Tuesday, May 13, 2008


Volcanoes surround Guatemala’s second-largest city, Quetzaltenango, providing fertile soil that produces some of the best coffee in the world. In the late 1800s, the Guatemalan government actively courted German technicians and businessmen, easing immigration rules and bequeathing new arrivals vast tracts of mountain lands. In addition, labor laws—which in the U.S. and Europe are generally crafted to protect workers—instead were an outgrowth of the Spanish colonial encomienda system, which compelled native villagers to provide up to a third of the male population to the Spanish invader for forced labor. By the early 20th century, however, this evolved to debt peonage, in which the majority population of Guatemala, the indigenous descendents of the pre-conquest Mayans, were indebted to German-immigrant patrons, who, virtually and in fact, held them captive to outstanding debt. (Finca owners had the legal right to imprison debtors in private prisons for real—and often fictitious—debts.) In 1944, a general labor strike led to the collapse of the government and a takeover by leftist military officers, and in the following election a populist president, Juan José Arévalo, was elected. Arévalo allowed unions to proliferate, and a degree of autonomy was granted to the people, resulting in the later election of Jacobo Arbenz, who passed agrarian-reform laws that distributed uncultivated lands to landless peasants. Insensitive to the cries of foul from the American-run United Fruit Company, which demanded more money for its unused lands than it had assessed them itself on government tax forms, Arbenz fell victim to a U.S.-sponsored coup in 1954. (For a thorough and thoroughly depressing account this shameful history, read Bitter Fruit; you can buy it by clicking on link to the left in the Bookshelf section of this blog.)

Then a new chapter started in the nightmare history of the Guatemalan working class, one in which a 35-year civil war would see hundreds of villages razed, torture become a de facto instrument of the government and government-sponsored paramilitary groups to quell unrest and weed out supposed enemies of the state. (An offhand comment overheard at the bar or membership in the wrong union would earn yourself a kidnapping followed by a night in a water tank filled just below nose level, with bloated corpses of earlier victims floating around to complete the grisly tableau; or, worse, watching your captors rip the fingernails off your two-year-old child in order to make you talk, if first slicing open your face and chopping off both of your hands didn’t work. In both cases, a merciful shot in the back of the head would be the best outcome to hope for, if you weren’t allowed to finally succumb to exhaustion and join the company of the floaters, or bleed out slowly next to your dying child.)

Such were the hidden costs of Cold War–era “free market” capitalism, in which we Americans fervently believe in the immaculate conception of the system (“Let the market do the work!”; “The invisible hand”) yet ignore the bloody raped corpse that gestated it (countless coups d’état and “democracy-promoting” invasions, up to our current imbroglio in the Middle East). Socialism, it seems, is only a dirty word in the U.S. when it is used to uplift the impoverished, to help those who truly want for material comfort; but when funding wars against these same people for the material benefit of the landed and wealthy classes, no government expenditure is to great to ensure their continued dominance over the unclean non-whites who just don’t know their place in the scheme of things.

But blood doesn’t wash up as easily as a money trail, and even the U.S. government was forced to confront the Guatemalan government's reign of terror in the early 90s, particularly after an American (of course) woman married to a Guatemalan rebel leader made much noise about his disappearance (and presumed murder) at the hands of Guatemalan paramilitaries with alleged CIA help. Burdened with pariah-nation status, a peace accord was quickly ironed out, with the main rebel umbrella group receiving representation in the government. (Even Clinton-haters like me have to appreciate his repudiation of Reagan’s barbarous policies in Central America, which turned that narrow strip of land into a human abattoir that is still trying to pull itself up from the nightmare muck of the 80s.)

Even with peace, though, prosperity is far from reaching anywhere outside of the rich enclaves of Guatemala, where the economic elite have constructed walls around their neighborhoods that are patrolled by shotgun-wielding armed guards to keep the slum dwellers at bay. If one steps away from these archipelagos of wealth in the capital and the better sections of Quetzaltenango, the disparity of wealth is shocking. Slum after slum rings the cities, with litter ruining the otherwise beautiful vistas that compose the country’s landscape. The richest sector that contributes to Guatemala’s GNP is through remittances from the nationals who have packed up and left—because of the war, the continuing violence, or the dire economic situation—and relocated to the United States. The people whom I talked to were all equally relieved that the dirty war was finally over, but there was a deeply ingrained pessimism about the economy, exacerbated by the U.S.’s own economic woes. Guatemalans know that if the U.S. country falters, as it apparently is doing, and if popular discontent in the U.S. with illegal immigrants continues, as it has, an important monetary stream to Guatemala could be choked or strangled shut.

But there are some hopeful signs, too. Last week I completed a week-long stay at
La Escuela de la Montaña, a Spanish-language school about an hour and a half outside of Quetzaltenango in a rich coffee-growing region. Two towns abut the school, Nuevo San José and Fátima. Both towns are dirt poor. San José has paved roads, but Fátima does not. Most homes are constructed of cinder blocks with corrugated steel rooftops. Chickens and ducks roam freely through the houses.
The chickens perform the important task of cleaning all organic waste from the floors and yards, only depositing a small amount of feces in return. With minimal care they provide eggs—an important source of protein for people who are too poor to buy meat more than a couple of times a month—and then they can be slaughtered for meat and their bones can be used for the all-important chicken stock that is a staple in Guatemalan cooking. Not to mention that they’re free-range and organic.

Fátima was founded approximately 15 years ago after the workers at a coffee finca
were not paid wages for over a year (not an uncommon experience). According to the leader of the finca’s labor union—which the workers formed during the dispute—some children starved to death, and other families abandoned

the finca to go live in the slums of large cities and try their fortunes there. (Most families stayed, because Guatemalan law states that if a worker abandons his or her job, he abandons any claims to back pay.) Although there are government agencies that are supposed to resolve workers’ disputes, judges can be bribed and the slow machinery of the bureaucracy can be slowed even more by wealthy finca owners. Only after picketing the finca owner’s home in the capital, and making threats of violence against his finca administrators (complete with machetes and clubs), did the workers finally receive their back pay.

But the worrkers had to abandon the finca now that worker-owner relations had devolved so much. The workers pooled their money and bought a parcel of land where Fátima stands today. For several years they had no buildings, only tents made of
plastic sheeting. Slowly, though, they built up actual homes, a water system, and a rudimentary road. The land was held collectively, so that no family could sell any parcel larger than that on which sat their homes. (It’s a common tactic of land-hungry agricultural barons to purchase lands piecemeal from peasant families or individuals—some of whom need the money desperately for medical bills or other emergencies—until the communities and surrounding farms are so riddled through that they become untenable.) Additionally, La Escuela de la Montaña provides a much-
needed economic boost by providing limited employment in the community. Students also eat three meals a day with families, for which the families are paid. (And, while I was attending, the students threw a fundraiser for a much-needed water-system rehabilitation; it quickly turned into a drinking game where students bet money on who could drink the most raisin wine—don’t ask, it’s terrible. All told, over $300 was raised, not a paltry sum for such an impoverished place.)

But lately things have changed in Fátima, what the union leader (and now town elder) Abelino calls an influx of “individualism.” The town folk lobbied successfully for the breaking up of the collective parcel of land a few years back, and some people are considering selling off their plots of land. There’s alson a competitiveness between Fátima and Nuevo San José, with both towns having their own Catholic church, evangelical church, and elementary school. (There are no more than 250 people

in both towns combined, so there is no need to have so many competing facilities; Fátima cannot even afford to employ a schoolteacher, so its brand-new school, while handsome, sits empty and unused.)

And violence still plagues the land. Young women will not walk the streets past sunset, and early one morning a fellow student from the school was attacked by three men in masks who were toting pistols. They badly beat her with the guns and tried to drag her off into the hills before she was able to run away back to the school. (Kudos to the Quetzaltenango police, who dispatched detectives immediately once they were informed; unfortunately, such a rapid response would be unlikely if it weren't a tourist who was attacked.) And reports came in from the city that a tourist couple were attacked at night in a park near the center of town. After taking their money, the assailants tried to stuff the woman in a car, but the man had the foresight to toss money in the other direction, which the attackers chased after, allowing the woman to escape.

Although I am not a sociologist, it occurs to to me that years of extreme violence combined with the current economic situation—along with the inviting targets of young people from the United States who obviously have a relatively great amount of wealth—makes the violence more or less inevitable. And it doesn't stop with foreigners:40 percent of Guatemalan women have reported being a victim of spousal abuse. War abets violence, naturally. (Perhaps we should be looking for a similar pattern in Iraq in the coming years.)

Nevertheless, the Guatemalan people were very nice, especially in the small villages, where if you are a 6-foot-2 skinny gringo, people instantly remember your name and call after every day. There is something attractive about such a simple life, too, although that perceived simplicity hides the bitter truth of a tough, poverty-stricken life, and memories that might be too horrific to dwell on.

(All pictures, save the first and last, were taken my first day in Nuevo San José. The children were literally running after me asking to have their pictures taken. The first picture was taken on a walk near the two villages. The last, of a puppy with a baby shoe on its neck, was taken in a small village called Las Marias; no, I don't know why the baby shoe is there.)


They say it's a cold world said...

Torture a de facto instrument of government? You mean sanctioned and approved at the highest levels? How grotesque. And yet, it has a ring of the familiar about it...

Wendy said...

There's brutal history everywhere you look nowadays, some of it not so historical after all. We loved Guatemala on our too brief visit, and what they had to live through was unimaginable fear, but you wouldn't know it from those we met. In Mexico there is more of the feeling of resignation, "it is what it is" and that's the way the world works, corrupt as it is so why complain? (So the attitude seemed to be in those we talked with.) Sad, and pretty relevant to our US experience.

Anyway, the baby shoe is to try to train the dog to stop the dog from chasing chickens. Chasing chickens causes the shoe to bounce and kick the dog in the chest and face and the blows of it, while not painful, break the focus and fun of it. It's a variation on an old shepherd's trick.