Elite vs. Grassroots Perspectives
Seen from above, Guatemala is profoundly unstable, barely governable, not because of social unrest, but because of widespread frustration. From the grassroots, however, Guatemala is sustained by all kinds of daily efforts, initiatives and advances, big and small.
Juan Hernández Pico, SJ
Nearly ten years after the Peace Accords were signed, and already halfway through the third government since then, the view of Guatemala from the peaks of political power is not encouraging. A pervasive, uncontrollable violence continues to thwart the peace-building process that the 1996 accords sought to initiate.
The landowner’sGuatemala’s poverty problem will clearly not be solved through sustained economic growth alone, even if it were faster in coming than it has been. We also need a far less iniquitous, unequal and unjust distribution of the income that results from growth. In its 2003 report on Guatemala, the United Nations Development Program warned that to reach the goal of cutting extreme poverty to no more than 10% of the population by 2015, as established in the Millennium Development Goals, we would need a sustained per-capita GDP growth rate of 2% per year. But if we were to increase equity at the same time, we could reach that goal with a growth rate of barely 0.3%.
age-old ideal of success
If this equitable growth process had begun in 2000 and we had achieved an annual 2% per-capita growth rate, the Millennium Development Goal of reducing extreme poverty to 10% could have been achieved in 2008—eight years instead of fifteen. If we start from the hypothesis that equity is an ethical value incrusted—or not—in a society’s cultural “habits of the heart,” we would have to wonder whether the large landowner’s continuing place in the Guatemalan imagination as the human ideal of prestige and success is not one of the keys to the shamefully unequal distribution of wealth here.
The visceral resistance to paying taxes and the persistence of the image of the landowner as the height of prestige and success are no doubt closely related. In 1979, big plantations, which represent just 2.1% of the total number of farms in Guatemala, owned 64.5% of the land. In 2002, according to the UNDP report, the richest 20% of the population owned 64% of the total wealth, while the poorest 20% owned only 1.7%. In both Taiwan and South Korea, two of the “Asian Tigers,” land reform was a first step to economic growth and human development, but the kind of land reform that would break the back of Guatemala’s extreme conservatism, seemingly so firmly imbedded in the culture, is rather improbable. Shouldn’t we then try to envision another kind of social change that could provide the material basis for a change in the “habits of the heart,” so the value of equity can find a place in our society?
Pulled in opposite directionsIn January of this year, President Oscar Berger’s government seemed at risk of being pulled apart by the varying opposed interests that fought to control it, unless he could control and balance them fairly. I analyzed the situation in these pages with the metaphor of a man condemned to die by being drawn and quartered, pulled in opposite directions by runaway horses. These “horses” were business interests, the interests of organized peasant farmers including indigenous peasants, the interests of the former Civil Self-Defense Patrol members, the interests of a divided Congress, the interests of drug traffickers and organized crime, and the interests of transnational companies championed by the Bush administration, especially through the free trade agreement. Nine months later, it is important to consider what has happened to the horses of that analysis.
CAFTA: The centerpieceThe interests of the transnational companies appear to have succeeded in dragging the country in their direction. President Berger put a great deal of pressure on Congress to approve the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). He refused to meet with social groups that opposed it and protested against it in the streets. The National Police, with their anti-riot squads and the army’s support, violently put down the demonstrations—one person was killed in the melee—and kept them far from the President’s office. This was the first time such repression was used against a demonstration during Berger’s government.
Congress ratified CAFTA and the President signed it into law. One can only wonder how many representatives had read the 1,500-plus pages of the agreement before voting for it. Only former President Cerezo, the single Christian Democrat in Congress, and the small leftist benches—the URNG, the New Nation Agenda and the recently-formed “Gathering for Guatemala”—voted against it. Only after CAFTA was ratified did the government begin to acknowledge that in addition to advantages for some sectors and individuals, CAFTA would have some serious disadvantages for others. It promised to send Congress a package of proposals to compensate for these disadvantages and minimize the damage that would be done.
US geo-strategic interestsTransnational interests have been pushing hard on several other issues as well, including big hydroelectric projects, efforts to organize the granting of infrastructure mega-projects through a concessions law, and contracts with transnational mining companies (in which some national investors, allegedly including members of President Berger’s own family, have shares). Bush’s government has tried to make the most of its victory. Although the United States has gained a great deal with CAFTA, this battle was not waged for immediate economic gain in Central America. The entire regional economy is equivalent to only 0.5% of the US economy. The US government now sees the signing of several bilateral or multilateral free trade agreements as the slow but inexorable path to the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in the face of opposition to it from Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela. In addition, the protected introduction of transnational investments in Central America would provide Bush’s government with a magnificent Trojan horse for its security agenda.
Longer term, Central America—together with Panama, with which negotiations for another free trade agreement are now underway—continues to be a vital geo-commercial bridge, not only because of the canal, but also because of Panama’s terrestrial opportunities. President Berger and Salvadoran President Antonio Saca have already announced one project to make the most of these opportunities—to unite the Salvadoran port of Acuajutla on the Pacific with the Guatemalan port of Santo Tomás de Castilla on the Atlantic.
That bridge, which runs from through Mexico, Panama, Central America and Colombia, linking the United States to the Amazon’s enormous water and hydro-electric reserves, is of crucial geo-strategic importance. Our region is no less important to the United States in geo-cultural terms, and CAFTA also aims to bring about the cultural homogenization so important to globalized information capitalism, by encouraging the same consumption patterns everywhere.
Guatemala is the second frontierUS Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Guatemala to try to get some commitments from Berger’s government in the fight against terrorism—mainly to establish Guatemala as a second southern front to block the passage of illegal immigrants and the infiltration of terrorists. Such a front would not only be terrestrial but also maritime, with Guatemala’s territorial waters used to patrol for ships carrying Chinese, Indian, Ecuadorian and other migrants.
Although Guatemala did not sent troops to Iraq, the security agenda of Bush’s war against terrorism has been imposed on the country, opening the door once again for the Guatemalan army, now undergoing a conversion process. All of this is taking place at a time when violence is increasing around the hemisphere, including by civilian “vigilantes” against Central American migrants in the southern and southwestern US states, including Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California. Are we becoming a sniveling neocolonial state, with our leaders serving foreign interests?
Big business in the global carGuatemala’s big business interests, some with financial, productive or commercial ties to transnationals, have also pulled Berger’s government in their direction. None of them have anything to fear from the new circumstances created by CAFTA.
The sugar producers—Herrera, Vila, Whitmann and a few other wealthy families, who have also bought factories in Nicaragua—won out over one of the US producer groups that fought hardest against CAFTA. The same is true of the textile producers who run maquilas, like the Close-Fernández family. The Novella cement producers have been associated for some time now with one of the largest transnational cement producers in the world, headquartered in Switzerland. The Castillo Group, initially formed around the Cervecería Centroamericana brewery, works in real estate, urban development and related projects in cooperation with the Multiinversiones Group, started by the Gutiérrez family with Pollo Campero to give KFC a run for its money. The Castillo Group is also collaborating with the Poma Group of El Salvador in hotels and other tourist businesses, and one of its branches, which owns the Pepsi Cola concession in Guatemala, also works with beer factories in Brazil.
The bankers—the Castillos, Granais, Gonzálezes, etc.—are following the lead of the large Salvadoran banks, led by Agrícola Comercial and Cuscatlán, which are the most heavily capitalized and successful in Central America. Several years ago, the large Páiz department stores, owned by the La Fragua Group, joined one of the world’s largest food distributors, the Dutch Ahod group, which is now selling a substantial part of its shares and may be bought by Wal-Mart.
Guatemala’s La Prensa, dominated by the Girón, Sandoval and Fernández families, is on the verge of selling or being forced to sell a large part of its shares to Ángel González, a Mexican citizen residing in Miami who owns most of the country’s television stations, or to the Gutiérrez/Multiinversiones Group.
Like ARENA, with military backingThese big businesspeople have traditionally had strong influence over Guatemala’s various governments, even those, like Alvaro Arzú’s, that tried to keep them at bay. Members of some of their families, like the Herreras and García Granados, have even co-governed with the military. For the last several years, under Berger and Arzú, they have tried to govern vicariously and to form a rightwing pro-business party in the style of ARENA in El Salvador. This is precisely what the Grand National Alliance (GANA) was trying to achieve.
There are persistent divisions among them, the sharpest perhaps signaled by the Chamber of Commerce’s withdrawal from the umbrella business organization CACIF. It was the Chamber of Commerce’s turn to hold CACIF’s rotating seat on the Monetary Board, but the rotating system broke down this year, and this, coupled with the members’ intensive campaigning around the candidacy of current foreign secretary Jorge Briz, led to the split. Briz is not the only candidate. Dionisio Gutiérrez, a member of the Multiinversiones Group and director of the weekly political television show “Libre Encuentro,” recently hosted a dinner for a bevy of conservative politicians, including former Salvadoran President Armando Calderón Sol, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who is now again running for President of his country, and former president of Spain, José María Aznar. Nineth Montenegro, the leader of Encounter for Guatemala, was also there. Notwithstanding her solid leftist credentials, she is obviously in need of funding if she wants to build her new party and run for President.
Moving behind these figures from the political and business worlds are the retired military intelligence officers, who are striving to regain some of their lost power. Those in the know say that General Marco Tulio Espinoza, defense minister under former President Arzú, is again working for Arzú and his son, Roberto Arzú García Granados, from the basement of the Guatemala City government offices. They say that General Francisco Ortega Menaldo has offered his intelligence experience to the group around Alvaro Colom, and that General Otto Pérez Molina is working on his own behalf and that of Dionisio Gutiérrez.
The catastral law: To a large extent, the government’s future lies in the hands of Guatemala’s splintered Congress. The negotiations that paved the way for GANA’s Jorge Méndez Herbruger to serve as Congress president during the current session—made possible only because the ultra-rightwing Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) agreed in exchange for one of the congressional leadership posts —also paved the way for some of the laws of most interest to Berger’s administration.
A kind of land reform?
First among these is a proposed property registry or catastral law. Negotiations among representatives of business and peasant organizations, including the Agrarian Platform, preceded the bill, although some charge that Congress’ Agricultural Commission is not respecting the agreement they reached.
The catastral law is one of the main laws needed to fulfill the Peace Accords. It remains to be seen whether the version actually passed honors the negotiated agreement, which stipulates that “excess” properties beyond those legally recorded in the Property Registry but identified through a catastral study will go to the state to be redistributed among landless peasants or those with only very small plots. Such a law, coupled with the return of property illegally appropriated by the military in the Petén and Alta Verapaz in the 1970s, would be the closest thing to land reform currently possible in Guatemala. The other possibility is that Congress will fulfill the letter but not the spirit of the Peace Accords by authorizing a catastral study merely to legalize the current property holdings, which would do nothing to resolve the agrarian problem or head off the coming crisis.
The second law of vital interest to the administration, which has already been approved and signed by the President, establishes a framework for implementing the Peace Accords. Although this law must also be analyzed to ascertain its true reach, it appears, at least on paper, that for the first time, the Peace Accords are no longer merely a political pact but have rather become the law of the land.
Democratic securityStill pending is the package of security-related laws, as well as legislation to mitigate the disadvantages of CAFTA for the Guatemalan economy. The security laws are currently being discussed in Congress. In light of the ever-increasing violence in the country there is no debate about their importance, but the conflicting business, political, and criminal interests involved have turned the drafting and approving of the laws into a steep uphill climb.
or national security?
Five bills are currently under consideration: one on arms and munitions, one governing private security service companies, one governing the penitentiary system, one on intelligence and another to establish and govern the operations of the Civil Intelligence Office.
Legislation to address the brutal crisis of criminal violence is urgently needed. Nonetheless, an analysis done by the Myrna Mack Foundation reminds us that solving this crisis requires a multi-directional approach, especially when the contents of these laws “may be defined not by a careful study of the situation, but rather by personal agendas, possible agreements with certain sectors”—for example, some of the companies that compete in the private security market—and “pressure from the hidden powers and partisan interests that see this issue as an inexhaustible source of electoral capital.” The analysis notes with great concern that, yet again, the concept of “democratic security” contained in the Peace Accords is giving way to renewed faith in the concepts of “national security,” “repression” and “a hard hand.” More than a few state sectors support these concepts, as does a significant segment of the public that is so frightened by the violence they may not have fully thought through the consequences of such policies.
In this situation, it doesn’t not help at all that retired General Sergio Camargo, a GANA representative, sits on the congressional security commission handling these bills and is shaping them in line with his military intelligence mindset.
Gender violence: The starting pointWe have to find another way to oppose violence, beginning with programs that combat gender violence, which is probably the source of all other kinds of violence in our patriarchal system.
The fight against AIDS could be waged more effectively if it were tied to the fight against the cruel patriarchal oppression and marginalization—or even exclusion—of everything seen as weak, sick, different, poor or indigent. Taking up the fight against violence also means being aware of the cultural roots of militarism and the way it has been absorbed by the patriarchal system. It means fighting against domestic violence, sexual abuse and the violence that encourages drug use in a hypocritical culture whose only thoughts on fighting it involve prohibition and criminal prosecution, and thus only drive it underground, fueling global criminal capital. We cannot forget that the material basis for violence lies in lack of income and dignified work, which are also the root cause of the ever increasing migration.
Mega-projects and It’s not clear how much has been done on the proposed package of legislation to mitigate the disadvantages that CAFTA represents for the Guatemalan economy. Not only did the government never admit that there would be any disadvantages, President Berger even insisted while the treaty was being negotiated that opposition would melt “once the big bucks start rolling in.” Progress on the laws might be affected by other political events, since the jockeying is about to begin around the election of the new Constitutional Court and the new attorney general. The concessions bill is still up in the air, though it was presented as essential to financing several long-awaited mega-projects, including the new beltway around the capital, the northern cross-country highway and the extension of the Atlantic highway, among others. The government is no longer talking openly about mining concessions, big hydroelectric projects or a new airport—it seems to have decided to improve the existing one instead—but these projects still linger like ghosts, arousing fear and suspicion. This is especially true since the President’s commissioner for mega-projects, former Vice-President Luis Flores Asturias, is a presidential hopeful for 2007.
the defense of water
Finally, the water bill is meeting strong grassroots opposition. In the department of Totonicapán, people even blocked the Pan-American Highway twice in the same week in September. There is widespread fear that water will be privatized or that if responsibility for this basic need is handed over to municipal governments, they will be allowed to subcontract management and distribution of the service need to powerful, unscrupulous companies.
Former civil self-defenseAmong the social forces tugging the Berger government in all directions, it has had the most luck reining in the former Civil Self-Defense Patrol members. The Constitutional Court lent invaluable help in this matter by deciding on three occasions that it was unconstitutional to pay them compensation in cash. With the government standing firm, the movement has been losing force due to splits over how to respond. Most of its members are ready to accept payment not in compensation for their work during the war, but rather for current work in reforestation projects. Those opposed no longer appear to have the strength to challenge this arrangement.
patrol members losing ground
The war victimsThe Presidential Commission for the Indemnification of Victims of the Armed Conflict has also been affected by internal disagreements. Rosalina Tuyuc, the commission’s coordinator, has constantly insisted that victims should be compensated economically through direct payments, while its executive director, Rafael Herrarte, made certain decisions when Tuyuc was away in Geneva at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission that allowed payments to groups of victims that could get mixed up with funding for political parties or movements.
Tuyuc has also insisted that compensation should go beyond monetary payments to address the victims’ psychological needs and ensure public recognition of their condition as victims, through monuments and the naming of streets and schools.
Peasant and environmental It appears that organized peasant farmers have eased up on the government, since they have been quiet for several months now. It is not clear, however, whether their silence is the result of some pact with the government, a conscious decision to give it some time, or expectations generated by the catastral law. Nor has there been any news for several months about evictions of peasants occupying large estates. It is possible that a kind of quid pro quo has been established: we won’t take to the streets as long as you don’t evict us.
Meanwhile, based on ILO Convention 169, ratified by the previous government, a grassroots referendum was held in the municipality of Sipacapa in San Marcos regarding gold and silver mining operations being carried out by the Canadian company Montana both there and in the neighboring municipality of San Miguel Ixtahuacán . A majority voted against continuation of the mining. A referendum was also held in the municipality of Río Hondo in Zacapa on whether or not to permit the construction of a hydroelectric dam that would flood some of its towns and lands. Again, people voted down the project.
Environmental awareness is growing. Once informed, people tend to reject the idea of large hydroelectric dams, but do not oppose the construction of more numerous smaller plants, whose energy benefits compensate for the minimal damage done to the environment.
The rising cost of public transport as a result of higher oil prices is also threatening to elicit grassroots protests and even disturbances in some parts of the country. Teachers, who are once again demanding raises, have joined forces with those protesting the increased transport costs. If the government responds to these pressures by asking Congress to suspend the taxes on fuel distribution and sales, it will be taking a scandalously myopic view of the problem.
The “hidden powers”The Guatemalan government has again barely escaped being decertified by the US government for its inadequate efforts to combat drug trafficking. While noting that Guatemala is not doing much, President Bush nonetheless certified it, yet decertified Chávez’s Venezuela. There is no doubt that Guatemala’s capacity to fight drug trafficking is limited, especially because of increasing ties between the Guatemalan, Colombian and Mexican cartels. There is widespread suspicion in Guatemala that these cartels are associated with retired military officers and their dismantled death squads or other powerful groups. The most famous Guatemalan drug trafficker, who was imprisoned in Mexico, has escaped from jail and is on the loose again.
The extreme violence afflicting the country is often attributed to what are known in Guatemala as the “hidden powers,” which include the drug traffickers. However, recent tragic events in the country’s prisons, where imprisoned gang members were murdered, raise doubts. The Government Ministry alleged that the bloodshed was the result of a breakdown in a non-aggression pact between gangs, provoked by drug trafficking or the “hidden powers.” But in the congressional investigation, the representatives failed to ask Minister Vielman any relevant questions and it appears that markings on many of the gang members’ bodies suggest that this was a brutal social cleansing carried out by the police. Nor should we forget that the Historical Clarification Commission found that the “de facto powers”—in this case, those who lead the economy—participated in the repression during the war and put their facilities and employees at the army’s disposal in order to carry it out.
An in-depth investigation is urgently required. Otherwise, the “hidden powers” could become a convenient explanation for all unsolved crimes. This is especially important since the institution assigned to investigate such cases, the Commission for the Investigation of Illegal Groups and Clandestine Security Organizations, has apparently been abandoned, the victim of an outdated concept of sovereignty. Vice President Stein has just announced, however, that the government is planning to get it up and running.
President and Vice President haveThe jostling among all of these social forces has torn the government apart. There is no coherence between the positions maintained by the President and Vice President. President Berger is inclined to agree with national and transnational businesses, while Vice President Stein maintains that it is also important to listen to those who have only their labor to rely on.
strongly differing positions
Stein told Prensa Libre in April that if the national budget did not give enough weight to social investments and other social spending, more than a few members of government would choose to leave. When asked if he was among them, he replied yes. He later said he had been misunderstood, but his “yes” had a stronger impact than his later clarifications.
When the President proposed that the Military Hospital also serve members of the National Civil Police and Generals Quilo Ayuso, Ventura and Sosa Avila protested that the Military Hospital belongs to the army not the state, the President backed off, but the Vice President retorted, “Isn’t the army a state institution?” President Berger appears to have given Frank La Rué, head of the Presidential Human Rights Commission, the word that he wants no more ceremonies in which the state has to ask for forgiveness for the crimes committed by previous governments during the war.
But Vice President Stein attended the final burial of the exhumed remains of people massacred by the army in Río Negro, and cried during the ceremony. And while President Berger traveled to Taiwan to strengthen commercial ties with that nation, VicePresident Stein suggested that it would be a good idea to improve commercial relations with the People’s Republic of China. Finally, when Stein attended the recent UN summit in place of the President (who was having a minor operation), he recognized that the government has not done enough to fight poverty. The two men clearly have different views and sensibilities.
2006: Three scenariosSeveral members of Guatemala’s intellectual elite—some of whom are also politicians—are currently analyzing the possible scenarios for the country over the short and medium term. The main variables they are considering include economic stagnation or growth, political leadership or chaos, attention to social issues or a lack thereof, and the prevalence of either a culture of peace or one of violence.
There appear to be three likely scenarios for the future: one optimistic, one more or less neutral and one pessimistic. Each could occur in a weak, medium or strong form. Most of the analysts seem to agree on the neutral scenario, and on the likelihood that it will occur in a medium or strong form, which in the latter case would verge on the pessimistic scenario. More specifically, the analysts tend to present Guatemala as profoundly unstable, but not yet entering into a state of complete ungovernability.
Governments that don’tOver a long period of time a country or society can become ungovernable if its governments consistently do not govern for the common good, but only or mostly for the special interests of privileged minorities. Certain social forces almost inevitably end up privileged by the policies of any government. While conservative or rightwing governments tend to more consistently privilege business, the powerful classes and national or even nationalistic sectors of the population, progressive or leftist governments tend favor the working classes, those who do not wield power, and ethnic minorities or migrant sectors. For this very reason, a change that puts leaders who place a higher value on equality in government is more likely to increase a country’s governability than a long period ruled by leaders who support the predominance of the elite and with it, strident inequality.
govern for the common good
It must not be forgotten that political and economic power is related to culture, and especially to values or “habits of the heart.” The way culture hegemonizes society means that progressive political forces are sometimes subject to long periods of conservative domination. This also happens the other way around, although less frequently.
In modern societies, however, in which totalitarianism—and even the brutal authoritarianism of a National Security doctrine with a democratic façade—has lost its appeal, it is very hard for political leaders to maintain governability unless they make some serious, persistent efforts to address the basic needs of workers and other classes that have been excluded from power, such as ethnic or cultural minorities and migrants.
Hothouses of violenceThe clearest indicator of a country’s lack of governability is its level of violence, which can make daily life chaotic and virtually unlivable. This daily violence is rooted in the institutionalized injustice fed by the “de facto powers,” i.e. economic powers in alliance with political or military ones. It is also rooted in the militarism, corruption, discrimination, and criminal “hidden powers” that encourage violence. All of these factors can lead a society to a point where it has little if any respect for human rights and builds “illegitimate states” in the framework of an increasingly distant rule of law.
Daily violence is also cultivated in situations in which a large part of the urban and rural population lives in extremely vulnerable and marginal social, environmental and health conditions. Daily violence is sown and grows where there is for a sufficiently long period of time, little or no education, where children rarely learn at school, or learning isn’t aimed at the caring development of human potential or preparation for work. Daily violence flourishes where respectable work is scarce, forcing many people to migrate even as the doors of migration are being slammed shut.
All of these hothouses of violence propagate frustration and arrogance. The result is increasing violence in many areas of daily life, which discourages people from exercising citizenship and threatens to complete the vicious circle that can lead to ungovernability, which would result not only in possible social unrest but also the constant frustration of opportunities for democratic citizens’ participation.
An essay on lucidityJosé Saramago’s Essay on Lucidity is perhaps the most expressive, incisive parable of this civic frustration and the state’s intransigent response. In the municipal elections in the capital of an unidentified country, the vast majority of voters leave their ballots blank. In response to this challenge, the government declares quarantine in the capital and encircles it with a sanitary cordon, forbidding anyone to enter or leave. Blinded by its own conspiracy theory, it ends up assassinating the only woman who had kept her sight when the rest of the population was struck by an epidemic of blindness in Saramago’s previous novel Blindness, and who had witnessed how they all fought against each other to survive, literally striking out blindly.
The problem of ungovernability is not only that the majority of the population is frustrated and suffers the daily violence exercised by rulers and citizens blind to humanity, but also that the government treats them as hopeless cases, corralling them in their marginalized, unlivable neighborhoods or inaccessible rural villages with precarious health, poor education and little if any work. A society’s ungovernability lies not in “the rebellion of the masses” so much as in the failure of a government that founders on the rocks of its daily bureaucratic tasks, senselessly abuses what remains of its monopoly on force and lacks the courage to seek the common good. Meanwhile, a large part of the population stands shamefully by as the country crumbles.
But this isn’t the whole story. There is another, large part of the population that works every day in the city, the countryside or abroad. They organize and associate and have so much creative imagination that, despite the government’s failure and the lack of involvement of many of their compatriots, they are not only steering the country away from ruin, but also raising and improving it, making remarkable headway against hell and high water, against the winds of racism and the tide of inequality. But we rarely hear or talk about this view from below, which is gradually making headway against poverty.
Irrepressible social changeIn Guatemala, the traditional, exclusive idea of what constitutes citizenship—a concept built of lineage, wealth and racism, and symbolized in La Patria del Criollo, the country of those of Spanish descent born on Guatemalan soil—has been enormously powerful. For this very reason, it is important to point out the enormous progress that has been made by a number of new NGOs—many of them linked in some way to the Catholic Church—dedicated to promoting and defending human rights. Figures like Rigoberta Menchú, Helen Mack and Juan Gerardi are the most prominent names, but there are many other less famous people working in the same area.
The epic odyssey of the indigenous (and some non-indigenous) peasant farmers from the department of Huehuetenango who emigrated to Ixcán in the north of Quiché and, inspired by Maryknoll priests, established cooperative farms, defying the massacres of the war, the years of exile in Mexico and the repatriation and return. In the midst of conflicts manipulated by the army and other institutions, they have managed to survive while at the same time dealing with the changes in culture and identity brought on by the younger generation. Not even the threats posed by the destruction of the forest, the drug trafficking corridor, the oil explorations and the Plan Puebla Panama mega-projects have broken the strength of this emerging region.
Good news for the whole countryThe Puente de Belice School, which is implementing a project aimed at personal rehabilitation, education and job training for young people of both sexes in the poor neighborhoods of Puente de Belice in Zone 6 of the capital and Limón in Zone 18, is one direct response to the recruiting of young people by gangs. This Jesuit-coordinated project is a pioneering effort to help young people regain their self-esteem and hope, so they can escape from the flood of violence that threatens to drown them.
The rural landscape of the central highlands in the department of Chimaltenango has been completely transformed over the last twenty years. Numerous sustainable development projects have converted the region into a producer and exporter of vegetable crops—broccoli, sugar peas, Brussels sprouts, etc.—many of them organically grown, in association with other producers and exporters of nontraditional crops. But the people have also ensured their own food security by continuing to grow basic grains.
In Santa María Chiquimula, the fleet of pickups providing transport and trade has grown significantly over the past 18 years, from 10 trucks to over 100 on market days. In a municipality with very poor agricultural land, the traders’ association flexes its economic muscle in the saints’ day celebrations. In the past 15 years, several domestic garment producing businesses have been established that sell to the big wholesalers in the neighboring municipality of San Francisco el Alto.
The Catholic Church has done a great deal to support education and health care. The measles epidemics that could produce over 100 victims in a month’s time 15 years ago are now things of the past. All of the villages in the municipality now have year-round access roads. The change is undeniable although the forests are being threatened by the cutting of firewood for cooking and by some forestry companies, and there is still poverty, even hunger, especially in households headed by widows. And the Church has succeeded in guiding an enculturation process that is developing symbiotic and dignified recovery of people’s own culture to help them face the effects of inevitable and ambiguous modernity.
The view isn’t so Another very important development is the boom in the number of indigenous youths who go to university and then become professionals. Some of them now hold important posts in the central government and in municipal governments, NGOs and universities. They can also be found throughout the school system, which has a growing number of indigenous teachers.
pessimistic from below
When you travel through the western highlands, you come across many towns that have undergone a profound change. This is the result not only of the reconstruction that followed the 1976 earthquake, but far more importantly of the remittances sent home by migrants. Adobe has increasingly given way to cement blocks, and clay roof tiles to gypsum. Rather than being inhabited by the returned migrants or their families, many of these houses are investments, rented out to increase family income.
The presence of several universities in areas previously devoid of higher education is another very important sign of progress: students can now go to the university in Quetzaltenango, Cobán, Zacapa, and many other cities around the country. The quality of many universities has improved, with first-rate schools of medicine and new technologies that are beginning to improve professional training. Several social research centers are also producing increasingly good analyses. The teams working with the United Nations Develoment Program, the Center for Meso-American Research, the Social Research Association or the Center for National Economic Research, to name but a few, are all evidence of this, as are the public opinion studies carried out by Vox Latina.
All of this and much more points to a history that is being built from below in Guatemala. And this view helps alleviate some of the pessimism we feel when we look at history only from the top down, from the peaks of power and government.
Juan Hernández Pico, sj, is envío correspondent in Guatemala.