Revisiting Guatemala: Confronting a Violent Past, a People Find Miracles in Present

By Roberts, Tom | National Catholic Reporter, August 30, 2013 | Go to article overview

Revisiting Guatemala: Confronting a Violent Past, a People Find Miracles in Present


Roberts, Tom, National Catholic Reporter


Part 1 of 2

GUATEMALA CITY * Julia Esquivel, internationally known poet and longtime activist, lives quietly in a pleasant home, her front yard filled with blooms, in the heart of Guatemala's capital. The 82-year-old, who penned a searing prayer of lament and beseeching at the height of barbarity here during the 1980s, was driven into exile for eight years for opposing the government. So she doesn't arrive at hope lightly, but one late afternoon in June, she spoke in emotional terms about her hope for the future of Guatemala.

"There are people who have been victims of violence, who have suffered terrible violence, women who have been raped, who today are working with other women to process the rage that they feel and to recover their essential humanity," she said. "That to me is a miracle."

"The other thing that seems to be incredible when I think about it is the communities, rural communities, that continue to organize themselves and as they organize they stand up against the exploitation of the mining companies," she said, referring to clashes between mostly indigenous communities and mining companies over land use and environmental issues. "It is amazing. How is it possible that after everything they have experienced, all that they have suffered, these communities have the strength to unite and resist? It's admirable."

Martin Rodriguez Pellecer, younger by 50 years, was born about the time Esquivel went into exile. As editor of the online investigative journal Plaza Publica, a project initiated by the Jesuit-run Universidad Rafael Landivar in Guatemala City he embodies 21st-century reasons for hope in the country's future. Rodriguez has a master's degree in Latin American studies and formerly worked for Prerzsa Libre, one of Guatemala's main daily newspapers. On a sunny afternoon in June, he sat in a university food court and spoke openly of the enterprising journalism the relatively new publication has undertaken--deep digs into such issues as child labor on sugar plantations, and government and business corruption. With a staff of 15, including nine journalists, tucked into office space on this beautiful campus, Rodriguez is tackling issues today that continue to emanate from the cultural, political, social and economic imbalances that once fueled hideous violence.

Esquivel and Rodriguez represent two points on an arc of history that saw Guatemala move from an experiment in democracy and independence from 1944 to 1954 to the target of a CIA-engineered overthrow of an elected government during the anti-communist nervousness of the 1950s, to a string of military dictators that culminated in unspeakable carnage, described by the United Nations as genocide, in the 1970s and 1980s. Peace accords were signed in 1996, but that was a bit like crafting an agreement to stop natural disasters. The ongoing inequity and racist attitudes toward the indigenous Mayan population didn't end with those accords and the tremors continue to be felt beneath the apparent calm of today.

My first step into the arc of Guatemala's modern history occurred in November 1981 with the aid of Dennis Smith, a Presbyterian lay missioner who served as guide and interpreter. It was only in retrospect that I realized the brief visit occurred during one of the most intense periods of violence in Guatemala's 36-year civil war.

We didn't see any violence that trip, only the results of it. Blown-up restaurants and buses, bullet-pocked and exploded police stations, huge trees felled as a means of blocking roads, all mostly the work of armed resistance to the government. Relentless and nearly paralyzing fear and suspicion run rampant: all institutions of civil society, from universities to churches, were under constant assault, most of it the handiwork of the government and its various military and paramilitary forces. Over days of clandestine interviews during a large loop of travel that took us from Guatemala City to Quetzaltenango in the west to the country's southern coast and back, we heard tales of almost unimaginable state-sponsored violence: disappearances, torture, mass slayings, nighttime killings. …

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