Cleaned Slate? Mayan Troubles in Guatemala

By Wang, Huilin | Harvard International Review, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Cleaned Slate? Mayan Troubles in Guatemala


Wang, Huilin, Harvard International Review


Inequalities that exist between the indigenous Mayans of Guatemala and the white population have received minimal international or domestic attention. Dominated by Ladinos, a minority group of westernized Mayans, and Mestizos, who are people of mixed indigenous and European ancestry, the indigenous Guatemalan community suffers from exclusion in the political and economic spheres of their governance.

In Guatemala, there are 23 recognized Amerindian languages spoken by 40 percent of the population. Hundreds of years have not erased the Mayan identity from many Yucatan groups in Guatemala and its neighboring countries. Many Mayan women continue to weave the same patterns and symbols of their ancestors, and most of the Mayan people live in rural, traditional communities. These Mayan descendants have established close-knit communities that rarely interact with the other ethnic groups in Guatemala. Some Guatemalans have even discriminated against the indigenous groups for their ethnic exclusivity. Furthermore, the Roman Catholic majority looks on native religious practices and the mixture of ancient and Protestant tradition practiced by the rural Mayan communities with disdain.

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Like the American Indians in the United States during the 19th century, the indigenous peoples of Guatemala are facing lives of isolation and poverty. According to the United Nations, 70 percent of all Guatemalans living in extreme poverty are indigenous people. In Latin America, Guatemala is second only to Brazil in the magnitude of the socioeconomic disparities between the rich and the poor.

Much of this income gap results from past internal conflict. Frequent fighting between far-right military groups and leftist radicals made Guatemala the battleground for one of Latin America's longest civil conflicts. After the failed overthrow of General Ydigoras Fuentes by junior military officers in 1960, a sect of leftists took shelter in Cuba for a few decades and conducted a guerilla war against the government. Of the 200,000 people killed in the conflict that lasted from 1960 to 1996, 140,000 were Mayan natives. Today, 250,000 people are considered "displaced." Most of those "displaced" are members of indigenous communities devastated by land seizure and scorched earth policies of the government during the 1980s. Entire indigenous villages, like Plan de Sanchez in 1982, were destroyed by paramilitary troops who sought to suppress leftist insurgencies. In 1999, the UN-sanctioned committee--the Historical Clarification Commission--found evidence that a majority of the individuals who were raped, tortured, or killed during the conflict were indigenous and that 85 percent of the perpetrators were members of the Guatemalan army. Victims were children, elders, and pregnant women.

In 1995, directly preceding the end of the conflict, former Guatemalan President Ramiro de Leon Carpio promised to reform Guatemala's human rights record with the indigenous peoples. His peace process and the resultant 1996 Peace Accord included signed agreements on human rights, indigenous rights, and resettlement of displaced victims of the war.

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