GUATEMALA CITY — Some problems seem too big for normal folks to handle.
When the earth's rotation needed to be reversed to bring Lois Lane back to life, it took Superman to get it done. When the villainous Oil Can Harry tied the lovely Pearl Pureheart to the railroad tracks, it was Mighty Mouse who saved the day. And when the good citizens of River Heights were baffled by the Secret of The Old Clock, teenage super sleuth Nancy Drew stepped in to solve the mystery.
Now it's Guatemala that has a big problem in need of a big fix. The troubled Central American nation has been mired in a deepening corruption crisis that has triggered the largest street protests in more than 50 years. The scandal has eviscerated the president's cabinet and is now rattling the palace gates as protesters demand the resignation of President Otto Peréz Molina.
They might get what they want. Inside the president's dark castle made of stone, one of his aides told me in a hushed voice that the retired army general could step down in the coming weeks if congress votes to lift his immunity and move forward with impeachment proceedings.
That may or may not happen. But what's clear is that Guatemala is facing one of its worst governability crises in decades — and that's saying something in a country whose most democratic moment was more than 60 years ago, just before the CIA-backed coup to oust President Jacobo Árbenz.
In short, the situation has gone from Guate-mala to Guate-peor and the immediate future looks wildly uncertain.
But the government has a secret weapon: TAX FORCE, ASSEMBLE!!!
The Guatemalan Super Friends
Meet Admiral Lex, a sharply dressed fiscal avenger blessed with remarkable humility and an untiring willingness to help others in need.
Ayla, whose keen sense of duty and eagerness to collaborate might have mistaken her for a communist agitator during the Árbenz government, but is now beyond suspicion.
Contrix, whose spaceman appearance belies his painfully tellurian limitations.
And our hero, group leader Simon Tax, the guy with feathered bangs and a penchant for filing his estimated tax payments in a timely manner.
Together, with a few additional friends I won't bother mentioning here, they fight corruption as Guatemala's Tax Force, the most modestly endowed team of superheroes ever conceived.
Simon Tax, a creation of the Cultural Office of Guatemala's Tax Collection Agency (SAT), makes weekly visits in costume to elementary schools to teach 5-12 year old children the importance of paying taxes — a lesson they'll hopefully remember when they're old enough to become contributing members of the economy.
The Tax Force also has three exciting video game apps that encourage players to "become a hero" by collecting taxes, fighting corruption, and learning about all the rewarding ways that tax revenue gets invested in public works projects. It's sorta like Guatemala's answer to SimCity, only without any of the fun of building stuff, or the devious thrill of putting a row of heavily polluting coal plants in the middle of a prosperous suburb.
As a fan of oddball superhero teams (Mighty Heroes and Herculoids were two of my Saturday-morning favorites) I was helplessly and almost giddily attracted to the adventures of the Tax Force. I immediately wanted to know everything about them.
Unfortunately, their online bios are woefully lacking. And as someone who used to spend entire afternoons reading and memorizing all the wondrously imaginative bio cards of my G.I. Joe figures, I found the vague profiles of the Tax Force heroes deeply unsatisfying.
Take Ortox, for example. He's got an awesome First Blood headband and some sort of futuristic Google Glass type technology that I imagine allows him to instantly pull up the tax returns of wealthy Guatemalans suspected of being less than entirely forthcoming in their filings. He also has manly shoulder pads and powerful battle ram hands for breaking into undeclared vaults. Yet all we're told about him is that he's known around the Tax Force water cooler as a man of integrity and values —and we don't even know which ones.
I needed answers. How did this team of superheroes fail to prevent Guatemala's current crisis, which was sparked by a massive customs tax fraud scandal? After all, the Customs Office is located in the same building as Guatemala's Tax Collection Agency (SAT), which is home to the Tax Force. Was the superheroes' Tower of Justice also its kryptonite — some bizarro world where the Tax Force's powers got reversed?
With encroaching frustration, I downloaded the TaxForce app to my iPhone, but the game kept crashing before I could go on my first mission to collect taxes from errant Guatemalan businessmen. I asked my friend to try it on his Android, but he quickly uninstalled it in a huff after the app somehow erased all his matches on Tinder. They were probably all tax cheats anyway.
With no where else to turn, I did what any sensible person would. I got on a plane and flew to Guatemala to request a meeting with the head of Cultura Tributaria on the 11th floor of Guatemala's Tax Collection Agency.
After a half hour interview, my faith in the Tax Force was restored as I learned about Simon Tax's plan to save Guatemala. (I also learned his middle name is Abel, and that he has a girlfriend named Prudence! I could hardly stand it.)
Everything must go!
On the streets of Guatemala City, many protesters think there isn't much left worth saving. In the slightly ramshackle cultural center in Zone 1, activists openly talk of a complete revolutionary overhaul of the government.
"The goal is to throw out the entire government," protest leader Brenda Lara Markus, of the group Hagamanos El Paro (Let's go on Strike), tells me over coffee. "We want a constitutional convention, which means a change in everything. Absolutely everything."
Lara Markus' group is one of more than a dozen anti-government activist movements that have popped up in recent months following the success of last April's #ReuniciaYA protest. An actress in her normal life, Lara Markus is part of Guatemala City's remarkable middle class urban awakening.
She says parts of Guatemala's current constitution are nicely worded, but every law is violated anyway so who cares? She says it's time to scrap the entire document, kick the president "out the back door," and start all over with a new government and a new magna carta that everyone agrees to abide by.
"We have to throw everything out, even though that seems idealist and revolutionary," Lara Markus says, sounding idealist and revolutionary. "The conditions exist now to do this. It's just a question of uniting everybody."
There's the rub. Guatemala, a traditionally factionalized country, is certainly not in agreement about razing its government and rebuilding it from scratch. Calls to depose the president resonate louder in some parts of the countryside that never liked Perez Molina to begin with. But in the city that got him elected, people are divided on what to do.
"The city is very divided on this, because this is a proposal that initially comes from the campesino groups, which have always been discriminated against by people in the capital," Lara Markus concedes. "With the racism that exists here in Guatemala, many people are afraid that the indigenous will come to power in government if we oust the president. And they're afraid that if he resigns, someone worse will come to power."
Guatemala's racial, political and social awakening is only just beginning, she says; but once you're out of bed and sufficiently fueled with coffee, anything can happen.
"The people are awake now, and we're not going back to sleep," Lara Markus said, providing me with a tidy quote with which to end this section of the story.
The easiest part of any revolution is toppling the old government. The harder part comes next. Very few countries that tear down their old system manage to replace it with something that's truly democratic, sustainable or new. That's not meant to discourage folks from trying; it's just an empirical observation of the revolutionary movements that have happened in Latin America over the past whatever years.
That's because the true work of building a lasting government for, of and by the people isn't just about electing some enlightened leader, it's about everyone learning how to be a responsible citizen in a democracy. That takes a lot of work and education and long-term vision of nation. And that's where Simon Tax comes in.
"Simon Tax is not a hero. He's a responsible character who provides an example of what people need to do to be a good Guatemalan citizen," says Luis Rodríguez Franco, one of the real world people behind the magic of the Tax Force. "If we were all responsible and followed the law, we wouldn't need superheroes."
I looked at him and nodded gravely. This guy was clearly channeling Simon Tax. I'd expect a superhero to say something humble like that.
"But why focus tax education on children?" I asked Simon's surrogate. "Surely they're not the biggest tax cheats in the country?"
The medium patiently told me that his work is mid-term and long-term, and that Tax Force doesn't focus on the quick fix that other superheroes often resort to.
"What we are doing is planting a message with kids — one that will bear fruit in five or 10 years," he said. "The children are not the future of the country, they're the present."
They're also present in the economy, he said, because their parents send them to the corner stores to make purchases, and they have the right to ask for a receipt — even if they can't see over the counter.
And when Simon Tax reaches children, the message trickles up to the parents.
"Things work backwards here—it's not parents who teach kids, it's kids who teach parents," Rodriguez Franco said. "Children go home and say, dad, do you ask for an itemized receipt? Or when they go to the store together, it's the kids who say, 'Dad, why didn't you ask for a receipt? So here it's backwards; it's bottom-up."
What would Simon Tax say about the current corruption crisis rattling the government?
"Simon Tax wouldn't comment on the situation. Simon Tax would continue doing his work. He is totally apolitical," he assured me. "The fact that some aren't following the law doesn't mean that we're on the wrong path. Education is the future. And we promote tax culture…it's the work of ants, week in and week out."
Guatemalans looking for an easy fix, or searching the sky in search of a superhero to come save them from their problems, aren't seeing the bigger picture, he says. The solution involves everyone — it's about learning how to become a responsible citizen in functioning democracy with rights and responsibilities.
"There will never be a Superman who comes to save us from the political situation or save the economy," Simon Tax's spokesman said. "Change has to come from individuals; it has to start at home."
If Simon Tax and his Tax Force can help influence the next generation of Guatemalans to start thinking like responsible citizens in a functioning democracy, that's nothing short of superheroism— no matter how ordinary the outcome may seem from afar.