Official Guatemala

The visit of Canada’s Governor General provided a glimpse into “official Guatemala.” Before lunch at the Palace I was told to stay clear of the windows in the adjoining room because protesters were being evicted from the street below. Taking advantage of the concentration of security personnel, a little palatial “tidy-up” was in order. The salon where we met under a massive chandelier—two and a half tons of Czech crystal, bronze and gold—was adorned with stained glass windows depicting the Spaniards on one side and pre-Colombian natives on the other with not much mixing between. On one side “nosotros,” on the other “ellos.” Two exceptions to this Apartheid. Mestizos were depicted along with creoles learning from priests in the second university established in the Americas (the San Carlos, in Antigua). And the leader of the Kaqchiquel Indians was depicted making an alliance with Don Pedro Alvarado against his Mayan brethren.

In the soft light filtered through these windows we gathered with the President and his wife, leaders of the supreme court and congress, ministers and vice-ministers, ambassadors, and the GG’s retinue. The GG, fresh from a visit to Mexico where she reportedly inspired President Calderon to break into song, has a powerful effect on people. President Colom was evidently smitten. He gave the sort of somnambulistic discourse that falls so soft on the ears, and is so lacking in a point or purpose as to deprive the brain of any possibility of actually understanding let alone remembering what was said. The GG, on the other hand, gave a speech that was quite beautiful and touching, if equally lacking in any hardness or substance. The take away message seemed to be “we believe in Guatemala.”

Back at my table the conversation was a little more pointed. There was much grousing among Guatelaman officials about the unwillingness of the benighted local elite to pay taxes, their indifference to the need for a stronger state—nay, their preference for one that is weak and corrupt—the need for social policy, to educate the masses and other worthy goals. But when the conversation turned to Canadian mining, the blame fell squarely on the NGOs that are dividing Guatemalans against each other and stirring up complaints where otherwise there would be none.

And then it was over, and there was a hasty march to the motorcade. Curious pedestrians watched as a fleet of SUVs and buses and armed soldiers raced off the next meeting, and then went back to their Christmas shopping, enjoying the book fair in the Plaza de la Constitucion, or playing chess in the open air. The protesters had been cleared from the front of the balance and a new security perimeter extended. Progress had been made.

Follow the GG’s visit here.

In a forensic lab, a learning moment

The forensic laboratory in the Centro de Analisis Forense y Ciencias Aplicadas (CAFCA) is a small brightly-lit room with flat white tables upon which forensic anthropologists piece together skeletal remains. Their goal is to determine the sex, height, and age of the deceased, data that are combined with information about the site of the exhumation and testimony from affected communities in order to determine the victim’s identity. Over 200,000 people were killed during the armed conflict in Guatemala, and 40,000 to 60,000 “disappeared.” The CAFCA laboratory has already contributed to identifying over 580 people, a drop in the bucket compared to the magnitude of the genocide, but each skeleton is what remains of a person who can be returned to their communities for burial so that family and friends can grieve. Each victim of a massacre entitles members of his or her community to reparations, so that the bones, properly identified, can trigger judicial processes. They might even one day contribute to bringing perpetrators to justice. One day. To date there have been precious few trials of human rights crimes, none of high ranking officers.

We crowd into the laboratory. There is a little nervous giggling. We could be in an anatomy class. Miguel Angel Morales Reyes, chief of the forensic program in CAFCA, starts to explain his work. It begins to sink in that we are in the presence of a young man, a Mayan Indian, killed with a bullet to the head in 1982. After Morales finishes his description of how remains are identified he says “now I would like to ask you a question.” He then describes an exhumation of 17 bodies, each of which had a machete knife blow to the neck. The skeleton with the least trauma has 2 cuts, the one with the most had 17 cuts. “What kind of human being would do that?” There is silence. “Not really a human being” ventures one student. “Perhaps someone who had been involved in many other massacres.” Madness and bloodlust seem to be the best explanations. Morales then tells us the story that was recounted by the community. It was a remarkable learning moment for us all.

The army came into the village and an informant identified 17 people as subversives. The soldiers rounded up the remaining villagers and told them it was their job to “clean up” their own community. They then forced the villagers to kill their own friends and families. There we stood, in that room filled with bones, imagining a community forced to kill its own family and friends. Discussion ensued. What kind of justice is possible, when the lines between perpetrators and victims are blurred? In this case, would not individualizing responsibility merely add to the grief? While those truly responsible have eluded justice, many communities have had to learn to live together knowing that there has been impunity for those responsible and that perpetrators walk among them and are also victims.

In vivid and lucid presentations by Hector Soto, the Director of CAFCA, and William Ramirez, of the Justice Education Society in Guatemala, we glimpsed some of the ways in which the absolute impunity that reigns in Guatemala, coupled with the persistence of the conditions that led to the violence in the first place, has prevented the society from overcoming its collective post-traumatic stress. It is also present-traumatic stress, since violence and impunity continue today, and follow the same modalities and patterns as before (the rape and dismembering of women, for example), even as it has evolved into forms of violence and impunity that are less directly political (gang violence, drug-trafficking, corruption and criminality in the very highest levels of government).

Guatemala City Dump

Today we visited the Guatemala City dump. We passed “El Gallito,” a part of town controlled by drug traffickers, as we made our way to the municipal cemetery which overlooks the dump. This was a place used by death squads during the internal armed conflict. They would kill “subversives” and throw them into the ravine at the dump. We stood there and watched a microcosm of the great injustices that afflict Guatemala.

According to our expert guide, Fredy Maldonado, 3,000 people work in the dump everyday, and 21,000 live in the surrounding barrio. They now have to pay to get into the dump to scavenge, and the truck drivers take bribes to let certain people have first dibs. Municipal workers patrol the dump, earning about $300 per month. The stench of methane and sulphur penetrates nostrils and irritates skin. Worms, bugs, rats infest this world that Dickens or Hugo would have trouble doing justice (and I can’t even begin to convey). Nobody is allowed to live in the dump any more: too many areas collapsed taking the pickers with them, smothering them in garbage. Under the dump are subterranean rivers. Pickers can get about one dollar for 100 lbs of plastic. Many bring the garbage back to their homes to sort and sell. Earnings are lower now that the economy is slumping–there is less interest in recycled material.

After witnessing this horror, we visited a child care centre and school organized by a non-profit called Safe Passage that has done a remarkable job of taking kids, mothers and fathers in the neighborhood and giving them the chance to learn basic reading and math skills. They make jewelry from recycled material. So we did some Christmas shopping. This year I will read Dicken’s description of want and ignorance in A Christmas Carol with some new and vivid images in mind.

After the visit to the dump we return to class and watched “Manos de Madre,” a documentary about the people who work in the dump who have been involved in Safe Passage.

To learn more about Safe Passage, go here.

November 25: March to Protest Violence Against Women

On Wednesday we decided to attend a demonstration in Guatemala City to protest violence against women. We arrived at the Plaza de la Constitucion around 10:00 am. The Plaza stretches out in front of an ornate National Palace, which was converted some time ago into a museum. The offices of the president were moved from the palace to a more secure location: the building that used to be a military barracks directly behind it. We arrived before the protesters marched into the plaza, which gave us an opportunity get our bearings. Wandering around the plaza we saw placards against the Salvavidas company, which has declared insolvency to avoid paying its workers; we met with hunger strikers seeking budgetary support for services for the elderly; and finally we came to the “wall of shame” which showed pictures of prominent men accused (none sentenced) of sexual assault, including two former presidents, generals, ministers, former guerrillas, and others. There was also a huge cloth mantel the length of a city block and 6 feet high with hand marks (symbolically saying “stop”) and the words “Yo tambien fui violada; lo hablo; me rebelo; y con otras, me defiendo” (“I too was raped; I speak; I rebel; and with others defend myself”).

Since the march had not arrived we wandered down the narrow downtown streets until we met the procession en route. There were caravans with big floats, and processions—some somber, others exuberant—representing all manner of associations and walks of life; there were old and young; men and women; white, ladino and native; gay and straight, even transvestites (and they raised the most eyebrows among the passers-by) who were remembering three of their friends killed in the last two months. Everyone seemed pretty sympathetic, even the cops. I’ve never felt safer on the streets of Guatemala City than I did among this group.

Once we got to the plaza we stood or sat and listened to speeches of uneven quality on a broken microphone, including a speaker representing people in Honduras in resistance against the coup. The thrust of the protest was to demand that the Guatemalan government take responsibility for that fact that violence against women is a huge problem in Guatemala: that it has not abated with the end of the internal conflict, and that, indeed, there is a direct connection between the ongoing abuses of women and the genocidal violence of that period. More than the speeches I was moved by conversations with a group of women from a village about an hour from Guatemala City who told me that their mayor denies the existence of violence against women but that they get action from the public ministry whenever they denounce an injustice simply because, while officials can ignore one complaint, they cannot turn a blind eye when a whole crowd of women turns up on their doorstep.

The class discussion that followed our participation in the march was both insightful and perceptive.

November 24: Visit to Canadian Embassy

On our second day we visited the Canadian Embassy. Embassy counselors working on political and aid issues made two excellent presentations. The history of Canadian involvement in Guatemala was discussed, as well as current aid efforts and bilateral relations.

We were shown how aid agencies measure extreme malnutrition with a sliding tape that measures the circumference of the upper arm of a small child and told that 11 percent of kids in certain rural areas of Guatemala are at risk of starvation. The conditions in these areas are as bad as in Haiti. What is most shocking is that Guatemala’s relatively high per capita income (it is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, but not considered among the lowest income globally) should mean that such extreme misery should not be a problem, and yet local elites regard such a humanitarian crisis as normal: “the Indians are always starving” they say. Some students were struck by the observation that the poorest and most vulnerable are rural indigenous girls, who may not have access to education or speak Spanish.

We had a substantial discussion of the degree and nature of Canadian influence in Guatemala, as well as how the Embassy works internally. Officials believe that Guatemala is a country where Canada can have an impact. Although small (pop. 13 million) and remote (albeit bordering on the NAFTA zone), Guatemala since the Peace Accords has grown accustomed to a level of international involvement that in other countries would be regarded as intrusive. Canada participates in a powerful consortium of donors. One of their frustrations is the incapacity of the state to even spend the money it is granted. The Guatemalan state is so weak that it is estimated that 30 to 40 percent of the country is not effectively controlled by the state. 70 percent of health, education, and security are in private hands. Marginal tax rates are low: paying income tax is basically voluntary and the main source of revenue is import taxes.

Students were especially keen to hear about Canada’s efforts to promote Canadian business, especially mining. The embassy officials characterized Canada’s role as, in essence, seeking to ensure Canadian business is treated on a non-discriminatory basis under Guatemalan law. Acknowledging that Canadian firms may be seen as part of a continuation of the foreign exploitation of natural resources that dates back to the Spanish conquest, embassy officials insisted that it is up to firms to show that they are different. Canadian firms must act in compliance with Guatemalan laws; Canada cannot at this point enforce Canadian policies on our companies abroad. This could change with bill C300, which would regulate the activities of Canadian extractives abroad. The embassy seeks to facilitate dialogue and its doors are open to all sides. It does not “lobby” on behalf of Canadian mines, but it does speak for them on certain issues.

Finally, officials observed that Guatemala is quite different from the rest of Latin America. It is less Latin, for one thing. It has a “left populist” leader who, in fact, is doing little to challenge the status quo; the government calls itself the first indigenous government in Guatemala, but only has one indigenous minister (who is, of course, responsible for the culture portfolio). In short, Guatemala is a “country of illusions.” On our way out, we spotted graffiti on a construction site across the street in front of the embassy that said: “Canadian mining out of our country!”

November 23: First day of Poli 332 in Guatemala

The first class began with a video: “Duel with the Devil,” produced by the Justice Education Society in the Law Courts of BC, which, as the Teacher’s Guide says, “takes us to the streets of Guatemala City where on a ‘bad day’ fifteen people can be found murdered.” The video describes violence in Guatemala from the perspective of the police, the criminals, the victims, judges, and lawyers. Judging by conversations with students, who watched with somber aspect, the description of the experience of a young rape victim was probably what had the greatest impact. The video does a great job of emphasizing the costs of violence, which, in addition to the direct loss of life and limb, include loss of mental health, loss of opportunities to study, or to work, and other costs associated with access to justice in a system stacked against those without power or wealth. The video led to a very interesting discussion of the rule of law, social exclusion, structural violence, inequality, and, of course, our role in all of this.

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