My 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.