Throughout my years of education, there have been some countries that I've heard a lot of information about, and there have been some that I haven't heard anything but rumors about. It seems like Guatemala was always one of the latter. I don't know why I never learned any facts about the country, and I only hear it mentioned in passing. I'd heard suggestive but unsubstantial lines in popular songs, like R.E.M.'s "Flowers of Guatemala ("People here are friendly and content...The flowers cover everything"). I knew that the artsy things, the bags and belts, that I'd seen from there were colorful and well-made. But I didn't really know anything solid and real about the country. For this paper, my goal was to learn the truth, at least in part.
I believe that I have achieved that goal, and will present my findings in five sections: Geography, History, Politics, Government, and Society.
|This was so ghastly I couldn't resist. This is not what I meant when I said it was a beautiful country|
And toward that goal, the first thing we'll look at is the geography of the country. It is divided into three main land regions: the Northern plain, the Highlands, and the Pacific lowland. The Northern plain has the smallest population of the three areas. It is covered with forests, including tropical rainforests and hardwood forests. Many ancient Mayan ruins are found here, suggesting that perhaps it was formerly one of the more populated sections of the country. But more about Mayan history in a bit.
The Highlands are formed by mountains going from east to west across Guatemala. In fact, the highest mountain in Central America, "Volcan Tajumulco", is part of the Highlands. It rises 13,845 feet above sea level. The Highlands are the most populated of the three sections of Guatemala. In fact, Guatemala City, one of the biggest cities in the world, is in the center of the Highlands. The Highlands are also used for farming.
The Pacific Lowland is also farmland, and has as its main features most of the streams and rivers that flow from the Highlands. It is very thinly populated.
Now, that we've looked at the land the country is on, let's look to the history of Guatemala. In the most distant past of the country, it was occupied by the Maya civilization. This was between 300 and 900 A.D. The main way that this part of the past affects Guatemala is in the indigenous peoples who still make up a large part of its population, whom I will write about later in this paper.
Coming closer to modern times, Guatemala was ruled by the Spanish during the colonial period, starting in 1523, when an expedition led by Pedro de Alvarado invaded. Though they didn't find much of the gold that they were after, they stayed anyway, because of the free labor of the "indians".
Things proceeded like this for abut 298 years. A change from this system came on September 15, 1821. This was the day that Guatemala, as a part of the United Provinces of Central America, declared their independence from Spain. Under this union, various land reform and civil rights laws were put into place.
However, nothing lasts forever. Because of various pressures, some from those whose land had been taken by the recent reforms, the union gradually came apart. Guatemala left the union in 1839. Throughout the rest of the 1800's, Guatemala went through the predictable pendulum swings of a developing Central American country: conservative dictator/president, liberal reformers, liberal dictator/president, conservative reformers, etc.
In the early 1900's, the country was encouraging foreign investment, and as a result of that activity, an American company named the United Fruit Company began developing banana plantations. At the time, I'm sure it seemed to Guatemala to be a wonderful opportunity. They found out eventually that it wasn't such a great plan. This would soon lead to the country's becoming a "banana republic"- a sort of economic colony for the North.
The 1900's have brought changes for Guatemala, as well- some good, some bad. In 1944, the country began a ten year long revolution, which included the creation of a new constitution in 1945, which gave the Guatemalans more freedoms than they'd previously had, things like educational programs, health measures, and free press.
But once again, change was to sweep over Guatemala; in 1951, Jacobo Arbenz became the president. The next year, his government began controversial land reform measures, which took land away from the rich, including the United Fruit Company (which was, by this time, the largest land owner in Guatemala). And with these land reforms alone, Arbenz may have been tolerated. However, at the same time these things were happening, he was toying with communist ideas. This made the U.S. government (which was representing the interests of one of its companies, I'm sure), very nervous. Nervous enough to want Arbenz out of power. In 1954, the U.S. supported a revolt against his government. This invasion, and its implications, are described from the Guatemalan point of view, in the article "Lessons of the Guatemalan Tragedy", by Martinez and Paiz.
They write, "The pretext used for the armed intervention was the allegedly illegal exportation of ...land seized by the United Fruit Company in the past and what Washington described as part of a plan to `Sovietize' Guatemala and make it a `bridgehead of international communism'. This shameless lie was intended to conceal the fear that our country might set the other peoples of America an example of how very fruitful an independent policy based on the principles of self-determination can be" (Martinez/Paiz 103). These men show one of the things that I first learned which was that R.E.M. was apparently wrong- the people aren't content. The writing of these men shows their anger. And I don't blame them for being angry. Though I feel loyalty to my country, I agree with the statement made by Arbenz on June 20, 1954, in an address to the nation after the invasion had begun: "Our only crime is that we have passed laws of our own and applied them to everyone, without exception. Our `crime' is that we have begun an agrarian reform affecting the interests of the United Fruit Company." I highly doubt that we invaded only because of unsubstantiated worries about communism. I imagine that they invaded because of lobbyist pressure from the United Fruit Company, because the land reforms would negatively affect their profits.
From this point on in their history, Guatemala was "plunged into a long night" (Martinez/Paiz 103). This period was, for all intents and purposes, thirty years of civil war, which only began to end in 1990, with the election of Jorge Serrano. During this time, which sometimes amounted to military rule, human rights atrocities were committed which are inconceivable. And these deserve their own section of fact and analysis. It is to this section that we now turn.
This second division focuses on the political happenings of Guatemala. For the purposes of this paper, I will define "political happenings" as the government's interaction with the people it governs and/or represents (In Guatemala's case, `represents' may be a rather strong term). In this section, we will use a microcosm to learn about a macrocosm. We'll look at some specific recent events of this civil war, how they teach us about the larger event, and implications for the Serrano government.
For an idea of what conditions were, and to a large extent still are like, consider the following quotes: "Human rights groups have documented the murders or `disappearances' of 140,000 civilians during this period" (Kantz 667). "The number of the missing, kidnapped, tortured, and atrociously murdered is appalling. It has topped 100,000 to date" (Martinez/Paiz 103). "The government legalized the killing of detainees on political grounds" (M/P 104). One group declares that they have documented "the abuse, torture, and murder of more than seventy-five street children. Not one sentencing has taken place", they write (Harris 219). They speak of "...a society that has reached the point of not caring sufficiently for its children" (Harris 219). These are all quotes from current articles that I read. And this is from 1992, not from ancient history! This is a place with a problem. Harris writes in detail of the beating and murder of 13-year-old Nahaman Lopez, on March 4, 1990. I'll use his words to describe it: "Nahaman was a kid I knew; he had hugged me and trusted me. He was dead, with six broken ribs, a ruptured liver, and bruises over seventy percent of his body" (Harris 219). He includes in the article a picture of this 13-year-old enemy of the Guatemalan government. What kind of reform do you think Nahaman proposed? Equal candy for everyone? Please pardon my anger and sarcasm, because I realize that that may not be what this paper is supposed to be about, but what kind of human being could do this to a 13-year-old kid? What on earth could they have been thinking? I cannot even fathom what their motive might have been (and I get in some pretty violent moods sometimes). Even the "desperation" that we learned is a cause of terrorism doesn't make someone kill a kid. These must have been the most insecure police in the world, to perceive enough of a threat from a child not even through puberty yet to use lethal force (and then some).
By the way, the police officers who did this were found guilty and sentenced to fifteen years in prison... and then another jury annulled the sentence. According to Harris, this is "an all too common tactic in the Guatemalan legal system" (219).
Bruce Harris is most certainly right, when later in his article, he implores people that "international pressure is probably the only way the government can be forced to implement human rights measures... Human rights guarantees must become the rule rather than the exception in Guatemala."
And the sickest part of this is that "According to Piero Gleijesses, associate professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, this ongoing nightmare need never have happened. And, had it not been for Washington's clandestine intervention in Guatemala in the 1950's, it never would have" (Kantz 668). I hate to have my heart on my sleeve, but if this man is right, and I believe he is, we as a nation should be ashamed of ourselves. And if he is right that we were the cause of this civil war, then it is an important fact to know that their political turmoil was caused by our country.
I think that this one story adequately summarizes the political atmosphere of Guatemala. Unsureness and helplessness seem to be the feelings that reign in Guatemalan politics. In one word, "Corruption". It sort of puts the U.S. government in perspective, doesn't it? When was the last time U.S. soldiers invaded a middle school? It happens in Guatemala.
Which leads us to question government. What kind of government lets this political turmoil persist? We will look at some basic information about the government, some examples of past corruption, and some current quotes which prove that the bad times aren't over yet.
Guatemala has a democratic form of government very much like our own. Their president and vice-president are elected to five year terms, which are longer than ours. However, they may serve only one term. The president appoints a cabinet to carry on governmental affairs, much like in our own country. Their legislature is a 100 member congress. The representatives are also elected to five year terms, but can serve multiple terms. There are five major political parties in Guatemala, according to P.C. Globe: the Solidarity Action Movement, the Christian Democratic Party, the National Centrist Union, the National Liberation Movement, and the National Advance Party.
On paper, this government looks fine: a well-oiled machine of representative democracy. Looking at the names of the five political parties, you'd think they were one of the most progressive countries in the Western world. Oh, how far you'd be from the truth. In practice, the well-oiled machine has more than a few squeaks. For years, the army has practically controlled whoever was in power. For example, I offer you a quote from an anonymous article in The Economist: "The military remains a law unto itself...President Cerezo is accused not of murder but of neglect" (Anonymous 44). He is not accused of murder because he didn't order the killings, he just didn't keep the army from killing. He didn't stop them because he couldn't- he wasn't controlling them, but vice-versa. Even now, in the nineties, the people fear that there will be violence every time an election is held.
I read three articles about the latest election in Guatemala, and each suggested, at the very least, the possibility of violence. The best quote from the three to show the violent side of the elections came from the first article. It is titled "Vote early, and bring along an Uzi". Just the title proves my point, but how about these lines: "They do not often get the chance to vote, and when they do it means trouble... Rich families are taking extra precautions against kidnapping for ransom, a favorite means of raising campaign funds... American officials are not alone in fearing that [the] election may provoke a coup" (Anonymous 54).
Summarized and condensed, the factual findings of these three articles are that during the elections, there were no major problems, Jorge Serrano and Gustavo Espina were elected as president and vice-president, and all three candidates were accused of buying votes, which according to my friend Jen Cook, who spent last J-term in Guatemala, is a truthful accusation. In the research I'd done the government didn't seem to me to be doing a very good job of changing things. People were still disappearing. Then in the next source I read I learned that I was right: the latest news from Guatemala is that in May of this year, Serrano declared what is called an "autogolpe", a self-coup, which would give him even more power than he had as president. He declared by radio that "the country had become ungovernable" (Anonymous 44). He then disbanded the congress, giving himself lawmaking power, and had the home of a leading human rights activist, Ramiro de Leon, surrounded, saying that it was for the man's "protection". Ramiro de Leon, however, says that the soldiers kicked in his door.
This move by Serrano was viewed by the unidentified author of the article as very bad. He mentioned that in the years since his election, President Serrano had been getting more and more dependent on the army, which has been the downfall of most Guatemalan presidents. Apparently the United States' government agrees, because after the autogolpe, Washington promptly cut off sixty-seven million dollars in aid to Guatemala. And as they say, `the proof is in the pudding': As of May 1993, people were still disappearing.
And from the government, it is to the people it "represents" that I now turn. I will discuss Guatemala's people by looking at five issues: race relations, economics, population, religion, and education.
The first issue I would like to look at is that of the relationship between the two primary races in Guatemala. The country has been called "One of the world's most unequal societies" (Anonymous 44). This is because of the sometimes poor relationship between the indigenous peoples (described in every source I read as "indians"-- they aren't from India!) and the "landinos", who are of mixed Spanish and "indian" ancestry. Though, according to Richard Adams, "...being called an Indian or a Non-Indian does not depend entirely on a person's race. It is chiefly a matter of how people live and how they think of themselves" (Adams 437).
The landinos are the more upwardly mobile of the two classes. According to Adams, most of them feel superior to the "indians". A large number, probably the majority, of landinos are not much different from the "indians". However, the few people that are rich are landino. The landinos make up about 55 percent of the Guatemalan people.
The "indians" are a unique group, as well. They don't have much political or social unity. The situation seems to me to be akin to gangs in the U.S., only they aren't the ones being violent against others, they are the victims. According to Adams, "Almost every Indian community in Guatemala has its own colorful style of clothing." Almost like gang colors, isn't it? The "indians" "think of themselves more as part of their community than of their country" (Adams 437). They make up about 45 percent of the population.
The next important thing you should know about the people of Guatemala is their economic situation. It is, of course, not very good news. Guatemala is still what is known as a "developing country". But there are some good things to say about their economy.
First, the good news. The country's major resource is its fertile soil, so the majority of Guatemala's people are farmers, and its economy depends heavily on farm crops. Its major exports, according to P.C. Globe, are coffee (which makes up about 30% of its total exports), sugar, bananas (it was the original "banana republic, remember), cardamom (a spice), meat, and cotton. Guatemala's main trading partner is the United States. This can be good for them, since we generate a lot of business.
However, this can also be a very bad thing. The United Fruit Company invasion shows a perfect example of that. And it is only the beginning of the bad news for Guatemala. P.C. Globe lists Guatemala as having a balance of trade in 1987 of -443 million. While a country as large as the United States may be able to absorb debt like this, Guatemala cannot, and suffers for it. According to Duncan Green, in his article "Uncertain Future", "In a decade of recession and debt crisis for the whole of Latin America, Central America was doubly damned by war and economic decline. Regional income fell by almost a fifth, while the region's foreign debt doubled" (Green 29). This can be shown especially in Guatemala. They certainly had war: they had economic decline.
As you might imagine in a nation in dire straits the way Guatemala is, some people have turned to narcotics. According to a report in the Department of State Bulletin, Guatemala is often used as a transit point for drugs which are headed to Florida. Also, major amounts of marijuana and opium from Guatemala were brought to the U.S. In a strange note, the government of Guatemala, according to the article, was very helpful in efforts to eradicate the growing of drugs. That seems a bit out of character for the country's government.
From economics, I now turn to the issue of population. Like many developing nations, Guatemala has a rising population. However, it's not nearly the problem in Guatemala that it is in some other countries, India, for example. The population in 1991 was 9,560,000. It grows at approximately 2.4% per year, and will double in 29 years, according to P.C. Globe. Interestingly, the landino part of the population grows faster, due to the fact that the "indians" have less health care than the landinos and therefore, a higher death rate.
But the most important thing, by far, to notice about the population is how many people have migrated to Guatemala City looking for jobs or other big-city temptations. Approximately one-eighth of all the people in Guatemala live in Guatemala City. It has about twelve times the amount of people of the second largest city, Escuintla. As of 1991, this population was 1,057,000. This gives it the largest population of any city in Central America. In two articles that I read, no problems were mentioned with this huge population, but I would guess that it has most of the standard city problems: crime, pollution, homelessness, etc.
Next, we turn to religion. You can tell a lot about any society by finding out what they worship, and how dedicated they are to this worship. Unlike India, and many of the Asian Hindu countries, Guatemala is a Christian nation. This comes, I'm sure, from its time as a colony of Spain, a country well-known, at least in this class for its "conversion of the natives". Also no shock is the fact that it is primarily Catholic in its Christianity. About eighty percent of Guatemalans are Catholic, according to Adams (437). Spain is primarily Catholic as well, so my theory about their Christianity seems to hold water. However, compared to some of the Middle Eastern countries (Iran, Pakistan), Their religion doesn't seem to affect their society very deeply. It doesn't affect foreign relations, or economic relations.
But all this is true primarily for the landinos. Adams tells us that the indigenous peoples have their own sort of hybrid religion. "They worship local gods and spirits along with God [the Father], Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and their local patron saint" (Adams 437).
Lastly, let's look at the education of Guatemala's people. I place this last, because the education of its children is the major area that can produce hope for change in Guatemala.
For children who are seven to thirteen years old, primary school is required by law. About fifty-five percent of children attend primary school, according to Adams (apparently the rest are skipping school- maybe this is why the government beats them up). However, only about fifteen percent go on to high school. Strangely, and sadly, few of the teachers in Guatemala speak any of the over twenty indigenous languages. Perhaps because of this, the "indian" population has a literacy rate of about twenty percent, as compared to the seventy percent common to urban landinos. The total population of Guatemala has a literacy rate of about forty-six percent- that's five percent higher than India (which is almost constantly chastised for its educational system) , but still horrible.
Therefore, after reading all this information, all these statistics, facts, and opinions, you should know much more about the real Guatemala than when you started reading this paper. Now we have both discovered a small, but nonetheless significant, part of the truth.
We have looked at the geography, the history, the politics, the government, and the people of Guatemala. And I am content, in a sense to now know something solid and real. But in another sense, research like this certainly takes all the "romance" away from a country, so in a way, I also feel burdened by this information- now that I know about the human rights abuses, what will I do to help the Nahaman Lopezs of the world? I hope that in some sense, you, the readers, undergo something of the same emotions.
And the next time you see one of those colorful bags or belts, do me a favor, and say a little prayer for Guatemala.
Adams, R.N. "Guatemala". World Book Encyclopedia, 1988: 436.
Anonymous. "Guatemala: Breaking the Rules". The Economist. March 24, 1990: 44.
Anonymous. "Narcotics: Guatemala". Department of State Bulletin. October 1989: 57.
Anonymous. "Vote Early, and Bring Along an Uzi". The Economist. April 7, 1990: 54.
Anonymous. "Why did he do it?". The Economist. May 29, 1993: 44.
Green, D. "Uncertain Future". New Statesman and Society. April 10, 1992: 29.
Harris, B. "Children's Rights Under Siege in Guatemala". Social Education. April 1992: 219.
Kantz, P. "Taking Sides In Guatemala- Shattered Hope: The Guatemalan Revolution and the United States, 1944-1954 by Piero Gleijeses". Commonweal. November 8, 1991: 667.
Martinez, P./ Paiz, A.B. "Lessons of the Guatemalan Tragedy". World Marxist Review. July 1984: 101.
McGurn, W. "One Long Political Party". National Review. December 17, 1990: 25.
P.C. Globe Computer Software Program. 1991 ed.
Weisberg, J. "Guatemala Diarist: Poll Hacks". The New Republic. December 10, 1990: 46.