Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Public Memory and Political Power in Guatemala's Postconflict Landscape

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Public Memory and Political Power in Guatemala's Postconflict Landscape

Article excerpt

Landmarks and memorials in a landscape, overt or discreet, play a powerful role in telling us about people's values, history, struggles, and successes. Cultural geographers have a long and rich history of recording and "reading" the landscape for both its obvious stories and its subtler ones (Lewis 1983). The types of landscapes and landmarks studied by geographers have varied widely. Traditionally, landscape studies have focused on material features related to indigenous and ethnic cultures, such as vernacular architecture, religious icons, settlements forms, sacred spaces, and agricultural landforms (see, for example, Sauer 1925; Jordan 1982, 1985; Domosh 1989; Kniffen 1990; Hobbs 1995). More recently, socially and politically oriented landscape studies have examined messages communicated by buildings, landmarks, and memorials (Craig 1978; Cosgrove 1984; Harvey 1985; Lowenthal 1985; Hershkovitz 1993; Gillis 1994; Fallah 1996; Atkinson and Cosgrove 1998; Till 1999, 2003). Most of these studies focus on landscapes in developed nations and within the context of contestation, but not on open insurgency or warfare. Postrevolutionary or postconflict landscapes in countries like Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, or Guatemala have received less attention from geographers. A partial exception is the article by Kenneth Foote, Attila Toth, and Anett Arvay (2000), which analyzed the change in political monuments and historical shrines in Hungary after the fall of the communist government in 1989. Even Hungary, however, contrasts with these other countries in that the recent transition from communism was largely peaceful.

Perhaps the absence of postconflict landscape analyses is not surprising, given that, in areas where military conflicts subsided only recently, landmarks are less common and much more subtle. Power relationships in such landscapes may still be "settling," so that no one side can claim public space in which to construct obvious landmarks. States and their citizens may not agree on what or how events should be remembered, thereby delaying construction of memorials or other landmarks (Till 1999). Postconflict landscapes are often not easily accessible to outsiders who ask questions about past violence, for local residents who have witnessed brutal massacres may be hesitant to talk about the violence and about how they plan to commemorate and remember past events (Montejo 1987; REMHI 1998). Thus, reading postconflict landscapes can be challenging simply because of the absence of overt public landmarks and memorials.

However subtle or limited the scale and number of landmarks, examination of those that do exist in postconflict landscapes can provide important indicators of past and present political and social relationships. The presence, placement, and prominence of these landmarks can tell the observer about who "won" or, if there are no clear victors, about the continuing struggle for power. In the case of Guatemala, although the state successfully destroyed the fighting power of the armed opposition, the government of Alvaro Arzu Irigoyen (1996-2000) signed a United Nations--monitored peace agreement in 1996 that mandated the reduction of army numbers, among other reforms such as the creation of a fund to compensate victims' families (Jonas 2000). But the state "victory" remains tainted for much of the Guatemalan citizenry because of the egregious human-rights violations that persist. Many people, especially in rural areas, see the conflict that smolders on as a simple reflection of the elites protecting their economic and social interests by eliminating those individuals and groups who question the power structure within Guatemalan society (Diocesis del Quiche 1994; Le Bot 1995; Kading 1999).

As a result, power within this landscape as reflected by landmarks continues to be subtly negotiated and evolving between rural and urban, rich and poor, Catholic and Protestant, military and civilian. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.