Sunday, September 12, 2004

Guatemala - Commentary and History

In all Guatemalan cities we visited, we found that it is extremely common to light off fire works before daily church services begin. The “4th of July” sounds ring out throughout each and every day...

I wrote the following after reading information out of my travel guide, Footprint Central America and Mexico 2004 by Peter Hutchison, taking to locals, and reading information on the internet, local newspapers...

Guatemala is bordered by Mexico to the north and west. It is bordered by the east by three countries - from north to south - Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. The south is bordered by the Pacific Ocean. The northern 1/3 of the country is low land while almost the majority of the other 2/3 is highlands and volcanoes (2,500 - 4,000m). It is extremely green, heavily forested, and magnificently beautiful.

HISTORY - From 1524 to 1697 the Spaniards conquered all of Guatemala. They introduced the "encomienda system" where the Mayans were forced to work the land that was actually theirs. They were also required to pay tribute to the colonists in the form of crops. In return, they got Christian education. They were treated like slaves and many thousands died from illnesses and diseases introduced by the invading Europeans. Spanish power began to decline by the end of the 18th century and in 1821, the Central American Independence was signed.

Full independence came in 1839 and liberals and conservatives switched in and out of power until 1944. Justo Rufino Barrios is a very remembered president of this era as he pushed for reform, progress, and liberalism - which was great - but again, at the expense of the indigenous.

Under Manuel Estrada Cabrera (1898-1920...the longest rule of a single person in Central American history), in comes the United States and The United Fruit Company (UFC). Spain, in terms of power and influence, was long gone...and in come the Americans. The United States company, UFC, acquired privileges, ran a monopoly, managed electric plants, ran supply shops, created a railway...and reaped many benefits from Guatemala`s natural resources.

There were strikes against UFC and the International Railways of Central America (also run by the fruit company). Anti-American feelings arose along with protests for workers rights...most often met with government crackdowns.

Strong political and economic ties with the United States continued as the Maya continued to be suppressed. Under the brutal dictator, Jorge Ubico, in 1931, social reform slipped even further. He promoted forced labor, low fixed wages, and even introduced a law that required the Maya to work for free on a landlord`s farm for 150 days per year (the very land that used to be theirs!). However, Ubico resigned in 1944 after much demonstration and demand for his resignation.

Social reform took a huge step when an armed uprising brought a democratic constitution in 1944 which included the abolishment of forced labor. A teacher, Juan Jose Arevalo, was elected president. He did many things, such as set up the Department of Social Security, fed children of poor, and accepted the Communist party. In his five years in office, he survived more than 20 military coups.

In 1950, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman continued with positive changes - especially agrarian reform and breaking up big business monopolies - which included UFC. The expropriation of unused land to be divided among the peasantry, was based at its declared taxable value. One hundred thousand families benefited. Interesting to note that the American company, UFC, was extremely displeased as they had been under-declaring the value of its land for tax reasons.

The United States government, under Eisenhower, backed a military coup because American interests were hurt and rumors of communism in Guatemala were big. in 1954, military strikes were launched and President Arbenz resigned after great pressure from the Guatemalan military and from the United States. International criticism grew rapidly and the United States government distanced itself from UFC and the whole ordeal.

In the time following Arbenz, the military and right wing supporters suppressed and tried to reverse the gains made by Arevalo and Arbenz. Thousands, including leftists and Maya with no political siding, were killed.

In the early 1960`s many gorilla groups (for example - FAR, ORPA, and EGP) formed over the discontent with the government - primarily the way the poor were being treated. The Guatemalan government (military) fought hard against the guerilla groups. The United States first backed, but then pulled support due to human right concerns. But they resumed soon after with military sales and support to Guatemala.

A devastating earthquake killing 23,000 people struck in 1976. Guerilla activity surged. In 1981 the government hit hard on the guerilla groups and set up civil defense patrols which resulted in brothers fighting against brothers, sons against fathers, etc. Many villages were completely wiped out entirely in attempt to rid of the guerilla groups. See the movies, El Norte (Gregory Nava, 1983), and Hija Del Puma for a better understanding. Many Guatemalans fled to North America to escape.

On the road to democracy and peace, civilian Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo was elected in 1986 - the first democratically elected president since 1966.

However, in 1993-96, much civil unrest rose and many human rights were again violated. Finally, December 29, 1996, a peace treaty was signed - ending 36 years of armed conflict. It is reported that 80% of the human rights violations were caused by the military.

Currently, even though Guatemala is now a peaceful country, much corruption and human rights violations still go on (for example - financial scandals, illegally changing tax laws, threatening human rights activists, lynchings...).

ECONOMY - Tourism is the main portion of income followed by agriculture (coffee, sugar, and bananas followed by vegetables, sesame, and cardamom). The industrial sector includes textiles, paper, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, petroleum products, and furniture. Maquila industry (sweatshops) were encouraged in the 80`s attracting foreign investment - employing about 80,000 Guatemalans with low paying jobs (mostly in clothes manufacturing).

CULTURE - Guatemala`s population is 12,639,939. About half the population is indigenous, classified as Maya. There are 22 indigenous Maya groups - the largest being Kîche, Qêqchi, and Mam. Forty percent of the population are ladinos (a word used here to refer to a person with a latin culture, who speaks Spanish, and wears western clothes). Five percent are white, 2% black, and 3.9% mixed race or Chinese. The terms¨"ladino" and "indigena" are used and are cultural - not racial. Twenty-three indigenous languages are spoken throughout Guatemala.

The indigenous dress is extremely unique and extremely beautiful. Little has changed from the time the Spaniards arrived. The clothing changes in color and/or pattern from village to village. New clothing is expensive while jeans are cheaper, so many men wear western dress while the women continue to wear their traditional clothing.

In summary, Guatemala is a fantastic country - extremely extremely beautiful with warm, kind, fabulous people... a superb country. It is great to see the indigenous culture so loud and strong. They suffer great poverty, but maintain so much of their culture in their dress, dance, music, and religion. However, it is also important to note that it is not all "perfect and lovely" in the sense that many people suffer, live in poverty, etc. Here are some statistics that were taken from a local free publication titled, "EntreMundos", from their May/June 2004 and Sept/Oct 2004 papers:

Guatemalan Women
- 80% of women live in poverty, working in unhealthy conditions with low and unstable salaries.
- 59% live in extreme poverty
- 62% of rural women and 75% of indigenous women are illiterate.
- 75% of children are undernourished.
- Guatemalan law does not oblige men to pay child support.

The Agrarian Problem Today
- Guatemala has the largest rural population in Central America - over 60% of its inhabitants depend on agriculture to survive.
- Guatemala has one of the most skewed land distribution patterns in the world and the second most inequitable in Latin America.
- Roughly 2% of the population owns 70% of all productive farmland.
- The United States pushes for export models that help the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.
- Rural families suffer from severe malnutrition and indecent living conditions.
- More than 1/2 lack running water and electricity.

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