Ex-Guerrilla Soldiers and Spanish School
Trip Start Nov 05, 2007
10Trip End Nov 29, 2007
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As luck would have it, while I wasn't around for long enough to volunteer (Nelson came to visit from Monday afternoon through Wednesday morning), there was indeed a space for me to study Spanish in the afternoons. My estimation of the school rose even more while attending a 2-hour orientation, most of which taught students about the recent history of the country and the role of the guerrilla soldiers. In a nutshell: the country was originally inhabited by the Mayans, who still make up 60% - 80% of the population. 75% of the Mayans were wiped out within 75 years of Spanish colonization, which began in 1521 and lasted 300 years. By the time Guatemala gained its independence in 1821, a strong class system was already in place, in which most of the power lay in the hands of the criollos, direct descendants of the Spanish conquistadors. Ladinos (those of mixed Spanish and indigenous blood) were next in line, while the indigenous people were at the bottom of society (as is still true today). The country was ruled in this undemocratic way for over 120 years, during which time the United Fruit Company, a private U.S. company, gained control of approximately 75% of the useable land. (They also owned Guatemala's only port and railroad system.) The indigenous Mayas, incidentally, had to work for free for 100 days a year in order to prove they weren't vagrants, with the only alternatives being either joining the military or going to jail.
In 1944 there was a popular uprising, and the period from 1944 - 1954 is referred to as the "Democratic Spring." Two leaders, Juan Jose Arevalo and Colonel Jacobo Arbenz, instituted a number of reforms, including a minimum wage law, an 8-hour workday, and priority for education in the budget. At the end of this period, Arbenz also planned to put into place some mild land reforms, in which the unused land owned by large landowners would be purchased by the government and redistributed to landless peasants. The price of the land would be the same as the value which had been declared by these landowners for tax purposes.
Surprisingly (ha ha), the United Fruit Company didn't like this idea. When the Guatemalan government didn't listen to their complaints, they began a covert lobbying operation to the Eisenhower government (run by a marketing guy from Coca Cola) to convince them that the Guatemalan government was communist. As it turned out, four of the major players in the United Fruit Company included the US Ambassador to Guatemala, the US Ambassador to the UN, the Secretary of State, and the Head of the CIA. In 1954, the CIA staged a coup, Arbenz was forced to step down, and Guatemala was again ruled by a series of dictators. Reforms were reversed, land was returned to the big landowners, and there began a period of violent repression.
In 1986 the peace process began, in large part as a result of foreign intervention. (The United States, meanwhile, had been financing the state's army in the name of anti-communism.) PLQ (my Spanish school) was founded in 1988 in part to spread the word about the war to its foreign students, many of whom returned home to become activists. And, of course, it still teaches the story today, not only through its Spanish classes, but also by means of documentaries, guest speakers, and excursions to places of importance.
So, how has Guatemala changed? Certainly, nobody can claim that it's perfect: there's still poverty (estimated at about 50% of the population), gang violence (particularly in the capital), violations of human rights (many committed by people with ties to the government), lack of health care and education, and the failure of a workable justice system. Yet looking at life today and fifteen years ago, there's really no comparison. People can read and say what they want without fear of retribution, and no longer do villagers have to hide in order to sleep at night. Our teachers at the school can be open about their connection to the war, and the president-elect has made a number of promises which, if he keeps them, could bring about many advances for the poor.
Finally, as a foreign tourist, I'm happy to report that I've felt quite safe: a large (and friendly) police presence in the areas frequented by tourists means that not much bad is likely to happen as long as you take sensible precautions such as not walking alone at night; and if you're really not a risk-taker, you can pay a bit more to travel long distances with a private mini-bus. Indeed, I've found the tourism industry to be surprisingly well-developed. And, while there tend to be an awful lot of locks on the heavy metal doors, the people I've met have been wonderfully kind and friendly. If any of my writings have made you consider going to Guatemala yourself, I would wholeheartedly recommend that you go! You may even be able to help bring about more positive changes in this beautiful country, through investing your dollars in community-based ecotourism or even volunteering your time with development projects.