Guatemala: Solidarity Activists Head for Trouble

By Stoll, David | The Christian Century, January 4, 1995 | Go to article overview
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Guatemala: Solidarity Activists Head for Trouble


Stoll, David, The Christian Century


Why did you bring this gringo to take away our land?" the villagers challenged my driver. The question did not come as a surprise. For seven years, I've visited Guatemala to interview survivors of political violence. North Americans and Europeans have usually been welcome, but now that may be changing. As the last country in Central America with a war between an army-dominated state and a guerrilla movement, Guatemala is attracting thousands of human rights activists, who may alienate more Guatemalans than they dream possible.

It's not hard to see why the internacionalistas are coming. Despite three civilian presidents since 1986, Guatemala is still known as a death squad state run by one of the most abusive militaries in the hemisphere. The army makes speeches about human rights, but it continues to persecute the left, giving the guerrillas of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union (URNG) a rationale for fighting on from the hills. Even as "democratization" opens up room for foreign activists, Guatemala still offers a clear-cut struggle against injustice.

Many of the new European and North American activists practice "accompaniment." That is, they use their cachet as foreigners to protect Guatemalan dissidents from the security forces. But their license has limits, as suggested by the hysteria over foreigners allegedly kidnapping children to harvest their organs. So credible are these rumors, at least to many Guatemalans, that a mob beat a North American woman almost fatally. Until that point, fomenters of the hysteria had included left-wing journalists, who then decided that the mobs were being stirred up by the army to scare off foreign activists. Whoever is to blame, the organ-harvesting scare suggests how easily the politics of victimization can turn against foreigners.

Accompaniment will become more complicated because the army and the URNG guerrillas failed to keep their promise to sign a peace agreement by year's end. One obstacle is that the URNG never recovered from the army massacres of the early 1980s, leaving it without the popular support needed to extract concessions from the government. Hence the URNG's inclination to continue fighting ("by waging war, we fight for peace"), which keeps the above-ground left and its foreign allies in the shadow of a failed insurgency. In 1995 the limited opening of the past several years could come to an end. That is when what remains of a shrinking electorate (79 percent abstained from the last vote) is likely to return an evangelical dictator to the presidency. Everything about General Efrain Rios Montt - his scorched-earth campaigns in the early 1980s, law-and-order sermonizing, and relative popularity - horrifies the left. He will surely take a harder line than the current president, a former human rights ombudsman.

Accompaniment is also being complicated by underlying social conflicts which cannot be reduced to the dichotomies of solidarity thinking. Solidarity work with Guatemala has long meant stepping up international pressure on the army by blaming it for as much as possible. Unfortunately, that tends to give newly arrived activists the idea that every significant conflict can be reduced to the army versus the people, with "the people" represented by the political organizations with which they happen to work. The left has been all too happy to agree, by telling foreigners that hostile peasants are being manipulated by the army That peasants might have grievances against a failed revolutionary movement doesn't enter the picture.

Some of the confrontations involve land, an issue as old as the warring Mayan kingdoms whose descendants make up half the country's population. Because of the obvious challenges posed by the Guatemalan army, peasant competition over land has only recently begun to trouble human rights activists. But by failing to move beyond an "army versus the people" paradigm, activists are blundering into the middle of old peasant feuds in which they will only lose credibility.

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