Yesterday, my coworkers gave a wonderful presentation on Guatemalan history to give our incoming students some much-needed context for the work that we’ll be doing. The country’s history is long and complicated, but I’ll try to summarize a bit and draw a few connections between the country’s historical past, contemporary situation, and the work that I’m doing here today.
I’ll start with the Civil War, which lasted for over 30 years – from 1960 -1996. The war was prompted by a slow-brewing guerilla resistance force, which began in pockets of the Western highlands and slowly spread around the country in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s, the conflict exploded under the military government’s “Scorched Earth Campaign,” during which the government sought to brutally and forcibly eradicate all guerilla resistance and opposition. All in all, over 200,000 people were killed or disappeared, and 400 communities were completely destroyed – the majority of which were indigenous Mayan communities in the ixil triangle (a trio of three towns including the town where our organization was founded, Nebaj).
Guatemala thrives on informality. As a Type A, hyper-organized, multi-tasking young American – less than a month out of college – this is something that’s been hard for me to come to terms with. But what I’m starting to see is that even if I can’t fully comprehend the system…it’s not really for me to comprehend. True, there may be ways to run things more efficiently, or perhaps in a more top-down manner, but if it works for Guatemalans themselves – which in many ways, it does – then looks like it’s up to me to learn how to manage my own life and my own work. And maybe also force myself to relax, be more patient, and have more faith in things working out (or at least in the beauty of a Plan B, and C, and D…)
Take the transportation system, for example. You won’t find a set schedule, route listings, or fees anywhere – yet somehow everyone seems to know how the system works. The busses (camionetas) for different locations line up on different street corners, and come consistently (unless they don’t…which also happens). And linking up with the camioneta system is an even more intricate system of microbusses and pick-ups that will pretty much take you door-to-door to any location you need to get to. Try to make that work anywhere in the states!
Well, here we go again… Just last week, former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt was convicted of genocide – a watershed moment for Guatemala, for Central America, and for the world at large. But this being Guatemala, the story is never really quite over.
On Monday, Guatemala’s top court overturned the genocide conviction of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt and ordered on Monday that his trial restart, so it looks like we’re back at the beginning once again.
As I prepare for my departure in exactly one week, this trial has continuously reminded me of both the potentials and challenges that lie in Guatemala’s immediate future. In many ways, the country has come a long way since its Civil War, and it’s an exciting time for me to throw my hat in the ring and contribute to a change-making, inspiring organization like the one I will be working with. Yet at the same time, my (just completed!) Berkeley education reminds me that the healthy dose of cynicism I’ve developed over these past four years didn’t come out of nowhere. Especially in a country like Guatemala, change is going to continue to be frustratingly slow and full of road-blocks, no matter how many “do-gooder” people or organizations are present to help push that change forward. The challenge, then, is learning to balance that cynicism with both hope and realism and respecting the country’s limits along with its opportunities. It won’t be easy, but I’m eager to get started!
Last Friday, former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity – a monumental moment for both Guatemala and the world, as this was the first time in history that a national tribunal convicted a former head of state with charges of genocide. This could set an important precedent for other countries dealing with similar cases, by serving as an example to other countries “that have failed to hold accountable those individuals responsible for serious and massive human rights violations.” Importantly:
The problem with trying people for genocide and crimes against humanity is usually not a lack of evidence. The issue, throughout Central America, is how to bring war criminals to justice when they continue to hold significant political power.
Along with the ruling, the judged instructed prosecutors to launch a new investigation on “all others” connected to these crimes – an investigation which could also implicate Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina.
For more information on the ruling, check out the following links:
After a first round victory, on November 7th, ex-General Otto Perez Molina won the second round of Guatemala’s presidential election with 54% of the vote, despite his record of human rights violations.
With his “mano dura” (iron fist) campaign strategy, Perez promises a strict crack-down on crime and drugs, attributed to Guatemala having one of the highest homicide rates in the world.
Notably, a woman, Roxana Baldetti, was elected vice-president – a historical first for a country known for deep patriarchy and discrimination against women. However, voter turnout was unimpressive – less than 50 percent – with “a large percentage of voters abstaining or voting blank. This is a high contrast to the 69 percent voter turnout at the first round elections on September 11th.
In light of the recent presidential election, and with the second round coming up in November, political candidates have recently been photographed wearing elements of traje – the traditional dress of the Maya – and clothing embroidered with traditional Mayan motifs. According to the Latinamerican Press:
The message that these candidates are trying to send is ‘look, I’m one of you,’ something that indigenous organizations have described as “racist” and “offensive”, especially when the politicians attired in Mayan garments, such as Pérez Molina, of the right-wing Patriotic Party, or PP, and an Army retired general, have alleged ties to human rights violations against the indigenous population during Guatemala’s 36-year-long civil war.
In addition to their intrinsic beauty, the brightly-colored blouses and skirts that make the Maya’s traje have a distinct cultural and traditional purpose. Each piece of traje is hand-woven and embroidered in a painstaking process that takes weeks or months, and the designs and patterns are unique to each community and municipality. Wearing traje thus allows Mayan women to represent the unique cultural identity and history of their community, as well as to demonstrate solidarity with Mayan culture as a whole.