Guatemala Still Suffers

A visitor to Guatemala could easily find himself alarmed by Guatemalan party politics. The editorials of Prensa Libra and El Periodico repeatedly call for the resignation of corrupt diputados [representatives] and for the heads of the unholdy ruling triumvirate--Portillo (President), Reyes-Lopez (Vice-President) and Rios-Montt (President of Congress). Scandals break daily, corruption is endemic, the justice system is ineffective, the 1996 Peace Accords have been all but dismissed, and protesters are hitting the streets by the thousands to protest taxes, endangered lnd rights and the lack of Mayan representation. There is an unconstitutional blurring of the lines that separate executive, legislative and judicial powers. In short, Guatemala is rapidly becoming ungovernable, and in the views of many, already ungoverned.

EntreMundos, April/May 2002 (

It was not possible to articulate how I felt in Guatemala until I landed in Atlanta, cleared customs, found and read 73 pages of Gore Vidal's Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace in the airport, slept two hours on the tarmac during a thunderstorm, and took off again. Only then did I discern that the way I felt at that moment contrasted starkly with how I felt in Guatemala.

I felt lighter than I did in Guatemala.

My guess is that the heaviness I felt in Guatemala arose from the still palpable suffering visited on the population by U.S.-supported dictatorships since 1954, and the reign of terror and genocide by the U.S.-supported military in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Today corporate exploitation has to some extent replaced state terror. Foreign business interests are free to exploit Guatemalans. A small example of this exploitation may be found at McDonald's. A Big Mac costs more in impoverished Guatemala than in Tucson. 25 quetzales or $3.24 in Guatemala, $2.20 in Tucson. According to a Human Rights Report for Guatemala, "80% of the population, including approximately 60 percent of the employed, lives below the poverty line." 25 quetzals is the government mandated daily minimum wage for agricultureal work, but "noncompliance with minimum wage provisions in the rural and informal sectors is widespread." And McDonald's wants a days pay for a Big Mac without fries or a drink.

Then there's the corruption of officials by outside interests. It had to be a payoff that caused a Guatemalan official to buy Mexican buses, rather than support Rosmo's Fabrica de Ferrocarriles, which was once one of Guatemala's finest companies. The accordion buses from Mexico were too large for many of Guatemala's narrow streets. There were no parts nor service facilities available in country. This one apparently corrupt transaction contributed to the deterioration of the once thriving Rosmo, and with it wheir powerful union, which in better days provided many benefits for 400 workers. The employed at Rosmo today number 125.

But I stray. I'm writing about the atmosphere which had me near tears at times. Just as the streets are narrow in Zone 1 in Quetzaltenango, and the habitations are behind facades, the starkness of my feeling was contained by the facades as I moved back the forth from my family's house to the Parque Centrale. My feeling was contained, but during my four week stay, I could never quite shake the underlying depth of sorrow I felt almost all the population had internalized.

Within this atmosphere, my small room, my crude shower, the overcst skies, the every day heavy and not so heavy downpours, and a rigid schedule, all combined to make me feel like a prisoner.

Without a loved one, I wandered depressed from my cell to Maya Communications, an internet facility above Bar Tecun, just north of the park, where I made contact with friends a world away.

45% of the people in Guatemala are Mayan indians. You know it is so, because many still wear indigenous clothes, which are unieuq and colorful. Sometimes the indigenous people you encounter on a local bus are unwashed and have dirty finernails and bloodshot eyes. Personal hygiene, a nutritious diet, adequate medical care--the lack of these things is obvious.

When I visited one of the many volcanic hot springs near Xela, which is what the Mayans call Qutzaltenango Guatemala's second largest city with 90,000 people, I saw indigenous families bathing there and wondered if these naturally occurring hot waters were the only opportunity to bathe for many.

The family I was staying with, whom I supported with my language school tuition, had a color TV and an open air outdoor bathroom with sink, flush toilet and a shower, where the water was heated by an electrical device on the shower nozzle. There  was no water in the kitchen. Water for dish-washing was at the tubs in th back where they also did laundry by hand. Sometimes thre was no water. Sometimes there was no power. Interruptions were normal and expected.

Out of the city, I visigted a coffee finca, where 36 families, many former guerrillas, joined together, purchased this property, built houses and commercial facilities, and organized their commercial lives around the production of organic coffee. Unfortunately, world coffee prices are 50% of what it costs to produce coffee. The market is saturated with coffee, thanks to the U.N.'s introduction of coffee trees into Vietnam, as part of a post-war development program.

Our delegation of nine from the school was served rice and beans. Fresh bead was for sale. There was a pharmacy. The finca was covered with coffee trees, growing at a high altitude in a muggy, damp, rain foresty-type of environment. They grew neither rice nor beans. Where did the money come from to buy food if they weren't selling their coffee? I didn't ask. A room was stacked ceiling high with 200# bags of unsold coffee beans.

The bus ride to the finca, an hour out of Xela, was 2.50 quetzales (.35 cents U.S.). How did these poor people get bus fare? Of course there were road side concessions, and yes, there are weaving cooperatives, yet, there are countless opportunities for foreigners to volunteer to serve orphans, or battered women, to set up a web site, or to be a human rights observer.I met an Australian engaged in micro-economics, meaning he made low interest loans to poor people, which they used to create small business ventures. He'd been at it for several years, $35,000 in quetzales was loaned out. Another $10,000 and the program would achieve self-sufficiency, he said, whereby the interest paid would cover administrative costs.

The country is rife with do-gooder opportunities, but what was clear to me was the immorality of the U.S. policies which overthrew Arbenz in 1954, and supported the military tyranny ever since, thus worsening the impoverishment of all but the elites.

The coup in 1954 started when the United Fruit Company complained tht the Arbenz regime was compensating them for unused land and redistributing it to the poor.

Read that sentence carefully. That the Arbenz regime was toppled by the Americans for doing something in their country, which required an undesired accommodation by a U.S. corporate entity, represents in a nutshell U.S. foreign policy since 1492.

500 years should be enough time to awaken the conscience of well-meaning eople, but it hasn't been. So the indigenous people take action. 326 landless peasants invaded land near Malacatan in San Marcos Department in February, 2002, which they said was given to them by Arbenz. Two priests assisting them received death threats duly reported by Amnesty International. At a conference at my school with a representative of C.U.C. (Comite de Unidad Campesina), an association of farm people, we heard tht the struggle of campesinos for land is an on-going, hot issue all over Guatemala.

Many movements today, the social justice movement,the School of the Americas Watch, the anti-globalization movement, reject the American practice of taking what they want without considering the rights or feelings of others.

Of course the human spirit shines through impoverished Mayans, who carry their babies on their back, and cherish their toddlers. The mother will smile at you if your eyes meet and you smile.

But the suffering for me is that my government,coming to the aid of a company which meant nothing to me, helped impoverish these people by interfering with a political process intended to better their lot.

It was a democracy we toppled, which should make it clear to all who know that the U.S.'s advocacy of democracy has a special meaning. It means elections funded by business with candidates who will supoort agendas that will enrich them and their supporters. Like in the US., practically no one in government in Guatemala comes through for ordinary people. Signs announcing President Portillo's development projects are everywhere; however, one suspects all the money went for the signs.

When I was sitting in a former guerrilla encampment (which I knew already from reading Jennifer Harbury's book Searching for Everado) with an ex-guerrilla named Renaldo, listening to his appear for funds to further the URNG (the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemateca), formerly a coalition of three guerrilla movements, and now a political party, all I could think of was the fate of the Union Patriotica in Colombia, which also evolved from a guerrilla movement.

The Union Patriotica's overwhelming succss a the ballet box evoked a murderous response from the right-wing. 3,000 elected officials and party activists, the best and the brightest, were systematically offed. The Colombian oligarchy, the elites, with a reaction similar to that of the Americans to Arbenz, were not willing to allow peaceful, democratic forces for change in a direction that benefitted the whole community.

Elites are the same everywhere. Not only will the U.S. not allow foreign democratic tendencies to arise which are perceived as harmful to corporate interests, but at home ative suppression by the FBI has smashed innumerable movements for social justice. Earth First! Journal authors use pseudonyms to safeguard their freedom from government harassment.

Conspiracy theorists even allow tht killing a U.S. President by the CIA was within the purview of the right-wing. And of course, it has been shown that the U.S. was not beyond fabricating the Gulf of Tonkin incident to justify an invasion of Viet Nam, which cost some 50,000 U.S. and millions of Southeast Asian lives.

The URNG in Guatemala has yet to gain the power the Union Patriotica had in Colombia. I would like to support the URNG. My dilemma is that I think I know what horrible fate awaits their success. Like all workers for human rights, I would give my support with the hope that things will be different.

Even though the URNG is completely marginalized as a political force, they have a vision for a better life for their people. Much of what they want is embedded in the now pretty much shelved Peace Accords of 1996.

Efforts to implement the Peace Accords have been met by a resurgence of State terror. The headline of Siglo Veintiuno (May 29, 2002) the day I arrived was, "Rios-Montt acusado de dirigir grupos paralelos" (Rios-Montt accused of directing forces to obstruct efforts to bring to justice violators of human rights.)

Rios-Montt is th former military dictator who, after his bloodless coup, oversaw the destruction of 400 Mayan villages during the genocide tht killed 200,000 Mayans. Rios-Montt aspires to be President again, but has to settle with being President of the Congress and Secretary General of the ruling political party, the FRG (Frente Republicano Guatemalteco), because the Peace Accords prohibit anyone involved in a former coup from being President. However in June, 2002, newspapers reported tht President Portillo was advocating for changes that would allow Rios-Montts candidacy.

It is necessary to oppose U.S. policies at home and abroad, which are devised to impoverish people.

It is no longer a clash of capitalism versus communism. It's a spiritual question, of allowing, respecting, and cooperating with, not dominating, dictating to, or controlling. It's sharing wealth and conserving resources for future generations. It's an ethic foreign to Wall Street, or the free market economy, or Pentagon planners.

Let us hope that 500 years will be enough.

Let us publish and organize so that a critical mass of people of conscience will come to understand the dark side of U.S. foreign and domestic policies and produce a victory of consideration for others in all parts of the American empire.

In so doing, we can cause to disappear the empire which would control practically everyone for the benefit of a few.

Mansur Johnson, Grievance Officer, International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, Local 415 in Tucson.