, and he basically was the main promoter for the whole region to get aligned and vote for the creation and establishment of the State of Israel. Therefore, there is a very close relationship between us and Israel.

Coming back again to Latin America, I would like to take as an example the case of the European Union. The European Union, not only for their internal affairs and their economics, but for the well-being of people I think they have taken the decision to stick together because in these times of globalization and geopolitics it is better to have a common union and common force to bring your values and philosophy forward. I think there is a lot of opportunity for Latin Americans to do that.

We have not fulfilled this potential yet, even though we speak the same language—or at least very similar in the case of Brazil—we all feel Latino, we listen to the same music, we have very similar ways of enjoying life, we go to the same churches, we acknowledge democracies and European systems. So there is a lot in common. But I do not believe that we have yet accomplished what we can accomplish as a region. Once we have that, I think not only us but as I said the whole Occidental system is going to benefit from it.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: Would you say something like the United States of Latin America or a union like in Europe, something like that, like another entity sort of level in Latin America other than what may be existing right now would be of interest and of help for the region? Is that something that you would like to propose?

HENNING ANDRÉS DROEGE: I think there are some platforms in place, but there has not been full integration yet. We still see in the region a lot of ideological wars, taking let's say as an example now ALBA countries (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America) led by Venezuela. Then on the other side you have some politically right-leaning countries.

So it has been always a little bit difficult to get together, but I believe that there are many topics that should put us together. I think it is rather a political will, and I think the new generations are very aware of this.

Many people in the economic and political elite have studied in the United States or in Europe. They have the feeling they know why it is important, and I think we are at the time where we are acknowledging and feeling how important geopolitics is.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: Just out of curiosity—because this is us talking like friends talking, that's like preaching to the choir, preaching to the converted. Can you make any sense out of why the Europeans may not have—there is interest in Latin America, of course, but just on a very specialized level—why is there not a more outspoken and more open and more natural even alliance that plays out in everyday politics and togetherness between the two sides of the Atlantic?

Do you have any idea why that may be? You have traveled Europe, so you may have told people, "Oh, I'm from Guate," and they say like, "Oh, nice." It would be interesting to hear what you think about that.

HENNING ANDRÉS DROEGE: That's right. Let's say with the common citizen in the streets, I do believe that they have most of the time if there is not a relation to violence, they have an idea of beautiful and happiness and dancing and a beautiful region, the Europeans.

But it is true. I think Latin America lost a lot of ground in the last decades. The Asian countries have been developing much faster in various terms, in economic terms, in technology. In the sense of investment and in the sense of political affairs, there has been a closer look to the other side of the world, to Asia, and to the Middle East, the Middle East because as Europeans you have a natural connection to them; it's just geography. So I think the focus of European politicians has not been there.

I believe this is not the right way. I do believe as you said from the beginning that there are a lot of things that we can do together. Even Europeans can learn a lot of things about what happens in Latin American. Let's say integration.

Who is Latin American for you, Alexander? How would you describe a Latin American?

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: That's a very good question. I think it's just basically a person coming from one of the countries in the Hispanic or Portuguese world on the other side of the Atlantic.

I would say like myself from a varied, let's say not academic background, I needed to first travel to the region in order to overcome not only stereotypes but also a bit of ignorance as in, as you said, you are just looking maybe to China, and this is why you may escape the development in Colombia or in Mexico, because it is just like a matter of focus.

HENNING ANDRÉS DROEGE: That's right, but let's say coming back to the question that that's what makes us also so rich. A Latin American can be an indigenous person; a Latin American can be white and with blue eyes; a Latin American can be black, dark; can be even Asian, Fujimori in Peru, even like heads of state. That's what makes Latin America so special.

We are a mixture of cultures with predominant systems based on the European systems, but this is something where I believe especially in the phase that Europe is now leaving there will be a transformation phase. In Europe—and I put myself also inside the Europeans in this topic—we as Europeans will need to learn that Europeans are not just only white people. Europeans are much more than that. Europeans are today from nations around the world that have embraced the values of Europe, and that is what should make Europe also so strong.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: That is for sure. Now being in Asia—actually in Taiwan, in Hong Kong in university affiliations—it is something that you realize that the, let's say, Occidental values or Western values have become international.

You have the debate in this region like could China apply democracy, and then the Communist Party's idea is to say, "No, because democracy is not a Han Chinese model," which is of course silly because everybody can apply these values because they basically cater to what you just said, the acknowledgment that there is variety in society. It doesn't mean that you have to accept all ideas but because you have a societal discourse in finding a common ground I guess that is for sure and a given, but this is not just only a Western idea.

However, what is the difference I guess between the societies in Latin America you describe and the European societies is that they have been homogeneous for the longest time, coming from the era of Reformation where people had to decide what faith to take. The Italians would all be Catholic, and the Swedes would all be Protestants. Except for the Germans which have actually a Catholic south and predominantly Protestant north, all European countries have had a major leaning, which very interestingly for the longest time has not been defined racially but culturally.

This is a main difference when it comes to these issues between Europe as far as I know and the United States. It is not a racial concept. Europe is just talking about cultures that emerged from different settings and setups if you want. I am not saying there are no racists in Europe; of course there are, but the major concept is very much shaped by culture and not by the idea of race, basically.

HENNING ANDRÉS DROEGE: I completely agree with you, and that should be the concept behind integration.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: Coming to Latin America again, you nailed it by saying that the focus had shifted. When I was a child, we would collect on Christmas Day in church for Latin America, a money collection of Catholics in Germany for the Catholics in Latin America.

This is now 30 years ago, and maybe in the head of many Europeans, at least the Germans, it may still be like: "Oh, it's like developing countries. People are very poor, la la la." But when I came to Mexico City for the first time a few years ago, it was like, "Okay." It is highly developed. And I went to Guate. It is at least not where many people may still think it is. That is maybe also a PR (public relations) issue for Latin American countries to promote themselves better. I don't know.

HENNING ANDRÉS DROEGE: Yes, I completely agree. I will give you an example on this. If you speak about violence with Europeans, they will tell you that Mexico is the most violent country in the region. But let's put another country next to it, let's say Brazil. I am 100 percent sure that if you go to ten people, nine out of ten will tell you that Mexico is more violent. If you go to statistics, you will know that it is the other way around. But this is PR. Brazilians are world champions in PR, and Mexico has a very strong, mythical war against drugs, so the perceptions are very important.

In general, I do believe that Latin America, including Guatemala, has a huge amount of work to do in getting their countries known better outside. We need to understand that investment in image, investment in bringing ideas of your country outside, is going to pay some dividends in some years.

That said, Alex, I really enjoyed your words. While I was impressed with Mexico City, I am impressed with Guatemala. That's right. There are some parts of our countries that have developed to European and American standards and even beyond. But there are also some parts in our countries that are well below what we would call basic standards in Europe.

Guatemala is a very illustrative country for this. We have around 60 percent of our population living under the poverty line, a lot of people not finishing secondary school, high school, most people not having access to water, you name it, electricity, the basic things, and still living in a hut without a floor.

In Guatemala I would say the most concerning thing is that we have stunting. This term is known to you, but stunting is basically malnutrition in the first two years of life. Pretty much what happens is that kids who have not had the right nutrition in the first 18 to 24 months get limited for life, and you can see it. You can scan the brain of a kid who has had all the nutrition that they need and the hygiene, and then you scan another one, and it is the other way around, and it is impressive. It is just like you are limiting this person by 40-60 percent of their intellectual capacity, and that is happening to one kid in every two in Guatemala. These are some things we cannot leave aside.

I believe the region has made a huge improvement in those terms, but there are some countries that are lagging behind in the region.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: That's true because it is not only intellectual capacity but the basic equipment you have been endowed with, and if your development is rather limited in that sense, it's very sad to say the least.

Also, I have more insights into Mexico where you just realize that half the country has no bank account. It also means you cannot register your cellphone. You told me about Guatemala, where about 30 percent, if I remember correctly, of the indigenous population would not even have a passport or an ID, which then makes it impossible for them to vote. So yes, you should not blind out all the problems that are still around, and I wonder how Latin American countries will tackle these problems.

HENNING ANDRÉS DROEGE: Yes. I mentioned to you in our discussions that I see three different groups in Latin America. I would put the Chiles, Argentinas, Uruguays, even Costa Rica, in a group of the most Europeanized, most advanced democracies. Then you have a group with middle countries with the Colombias, the Ecuadors, the Mexicos, and so on. Then you have a group where you have the Guatemalans, you have probably the Bolivians, even though they have done very well, the Hondurans, and so on. In these countries I think we are still in the process also in refining our culture and our—I don't know if "culture" is the word, but refining our identities for sure.

I will give you an example. My family has been in the agribusiness for many decades. Right now there is a discussion on property rights in Guatemala. Obviously, we all here in the city and urban areas say: "Well, we need to protect property rights. That's a cornerstone for our democracy and has been such a value for us."

Then you go to the indigenous population. Most of them have been left aside by the system for a long period. If you go further down and look really into it, in their tradition there have not been property rights. Imagine if you have been living for a thousand years here and there, and there is no such thing as, "Here, this is your paper, and this is your backyard, this is your house," it is a process.

I do believe that this is coming, but we also need to ask Guatemalans and Latin Americans to understand that this is something that we need to work on. From an anthropological standpoint it is something that we need to understand.

That said, that doesn't mean that we should accept let's say disorder. I rather believe that we need to progressively bring everybody in our society to these cornerstones of democracy. That is what we are doing, but there is a lot of work on this. Also, we need to take into consideration their values and their culture and their richness of living.

This is why I said we are in a transformational phase. We are still getting there. Unfortunately there are also some groups that take advantage of these situations, and they try to promote anarchy and even to promote the separation of our identities of being Guatemalan by saying: "No, you are indigenous. You are this. You have these types of rights, and that's you, and you are not indigenous. That's how you are, and you go to that side." That is very dangerous. We need to work rather to get and to continue transforming to a common identity, a common culture, and a common value, and so on.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: That is going to be the last question because we talked about identity and transformation. Usually as we look into Western Europe but also to another extent in the United States and beyond the democratic world, there is a movement and a trend to use identities rather for an us-versus-them rhetoric in policymaking than a more inclusive acceptance of variety. You also alluded to the fact that this happens also in Guatemala and beyond in Latin America.

What would you say identity is, and is identity something that is in process, in movement, and is capable of transformation? What is your take on identity?

HENNING ANDRÉS DROEGE: Precisely. That's what makes this so rich. It is something of transformation, and what is important is to have, let's say, the common points of understanding, the common values, the common principles, but then there are a lot of forces coming into these processes.

Let's say Europe; 30 years ago you wouldn't see an Italian, a Britisher, and a Latvian and a Romanian and a Spaniard being part of the European Union. In our generation I think in Europe there is the feeling of being European. Obviously you have your heritage from Germany or your language, and the same for the French or for the Spanish, but now you see much more often this European identity growing up.

I think to different levels in Latin America this is also happening. We continue transforming. It is part of our challenge. We have managed for many years now to avoid big wars in Europe, the United States, and in Latin America, and I think being open for these transformations is going to be key to prevail in peace and to achieve sustainable societies.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: Henning Andrés Droege in Guatemala. It was such a pleasure to talk to you, and I hope this is to be continued in person at some point soon. Thank you very much for tuning into my Carnegie Council series on Latin America and the West. Thank you very much.


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