Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Sad Tale of the UCFO, A History Lesson

Fifty-four years ago today, the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman was overthrown by a CIA-supported military coup d'etat here in Guatemala. Arbenz was the second president during Guatemala's 10 years of Democratic Spring - the only time in the last 500 years during which Guatemalans have had elected leadership that moved forward on land reform.

And the thing is, Arbenz's land reform wasn't especially radical or scary. The United Fruit Company (now known as Chiquita) held more than 70% of the fertile land in Guatemala, all of the railroads, and the one Atlantic port. (Mind you, this is a US company, not a Guatemalan company.) They were using about 6% of the land they had for production and the rest was lying fallow, while millions of Guatemalans suffered from extreme poverty and hunger. Arbenz basically created a "use it or lose it" policy that gave UFCO six months to start using the unused land and what they didn't use would be transferred to campesinos. (And again, the campesinos are almost all Mayans, so it was their land to begin with.)

This was not an option for UFCO and...conveniently enough, the head of UFCO was the brother of US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. So with a bit of CIA help in arms and training, Arbenz was overthrown and a military dictatorship - the first of many - was installed. In 1960, the first guerrilla groups began to organize and the country moved into a 36-year period of civil war. (Not that the military governments hadn't already declared war on the actual lives of the people before that.) This is where we get the term "banana republic."

In the course of the war, more than 250,000 people were killed and more than 1 million were internally or externally displaced. Community infrastructures were destroyed as was the ability to trust one's neighbors and family members. And the violence continues - more people die on a daily basis now in Guatemala than at any point during the war. Before it was death squads and the military; now it is gangs and organized crime. Femicide especially is a growing problem and is rarely investigated.

This is the legacy of the overthrow.

*The title of this post comes from a song in Once on this Island, which is about Haiti (and worth seeing!). But as is the case in much of Latin America and the Caribbean, it is a pretty applicable history throughout the region.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

"...for me it is good to be near God"

Well. I had clearly never read Psalm 73 before I got today's GodPause.
3 For I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

4 For they have no pain; their bodies are sound and sleek.

5 They are not in trouble as others are; they are not plagued like other people.

These early verses work well with a conversation I was having with myself on the way to the Mennonite Bake Shop this morning. (For anyone coming to Xela - this is a must, especially if you like whole wheat bread, granola, good yogurt, donuts, etc.)

On my way there, I saw a wallet on the ground, clearly emptied out and thrown. A few steps farther, I saw the torn up remains of the photos of two children. This was the part that made me sad - the loss of the money was, certainly, a difficulty for the former owner of the wallet. But it is not common to have photos here, especially of family. So these photos of kids (a son and daughter? niece and nephew? grandchildren? godchildren?) were very likely among relatively few. One of those losses bigger than the monetary loss.

Then a few blocks past this, there was a little corner with a slightly more secluded space where clearly many people had pooped over the last few hours. I've realized in the last few weeks that I can also now often tell the difference between urine on the ground - human or dog. (It's not so scientific - generally the dudes here pee on the wall, not directly on the ground. It's more of a height thing.) For some reason I feel less weird about stepping in dog pee.

Another reality of life here is that people tend to be really friendly on the streets. I've noticed this less as "out of the ordinary" than have my fellow students from places like LA and New York. Herein lies my point in all of this: None of the things that I have seen is peculiarly, intrinsically Guatemalan - they happen everywhere.

I think this is one aspect of what makes it so easy to feel at home here. But it also causes a great dissonance between my experience and that of most Guatemalans. I am pretty clearly the among the arrogant mentioned in the psalm. That's not an uncommon reality when I read or listen to biblical readings, but rarely is it so clearly spelled out in ways that describe the mundane parts of my life. My body works well and has not been marred by malnutrition, violence, or lack of medical care. I have access to all the food I could ever want, such that I do sometimes feel like my eyes will bulge out of my head after a good meal. Even as I travel here, I know in the back of my mind that I can rely on my nationality to protect me from most physical crime, given the history of enormous violence in this part of the world on the part of my country. Cultural imports here from the US are unquestioned and taken at face value as being positive. (Example: One of my housemates teaches health classes to kids - sex ed to 5th and 6th graders, food classes to 1st graders. With the younger ones, they play "Good food/Bad food" - the kids ALWAYS label McDonald's as "good food" because it comes from a restaurant.)

11 And they say, "How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?"

We are pretty comfortable not knowing - or assuming that most folks don't know the things that make us uncomfortable. Most in the US don't know about the School of the Americas, the history of US intervention here, or the currently rampant impunity in the face of human rights atrocities. (More people die in Guatemala each day now than during the 36-year civil war - and only 2% of the crimes are ever even investigated.) And this is comforting in moments when we choose inaction - at least our neighbors will never know.

Last week I took a walk to Parque Central in the evening with two other women from the Casa. We met two grown men - both fairly drunk, but still functional - who talked with us about philosophy and poetry. When people ask what I studied in school and I tell them "religion," it usually sets off a great stream of philosophical questions that I am supposed to have the answer to. I'm not usually especially impressive in this situation and that is at least doubled in Spanish. So when one man asked what he should do (very generally, open-endedly), the only thing that came to mind that fit my language skills was to tell him to keep hope. He sort of sighed and said that he knew that that was important. Then he paused and asked, "But for how long?"

Saturday, July 17, 2010

More photos!

Hi folks - this is primarily just to say that there are more photos up at my picasa space: http://picasaweb.google.com/foggytechtor. Enjoy! I graduated last night, so I have a few from the dinner and then a couple from my trip to the market this morning. (Really these are just the photos of the multicolored chicks.)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Endings (of beginnings?)

I am sadder than I expected about the prospect of finishing up at PLQ. I shouldn't be surprised - I was only going to be here four weeks and have already extended by two whole weeks. PLQ is just such a special place to be. Wonderful people, phenomenal community fostered by the school, SUCH quality education (both Spanish and about the history, culture, current realities of Guatemala). I'm also loving living in la Casa de las Amigas with four other great women from all over the US. I've really enjoyed living in this type of community for the last couple of weeks. (Living with a host family is great, but I have loved the Casa.)

It is bizarre being so close to wrapping up the first stage of my journey. Admittedly, it is the shorter part, but it seemed like such a wide buffer between me and El Salvador - and now it's almost finished! I've more or less known I was going to go back to Salvador since I returned from my semester in December of 2008. I didn't always know how this was going to happen, but one way or another, I knew I wanted to return. The fact that I'm so close now to going is whacky (and so exciting!).

Last night the movie-and-hot-chocolate-night selection was Voces Inocentes, a movie I had seen before and can HIGHLY recommend. I follows a little boy and his family during the civil war in El Salvador and shows the effects the war has on their daily life. It is an intense, powerful film that does include some violence against kids, so that's something to know going in. But still incredible.

Friday, July 9, 2010

New photos - Salcaja

These are the photos from Wednesday's trip to the town of Salcaja, about half an hour from Xela. We visited a "campo de textiles" (literally a textile field). The folks in Salcaja weave a very specific kind of cloth that does now pertain to any specific ethnic group in Guatemala - something of a national semi-indigenous (though based on some Spanish methods) weaving tradition. Very interesting. The gentleman in the first photos took time off from his day to show us a bit of the process. The woman in purple and I interpreted (ha!) for him. Daunting, but doable. (And no, my Spanish is not anywhere near the point where I should be interpreting things.) The field is the only place in town long enough to set up the process, so they weave outside in a community setting rather than in individual houses.

We then visited the oldest church in Central America, La Ermite de la Virgen de la Concepcion la Conquistadora (the Hermitage of the Virgin of the Conception the Conqueror). It was built in 1524 and the altar is original. (The kind of freaky Virgin doll is decidedly not, in my estimation.) It was incredibly interesting being there after having spent the last four years partly in a program looking at colonization and the last five weeks immersing myself in a highly colonized atmosphere (though not so much more than our own - perhaps less in some ways). There's a lot to repent, that's for sure.

Finally, we went to a home brew place where a very local drink called Caldo de Fruitas (Fruit Soup) is made. Not my favorite drink - very sweet and fruity, shocker. But the family is also involved in the weaving process, so the man in the later photos demonstrated for us for a couple minutes.

Yesterday, we had an incredible conference on migration and globalization. The presenter in an incredibly astute, savvy ex-immigrant who "deported himself" back to Guatemala a couple years ago in order to work with youth here who "think that the US is the best place in the world" - so that they know the full reality of what they take on if they leave. And more importantly, to try to develop programs for deportees and a form of alternative economy that could prevent so many people from having to leave in the first place. One of the communities he works with here is a place we visited when I was here with CGE and is well worth a plug: the community of Santa Anita la Union, made up of 36 families in which the parents are ex-guerrilla combatants. It is a truly special community and it was really a privilege to hear our presenter's story. I don't have my notes right this second and I want my post on the conference to do it justice, so it will have to wait, but it is coming.

I am going to be studying in PLQ another week as well, which I'm thrilled about.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Revolution Will Not Be...

PLQ shows a documentary each week on Monday, usually something about the history of Latin America, colonization, or popular movements around the world. Today´s film was The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, about the 2002 coup d´etat in Venezuela (and the subsequent re-instatement of the Chavez government).

Now I have to say, I am no great fan of Chavez and think that, in the years following the coup especially, his approaches to press freedom and endless re-election have become very problematic. But that didn´t stop me from sitting on the verge of tears when we watched him leaving the presidential palace, while refusing to resign, in order to keep the military from bombing the palace with people inside. This made me realize a couple of things: 1) I watch too much West Wing. The camera crew (which was there for a simple documentary about Chavez´s popularity among the people when the coup occurred) had extraordinary access to the halls of power, so it was (in a dorky way) very much like watching a certain tv show about the presidency. 2) I hadn´t realized just how much I had believed over the past year that something like that could have happened in the States. Not likely, perhaps, but the fear was there. The opposition rallies looked so much like Tea Party rallies, with their vitriol and ¨populism.¨ I hadn´t noticed this fear before, but it was clearly there.

Another crucial aspect was the collusion between the high-ranking military officials and the media. At one point, AFTER Chavez´s ministers had retaken the palace and the guard on site was clearly supporting them, the ¨provisional president¨ (from the coup) told CNN that everything was under control - a few angry, violent Chavez supporters outside the gates, but all in order otherwise. And since the state channel had been cut, there was literally no way to get the word out to military bases in other parts of the country that Chavez had never resigned and that the soldiers (not to mention the people in general) had been lied to. A good reminder to read with a skeptical eye what we receive via any media source (except the MetroLutheran, of course) and determine who benefits from which sources´ explanations.

In brief (ha!) I highly recommend this documentary. I might not be in line with everything Chavez does, but it is absolutely worth a watch.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Back from the Mountain (School)

Just another quick update to inform that I'm back from the Mountain School and glad to be in Xela again. I love the mountain, but it is a bit difficult, especially in the rain. (And there was an awful lot of rain.) Because so much of the surrounding area is privately-owned land, it is difficult to go out and about, given the proclivity of some folks to hire armed guards (much like the McDonald's here in Xela). BUT - I finally got some photos uploaded from my camera, courtesy of Lauren's cable, so here we go - an attempt at putting photos on the blog.

[Alas, no luck this time. But I can just send you toward my newly uploaded picasa collection: http://picasaweb.google.com/foggytechtor/Guatemala2010?authkey=Gv1sRgCOuGruPf5O_PLQ# ] Enjoy!