Our week in Guatemala is over. It has been an unreal journey, and speaking for ourselves, the most difficult experience we’ve ever gone through. It was full of emotions in positive and negative aspects, but they were undoubtedly extreme in every case. We leave today uncertain. What is enough to do for a people who have been perpetually excluded, repressed and massacred for 36 years, and then silenced? Can anyone do enough? How do you repair a nation that has since the European invasion been unflinchingly racist, exclusionary, and constructed around an inequality and separation of class and privilege that has continued without respite through the present day? What can we actually do, as students, as part of the future of the United States, as witnesses to the horrors of this land? We leave with heavy hearts, laden with visions of the pain of widows, victims of natural disasters, and disadvantaged youth. Yet our hearts are also heavy with the hope that springs from these disenfranchised, as they will not be repelled by the past in pursuing a greater life for themselves as a community. The passion and action of men like Manuel Reanda, Jorge Morales Toj, and Mario Polanco show that these people are not waiting for outside help, because it has never come, and will never replace their own experience and dedication.
The problems in this country afflict every level of society. They destroy individuals, families, and communities. The institutional disregard for the majority of Guatemalans is beyond imaginable. The impunity of the military as an institution in regards to its role in the genocide that occurred here is sickening. The cycle of corrupt, elite-controlled governance at the national level acts as a great wall for any legal attempts for social change, justice, and healing. This injustice extends beyond the borders of this nation, with the blood of hundreds of thousands of innocents on the unchecked hands of the American government. The blatant denial of the truth by all responsible is the greatest insult to the survivors and the slaughtered. The greatest injustice is the inescapability of this horror by innocent, poor, disregarded individuals.
One of these individuals is don Andres. At age 82, he was digging for his two daughters and grandson who were brutally strangled with ropes by the military in July of 1982. As the hollow sound of the pick axe pounding the black soil increased and the remnant of green cloth emerged, he broke down sobbing, and so did we. The pain that don Andres demonstrated in that moment was the outpouring of 25 years of grief. For 25 years, he was unsure of where his two daughters. Given this country’s history, he was sure they were dead. The same goes for his 9 month old grandchild. This life that would have been 25 years long today, years longer than ours, was not allowed to begin. As we exhumed the bodies of all three, our hearts bled for don Andres. But after stepping back, we realized that his is not an isolated case. There are 500,000 don Andreses.
Don Andres’ family was one of many destroyed by the conflict. Jorge Morales Toj, an indigenous rights activist, told us his personal story of how he was confronted with his Uncle Balthazar’s tortured, slaughtered corpse at age 8, the same age that his youngest son is today. From there, he was forced to flee his hometown while his father stayed behind. After fleeing, his family was further split as the children lived in different houses to avoid discovery. Jorge never saw his father again as he was killed before he could flee. While he retold his painful story, Jorge’s eyes welled as he recalled the destruction of his family in front of his two sons and young daughter.
Jorge has now dedicated his life to fighting for indigenous rights. The gulf between the ladino and indigenous populations in Guatemala remains wide and constant. The economic disparity in this country is historic. There have been no efforts toward economic integration of indigenous people. The economic power in Guatemala was seamlessly transferred from European invaders to their elite ladino descendants. The only exception to this rule of birthright dominance is foreign investment. Elite ladino and foreign capitalists have always seen Guatemala’s society, government and military as tools to maximize their own economic interests with no regard for the indigenous population of the country. We saw this first hand, having spent the weekend in Santiago among a community of which 97% lives in extreme poverty on the same lake as the Campero Chicken magnate family’s estate worth 35 million quetzals. Don Andres makes less in a year than the cost of a dinner for a family of four at a steakhouse we dined at in Guatemala City.
The ladino economic elites surrounding us in that restaurant are responsible for the inequalities that persist. They have controlled the government, which has in turn controlled the military for decades. Both institutions continually deny their roles in the brutal massacres that occurred throughout the highlands of Guatemala, and in doing so deny the very existence of those who still suffer the pain and trauma of their experiences today. The democracy in Guatemala is a total farce, because the scarcity and isolation of wealth (often in criminal or exploitative business) of the country results in political control being fully in the hands of wealthy kingmakers. Without the financial support of these self interested elites, no politician can run and win a national election campaign to change the country’s status quo. Further hurdles to change include corruption at all levels of government, institutional self interest and theft, and the shadows of intimidation and violence that continue to hang over the politics of Guatemala.
The violence that haunted this country for so long was perpetrated by the military. In response to the vast inequalities that plagued the country, a guerrilla force began a war to try to take power from what they saw as their oppressive, non-representative government. The military response was thunderous. They set up barracks in rural indigenous towns, and began terrorizing the communities they invaded. In Comalapa, the military barracks we congregated at yesterday doubled as the military’s body dump. 217 bodies were found at the barracks, along with tales of rapes and torture. Many of those buried at the Comalapa barracks were difficult to identify because they were kidnapped from other areas, brought there, and killed. The Guatemalan military saw its actions as part of a war being waged to protect their state, and treated the indigenous communities the guerrillas fought to represent (though were not affiliated with) far worse than a hated enemy. The inhumane policies of the military included forced disappearances (a strategy devised by Adolf Hitler, and taught to the military by their American backers), meticulous documentation of their targets, and a total disregard for the families’ need for closure. The military blames its role in the armed conflict on its duty to protect the state, which was under siege by guerillas. American anti-Communist zeal made the combat more ideologically polarized and less forgiving towards innocent bystanders. Despite these excuses, the degree of inhumanity needs to be acknowledged and addressed by the institution.
The policies of the Guatemalan military were directly taught and funded by the U.S. because of its specific interests in the region. Anti-Communist sentiments spread fear throughout the world, leading to the skewed understanding of Guatemala’s internal issues as a fight between Communism and capitalism. This myth was perpetuated by American capitalist interests in Guatemala, especially in the case of the United Fruit Company (today Chiquita Bananas), which had a great deal of influence within the government. On the 5th of May 1985, eleven years before the Guatemalan Peace Accords were signed, U.S. President Ronald Reagan stood at the Bergen-Belsen death camp in Germany proclaiming the following: “All these children of God, under bleak and lifeless mounds, the plainness of which does not even hint at the unspeakable acts that created them. Here they lie, never to hope, never to pray, never to live, never to heal, never to laugh, never to cry…. And then, rising above all this cruelty, out of this tragic and nightmarish time, beyond the anguish, the pain and suffering, and for all time, we can and must pledge: never again.” Yet during this time, Reagan knowingly funded the Guatemalan military’s inhumane campaign against the indigenous people.
As Americans, we should be ashamed and feel obligated to heal the great nation of Guatemala. We should feel obligated to invest in the future of the indigenous and disenfranchised of Guatemala. We should reject the empty words of Ronald Reagan and instead heed the pleas of Jorge Morales Toj: “We all have the responsibility to ensure what happened in Guatemala does not happen elsewhere. In war, everyone loses. Only when we understand this can we live in peace in harmony.”