Una Corta Historia De Guatemala

A short history of Guatemala…

Well, there were the Mayans and other indigenous peoples. Millions and millions of them for thousands and thousands of years. It was a country of many cultures, many languages, many complicated political relationships…some very democratic and inspring…some less so…but people were living their lives and growing and learning and changing…socially evolving as all humans do…or at least try to do.

Then there were the Spanish…looking to expand their holdings…and thanks to Columbus…they came here, and they tried to conquer. They brought their weapons, they brought their diseases…and they brought their bodies…which many used to rape the women of this and other countries…tearing apart communities, disrupting gender and family systems, and creating new “races” of peoples in the Americas…ladinos. The Mayans resisted…they fought hard…but here in Guatemala one group of Mayans sided with the Spanish against another…and ultimately all were defeated…yet many made for the mountains…where they have been living in resistance for more than 500 years.

With the Spanish came the church and all of it’s elements…conversions, land confiscations (lots and lots of land!)…some progressive priests…and many, many brutal ones. A colonial economic system was set up that was designed to feed Spain…and that it did…first with plants like indigo which was used for dyes…then with finca after finca of coffee and bananas.

And as the system evolved, just like in the US, Guatemala won its independence…but it remained a country based in dependence on other countries…Spain, the US, Germany…(there are a lot of German roots among the rich classes here). Much land was transferred among few hands, from the church into the pockets of landowners, who set up a variety of systems (including slavery…and there are people of African descent here too) of forced labor…to use the endless supply of indigenous people to generate larger and larger profits…this is an old story…but one that still doesn’t get told often enough…

And, unique to Guatemala, there was one particular US company that ended up getting a really special deal: the United Fruit Company…which was mainly in the banana business, but also basically owned the country, all of the electric systems, and the whole railroad system on the side…and the rich were very very happy.

But, eventually, in the mid 1940’s, the people got tired of this obviously criminal situation, and there was a revolution…and new presidents rose up who began reforming the system…bringing more democracy (“literate” women could now vote…which was pretty clearly aimed at excluding indigenous/poor women), and, finally…land reform…more land in the hands of ordinary people…less land in the hands of the super rich and the corporations.

The United Fruit Company didn’t like this…so they contacted their friends in the CIA (and this is documented…there literally were FRIENDS in the CIA…or close to it), and the US began to make a lot of noise about Communist Guatemala…

…and so, there was a coup…the army took control of the government…executed tens of thousands of people…activists, intellectuals, artists…and they turned back all of the reforms that had been made in the previous ten years…

…and for ten years they held their power with an iron fist, making the rich richer…as is almost always the story…until a couple of more progressive army officers decided they wanted democracy back…and so they tried to launch a new coup…

…but it was unsuccessful, and these men were forced to go into hiding…and thus was born the guerilla.

And for 36 years in Guatemala, there was a civil war. As a way of dealing with the guerilla, the Guatemalan government used every possible tactic of terror, torture, and control possible…all with the support, training, and (especially in the 60’s) the direct leadership of the United States. To be an activist in Guatemala was to commit suicide…as hundreds of thousands of people were disappeared (kidnapped and never seen again), more than 400 villages were completely massacred…because the government had a strategy of “draining the pond to get at the fish…” that is, kill all of the people surrounded the guerillas, and then killing the guerillas.

In the late 70’s, during Carter, US-Guatemala relations got more sketchy…because of Carter’s asking for stronger human rights guarantees in relationship to arms sales…and so direct military aid from the US stopped…but really it was just funneled through Israel…and so you can see pictures of tanks and airplanes in Guatemala with Hebrew writing…and the Guatemalan military actually was trained by Israeli advisors about how to deal with the restless Mayans (and the Mayans in the mountains were the base of guerillas…they are also the majority…they are also the most poor and oppressed in the country…and they are also the people who were most targetted for killing…it was genocide…plain and simple genocide)…and so the tactic of completely destroying a Mayan village, then relocating the survivors into new “model” villages where no one spoke the same language…and thus couldn’t organize…this tactic was actually called “Palestiniazation” (can you believe that?!!!).

In the 80’s, under Reagan…the murder could get back on track with full US support…and during 1982-83 alone, something like 80,000 people were killed…while the US congratulated Guatemala’s progress towards democracy in fighting communism (and the guerillas were not Communists…in any strict sense…socialists yes, most of them, but not communists).

During this time, wealth just stayed in the same hands, more or less, and actually got concentrated further upward…and by the mid-80’s 87% of the population lived below the Guatemalan poverty line…87%…

In 1985, there were some democratic reforms…and the military no longer directly ran the government (that is, on paper), and this led slowly towards the peace talks, and the peace accords of 1996…which I plan on reading because they are supposed to be beautiful…but they have just barely, barely been implemented.

Right now, the former organization of the guerillas, the URNG, is now a leftist political party…which is extremely small, weak, and divided…and so…this is kind of the attitude that is most common around here…people who are tired, cynical, thinking about themselves more or less…and many many leftists who are wonderinf if anything was gained from that 36 years of fighting…since even now, the land situation has not changed. However…there is less racism against Mayans than there used to be…and there are some strong feminist movements here, and some really strong women in positions of power…but overall the sense I get is that people are tired, depressed…and lacking hope…

Political discussions here are not excited debates and discussions about visions and ideals…my observation is that they are far more grounded…mostly denunciations, critique, complaints…about corruption, about crime (and this is important, because the war didn’t really end, it just got transferred in the streets, into the street crime of corrupt cops and growing, growing, growing gangs…which, incidently are some of the same gangs that Latino kids at my school claim)…

And when I was at the mountain school…walking down the narrow muddy paths of the villages, watching the kids play in the street…I imagined the sight of the army rolling in…killing all of these incredible kids…burning the parents alive in the tiny church…and leaving the few survivors left to die in the hills. I couldn’t help seeing this as I walking down those streets, and I didn’t want to prevent myself…because this blood, this blood here in Guatemala is almost directly on US hands…and though it’s not my fault as just one American…it is my responsibility to know this history…to reflect on it…and then, having done that…doing what I can to support these people here in fixing their horribly, horribly messed up country.

It is very much a country living with post-traumatic stress disorder…and no one wants to talk about it.

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi


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god, jeremy, what a brutal story. thank you so much for sharing it. i’m astounded by the ignorance that we are taught in the u.s. and the ways that we are made complacent (and complicit) by it. it is astounding to me that this country has done so much horrible shit in the world and we never have to pay for it, we, most of us, never even have to know about it. it is infuriating! my whole body is full of anger and grief right now and i know this is nothing compared to what it feels like to live it. the trauma of it all just feels unbearable. i’m so so sorry that we’ve done this and that in our privilege we allow it to continue. i hope you and i can use our lives to try to change these things.