Published: April 25th 2005April 5th 2005
We left Guatemala today, after a trying day yesterday wandering around Guatemala City picking up my passport, trying to get my plane ticket replaced, and getting a special stamp in my new passport to confirm that I was in fact in Guatemala legally. I just wanted to leave you with a few parting thoughts about Guatemala, in no particular order and not at all related.
Ten years ago, Guatemala ended its thirty-year civil war. That means that everyone you meet here between the ages of 15 and 45 grew up in an environment that threatened, and frequently erupted in, violence that remains practically unimaginable to us. This holds particularly true for the Mayan communities of the Altiplano, where a large number of massacres were perpetrated by the military (and occasionally by the guerillas) and entire towns disappeared, the inhabitants either wiped out or forced to relocate and buildings and fields razed to the ground. It is difficult to begin to understand the impact that those thirty years have had on the country, its culture, and the psychology of its people.
From 1945 to 1954 Guatemala went through a period of political and social enlightenment, under the leadership for the first five years by a philosopher and specialist in education. He initiated reforms in education, health, and welfare that were unparalelled in Latin America at the time. His successor carried on the program until he was ousted by a US-backed incursion from Honduras. As I understand it, he had to be removed because of his plans to deliver small parcels of land into the hands of the Guatemalan poor. At any rate, this intervention essentially constituted a continuation of previous policy and set the stage for the next fifty years of American (and generally Western) foreign policy designed to ensure that the region's resources should be exploited for the benefit of American interests and a small local elite, rather than used to advance the general welfare and prosperity of the people of these countries. As far as I can tell, this is the reason that much of Latin America remains mired in poverty while the rest of America has prospered. Not, as has been suggested to me, because of some advantage conferred on the USA and to a lesser extent Canada by some vaguely described cultural qualities that promote hard work, risk, and competitiveness.
The kids are damn cute, often staring in wide eyed wonder at the gringos, and quick to smile or laugh.
The people here are SO helpful. Everywhere we went, there was always a few people willing to take the time to help us find whatever we needed, whether it be a bus, a boat, a hotel, or a restaurant, and they simply wouldn't take no for an answer. And this in a country that apparently boasts 3% unemployment!
While I was in Guatemala, there was a trial going on, the circumstances of which I find in a variety of ways revealing of the strange nature of politics and the rule of law in this country, of the progress made and of the long way still to go. There is a gentleman here by the name of Efrain Rios Montt who ruled Guatemala for a brief period in the early 1980s following a coup. In the fourteen months of his rule, some 70,000 civilians were killed or "disappeared," many others subjected to torture, rape, and displacement, and at least 400 villages ceased to exist. The campaign against the Maya during his rule has been widely if not universally recognized as genocide.
Despite this, Montt has remained the head of a powerful party in Guatemala through most of the past decade. He is barred from running for president by Guatemala's 1985 constitution which, rather sensibly, prohibits the candidacy of anybody who has participated in a coup. Nevertheless, his party regularly commands control of parliament and shadowy military militias remain loyal to him. Then, a couple years ago he successfully mounted a legal challenge to the constitution allowing him to run. By this time, however, even the US can no longer stomach the man Ronald Reagan referred to as "a man of great personal integrity." The state department comes out and says that "in in light of Mr Ríos Montt's background, it would be difficult to have the kinds of relationship that we would prefer." Fortunately, in the event, he came a distant third.
At any rate, coming back to the trial I mentioned, five members of the FRG, Rios Montt's party, were accused of public disorder and threatening behaviour. It seems that following a congressional hearing at which Rigoberta Menchu, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and the woman who brought the plight of the Mayans to the attention of the world, was called to testify, these five FRGistas hurled insults and threats at her. One of the five was a nephew of Rios Montt, others actually congresspeople. They had the bad judgement, furthermore, to be caught on tape.
So here you have a situation in which the supporters of, essentially, a war criminal, are publicly insulting, using racist epithets, and threatening a Nobel Laureate. Their are chilling pictures and recordings of this event. They are brought to trial, and have the nerve to try some exceedingly flimsy explanations and excuses on the court. They are convicted, and given jail sentences which can be bypassed by paying a fine.
On the positive side - Montt lost the election, his supporters were convicted in the trial, and the FRG appears to be on the decline. Once he loses his legal immunity as a high ranking politician he may end up being indicted for human rights viloations, although this seems unlikely (this matter of immunity from prosecution for high ranking officials seems common in Latin America, and strikes me as disturbing. Do politicians have similar protection in Canada and the US?).
On the negative side - his supporters are still confident enough in their power that they felt comfortable publicly assaulting a nobel laureate. Montt can still be active in politics, instead of being universally reviled, and can still wield power in the shadows through his militias and his party.