Conquest and Courage

Against the Current, No. 49, March/April 1994

Deborah L. Billings

Unfinished Conquest
The Guatemalan Tragedy
By Victor Perera, with photographs by Daniel Chauche
Berkeley: University of California, 1993, 382 pages, hard cover, $27.

Bridge of Courage:
Life Stories of the Guatemalan Companeros and Companeras
By Jennifer Harbury with an introduction by Noam Chomsky.
Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 263 pages, paperback. $14.95.

UNIMAGINABLE BEAUTY AND devastating violence—these are two images most often evoked by writers reflecting on the multiple and seemingly contrasting realities of Guatemala. The towering volcanos of Lake Atitlan, the majestic Mayan ruins surrounded and delicately protected by the lush rainforest of the Peten, and the startling colors of indigenous women’s trajes are photographed for slick tourist brochures in an effort to attract foreigners with hard currency to the gland of eternal spring.” Many arrive to experience beauty and are fed a full dose. No text there mentions the violence which permeates Guatemalan society.

The violence comes in many forms, all of which are unveiled by Guatemala-born writer and journalist, Victor Perera in his book, Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy. When writing about the effects of the war in Guatemala, disappearances, extrajudicial executions and torture are perhaps the most recognized brutality perfected by the army over the last thirty-three years.

Perera, however, delves deeper into the violence, citing the wrenching effects of pervasive poverty, inflammatory hatred and racism, and environmental devastation. As he turns back through history, Perera exposes the brutality of the Spanish conquest and illustrates how its savagery has been repeated over the past 460 years.

In writing this book over the period of six years, Perera comes to recognize that all Guatemalans have been affected by the profound violence. This realization begins to take hold when he hears the moving testimony of “Marina,” a Quekchi woman from Alta Verapaz whose village was massacred and destroyed by the army. When Perera introduces himself, Marina says to him, “You know as well as I do how important it is that we tell the story of our people, so that the army officers who ordered the massacres will not have the final say.” “This book,” Perera notes, ‘tells a part of that story.”

Through his use of first-person narrative, on-site investigation, conversation, oral testimony and personal reflection, Perera weaves contrasting images of beauty and violence into a meaningful whole and presents a complex and compelling portrait of Guatemala—past and present.

These multiple modes of telling enable the reader to meet those creating the Guatemala of today—Marta Veronica, a resident of Guatemala City’s municipal dump, a comandante in the lxii Triangle who vehemently states, “We believe the war against subversion is total, permanent, and universal…” and Hilda Rivera, whose work as coordinator of the Maya Biosphere Reserve has brought her numerous death threats.

Perera also introduces the reader to specific highland regions where guerrilla insurgency, military counterinsurgency and evangelical conversion have had their greatest impact on indigenous life: The Ixil Triangle, Santiago Atitlan, Huehuetenango and Chimaltenango. The Peten region is presented as a separate, largely uninhabited area that has experienced the largest military presence of any Guatemalan department, a limited guerrilla movement and widespread ecological destruction.

Three Cycles of Conquest

Perera draws on the framework of three cycles of conquest, as developed by George Lovell, which incorporates the Mayan notion of time as cyclical. He continuously links the events of the Spanish conquest with those of nineteenth century and contemporary Guatemala to “reveal a remarkable symmetry across the centuries” (63).

The “first conquest,” as Perera terms it, of Pedro de Alvarado in 1524 pitted neighbor against neighbor by naming Indian proxies, principales, to serve as local “leaders,” always subservient to the Spanish rulers. Communities of varying ethno-linguistic origins were forced together into nucleated settlements which ensured easier access to labor and souls for European landowners and Catholic priests.

These served as models for the army’s twentieth-century Civil Defense Patrols (PACs), a system effectively undermining local authority structures and forcing 500,000-1,000,000 civilian men to serve in army operations. Model Villages, where many of the civil war’s internally displaced have been forcibly located, break down traditional authority by providing a combination of basic housing, minimal subsistence and intense military indoctrination.

The encomienda system—a cross between serfdom and slavery—whereby Indians worked without pay and had to contribute to the royal coffer in produce and woven goods, laid the foundation for the forced-labor laws created under President Justino Rufino Barrios in the 1870s. Coffee, Central America’s “black gold,” was taking hold in Guatemala. Its success depended on a large supply of seasonal migrant labor to the southern coast.

The laws, together with the abolishment of Indian land titles, effectively guaranteed the necessary labor for harvest time. Today, 300,000 continue to descend from the highlands to the southern coast to work for the equivalent of one (I) dollar a day.

Religion has played a critical role in the violence encompassing Guatemalan history. Missionary Catholics of the Con quest have been replaced by fervent Evangelicals, battling for the minds and souls of the Guatemalan people, especially the majority Indian population, as they promise the benefits of Ladino life without needing to become ladino. Yet Indian Costumbre—for example the Cult of Maximon in Santiago Atitlan—has been maintained throughout the centuries of violence and change despite repeated threats to its survival.

The Third Cycle: 1944-1994

Since the 1954 U.S.-sponsored coup that overthrew President Jacobo Arbenz, Guatemalans have been struggling to rid themselves of what Piero Gleijses has termed, “the culture of fear.” Direct and indirect military rule since the overthrow of Arbenz has turned back land and labor reforms and persecuted all those demanding decent living and working conditions and basic human rights.

In 1960, an army officers’ rebellion against the corruption of President Ydigoras Fuentes provided the impetus for the four-pronged Guatemalan guerrilla movement. Colonel Carlos Arana Osorio staged the first counterinsurgency movements in 1966 and, since that time La Violencia has reigned throughout the country. Students, teachers, priests and labor leaders were first targeted for disappearance, torture and execution.

By the mid-1970s the largest guerrilla movement, The Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP), had garnered significant support throughout the highlands. The army responded with a wholesale campaign of extermination under a variety of names—Plan Victoria, Operacion lxiiwhich effectively destroyed 440 villages (if not more), displaced more than one million people, and left thousands of widows and orphans.

Perera discusses the warped discourse and veil of silence which has accompanied La Violencia. He notes how death threats have become almost commonplace in the lives of activists and potential activists; how the labels of “subversive” and “communist” are slapped on to those who are to be destroyed. The Guatemalan use of “saber”—who knows, don’t ask me—has been adopted as a shield of protection and, when people do speak, their stories can change from day to day, “…the most credible testimony may be distorted by the imperatives of survival” (121).

Silence—of the press, of those afraid to speak out—has made the truth of a thirty-four-year-old war virtually invisible to outsiders, who come to admire Guatemala’s colors and beauty, and to insiders, such as the military elite who continue to breathe life into the Cold War rhetoric of “us” vs. “the international communist conspiracy.” Both fall to see the extreme poverty in which 9096 of highland residents live, the hunger and malnutrition suffered by over 80% of the children, and the desire to be treated with humanity and respect which compel so many Guatemalans to struggle in both armed and unarmed ways.

Imposed silence has also made the stories difficult to tell. Such atrocities have been and continue to be committed against the population that, as Marina notes to Perera after her presentation to an audience in Scotland, “As a Guatemalan, you know that I could not tell them the full truth of what is being done to our people, for fear no one would believe me.”

The Guerrilla Movement

Looking specifically at the armed guerrilla movement of this “Third Cycle,” Jennifer Harbury’s book, Bridge of Courage, asks the seldom-answered question, who are the Guatemalan revolutionaries?

She presents the reader with a collection of stories told to her between 1985 and 1990 by numerous compas fighting in the mountains. These stories tell of the guerrillas’ motivations for becoming and remaining involved in the region’s longest civil war. We meet the variety of people involved in the movement—priests, elderly and young, women—and go beyond the stereotype of the rebel as a young, confident and macho mart.

Each of the fighters presented had personally experienced something in their lives which brought them to see injustice and to decide that armed resistance was the most effective means of change. These are people who organized during the years of mass repression who wanted to serve and participate in making a change. “I wanted to fight instead of forget,” states Bernardo (219).

We meet Anita, who as a medical student did rotations in the jungle areas and peasant coops of northern Guatemala. While visiting morgues she saw the torture inflicted on so many and began to cooperate with the movement by hiding and transporting medicines and treating fighters clandestinely. She left for the mountains when her friend Melissa, who had also been involved, was found, dead and tortured.

We also meet Gabriel who challenges the idea that the guerrilla movement needs to be put into a European-Marxist mold to be understood. Marx, he states, had alot of good ideas but he did not hold the monopoly. He also addresses the need for an armed movement when he notes that a peaceful movement once existed but was crushed. “For Gandhi’s methods to work, there must be a government capable of shame. We lack that here” (79).

Harbury has a very clear and direct purpose for editing and distributing this book—to educate people and to raise money for a campaign to release her husband, Comandante Everardo (Efrain Bamaca Velasquez), and thirty other URNG prisoners of war from a clandestine prison.

The army continues to deny the existence of any political prisoners or clandestine prisons and torture centers, despite the testimonies of many who have escaped, such as Carmen Valenzuela and Sister Diana Ortiz. The army has insisted that Comandante Everardo shot himself in 1992 to avoid being captured. Yet in 1993 a fellow compa who escaped from an army base stated that he saw the Comandante chained to a bed, having survived torture. Since that time, Harbury has vigorously pursued her husband’s case through the Guatemalan Supreme Court, the Organization of American States, and the United Nations Committee on the Disappeared.

Bridge of Courage makes an important contribution to the literature on the struggle for justice in Guatemala, providing glimpses into the personal lives and motivations of those involved in the insurgency movement. The book, however, fails to contextualize the interviews by time, place, origin and description of the speaker, thereby skimming over the complexity of the movement itself (in race, class, gender and historical terms).

The viability of armed struggle in Guatemala is not addressed. How widespread is support for the movement in 1994? How possible is URNG success? And is armed struggle the strategy to be used to construct Guatemala’s future?

On the other hand, Perera collected a variety of images and statements about the guerrilla movement from residents of the regions he visits. Most reflect a frustration with the guerrillas in that “…they demanded our allegiance, but when the army came, they abandoned us to our fate” (146). Some, like the residents of Santiago Atitlan, have declared themselves neutral to both the army and guerrillas: “Atitecos hate the army as much as they ever did, but this no longer translates automatically into support for the guerrilla? (204). Overall, these comments and others reflect an exhaustion with a war that has lasted much too long, has produced few positive changes and has no foreseeable end.

Guatemalan “Democracy” & the Future

U.S. State Department and Administration officials proclaim that democracy is alive and well in Guatemala. Since 1984, when Vinicio Cerezo, the first civilian present in sixteen years, was sworn into the presidency, the United States and other Western countries have congratulated Guatemala on its “progress,” conveniently ignoring rising levels of poverty and violence throughout the country.

Perera notes a very different sentiment from the Guatemalan populace, disenchanted by the “democratic process’ as it has been accompanied by economic collapse, political corruption, increased human rights abuses and political violence. The army maintains a tight rein on democracy, thus keeping it in a form that it (and other elites) can control. As Cerezo states, “You have to understand that if I don’t keep the generals happy, I will be overthrown” (293). This was true with Serrano and remains unfortunately valid with the current president, Ramiro de Leon Carpio.

Perera does not discuss in detail the many popular movements which have arisen out of the ashes and destruction of La Violencia, taking full advantage of the small openings which those controlling democracy” in Guatemala have been forced to create. Groups such as the Council of Ethnic Communities Runujel Junam (CERJ), the Mutual Support Group of Relatives of the Disappeared GAM), and the National Coordinating Body of Guatemalan Widows (CONAVIGUA) have played key roles in demanding structural changes and have called for an end to the fighting.

Currently, these groups are part of a larger movement which is demanding a role for civil and popular sectors in the ongoing peace negotiations. While they agree that the terms of disarmament and demilitarization is the responsibility of the URNG and the army, they are claiming a place in the decisions regarding social, political and economic issues. Clearly, such organizations play and will continue to play an important role in the creation of a new Guatemala.

Victor Perera concludes his accessible and enlightening book with a variety of clips of Guatemala—the disappearance of six nuns near Antigua, the apology of the Catholic Church to the millions of Mayans, the condemnation of the pastoral letter by Mayan spokesperson, Demetrio Cojti Cuxil, stating that it ignored the Mayan resistance movement, the first return of twenty-five hundred refugees (of 45,000) living in Mexico.

Throughout Unfinished Conquest, the author shows the resilience of a people long victimized by violence. Despite many “popularized” portrayals of the indigenous majority, he shows how Guatemalans have always resisted the violence in a variety of ways. Costumbre, cofradia, popular organizations and armed resistance are among the modes.

Even the centuries-old Dance of the Conquest is being retold and reclaimed by the Maya of Guatemala: In the highland village of Joyabaj, “When a dancer wearing burgundy velvet finery and a bearded cream-and-rose mask lifted his sword to smite a brown-masked dancer, he lashed back with his chain, and seizing the conquistador by the beard, the Mayan warrior forced him to his knees.” (353)

March/April 1994, ATC 49