Guatemala is where I have chosen to live for almost four years now. For the first three, I lived in the capital city and worked for the most elite private school in the country.
When I taught a unit on the Holocaust last year and we discussed the ongoing genocides in Africa and elsewhere, many refused to draw the connection to their own country. They parroted their parents’ opinions… no, no, no, there was never a genocide here. It’s just that a lot of guerillas were killed.
They are the wealthy, the privileged, the willfully ignorant. They need to maintain the status quo. To keep their helicopter richness, they staunchly believe that there must be poor brown people breaking their backs doing menial jobs. Some–but not all–students felt this way or voiced these types of beliefs. The ones who kept me going were the sweet souls who would show up on Saturdays to do community service projects, to give their time and attention to their less fortunate counterparts.
Like many Latin American countries, Guatemala has a complicated history of rampant crime, violence and political turmoil. The civil war here officially lasted from 1960 to 1996, but of course conflicts between the left and the right persist to this day. The worst years of the war, experts say, were 1981 and 1982, during which thousands upon thousands of innocent, civilian Mayan villagers were tortured and murdered, for supposedly supporting the guerrillas who were fighting the oppressive government.
Astonishingly, the man who reigned as dictator in 1981 and 82, Jose Efrain Rios Montt, was recently brought to trial after thirty-one years of effort by the Mayan survivors and various human rights groups that support them. Last Friday, he was convicted and sentenced to eighty years in prison. He is now 87 years old. Yesterday’s issue of the conservative newspaper, Prensa Libre, reported on his failing health. Apparently, he is suffering from hypertension due to stress. Hmmm, I guess orchestrating a genocide would lead to some serious ulcers! So, instead of rotting in prison, he is currently at the hospital. At this time, it’s hard to have pity or metta for such a despicable person.
Obviously, there can be no justice for genocide. But this legal win is certainly better than nothing. The verdict is in. The underdogs, the trampled, the hated indigenous have won one small battle against State-mandated atrocities.
Of course, this country’s current presidente was an army General on the ground in the war in 1982 and very much implicated in the genocide as well.
In spite of these dark facts, I have no plans to leave Guatemala anytime soon. Since last June, I’ve resided in an environment much better suited to my tastes: in front of Lago Atitlan, one of the most beautiful lakes on the planet. I live a peaceful existence in a gorgeous place. I wish everyone in this country, in this world, could join me in living this way.
This morning, I read this poignant personal essay by Maya Chinchilla, a second-generation “Central American-American,” in which she reflects on her childhood experiences attending solidarity meetings held by her parents and Guatemalan exiles and watching the documentary When the Mountains Tremble. I will leave you with her eloquent words:
This trial is not about revenge. Nothing can bring back the dead or heal the trauma inflicted upon a generation of people. Instead, this is an opportunity to record the truth as public record in a Latin American country that has never witnessed anyone brought to justice within its own borders, where perpetrators continue to act with impunity. This is an opportunity to break the silence, however long it takes, to declare, as has been repeated over and over: Sí hubo genocidio. Yes. There was a genocide in Guatemala.