¡Saludos desde Guatemala!
HAPPY 2012 FROM THE LAND OF THE MAYANS!
I hope that this finds you well and in good spirits. I have managed so far to stay mostly well and in very good spirits. The work I am involved in here is very inspiring and empowering. Being here has been a wonderful way to closeout 2011 and begin 2012. This work is by no means easy, as it requires a lot of travel and running around the country, but it as fulfilling as I could ever hope for. It has become very apparent how much easier, in some aspects, it is to fight for your rights and remain alive in the US. This is something that a few months ago, with all the difficulty of the Occupy movement, I wouldn’t believe that I would be saying now.
In the US, you can be jailed for the rest of your life and sentenced to death as a political prisoner. Here you’ll just be outright killed without any just investigation after the fact.
For example, Emilia Quan a 33 year old sociologist employed by accompanied organization CEDFOG, was on her way to conduct work related research in a Huehuetenango town when she and her driver were kidnapped, beaten, and murdered for researching something someone didn’t want them to know- her murder case has had very little progress in the year since her death. Because of this unfortunate reality, our work as international accompaniers of human rights here in Guatemala is significant and important. For me, it has given me the chance to use my American privilege in a productive manner with real results. As foreigners with connections to our home countries, we are privileged with additional protection by the simple fact that we are not Guatemalan.
As the first of my communications home, I feel it is necessary to provide some historical context for how I ended up here. Guatemala is, was, and will continue to be a predominantly Mayan nation. I make this assumption based on the fact that non-indigenous people are a minority in this country. Yet, as we will see, Guatemalan governing policy is comparable to the United States policy regarding Native Americans and the use of genocide and economic control.
Before the Spanish conquesting Alvarado brothers, sent by Hernan Cortez, laid claim to the place that has become Guatemala in 1523, it was home to several empires now collectively known as the Mayas. Their empires stretched from the Yucatan Peninsula, to the Mexican states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Chiapas to Honduras and El Salvador.Incredible works in math, astronomy, philosophy and architecture can be attributed to the Mayan empires. The abandoned cities and their great temples at Tikal, Palenque, and Yaxchilán are enduring proof of what some scholars deem one of the most advanced civilizations to have ever flourished on the American continent.
Following the Spanish conquest, a social hierarchy was established that persists in Guatemala to the present day. These classes were European criollos or landowners and generals, who held domain over ladinos, or Guatemalans of mixed European and indigenous descent or hispanicized native Guatemalans, who in turn exerted power over Mayancampesinos or farmers. This racialized order was upheld through growth of the latifundiosystem that through vagrancy laws required all campesinos to work a certain number of days of the year. The latifundio system is very similar to the plantation system used in the US. Simply put, it entails a large plot of land owned by criollos or wealthy ladinos which usually consisted of many former smaller plots of land owned by natives and once consolidated is worked by forced labor mandated and regulated by law, also known as slavery. This sort of external investment directed by foreigners since the time of the Spaniards still drives the Guatemalan economy. Foreign landowners have, and continue to control much of the development on Guatemalan soil, exporting the profits made from this land. Only once in Guatemala’s history were the people relieved from this unfortunate reality. The ‘Democratic Spring,’ from 1944-1954 under the reign of Jacobo Arbenz and José Arevalo brought equal rights for all, a minimum wage, the right to organize, and fair land distribution. It was this last victory however that lead to Guatemala’s democratic demise. The agrarian reform that sought to redistribute unused land for landless campesinos, was aimed at the United Fruit Company’s expansive 91,000 hectares of unproductive land. Rather than simply accepting repayment by Arbenz' government for the land’s property value, the United Fruit Company decided to install a new president.
It certainly did not work in Guatemala’s democratic favor that the Dulles brothers were major shareholders of the United Fruit Company. John Foster Dulles was the US Secretary of State, while his brother Allen Dulles was the director of the CIA and a board member of the company in 1954. It was with the loss of their many thousands of hectares of unused land that the allegations of Communism in the Guatemalan government began to arise in American press. In 1954 the US trained and backed Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas toppled Jacobo Arbenz’s democratically elected government, installing in its place a military junta. Using the popular ‘red scare’ tactics of the time, the US was able to maintain it’s economic power in Guatemala charging Arbenz’s government with spreading Communism to the North American continent. Military dictatorship continued to govern Guatemala until 1986; the most horrific years however were when Romeo Lucas Garcia and Efraín Rios Montt were in power.
From 1981-1983 ‘scorched earth’ tactics were used to terrorize Guatemalans into rejecting support for the Guerilla movement that had been building over the years. The tactics were based in Maoist ideas that the Guatemalan communities were like water to the fish, or guerilla movement. Consequently by removing the water for the fish, the movement could be defeated. The reality of this however served as genocide of Mayan people. Using training and strategies learned from the School of the Americas, now known as WHINSEC, in Fort Benning, Georgia, the Guatemalan army systematically raped, murdered, tortured, and burned Guatemalan communities into submission. It is for these crimes against humanity and charges of genocide that many former military officers are now awaiting trial.
Following the overthrow, Guatemala would not elect a president until 1986 with Vinicio Cerezo, and instead was governed by military dictatorships throughout this time. Throughout military rule, the wealth that managed to stay in the country became concentrated within 8 families that maintain that power today. Those families now have a huge influence in Guatemalan government by promoting the neoliberal capitalist economic model. This model that is commonly accepted in our globalized world encourages multinational corporations to take advantage of natural resources in ‘3rd world’ countries, export the profits made from that natural wealth, and call it development. Unfortunately for Guatemalans, indigenous people’s ancestral lands are considered to be rich with highly marketable, lucrative natural resources. A key example of this that I am currently encountering is the Canadian Mining Company GoldCorp.
GoldCorp, as you may imagine, is a gold mining company, with presence throughout Central America. The charges against them are the same in Honduras as the are in Guatemala: they are poisoning the local water, and causing widespread illness in the population, all the while further impoverishing already impoverished areas. As a result, there aremany community organizations that fight to get this company out of their communities, but are met with threats against their life, and sometimes death.
Just this past month, the little progress that one organization that we accompany, in concert with several other organizations of San Miguel Ixtahuacan and Sipacapa, San Marcos, was reversed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). In May 2010 the Marlin Mine in San Miguel Ixtahuacan and Sipacapa owned by GoldCorp, was ordered to suspend operation of the mine by the IACHR due to the mine’s contamination of 18 surrounding communities drinking water and increasing skin conditions of local children. The IACHR earlier this month reversed its decision stating that;
"No proof exists that there is any situation presenting a threat of serious or imminent harm to persons … and therefore there does not exist a situation of extreme seriousness or urgency to avoid irreparable harm to persons as a result of operations at the Marlin mine."
Meanwhile the mine’s gold extracting process exposes thousands of people a day to air and waterborne cyanide and arsenic, producing a wide range of illnesses not present in communities prior to the mine’s opening in 2006. GoldCorp claims that the skin conditions arising are not due to the increased exposure to lethal chemicals, but rather “Bad hygiene,” “lack of water,” and “fleas.” The mine uses up to 250,000 gallons of water per hour, the same amount that a rural campesino family uses in a lifetime. It is no wonder that within the past few years 8 community wells have dried up.
The mine employs 2,300 people daily, 70% of which are indigenous people from the surrounding area. It is they that are exposed to these hazardous conditions both at work and at home.  And it is their work that the mine exploits when in a free trade world simply farming can no longer support a family. An impressive resource to find out more on how this same exploitation process has occurred over the past hundreds of years, check out Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America.
GoldCorp is just one company imposing megaprojects in Guatemala. These projects of multinational companies often work in concert with the 8 families who hold most of the power and land in the country. Those 8 families who hold most of the domestic wealth also influenced the recent election that saw ex-military intelligence boss Otto Perez Molina gain the presidency for the next 4 years. Under his intellectual authorship, hundreds of people were ‘disappeared’ and tortured for information. He managed to win on a security and jobs campaign promise. While he was elected, his campaign and support was based in the wounds of the past that he helped create.
During his time as a G2 (military intelligence agency) Commander, he directed both military and police death squads leading to the horrific deaths of Guatemalans. These tactics served as the means to more easily control the population through fear, while creating the structure to allow for a full transition to the neoliberal economic model. This model, in many ways directly contradicts the rich cultural traditions of Mayan people as it exploits the land and, as we have seen, promotes violence and competition. As a result, the people of Guatemala continue to fight for their irrefutable human rights against the government working with multinational corporations for personal profit and the profit of the 8 most powerful families. This is where my work, and the work of the organization comes in.
As international human rights accompaniers, we are simply present as international observers laying witness to the struggles of those with the will to exact change. It has been a really powerful experience for me to be involved in so far. I have met incredible people and had very moving conversations with people simply talking about their experience. The legacy of the scorched earth campaign in the 1980s is still very present in the minds of the human rights organizers as it continues to affect their work everyday. Whether that work involves judicial processes prosecuting ex-military officers, or protecting their land from the bulldozers of free trade economics, the threat of violent silencing is ever present.
While my work here is only a fraction of a drop in the bucket, my work conveying information to the US is incredibly important to me. So, I hope this hasn’t overloaded you with information but there is just so much that I have learned within the past few months that I want to share. In addition to all the facts I’ve learned, I’ve also been living in an incredibly beautiful country! Everyday I am working in the departments of San Marcos and Huehuetenango I am surrounded by breathtaking views of the mountains and valleys. As a Chicago native, of course every mountain is beautiful to me, but these are especially gorgeous. There have been days where I’ve woken up, and looked outside ecstatic to be awake because the view is so amazing. I have been in very cold towns high above the clouds and tropical weathered towns with rivers cleaner and bluer than I have ever seen in my life. With a landscape like this it is no wonder that Guatemala’s treasures are so coveted. It has been great to be able to travel around so much and see this country, regardless of how exhausting it can get.
Having had the ability to travel throughout my life, I have become accustomed to long rides staring out the window left alone with my thoughts. With all the traveling that we do through the organization, I find myself not only learning a lot about where I am, but also a lot about myself. These past two months have really allowed me to become acquainted with who I am beyond my academic self. With all of the experiences I have been having, I cannot thank you enough for your support in getting me here, doing this incredible work. I hope to hear back from you with any questions, concerns, suggestions or comments that you may have. There are certainly many interesting things going on the US right now so any news you’d like to send over, be it personal, community, or political, it would be much appreciated. THANKS FOR READING!
For more, regularly updated, information check out NISGUA’s website and blog:
SEPA B&B fundraiser earns
$8,000 in 2011
By Judy Kruger
SEPA’s B&B program has touched many lives since beginning in 2004. Over the past seven years eighteen generous Oberlin area hosts have opened their doors to welcome 345 families netting the Santa Elena Project of Accompaniment $40,873. This amazing amount of money has given us the ability to help many appreciative individuals in Guatemala. It has provided:
- student scholarships
- salaries for competent teachers
- project assistance through village councils who ask for and receive a hand up from SEPA
- subsidies for humanitarian accompaniers who provide a measure of safety to Guatemalan witnesses as they bravely give testimony to force accountability for past and present atrocities.
The SEPA B&B is a simple operation. Families in the Oberlin area offer a comfortable, moderately priced room and a light breakfast to families visiting Oberlin College. SEPA is the recipient of $60 for each room per night. Caring hosts often provide an insider’s view into Oberlin College campus life and the Oberlin community at large as they meet interesting guests from throughout the United States and beyond.
One hostess put her feelings simply;
“I don’t have much money to donate to SEPA, but it is so easy, fun, and interesting to open my home to guests. Thus their donation
is my donation.”
As a result of the past two newsletters several new people have volunteered to host B&B guests. I encourage you to think about helping SEPA in this way. If you have a comfortable spare room, and if hosting is something you’d like to try, please contact Judy Kruger 440-775-2330 or firstname.lastname@example.org
(put B&B in the subject line).
There are many current and past hosts to thank for their generosity: Nancy/David Brown; Mary Beth Eben; Barb/Bill Fuchsman; John/Linda Gates; Lori Taylor/Helmut Jungshaffer; Judy/Bob Kruger; Barb Mehwald; Mary Jo/David Ockenga; Sue/Joe Palmieri; Marjorie/Floyd Ramp; Judy/Tom Riggle; Diana Roose; David Snyder/Debra Roose; Linda/Harold Slocum; Kathy/Donald Spencer; Dianna Steele/Peter; Mary Anne/Bill Trost; and Glennys/Joe Weiss.
Very special thanks go to Lori and Helmut, who have opened their home to guests for one day to as long as two weeks and have done this 351 times over these 7 years. Also another thank you to Lori Taylor and Judy Riggle who have filled in as coordinators in my absence.
Stay up to date on current events in Guatemala!
2011 was an eventful year in Guatemala. On November 8th ex- general Otto Perez Molina was elected as Guatemalan President.
A recent appeal from the Director of the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission urges people to contact the US government to continue its support of basic human rights and to monitor the actions of the Molina administration.
Recommended informational sources:
Guatemalan Human Rights Commission:
Inter Religious Task Force for Central America:
North American Congress on Latin America:
Annual Fund Update:
Annual fund letters were mailed to SEPA supporters in November. To date 30% of you have responded with a donation. The annual fund makes up 20-30% of SEPA’s annual revenue. Please give generously!
Donations should be mailed to:
192 Forest St.
Oberlin, OH 44074