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Mayans and More: DXing Central America

By Don Moore

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A slightly edited version of this article was originally published in the November, 1993 issue of Monitoring Times magazine.

Looking for a DX target area with lots of small stations and interesting cultures? But, one that doesn't take fancy equipment and years of experience to monitor? Just look "south of the border" to Central America. Because Central America is so close geographically to North America, even low powered stations can put in excellent signals. Unless the VOA or RCI plops down on their frequency, any SW station in Central America is likely to make it up here. In fact, some Central American DX stations are more reliable catches than a lot of international broadcasters!

Historically, Central America consists of the five countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Under Spanish colonial rule, these countries and the Mexican state of Chiapas formed the Audiencia de Guatemala. Central America declared independence on September 15, 1821 and was promptly annexed by Mexico, then under dictator General Agustin de Iturbide. When Iturbide was overthrown in 1823, Central America was allowed to go its own way, but, unfortunately for DX country counters, the northern province of Chiapas decided to remain with Mexico. For fifteen years Central America attempted to be a unified country, but mostly was bogged down in civil war due to regional jealousies and disagreements. The union was destroyed and the Central American congress dissolved in 1838. Although the five countries went their seperate ways, they maintain a strong regional cultural identity.

GUATEMALA

Culturally, Guatemala is the most interesting country of Central America. While half the population is meztizo (called ladino locally), or people of mixed Indian and Spanish ancestry, the other half is full-blooded Mayan Indian, belonging to over two dozens tribes, each with its own language and customs. Ladinos live in eastern Guatemala and the main cities and towns, and the Mayans live in rural areas and villages in the highlands of central and western Guatemala.

Guatemala has an official government radio station, TGW, La Voz de Guatemala. TGW got a good start in 1931 under the rule of General Jorge Ubico, a radio hobbyist. Unfortunately, recent governments have not been so kind with funding. The shortwave outlets on 6180 and 9760 kHz have been sporadic at best for many years and even the aged AM transmitter in Guatemala City is reportedly broken down. Until money is found to reequip TGW, we are unlikely to hear it on SW again.

Most Latin American countries have at least a few commercial stations that supplement AM and FM with shortwave. Not Guatemala - the government outlawed commercial shortwave broadcasting years ago. But, there are plenty of other shortwave targets as Guatemala has ten religious SW broadcasters, the highest concentration in the world. Two are in Guatemala City; the easy one is TGNA, Radio Cultural, which was founded by American Baptists and is well heard in North America on 3300 kHz with Spanish and some English religious programming (see Homebrew Radio In Guatemala, MT 6/88).

The Adventist Church's Union Radio is a bit tougher catch on 5980 kHz. The Adventists are very active in Central America, in converting souls and in sponsoring some of the region's best hospitals and schools. They had long wanted a radio presence in Central America when in the late 1970s, Guatemalan Adventists volunteered to take on the task. A small station was started with 10 Kw on medium wave and shortwave. Donations from the main Adventist Church made the studio was the best equipped in Central America at the time. According to plans, the station was to grow into a major international broadcaster and Adventist World Radio's voice in Latin America.

Unfortunately, someone someplace had not done all their homework. If they had, they would have found out that Guatemalan law prohibits anyone except the government from operating radio transmitters of greater than 10 Kw and also prohibits anyone except Guatemalan citizens from serving as radio announcers for programs produced in the country. AWR would not be permitted to bring in the higher power SW transmitters and the foreign announcers necessary for broadcasts in other languages. Union Radio remains a small backwater operation in the AWR network, a shadow of what it had hoped to be.

PROVINCIAL RADIO

Central America as a whole is rugged and mountainous, but nowhere is it more so than in central and western Guatemala, home of Guatemala's Mayans. Regular AM and FM stations simply won't penetrate the remote valleys and mountainsides where they live. It wouldn't matter if the signals did, however. Because of strong anti-Indian prejudice by the Ladinos who control Guatemala, neither TGW nor hardly any commercial stations broadcast in Mayan languages. Instead, missionary stations serve the Mayans, and they use shortwave. In provincial Guatemala, there are eight SWers, five Roman Catholic and three Evangelical Protestant, battling for souls.

Actually, the stations do a lot more than preach. Much of their broadcast time is devoted to community, education and health programs. Marimba music is the most popular type of music. Ranchera and tropical music are also heard, but are not as popular among the Mayans. The latter two types of music are more common on Guatemalan AM stations which broadcast for the Ladinos. Some programming is in Spanish, but most is in Indian languages. Although the Mayan languages are phonetically very different from Spanish, it is easy to be fooled into thinking they're Spanish. A lot of Spanish words have been borrowed, especially for modern ideas and religious terminology. Usually about the time you start to figure out that you're listening to an Indian language, they throw in a few Spanish saint's names to confuse you!

Guatemala's provincial SW stations are best heard in the morning just after they sign-on, mostly around 1100-1200 UTC. As Guatemala is only a short ionospheric hop away from North America, reception can be quite clear and strong sometimes, especially in mid-winter. Also, Guatemalan stations tend to be interference free, as higher powered stations in South America have already faded out with their local sunrise and the Guatemalans are more than a match for any Asians on nearby frequencies.

Let's take a look at Guatemala's provincial SW stations, starting with the Roman Catholic ones. Radio Chortis, on 3380 kHz in the eastern town of Jocotan, is sponsored by Belgian and German Catholics who also fund a small trade school. Broadcasts are mainly in Spanish, with a few hours of Chorti each week. Except for the very elderly, all Chortis are bilingual in Spanish and their language is gradually disappearing. Not far away, in the town of Coban, Radio Tezulutlan ministers to the 250,000 Kekchi Indians of the Alta Verapaz region. On 4835 and 3370, broadcasts are in Spanish and Kekchi.

West of Guatemala City in the Lake Atitlan region is La Voz de Atitlan in Santiago Atitlan with broadcasts in Tzuthil and Spanish on 2390 kHz. In North America this is the easiest catch in the difficult 120 meter band, excluding WWV. Also near the lake is La Voz de Nahuala on 3360. Although the manager is a nun from Spokane, Washington, La Voz de Nahuala is primarily operated by Quiche Catholics. At about 800,000, the Quiches are the largest indigenous group in Guatemala. Some programs are also broadcast in Cakchiquel, as well as Spanish. The last is Radio Mam on 4825, which serves the Mam tribe, Guatemala's second largest indigenous group. Radio Mam is not very easy to hear, however; it doesn't sign on until 1300 UTC, too late for reception in much of North America except in mid-winter, and signs off at 2330 UTC, around local sunset. If you can't get it at sign-on, the best bet is to keep an eye on the frequency for occasional late fiesta broadcasts.

For years, the only Evangelist Protestant station in rural Guatemala was Radio Maya de Barillas in the remote northwest. Radio Maya broadcast in a number of smaller Maya languages ignored by the Catholic stations, such as Kanjobel and Chuj. It was successful, and operation and ownership of the station was eventually passed from American missionaries to area tribal evangelical churches. Radio Maya is an sure bet on 3325 kHz, and a very difficult catch on 2360 kHz in 120 meters.

In 1987 and 1988, the Evangelical churches went in direct confrontation with Guatemala's Catholic radio stations for the souls of two of the largest groups. The tiny Mam Evangelical church, long served only by occasional broadcasts on Radio Maya de Barillas, established its own station, Radio Buenas Nuevas (Good News) on 4800 in the small town of San Sebastian Huehuetenango. American missionaries and the technical staff at TGNA were instrumental in getting the station on the air, but Mam Evangelists initiated it and continue to staff and run the station. Not long afterwards, in early 1988, Radio Kekchi, 4845 kHz, came on the air from the small town of Fray Bartolome de las Casas near Coban. Like Radio Buenas Nuevas, Radio Kekchi was initiated by Kekchi Evangelicals and assisted by TGNA and American missionaries. Although it is primarily run by Kekchis, it maintains an affiliation with a missionary education group headquartered in Mexico. Ironically, the town of Fray Bartolome de las Casas, Radio Kekchi's location, is named after the Catholic priest who originally converted the Kekchi to Roman Catholicism.

THREE MEZTIZO COUNTRIES

In the middle of Central America are El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, none of which has a significant Indian population. Their populations are mainly mixed meztizo ancestry. Culturally, they are Spanish-American; any vestiges of the original Indian cultures have long disappeared.

El Salvador is just beginning to recovery from its long civil war. Before the war it was relatively prosperous, and other Central Americans regard Salvadorans as the most hard-working people in the region. Given time to recover, it should again have a strong economy. Although rich in resources, El Salvador is a tiny densely- populated country. As such, there really isn't much need for domestic shortwave broadcasting. There are lots of AM and FM stations and the main ones serve the entire country very easily through efficient networks of 1 Kw medium wave repeaters. There hasn't been any commercial shortwave broadcasting from El Salvador for decades. Government-owned Radio Nacional has sporadically been relayed on the 49 or 31 meterbands, but always for a foreign audience or in an attempt to reach Salvadorans abroad. It hasn't been active recently and North American DXers probably have a better chance at hearing their AM frequency of 655 kHz than one of the highly irregular SW transmissions. Still, a renewal of Radio Nacional on SW might be one way to help improve El Salvador's battered image abroad.

Of course to DXers, El Salvador is remembered as the location of two of the 1980s most interesting clandestine stations, Radio Venceremos and Radio Farabundo Marti. Although there were some questions about if the stations might really be broadcasting from Nicaragua, they were visited by enough international journalists to confirm beyond a doubt that the broadcasts came from guerilla controlled territory. Today a fragile peace has come to El Salvador and the two former clandestines are now legal FM stations in San Salvador. There have been rumors that one or the other might return to shortwave as there doesn't seem to be much prospect of them getting frequencies in the crowded Salvadoran AM band. Shortwave might be their only hope of again reaching all of El Salvador, not to mention the overseas friends they made with their clandestine broadcasts. Until either Radio Nacional or one of the former clandestines comes back on SW, DXers are going to have to wait to enter El Salvador in their logbooks again. There are no active stations in El Salvador today.

HONDURAS

Like Guatemala, Honduras is easy to hear thanks to religous broadcasters. The most important one is HRVC, La Voz Evangelica, on 4820. It is heard quite well many evenings until 0500 sign-off and in the mornings after 1030 sign-on. Except for an occasion late night taped sermon in English, all programming is in Spanish. Another Evangelical Protestant station is Radio Luz y Vida, 3250 kHz, operating from the remote coffee town of San Luis in western Honduras. The missionaries have a very extensive operation here with a health clinic and their own air strip. Most programming is in Spanish, but reception reports can be sent in English to station manager Don Moore (no relation to the author, although I used to get his mail sometimes as a Peace Corps volunteer in nearby Santa Barbara!). A third evangelical station is La Voz de Mosquitia, 4910, from the remote jungles of eastern Honduras. This station has had an on again/off again history, including a messy divorce of the American missionary founders. Recently it passed to new management and has become more predictable.

Unlike Guatemala, commercial shortwave is allowed, but there isn't much need for it. While parts of Honduras are beyond the reach of AM/FM stations, the people who live in those regions are poor peasants generally outside the market economy. La Voz del Junco on 6075 is the only somewhat active Honduran commerical SW station, but the SW transmitter is mainly a hobby of owner Antonio Hasbun. It's not logged very often, usually being buried under Deutsche Welle. Several other commercial stations have SW licenses, but only use SW a couple of days every few years - just long enough that the government doesn't take away their licenses. No one knows when they might pop up, but if Radio Landia 4965, Radio Progreso 4920, or Radio Lux, 4890 are on the air, make a log now as they will probably be gone tomorrow! Finally, there is Jeff White's proposed commercial station, Radio Copan Internacional, which may be on the air by the time you read this.

There is one more station in Honduras, Sani Radio on 4755 kHz. Neither commercial nor religous, Sani Radio is run by a private development agency and serves some small tribes of Indians in the eastern Honduran jungle.

NICARAGUA

Not long ago, tiny Nicaragua was an easy catch. In the early 1970s the Somoza dictatorship operated Radio Nacional with 100 kW on 11820 kHz until the 1973 earthquake took it off the air. In the late 1970s the Sandinista revolution put Nicaragua back on the DX map with clandestine Radio Sandino. After coming to power, they pulled the old Somoza transmitter out of storage and used it for an external service in 49 meters, La Voz de Nicaragua. But the Contra war and the U.S. trade embargo gradually brought down Nicaragua's economy and Sandinista government. One of the first casualties of the declining economy was the external service.

For several years now, shortwave broadcasting from Nicaragua has been sporadic. A new commercial outlet, Radio RICA, appeared on 4920 and shut down almost as quickly. Radio Miskut, a former clandestine broadcaster, has been heard occasionally on 49 meters, as well as its former out-of-band clandestine frequencies. Shortwave broadcasting is the only viable means of reaching Nicaragua's sparsely populated Caribbean coast, and regular shortwave broadcasts will certainly return to Nicaragua. But until the economy recovers from the war and trade embargo, it's going to be tough going for Nicaraguan broadcasters.

COSTA RICA

Costa Rica is, well, Costa Rica. It's just different from anywhere else in Central America. When the Spanish came there were few Indians here and no gold or silver. Instead of rich landowners with slaves and peasants, Costa Rica was settled by Spanish farmers. Unlike the usual Latin American model of a small rich class controlling a large mass of poor peasants, Costa Rica developed into a working class democracy. Except for two lapses totally only a few weeks, Costa Rica has had a democratic government for over 100 years. In 1948, the government took the unusual step of disbanding the army, which allowed it to spend more money on development. Today the United Nations ranks Costa Rica as the most developed underdeveloped country and expects it to join the ranks of developed nations by 2000. Literacy is universal and almost all homes have electricity, telephones, and running water. That is not to say there aren't still pockets of poverty, but they're more like poverty in the U.S. rather than poverty elsewhere in Latin America. In fact, in some basic health categories, Costa Rica ranks equal to or above the U.S.!

All these wonderful things combined with liberal shortwave licensing laws have made Costa Rica a center for small scale international broadcasting. The oldest is TIFC, Faro del Caribe, which relays its local AM service on SW for a regional audience. In the late 1980s, after the screwup in Guatemala, Adventist World Radio turned to Costa Rica for its Latin American station. Then, of course, there is UN sponsored Radio For Peace International with its wide variety of alternative political and environmental programs. Check the Monitoring Times Shortwave Guide for the most recent English schedules from these stations. More recently, Radio Exterior de Espa¤a opened a relay station here, and part of the agreement allows Radio Nacional de Costa Rica to start its own international service via the Spanish transmitters. As this is being written, the service has not yet started.

But, if you really want to hear Costa Rica, you have to go after one of the local broadcasters on shortwave. San Jose's main news station, Radio Reloj, has been Costa Rica's main shortwave voice for several decades on the unusual frequencies of 4832 and 6006 kHz. Opertated by the three Barahona brothers, this is one of the most professional small stations in Latin America. Other small Costa Rican stations have been more irregular on shortwave, but Radio Casino, 5954, and the national university's Radio UCR, 6105, have been heard recently. Another station, Radio Rumbo, would like to return to SW if Deutsche Welle's high-powered transmitters would vacate Rumbo's longtime SW frequency of 6075, which DW took over about ten years ago.

THE OTHER COUNTRIES

Historically and culturally, Panama and Belize are not really part of Central America even if most outsiders assume they are. But, we will give them a brief mention here. Over a decade ago, Radio Belize was often heard in North America, but while the engineering staff built up a network of FM relays around the country they left the shortwave transmitter unmaintained until it no longer functioned. The station no longer uses shortwave and whether or not they will again is anybody's guess (See Radio Belize: Caribbean Beat in Central America, MT 1/89).

No Panamanian station has used shortwave since the late 1960s, which is surprising considering that there are large rural areas in both eastern and western Panama. Perhaps if more development and population starts to flow into these areas we may see some shortwave from Panama. A few years ago there were reports that Fidel Castro had shipped a 50kW shortwave transmitter to Manuel Noriega. Unfortunately for DXers, George Bush invaded Panama before Noriega had a chance to get it on the air, if indeed the story was true.

Well, that's our Central American radio tour. What's left? Nothing but going to the shack and starting to tune them in! Buena sintonia (good listening), amigos!

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This article is copyright 1993 by Don Moore. It may not be printed in any publication without written permission. Permission is granted for all interested readers to share and pass on the ASCII text file of this article or to print it out for personal use. In such case, your comments on the article would be appreciated.

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