Tag Archives: Guatemala

Guatemala; Kindness and State Terror

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QuetzalMy experience with the people of Guatemala, is that they are a very friendly and kind people. Despite Guatemala being located in Central America, I haven’t experienced it as very Latin as such. Many Guatemaltecos love to dance and typical Latin music genres like salsa are by no means unpopular. Yet, it is perhaps the stronger presence of indigenous cultures that gives the country a non- Latin vibe. Around 40 percent of the population are considered indigenous, the vast majority of which are of Mayan descent. This percentage might be even higher, as the majority of the population is a mix of indigenous people and folks of European descendants, but quite a few don’t acknowledge their indigenous heritage. About two percent of Guatemaltecos are of African descent and they are mainly located in the east of the country at the Caribbean coast.

The Issue with Guatemala

Like all Central American countries, Guatemala has suffered greatly under Spanish colonialism as well as, more recently, under American imperialism. The nastiest symptoms of this imperialism are explained with the more conventional term of the Guatemalan civil war as part of the Central American crisis. In the 1960 an awareness of and objection against great inequality started to grow in wider Central America and also in Guatemala. Democratic elections had brought leftist forces in power, but a military coup in 1954 instigated by the US government, brought about a military dictatorship and the military stayed in power until the mid 1990s. While the military was in power social injustice only increased in the form of great income inequality, non-existing labour regulations in favour of workers and a lack of freedom of expression. Any protest was forcefully put down by the government, backed by the United States, who saw the support of military regimes as a necessity for the protection of its huge corporate interests in Guatemala and the wider region. US corporations owned most of the farmable land, yet only used a fraction of it and deprived Guetemaltecos from the right to produce their own food and provide for themselves.

In the Name of State Terror

Both the rural and the urban poor organised themselves and especially the rural poor formed guerrilla groups, who fought the army. From the 1960s and especially in the 1980s the army fought bloody campaigns, not only against guerrilla groups, but mainly against civilians, both rural and urban and of all walks of life, of which the army might have had the slightest (phantom) idea that they were supporting any opposition groups. I object against the term civil war, as the conflict consisted of a fight of the military apparatus against the population. So in that sense it wasn’t a war between people, but an unfair fight between the state apparatus supported by the US government and a very tiny minority forming the Guatemalan elite, against the population. Around 200,000 Guatemaltecos died or disappeared during the decades of state terror, and with these number the term genocide is appropriate.

The official year that the campaign of state terror ended is 1996, when the UN negotiated a peace deal between the government and opposition groups. A truth commission was installed by the UN, that concluded that more than 90 percent of the violence during the campaign of Guatemalan state terror was conducted by the army and CIA-trained para military forces. Since the peace accords the country has known democratic election, economic growth and a successful anti-fraud campaign. The country still suffers great income inequality, with half of the population considered to live below the poverty line and domestic violence against women is widespread.

The Only Way is Up

Attitudes in the country seem to be rapidly changing especially in the cities. This is noticeable in small and bigger things. There are more women with short hair, which only three years ago seemed quite rare. There is a slightly bigger acceptance of gayness, despite still prevailing machismo and although I have been here less than two weeks, I haven’t been asked once whether I’m married and/ or have children. As Guatemala is mountainous and has many towns and villages that are fairly isolated, change might not take place as rapidly across the country. As I am an optimist, I’d like to say, after a tough recent history and a kind and willing population to make their community and country a fab nation; the only way is up.

A very insightful documentary about the conflict in Guatemala is the documentary When the Mountains Tremble, made in 1982 at the height of the campaign of state terror.

Guatemala- Opening of the Dark Fairy Latina Ball

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Antigua

Picture-perfect Antigua Guatemala

After our Filipino adventure, I roamed Europe for a month, residing in my native Lowlands Country, the City of Cities of my heart, London, and the Eternal City, Rome, which was an absolute zoo during Holy Week. After EU-roaming action- while it’s still possible- I boarded another plane to distant, non-European Lands. Just after May Day, when some people celebrate the coming of spring and others celebrate their corporate prisonerhood, or give anarchism a bad name, I made my way to Central America. I flew from Amsterdam to Guatemala City via Panama and headed straight for Antigua Guatemala, which is the old capital of the country and an hour away from the current capital. I arrived in Town at around 10 o’ clock in the evening and the streets of Antigua where absolutely deserted. After checking in at a fancy hostel I hit a top bed in a 4-bed dorm and fell asleep straight away. A beauty sleep after a 20 hour-plus journey during which I didn’t sleep, to set my bio clock to Central American time, was much needed and I woke up the next day well-rested.  I spent a few days in Antigua mainly to acclimatise and hit deadlines, so besides eating at various places and hiding behind my laptop I didn’t do an awful lot.

Antigua roof terrace chill

Antigua Guatemala roof-terrace chill

Antigua and the Yankie dollar/ Gringo Euro

Antigua is a pretty colonial town and one of Guatemala’s main tourist attractions. This is reflected in the prices, which are shockingly similar to prices in Malta. It is rainy season in the country and therefore officially low season. There are nevertheless plenty of tourists and prices are definitely not lower than Maltese prices during off-season. Antigua is not only famed for its colonial architecture, it’s also Spanish-Language-School Central and many a foreigner is in town to learn Spanish. Around the corner of the hostel I stayed at is a hipster café, where they serve caffe latte with soy or almond milk, gluten and sugar-free desserts and plenty of other hipster-friendly food; as if I were I my beloved Brixtonian Hood. One of Central America’s few active volcanoes, Volcán de Pacaya in proper Spanish, is located near Antigua Guatemala and a hike up this rumbling mountain is a popular ‘to-do’ when one is in town.

Beautiful_Xela

A quiet street in Xela

Moving off the Tourist Trail- Quetzeltenango (Xela)

After a few days in Antigua Guatemala I made my way to the country’s second-largest city called Quetzaltenango, or Xela- say Shella- for short. The city is not on the tourist trail and I was the only (obvious) foreigner on the bus, despite the fact the city has a great amount of language schools charging much lower prices than the schools in Antigua. The reason I am in Xela is just that; to perfect my Spanish, as I have plans to settle in Spain and/or in some other Spanish-speaking country in the near future. Compared to second cities in other countries, whether it’s Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Alexandria, Egypt or Medellin, Colombia, Xela is a surprisingly relaxed affair. I would call the city semi-colonial with a few pretty buildings, but Antigua it ain’t. It’s not surprising that Xela is not on the tourist trail, as there is not that much of tourist-interest. However, for a language student and/or someone who wants to get a deeper insight into Guatemalan life it’s an interesting place.

The Spanish school, where I am following classes, is located in a relatively small and pretty building. I am having individual lessons for four and a half hours a day by a lady who is to hit her Big Three O next month and is about to finish her law degree. I expected having one-to-one lessons for four and a half hours a day to be rather intense, but in my first week the mornings have flown by. Classes have been filled with a lot of talking, polishing my rusty grammar and some more talking based on articles I’ve written on topics of my choice. Xela might not be as pretty as Antigua and it doesn’t have that ‘safe cushion’ of a solid tourist infrastructure, but it offers besides much lower prices a more authentic Guatemalan experience.