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Virtuous lobbyists

Originally designed as a train station and built in 1930 by German engineers in Guatemala’s northwestern department of Quetzaltenango, the structure was converted into an army base following the demise of the railroad a few years later. It remained an army facility for decades, until cutbacks in military spending after the 1996 Peace Accord. Then the government decided to close the base, leaving its future in doubt.

Some police officials thought the building would be ideal for a new headquarters. Civic leaders argued on behalf of making it a cultural center.

A new alliance of businessmen and professionals called Grupo Gestor (literally Facilitator Group) decided to throw its weight and persuasive capacity behind the effort to found a cultural center, and they eventually succeeded. 

The Intercultural Center of Quetzaltenango was opened in 2004 and today houses an art school, youth sports facilities, conference rooms, theaters, a museum of indigenous costumes, and a railroad museum.

Barrios: “The Grupo Gestor was the leader in making this facility a place for sports and cultural activities.”

“The Grupo Gestor was the leader in making this facility a place for sports and cultural activities, and for getting permission for our museum to use these installations,” said Lina Barrios, one of the four women founders of the Ixkit Museum, which emphasizes the cultural and historic value of the colorful costumes worn by members of the indigenous communities of the Guatemalan highlands who are descendents of the ancient Mayan cultures.

Just what is a Grupo Gestor? How did it come to play an important role in the decision-making process of Quetzaltenango, a city of 128,000 inhabitants in a region with many areas of rural poverty.

Roberto Gutiérrez, an entrepreneur who is the founder and president of the national network of the 44 Grupos Gestores, said the idea started when a group of three businessmen in Quetzaltenango decided in the early 1990s to make a survey about what people thought about the future of their city, which in the 19th century was an important industrial center. The city fell onto hard times beginning with an earthquake and nearby volcano eruption in 1902. The Great Depression of the 1930s and the constant emigration of the city inhabitants to Guatemala City put Quetzaltenango into a decline.

The survey, said Gutiérrez, revealed widespread concern about economic opportunities, especially for youth, and that prompted a decision to forge an alliance of business leaders to do something about it.

Surprisingly, of the 15 business leaders invited to the initial meeting of what became the first Grupo Gestor, nearly all represented small and medium-sized companies. Representatives of the largest companies by and large ignored the fledgling organization.

By joining together, leaders of the small and medium-sized companies found they could have a stronger voice in local development. Later, when professionals, city administrators, academics and other civil society members joined the organization, its influence grew. Owners of small municipal businesses found their views had greater clout when supported by the opinion of trained professionals and managers.

One early project in Quetzaltenango was to build a road connecting two business districts of the municipality. Until they met in the Grupo Gestor, the businessmen on one side of town did not realize they had strong potential allies on the other side of town to build the same road. By banding together, they were more effective in convincing the municipality to make the investment.

“Ours is an entrepreneurial vision to advance productive activities that generate employment and thereby contribute to the welfare of the community,” said Gutiérrez. The Grupos Gestores concentrate on supporting development projects in cities and rural areas outside of the metropolitan area of Guatemala City, where industry and national wealth are concentrated.

Among the more than two dozen projects sponsored by the Grupos Gestores in recent years have been studies on infrastructure and competitiveness, training for chocolate producers, provision of food and medicine for victims of Hurricane Stan, the formation of business clusters, organizing contributions for a public library and the organizing of a conference of tourism operators to promote more consistency in the tax laws.

Grupos Gestores project coordinator Miguel Chavarria.

Miguel Chavarría, project coordinator of the Grupos Gestores, said the organization supports four types of projects. Precompetitiveness projects contain steps to attract investment and may include measures to cut red tape and reduce corruption. Prefreasibility and feasibility projects include studies for investment projects. Natural disaster projects are directed at providing relief and reconstruction following natural disasters. And finally, national projects focus on infrastructure and other activities involving more than one municipality, such as tourism promotion.

Members of the Grupos Gestores, which have about 20 members in each group, serve without pay, but the organization’s projects have received support from several national agencies and bilateral and international organizations, including the IDB, which has assisted the development of the Grupos Gestores with a grant of US$148,000. The Japan Special Fund, administered by the IDB, contributed an additional US$187,000.

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