Para Nunca Olvidar: Voices from Guatemala
Guatemala City, Guatemala (photo credit: Nitzia Thomas)
For over thirty years, Guatemala was embroiled in a civil war. The total number of casualties may never be known to any accuracy, but there will not be too much dissent for figures of 100,000 to 200,000 persons killed or disappeared. The appearance of the term desaparecido ("to be disappeared") was made first in Latin America by the Guatemalan press, and not in Argentina or Chile as might have been supposed. In addition, hundreds of thousands more people were displaced from their communities and became refugees.
The preponderance of the evidence indicate that the majority of the atrocities should be blamed on government forces. The UN-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission assigns blame for 93% of the atrocities to government forces and their allied paramilitary groups while the Archdiocese of Guatemala-sponsored Recovery of Historical Memory project assigns a figure of 90%. This was true even though there had been several governments in Guatemala. During the 1960s, state violence was directed towards armed guerillas and their presumed peasant supporters. During the 1970s, state violence was directed towards opposition elements and labor organizers in the cities. In the 1980s, state violence was turned towards uprooting the popular base of the armed guerillas through systematic massacres, mass destruction of indigenous communities and militarization of civilians into Civilian Self-Defense Patrols. The violence was therefore embedded within the state instituitions.
On December 29, 1996, the Peace Accords were signed in Guatemala City. This article is about the some of the means by which the unwilling actors in this tragedy have attempted to come to terms with this episode in history.
PARA NUNCA OLVIDAR
The United Nations established a Truth Commission in Guatemala (which published its report in 1999), and the Catholic Church published a massive report (“Nunca Mas”) on the issue in 1998. Their huge undertakings have collected about 7000 to 8000 interviews each. There is also a large number of English-language books published on the Guatemala civil war. Yet no information from these reports or books (which will be discussed later on this page) have reached the general public in Guatemala because they do not have access to these books or else they are illiterate.
Danish radio reporter Lotte Holmen spent four months traversing the outback of Guatemala to have people tell her about their sufferings during the cruel thirty-six years of civil war. Through her microphone, they spoke to their compatriots and to the world. This collection of recorded 'personal testimonies' from the civil war was broadcast on radio in Spanish (and other languages) to the public in Guatemala. “I wanted to give Guatemalans access to their own history, and to participate in a process of cleansing. Since most of the Mayans are illiterate, radio is the perfect media”, says Lotte Holmen, who is the director of this Para Nunca Olvidar project.
“It is essential that people can speak about their own past. We all need not only to be able to maintain our past, but also to analyze and express our opinion about it. Many people, many of the actual victims of the tremendous violence that Guatemala experienced, have lived years, even decades, without being able to talk about these horrible experiences”, says Fernando Castañón, secretary general of the UN Truth Commission in Guatemala. He goes on to say, “I find that the Para Nunca Olvidar initiative is a very important contribution, and it is in line with our recommendations. I think that it is essential that this kind of work be disseminated broadly, so that everyone becomes aware of the magnitude of the violence.”
Lotte Holmen said, “I stayed in Guatemala for four month this winter, and made 35 interviews with Mayan Indians all over the country - victims of the civil war. The interviews are very touching human stories in which the Indians tell about torture, cruelty and all kind of human rights violations. Most of the people told me that they have never voiced their stories anywhere - not even in private! All of them were very scared (especially after the results of last year’s presidential elections), and therefore all those interviewed are, and will remain anonymous. So you might call my project a personal ‘truth commission’ for the victims.”
Sixteen of the interviews have been edited into radio programs of 17 - 30 minutes each. They were broadcast by FGER (Federación Guatemalteca Escuela Radiofonica) in Spanish and in various native languages. These broadcasts were intended to initiate an on-the-air debate so that no one forgets. These radio events are also expected to encourage the population to speak openly with confidence and to look for a future without violence.
Lotte Holmen added, “I also believe that the world should be aware of, and learn from, the horrors of Guatemala.” Indeed, the whole wide world can now learn --- online. A new website, located at www.para-nunca-olvidar.org, uses internet-based audio to transmit eight excerpts from the testimonies, illustrated with hundreds of photos of the "faceless victims." The site also contains transcripts of the testimonies in both English and Spanish.
For those of you who are accustomed to using the Internet only to listen to tropical or rock music on streaming audio, these testimonies on the website will come as a disconcerting experience. The same applies to those of you who are numbed by reading about too many atrocities in newspapers everyday. In these testimonies, the spoken words are in fact presented simultaneously with the written words, which compels you to give your total attention. As you read the words, you may be tempted to say them out yourself and then you will recognize that your voice will not have the depth of feeling of the actual speaker. The net effect is that you may never be able to either listen to an oral testimony or read a written testimony in the same manner again without thinking how different and touching this multimedia experience has been for you.
Para Nunca Olvidar is also available in CD-ROM format with 16 testimonies of 15-30 minutes each, and orders can be placed through the website.
Another means of documenting history is through the use of photography. Susan Sontag pointed out, "The photographer was thought to be an acute but non-interfering observer --- a scribe, not a poet. But as people quickly discovered that nobody takes the same picture of the same thing, the supposition that cameras furnish an impersonal, objective image yielded to the fact that photographs are evidence not only of what's there but of what an individual sees, not just a record but an evaluation of the world. It became clear that there was not just a simple, unitary activity called seeing (recorded by, aided by cameras) but 'photographic seeing,' which was both a new way for people to see and a new activity for them to perform." Thus, a strong photographer can produce a strong and unique reading of a subject through his/her photography and text.
In the following, we review a couple of books in which the story of Guatemala is told with photographs and text.
|Vince Heptig. A
Mayan Struggle : Portrait of a Guatemalan People in Danger. Introduction
by Rigoberta Menchú Tum. Maya Media. 1997.
The introduction by Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú sets the historical background for this book and defines the goal of peace with social justice. Only one paragraph in the introduction refers to this book itself: "The photographs included in this book exemplify the magnitude and importance of that goal. They show the contrasts of a disintegrated country and society on the brink of destruction; they show the beauty of its landscapes and the wealth of its natural resources, while displaying the poverty of the Guatemala indigenous people. Likewise, many of them summarizes the greatness of the indigenous culture. They display the militarism, while showing us a ray of hope in the depth of a look and in the shyness of a smile."
This book is divided into seven chapters.
Chapter 1: Mayan Traditions: A Revival --- Photos of the landscape, festivals, religious ceremonies, children, people; these photos are not necessarily different from what you might expect to find in a National Geographic-type book. Their power lies in the juxtaposition with the violence documented in the ensuing chapters.
Chapter 2: Fincas: Slavery or Exploitation --- Photos of agricultural workers including many child laborers toiling in cotton and coffee fields. This inequities of the socio-economic system lie at the root of the Guatemala violence.
Chapter 3: Chontalá: Murder by Civil Patrol --- Photos of exhumation by a US/Argentinian team of forensic experts and subsequent re-burial of 27 victims of the Civil Patrol, including one of the remains of a 12-year-old boy with a rope still tied behind his back and shot "execution style" in the back of the head. Also photos of members of the Civil Patrol and displaced refugees.
Chapter 4: Democracy: Freedom or Farce? --- Photos of funerals for assassinated politicians, street demonstrations both peaceful and violent, National Police, Communities in Resistance (CPR) villages, Guatemalan Army parades, and URNG Che Guevara Front combatants on patrol. The two most disturbing photos are (1) two very small children of soldiers of the Guatemalan Army dressed up in army regalia and holding sub-machine guns for Army Day celebrations (p.86) and (2) a young boy in a CPR town standing next to a sign that reads, '¡Mientras sigue la represión! ¡Resistirá la población!' (p.81), showing the great schism between the two different political value systems that have been propagated down to the very young ones.
Chapter 5: Santiago Atitlán: From Tragedy to Hope --- Santiago Atitlán is the highland Mayan town in which the Army opened fire on a group of unarmed villagers on December 2, 1990. Subsequently, after a bout of bad global publicity, President Vinicio Cerezo ordered the Army to vacate the town (see Robert Carlsen's book The War for the Heart & Soul of a Highland Maya Town ). There are photos of burial and memorial services (including one for a 9-year-old boy) and of the town and its beautiful surroundings.
Chapter 6: Rigoberta Menchú: Defender of Human Rights --- Photos of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner alternating with other indigenous peace activists, reflecting the fact that the indigenous rights movement in Guatemala and elsewhere is not a cult of a singular personality.
Chapter 7: The Road To Peace: The Returnees and The Peace Accords --- Photos of buses carrying refugees to their new homes, and the signing of the Peace Accords in Guatemala City on December 29, 1996. While the Peace Accords raise hopes, the last photo is that of a campesino holding a protest sign 'No tenemos tierra, escuela, centro de salud y carretera' next to a flower girl in a red dress and red high-heel shoes at a peace ceremony.
We note all text in this book are presented in both English and Spanish. You will understand why the bilingual texts are required when you read the photographer's comments at the end:
This book is therefore intended for Spanish-speaking Guatemalans as well as for English-speaking North Americans, since both groups must bear responsibility for the past violence and the future reconciliation and reconstruction in Guatemala.
|Jean-Marie Simon. Guatemala:
Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny. W.W. Norton & Company: New
York, NY. 1988.
The title of the book is explained in the first paragraph: "In the 1800s a European visitor called Guatemala the 'land of the eternal spring.' A century later, Guatemalan essayist and politician Manuel Galich called his country the 'land of eternal tyranny.' For a few, Guatemala is paradise. For most, it is not." The author states in the preface, "In the end, it is my hope that one day the Guatemalans who see this book will not be confronted with a scene from their present, but only a nightmare from their past."
This chapters in this book are organized chronologically following the various regimes
While this book only covers the events up to 1988, anyone who has read this book would admit that this book will never ever be outdated. One reason is the series of photographs collected in this book. There is perhaps no way that mere words could have covered the beauty, the terror and the absurdity that was Guatemala. Here are some examples.
On page 232, there is a photo of a naked dead woman with her face carved out and her hands chopped off at the wrists. The caption reads, "Eugenia Beatriz Barrios Marroquín, in morgue, Escuintla, Escuintla." The accompanying text, which cannot hope to match the horror in that photo but enlightens and infuriates, reads:
On page 63, there is a photo of emaciated, hollow-eyed and thumb-sucking baby being weighed on a scale. The caption is written in a matter-of-fact manner, "Nine-month boy at clinic, Guatemala City. He died the following day." The accompanying text, which is slightly over the top, reads ---
On page 100, there is a photo of three smug-looking young boys in suits and short-cropped hair, with the caption "Cadets from the Adolfo Hall military academy, Guatemala City." The accompanying text reads ---
Although we have emphasized the supremacy of the visual images over the written text, this book should not be regarded as a photographic album with captions. The author was fortunate to have been able to accumulate a large collection of photographs, but clearly no photographer can be omnipresent at every major instance in the turn of history. The continuity of the narrative is preserved by the inclusion of pieces of texts that were taken from the contemporary records, such as newspaper reports, Guatemalan and US government releases, and other public records. One interesting piece of textual analysis was a comparison of the statements issued by the US State Department and Amnesty International:
We note that author Jean-Marie Simon is listed in the book as a consultant to Americas Watch and Amnesty International.
What is testimonio? The definition provided by John Beverley in the book The Real Thing: Testimonial Discourse and Latin America is: "By testimonio I mean a novel or novella-length narrative in book or pamphlet (that is, printed as opposed to acoustic) form, told in the first person by a narrative who is also a real protagonist or witness of the event he or she recounts, and whose unit of narration is usually a "life" or a significant life experience. Testimonio may include, but is not subsumed under, any of the following categories, some of which are conventionally considered literature, others not: autobiography, autobiographical novel, oral history, memoir, confession, diary, interview, eyewitness report, life history, novela-testimonio, nonfiction novel, or 'factographic' literature ... This situation of narration in testimonio has to involve an urgency to communicate, a problem of repression, poverty, subalternity, imprisonment, struggle for survival, and so on." The definition provided by George Yúdice in the same book is "an authentic narrative, told by a witness who is moved to narrate by the urgency of a situation (e.g. war, oppression, revolution, etc.). Emphasizing popular, oral discourse, the witness portrays his or her own experience as an agent (rather than a representative) of a collective memory and identity. Truth is summoned in the cause of denouncing a present situation of exploitation and oppression or in exorcising and setting aright official history."
The best known testimonio is Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia (1983), translated into English as I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala (1984), which begins with this paragraph:
My name is Rigoberta Menchú. I'm 23 years old. This is my testimony. I didn't learn it from a book and I didn't learn it alone. I'd like to stress that is not only my life, it's also the testimony of my people. It's hard for me to remember everything that's happened to me in my life since there have been many bad times but, yes, moments of joy as well. The important thing is that what has happened to me has happened to many other people also; My story is the story of all poor Guatemalans. My personal experience is the reality of a whole people.
The Real Thing: Testimonial Discourse and Latin America is the best source on the genre of Testimonio, as it has collected a number of essays by the major names in the area of testimonio criticism, including John Beverley, George Yúdice, Barbara Harlow, Elzbieta Sklodowska, Margaret Randall, Marc Zimmerman and Doris Somme, together with the esteemed Frederic Jameson. What attracted all these people to this genre with a relatively small number of titles? The editor pointed out that "it was at the crossroads of all the discourses of institutional battles in recent years: postcolonial and/versus postmodern; genre versus non-genre; interest in autobiography; the function of the canon; authenticity/realism; the debates on subalternity; othering discourse; orature/literature; dual authorship; editorial intervention; margin/center; race/class/gender; femininisms (some apparently unjustifiably declared the testimonio women's discourse); minority discourse; Third World writing; the post-boom novel; Latin Americanism; questions of disciplinarity; and so on. Testimonio has been the salvational dream of a declining cultural left ..."
In the context of Latin America, the testimonio assumed an importance by becoming the medium through which the subalterns can finally have a voice of their own. First and foremost, it is considered to be a tactic for self-constitution and survival, in which the subaltern brings the existence of oppressive and repressive conditions to the attention of the world in order to bring about social and political changes. Thus, for the work that has been publicized through her testimonio, Rigoberta Menchú was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.
At the same time, the testimonio is also a significant aesthetic, one which displaces the dominant paradigm in which the voices of the subalterns are represented in novels and poems by recognizable literary names who can guarantee book reviews and sales. Beside literature courses, testimonios have also been used as teaching materials in anthropology, ethnology, historical, political science and sociology courses. In fact, one of the lightning rods of the testimonio debate was about the inclusion of I, Rigoberta Menchú as a requirement in the civilization course at Stanford University.
A central theoretical problem with the testimonio is the authenticity of the voice. It is an unfortunate fact that the principals are usually unable to write well-polished prose, much less being versed in negotiating contracts with literary agents and publishers. Generally, then, the principals work with intermediaries, who exercise certain editorial license, rightly or wrongly so. In the case of Rigoberta Menchú, her collaborator was Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, a Venezuelan social scientist living in Paris and the wife of the famous leftist Régis Debray. By most accounts, that working relationship had not been perfect, with Menchú criticizing and disavowing some aspects of the work later on. In a more direct fashion, K. Millet wrote about the testimonio compiled by the Chilean feminist activist Sonia Montecino Aguirre:
Los sueños de Lucinda Nahuelhual is not a narrative about a Mapuche Indian woman, but rather it is a textualizing of Ms. Sonia Montecino Aguirre and her political sympathies ... From the moment of the narrative's inception, the figure of "the other", Lucinda Nahuelhual, is only that, a figure, an empty signifier, a narration constructed on the significance of Ms. Aguirre's own political agenda ... [T]he idea of "elevating" the Mapuche woman, Lucinda, to the status of a signifier of an urban feminist movement where power is maintained primarily within the hands of "enlightened" women from the hegemony requires that the indigenous woman accept a position of loss in order to signify meaning to her audience of "sisters."
Another theoretical problem about the testimonio is about the veracity and truthfulness of the genre. Sklodowska cautions:
it would be naive to assume a direct homology between text and history. The discourse of a witness cannot be a reflection of his or her experience, but rather a refraction determined by the vicissitudes of memory, intention, ideology. The intention and the ideology of the author-editor further superimposes the original text, creating more ambiguities, silences and absences in the process of selecting and editing the material in a way consonant with norms of literary form. Thus, although the testimonio uses a series of devices to gain a sense of veracity and authenticity --- among them the point of view of the first-person witness-narrator --- the play between fiction and history reappears inexorably as a problem.
The problem is more than a statement of the potential divergence between any text (testimonio or any other form) and reality (whatever that means), which may be an unresolvable question as no objective definition of reality exists. In the case of the testimonio, this becomes much more problematic since this genre purports to have the legal standing of a piece of testimony that is subsequently used to justify or provoke social and political actions. In the case of Rigoberta Menchú, the scholar David Stoll has challenged in his book, Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans, some of her major facts (such as her educational background and the circumstances around the death of her father) as being contradicted by testimonies from other people. However, even as Stoll enumerated the list of factual misrepresentations, he was careful to point out that those 'false' experiences were common to many Guatemalans in those times.
Mass grave in a former military compound are seen in Comalapa, 50 kilometers (31 miles) west of Guatemala City
TRUTH COMMISSION REPORT
(photo credit: Nitzia Thomas)
As unlikely as it may sound, the truth commission report is a twentieth-century literary genre. During this century, many countries have been subjected to officially sanctioned terror, sometimes for many decades. In time, these governing bodies were either overthrown or consented to transfer power. Recognizing that healing and reconciliation cannot begin until the truth of what had happened before was revealed, special truth commissions were created to investigate and reveal. Quite often, but not always, former government officials were given a double incentive by receiving immunity for telling the truth and being prosecuted for concealing or lying about what happened. The findings are usually reported in the form of a truth commission report.
Truth commissions have appeared in places as different as East Germany and South Africa. In Latin America, truth commissions, either official or unofficial, were formed in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala and Uruguay, countries where extensive state-sponsored repression had unquestionably been present. In the case of Guatemala, the Catholic Church undertook the Recovery of Historical Memory project (REMHI), later followed by the United Nations-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission (Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico - CEH).
The report from the REMHI project is published in a condensed form in English as Guatemala: Never Again! by Orbis Book in 1999, with the author listed as the Archdiocese of Guatemala.
Consider the technical difficulties encountered in preparing such a report. This is perhaps quite similar to the standard social science study. First of all, it must necessarily be based upon information collected by the Commission workers, and not just on belief and speculation. The information is based upon testimonies offered by individuals who belong to all the parties in the conflict --- the military, the para-military, government officials, civil patrol, the guerillas, civilian eyewitnesses and victims. Here are some sample testimonies taken from the REMHI project ---
When the army returned, [the soldiers] came out of that house. And they went by to tell my uncle, who is the military commissioner: "Look, you go and bury those people, we finished off a whole family. They are bad folks, we finished them off and now go and bury them. Some are not quite dead yet, they're still twitching; wait until they die, so they're not jumping, and then bury them." When we got there, oh, but it was horrible. I can't forget it. Even though some say you have to put the past behind you, I can't. I remember ... we went to the kitchen and there was the whole family, my aunt, my daughter-in-laws, her sons and daughters; there were two little children hacked to pieces with machetes. They were still alive. The boy, Romualdo, lived for a few more days. The one who couldn't last any longer was Santa, the one with her guts hanging out. She only lasted half a day and then she died. Case 9014 (massacre), San José Xix, Chajul, Quiché, 1982.
The ones who died there rotted. There they remained. No one collected them; no one buried them. Because they had said that anyone who picked them up or went to see them would be killed right there. Whoever buried them was one of them. Even now I don't know what happened to them --- if some animal or dog ate them. I don't know. That is the violence that my mother and father suffered. There is a constant ache in my heart, and I always think about the violence they endured. Case 2198, San Pedro Carchá, Alta Verapaz, 1982.
We found a woman, I called a soldier and I told him: "Take charge of the woman, she is a present from the second lieutenant." "Understood, Corporal," he answered, and he called the boys and said: "There's meat, guys." So they came and grabbed the girl. They took her little boy from her and they all raped her. It was a gang rape. Afterward, I told them to kill the woman first so she wouldn't feel so bad about the death of her son. Key Source 027 (perpetrator), 1982.
In the next step, the collected testimonies are classified according to established conventions (such as by type, source, date and location). Then the results are cross-tabulated and published, as in the following example, with suitable footnotes to explain certain technicalities (such as the likelihood that rape is under-reported). While such tabulations gloss over the individual sorrows, this is what summaries necessarily do.
TABLE 1. Violations by
Historical Period (Victims)
|Disappeared, reappeared alive||35||1||1||19||598||46||15||715|
|Kidnapping for ransom||7||1||8|
|Torture and cruel treatment||172||10||23||126||3,352||340||196||4,219|
|Attack with injuries||18||3||3||14||1,422||227||138||1,825|
|Attack without injuries||44||2||11||1,117||838||342||2,354|
|Attach with damages||16||3||754||115||78||966|
|Attack without damages||46||1||299||12||34||392|
|Threats to individuals||129||90||33||120||3,517||318||413||4,620|
|Threats to inst/.groups||30||1||182||24||2,423||69||29||2,758|
(Note: The statistics in this table contain basic, general information that has been compiled exclusively from the testimonies received by REMHI. Since a single event may produce more than one victim, and a single victim may suffer more than one human rights violation, some findings are quantified based on both incidents and victims)
In most social science studies, the most controversial step would be the interpretation of the data together with the policy implications. Oddly enough, in the case of the truth commission reports, this is not so difficult since many of the recommendations are in fact universally encountered by truth commissions everywhere --- compensation, victim assistance programs, moral reparations, and the restitution of truth and the collective memory of the victims. So far, the major controversial issue in many countries has been that of retribution. In many countries, the price for the transference of power has been the promise of amnesty. While this compromise buys a temporary peace, it is not a true resolution of the conflict as the continuing case of Pinochet has shown. We quote from the introduction to this book:
The ability of government forces to operate without fear of punishment has been a central feature of the Guatemalan conflict. The absolute power of military and police forces, their frequent clandestine activities, and the substitution of military power for civilian authority have contributed to what is widely referred to as a state of impunity. Throughout the years, virtually no one has been investigated or prosecuted for committing crimes against humanity. To the contrary, many of those primarily responsible for the violence have retained their powerful posts and privileges. The ability of perpetrators to commit crimes with impunity has been a constant factor influencing the conduct of the army, police, military commissioners, and civil patrol, and has contributed to further violence against the people. The inability to obtain justice frequently evokes a sense of powerlessness among victims and survivors. Long-lasting effects observed today include the lack of trust in the justice system, the reality that victims live next door to perpetrators in many communities, and the emergence of new forms of social violence, still protected by a mantle of impunity. (p.xxxiii)
Guatemala City, Guatemala (photo credit: Nitzia Thomas)
There are quite a number of English-language books written about the civil war in Guatemala. These books address the subject from a number of different perspectives --- biography, history, ethnology, sociology, political science, anthropology, literature, and so on. There are also some remarkable personalities --- Jennifer Harbury and Rigoberta Menchú. We would have liked to be able to review each one of these books, but for now we will just list them here.
If you believe that there is another book that belongs to this list, please notify the webmaster.
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(this article was posted by Roland Soong on 10/1/2000; last updated on 1/10/2004)
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