Understanding Guatemala's Cultural Heritage: Extending Protection to Colonial Art in the Memorandum of Understanding between the United States and Guatemala

Article excerpt


The issue of stolen Colonial art, specifically religious statues (icons), has become a growing problem in Guatemala in recent years. In the last ten years there have been over 500 thefts of religious artifacts. (1) Most of the artifacts that have been stolen have been shipped abroad to private collectors and museums. (2) To see how this phenomenon has been an increasing problem, it is enough to look at the list of stolen and recovered objects kept at the Guatemalan Ministry of Culture and Sport. (3) The list shows that Catholic churches around the country, especially in smaller communities, have been targeted by thieves. (4) For example, in 2005 the Catholic church of Aldea San Jacinto in Chimaltenango (5) had nine pieces stolen: a figure of the Virgin Mary, a figure of St. Joseph, a figure of baby Jesus, two angels, a wood-carved bible, a figure of St. Jacinto and two crowns. (6) As Juan Antonio Valdes said: "In the last few decades, there has ... been a constant theft of valuable images, gold ornaments, and gold and silver religious objects from Catholic churches." (7)

Thefts of Colonial art have become as common as those of Pre-Columbian artifacts, and the number grows every day. Although the main body of law regarding cultural property in Guatemala, the Ley para la Proteccion del Patrimonio Cultural de la Nacion [Law for the Protection of the Cultural Heritage of the Nation], (8) refers to Colonial art as essential to the cultural patrimony of Guatemala, international agreements do not seem to be as concerned with protecting Guatemala's Colonial art as they are with Pre-Columbian artifacts. Among such international agreements is the bilateral agreement between the United States and Guatemala entitled "Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Republic of Guatemala Concerning the Imposition of Import Restrictions on Archaeological Objects and Materials from the Pre-Columbian Cultures of Guatemala" ("MOU"), (9) which focuses only on the protection of archaeological objects representing the pre-Hispanic cultures of Guatemala.

A possible explanation for this pre-Hispanic emphasis rests on the idea that Guatemala's true cultural heritage is pre-eminently Mayan, and, thus Colonial art, which is per se European, is not equally representative of Guatemalan culture. This misconception is in stark contrast with the way in which Guatemalan law approaches its own cultural heritage, where pre-Hispanic and European patrimony are both considered fundamental for the culture of the country.

The inconsistent protection afforded Guatemala's cultural heritage has left Colonial artifacts on the sidelines and has afforded them very limited international protection. Clemency Coggins (10) addressed the issue in her comments on the most recent extension of the MOU in 2007:

   Guatemala is the only country from the original governing lands of
   the Colonial Spanish vice-royalties (the others were Mexico, Peril,
   and Colombia) that has not included the Colonial heritage in an MOU
   with the US. Everywhere in Latin America the theft of this historic
   heritage is growing to equal the scale of the archaeological
   depredations. (11)

As will be discussed further below, Guatemala needs to make a case to include Colonial artifacts in the MOU. To do so, Guatemalan authorities must demonstrate that Colonial artifacts are essential to Guatemala's cultural heritage and that they constitute "ethnological material" under the definition of the agreement and that Guatemala is trying to protect them.

This Article presents a discussion of Guatemalan cultural identity and proposes that, in order to better protect Guatemala's cultural property, Guatemala's cultural heritage must be understood to include both Pre-Columbian and Colonial material. As a result, the MOU should be amended to include Colonial art within the definition of "ethnological material" and, therefore, within the scope of its protection. …


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