An Annotated Guide to the ‘Hurricanes’ of Guatemala

[Note: I wrote this in early 1999. An edited version appeared in the July 1999 edition of the New Internationalist ]

Chris Curnow ([the then] Program Officer for Australian Volunteers Abroad, Sydney) recently returned to Guatemala where he spent two years as an AVA (1995-1997). In January 1999 Chris was tour leader for the [Oxfam] Study Tour to Guatemala that spent three weeks visiting various community organisations and NGOs. He was involved in helping a small group of interested Australians gain an insight into the issues facing Guatemala today. In late December 1996 Chris was present when Boutros Boutros Ghali, acting in his final capacity as President of the United Nations, oversaw the signing of the peace accords between the Guatemalan Army, the Government and the National Revolutionary Forces of Guatemala (the URNG), ending 36 years of civil war atrocities. Such a landmark event was the cause for celebration for many. On returning, Chris was keen to see if the intervening years had brought real change to the lives of his many friends and if the hope that the various Accords had offered, were now being implemented in vital legislation.

Tourism was way down they told me when I returned to Guatemala City in late December 1998. ‘Hurricane Mitch has frightened everyone away!’, I overheard the hotel manager say as I was making reservations for the arrival of the tour group. I’d arrived a week before the CAA study tour group were due and I spent my first week organising our accommodation and transport. While Hurricane Mitch certainly had a lot to answer for (389 dead, 106,609 injured and 749,533 affected in October 1998 in Guatemala alone), I knew from my time spent working here two years ago that there were other ‘hurricanes’, other forces, raging through this beautiful and terrible Central American country. What I didn’t expect was the extent to which these forces had hindered the peace process since I’d left.

The day I arrived in Guatemala City coincided with the second anniversary of the signing of the final peace accords. It was December 29 and President Arzu had decreed a huge public fireworks display for the evening, announcing also that this day now be known as ‘Pardon Day’.

I was staying with some Guatemalan friends, Pedro and Carla, who lived a few blocks from the Presidential Palace and the huge Central Square. As they drove me back to their place from the airport they ridiculed the President’s decree: ‘How can we pardon the human rights abuses that happened to our friends and family – indeed to us – if no one has even said “Sorry” or determined who exactly is to blame?’

In April 1998, just one block from my friend’s house, the Catholic Bishop for Guatemala, Monseñor Gerardi, was brutally murdered in his parish house. This occurred two days after he had made the official presentation of the report entitled Guatemala: Never Again. This collection of oral histories was put together by a project team of the Archbishop’s Human Rights Office. Brave Guatemalans, finally given the opportunity to speak their truth, gave graphic accounts and provided clear statistics, that showed that the Army was the perpetrator of the overwhelming majority of human-rights abuses during the 36 years of institutionalised State repression. The report did not condone the actions of the guerrilla forces who where also accused of similar abuses made on the civilian population. However, it clearly placed the large majority of the blame on the Army.

Over breakfast that morning I read the newspaper while enjoying a warm mug of atol – a thick corn-based drink, good for shoring up the stomach for a day in the black fumes of Guatemala City as my friends reminded me. Pedro pointed out the latest story on the Monseñor Gerardi case. I read with interest.

Guatemalans generally have a lack of faith in their judicial system brought about by decades of impunity. In the Monseñor Gerardi case justice has not been served. Public cynicism has been reinforced by the fact that authorities ‘arrested’ and gaoled a dog by the name of ‘Baloo’, on suspicion of killing the Bishop!  Father Orantes, the owner of the dog, was also arrested and accused of a ‘passion’ crime against Monseñor Gerardi. The dog has since been ‘put down’ and its role in the murder dismissed. [The process of bringing the perpetrators to justice continues to this day – May 2000]

Regardless of who killed Monseñor Gerardi, there can be no doubt that his murder had the effect of diverting media and public attention away from the content of the report on human rights atrocities. Instead the focus was on the details of his brutal murder. The clear beneficiaries of such consequences are those accused in this report…in this case the Army. The report came as a result of the Project for the Recovery of the Historical Memory, for which Monseñor Gerardi is largely responsible. So the smoke screen continues, but there is widespread belief amongst Guatemalans of all backgrounds that high ranking Army officials are to blame and acted aggressively at the accusations made by the report that Monseñor Gerardi presented two days before his assassination in April 1998.

Despite Pedro’s and Carla’s disgust at the President’s decree I went with them that night to see the fireworks. ‘Come on, let’s go to the President’s Show’, they said sombrely. ‘We’ll have a beer and celebrate your return. And we can watch how they waste money in Guatemala’, they added with a smile. It was after all just a show, a show of continuing impunity. And my friends knew what impunity could do to a community faced by it daily.

That morning I had left Pedro’s and Carla’s house to visit Australian Volunteers still working in the country. I walked past the Peace Flame in the Central Square and noticed that they were igniting it. I wondered if it was just for tonight’s ‘show’. When I left Guatemala in April 1997 the flame was extinguished. It seemed that it was only part of the international relations exercise when dignitaries gathered for the peace signing in December 1996. It burned for a few weeks afterwards and then the gas ran out. Maybe that was an omen for what I was seeing now.

When I returned to my friend’s house from my morning outing I discovered my backpack in my room at the back of their house strewn all over the floor. My friend, Carla told me that they’d just been assaulted and robbed. When I’d walked in from my morning visit they had not appeared traumatised to me. Guatemalans are good at hiding this sort of stuff. But what had happened was quite shocking. Pedro and Carla run a small business and therefore keep their front door open onto the street. Pedro had popped out with his two-year-old son on errands in the car soon after I had left the house on foot that morning. Carla was inside with their two young secretaries. Four men armed with pistols waltzed straight in off the street. They yanked all the phones from the walls and using the same telephone cable bound the women’s arms and ankles and lay them face down on the floor in one room. They took their personal effects, money and jewellery and then started putting all the computers and electrical items in huge sacks. At this point Pedro returned and upon hearing the commotion inside made a noise at the door. This frightened the bandits and they fled without taking the huge loaded sacks. As they marched up the street in broad daylight, pistols down the front of their dirty jeans, Pedro lay low inside his parked car with his young son. Pedro later confessed to me that he was that close to starting the car up and ramming them along the footpath at high speed into the wall – just to maim them would have been enough he said with restrained anger. He knows that in the unlikely event of their being apprehended they can bribe their way to freedom within days. This is the wall of impunity that is forcing many Guatemalans to take the law into their own hands.

In small rural towns all over Guatemala, where police remain in fear of the more heavily armed gangs of bandits and kidnapping and extortionist rings, people have taken to lynching the suspects straight away before the police can be persuaded to take bribes and set them free. Public bashings and petrol burnings are the means of mob violence. The horror of an innocent person being wrongly accused and killed at the hands of villagers is not uncommon. People are quite simply sick and tired of the lawlessness in their land.

It seems that the traditionally powerful groups are against all facets of human development in Guatemala. Soon after I arrived I read in the newspaper about how the popular referendum being planned for early this year was to be postponed. This referendum was asking Guatemalans whether they wanted a new Constitution, incorporating reforms that would obligate the State to invoke legislation, based on the ideals set out in the peace accords. Without integrating these basic premises and human rights clauses into a new constitution the legislation required to make real the peace accords could not be enacted. Those against the change operated in the guise of a powerful group called ‘The Defenders of the Constitution’. This group is in fact made up of the traditional oligarchy and is represented by the chamber of commerce, industry and agro-exporters. In effect it was big business dictating to the State and its Judiciary.

During the weeks that I guided the Community Aid Abroad study tour group, we were constantly reminded by the organisations that we met with, of the importance of letting the people have their say in this referendum. One of the first accords to be signed back in the early 1990s by the Army and the Guerrilla was to do with the rights of Guatemala’s indigenous peoples to maintain their culture and speak their languages and most importantly to have this integrated into basic school education curricula.  The accord spoke of a Guatemala that was multicultural, multilingual and multiethnic. It spoke of the unique rights of the Maya, the Xinca and the Garifuna Peoples. Another important accord was the Socioeconomic and Agrarian Reform Accord which dealt with suggested mechanisms for land redistribution, access to micro-credit and just compensation for ancestral lands stolen during the 36 year civil war. A separate accord addressed the resettlement issues of the hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced peoples who suffered untold traumas in leaving their lands and being forced into exile and hiding.

My Guatemalan friends told me that the rich land owners, the force behind the ‘Defenders of the Constitution’ group, currently blocking the popular referendum in the courts, may have been willing for the Indigenous Peoples of Guatemala to have their cultural and lingual rights enshrined in a new constitution. However, as soon as redistribution of land was mentioned, they immediately moved to block its path to becoming law. They know that the Peace Accords by themselves mean nothing.

A journalist from CERIGUA, the alternative news agency of Guatemala, an NGO formerly functioning in exile in Mexico, told the study tour group that this suspension of the democratic process was just one of a number of ‘hurricanes’ that impacted in Guatemala during 1998 and 1999. Among these so called ‘hurricanes’ was the great embarrassment of, and bitterness in, the Guatemalan population caused by the privatisation of the State postal service ‘El Correo’ and the telecommunications service ‘Guatel’, now known as ‘Telgua’. I related this to a Guatemalan friend of mine in Sydney who hasn’t been back to his homeland in twenty years. ‘What are they doing to my country?’, he asked, ‘Next they’ll be wanting to privatise the little public schooling that we have!’  He wasn’t far off. Last year I heard of a State plan to privatise some of the Education sector. Luckily for now this move remains firmly opposed by the minority forces of progressive thinking that do exist in the Guatemalan Congress today.

With stoic Guatemalan style Pedro and Carla put the morning’s assault behind them. The two secretaries had continued working that afternoon. If it had occurred in an Australian workplace they would have been sent home early after extensive counselling services provided. Now Pedro and Carla wanted to celebrate my return to their Land of Eternal Spring. Night had fallen and the President’s Show had started. The public address sent unimaginative rhetoric about the second anniversary of the peace echoing across the now crowded Central Square.

‘Salud!’, my friends shout as they toast my health in the truly Guatemalan way. With the middle finger down the narrow neck of the beer bottle they make a flicking motion out, resulting in a popping sound. A sprinkle of salt and a squeeze of lime down the spout of course follow this and as the beer erupts in foam, bottles are clashed together in the ubiquitous fashion and we drink the national brew called ‘Rooster’. Above us the first of the fireworks explode, lighting up the Cathedral and the National Palace. The President does not live there. He was one of the first presidents of the Republic to opt out of living in the run down and polluted city centre. But under the iridescent glow of the fire works I could see his multitude of bodyguards over the heads of my much shorter Guatemalan friends. They were surrounding the President but I couldn’t see him. I’m sure my friends couldn’t either. I imagined him standing next to the Peace Flame watching his grand anniversary spectacular. He was with ‘his’ people.

Behind him on the other side of the Square, the Cathedral columns with their newly placed marble tablets bearing some of the names of the hundreds upon thousands of Guatemalans who died, were tortured and ‘disappeared’, are eerily illuminated by the President’s ‘Show’. Its the Day of Pardon he says. As the fireworks finish and the Cathedral’s marble columns return to darkness, I turn once more to conversation with my friends. I am wondering if the flame will be extinguished again until the next public relations exercise comes around?

The President of the United States of America, Bill Clinton, may have said in his visit of March this year that his country’s involvement in Guatemala was all a mistake. But like President Arzu’s remarks, they fall short of naming names and asking for forgiveness themselves. There are clear parallels between our nation’s need for reconciliation with justice and that of Guatemala’s. How can we move on if the wrongs of the past haven’t been acknowledged and the grieving process allowed to run its course?

It’s my first day back in Guatemala and the rumours of a depressed tourist season seem grotesquely out of place now. Hurricane Mitch brought destruction and sadness to many people but there are other ‘hurricanes’ at work here. Its only hours since I arrived back in Guatemala but already it seems like months. Beggars mingle in the crowd and street hawkers squawk their familiar sales pitch. As we walk down past the house where Monseñor Gerardi was murdered, back to my friends’ home, I am wondering if the families of those inscribed on those now darkened columns can really join the President in his ‘day of pardon’, when those responsible haven’t even been brought to justice.

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