New Book on Central America and Oaxaca Benefit

Media Mouse has posted a new book titled Sembramos, Comemos, Sembramos: Learning Solidarity on Mayan Time by contributor Jeff Smith. The book is being published online in advance of a December 14th benefit for the struggle in Oaxaca.

Media Mouse has posted a new book online by longtime Media Mouse contributor Jeff Smith. The book is titled Sembramos, Comemos, Sembramos: Learning Solidarity on Mayan Time and it is a product of Smith’s travels to Guatemala and Chiapas and his work with the Guatemalan community in Grand Rapids over the past 19 years. Along with the book, Smith is completing a documentary titled Reversing the Missionary Position: Learning Solidarity on Mayan Time using video footage from his trips to Central America and Mexico. The documentary will premiere in Grand Rapids on December 14 at the Wealthy Theatre. The December 14th screening is a benefit for the struggle in Oaxaca and will feature both a showing of the film as well as a concert by the local band Cabildo (flyer).

From the Introduction to Sembramos, Comemos, Sembramos: Learning Solidarity on Mayan Time

“Fray Diego de Landa throws into the flames, one after the other, the books of the Mayas. The Inquisitor curses Satan, and the fire crackles and devours. Around the incinerator, heretics howl with their heads down. Hung by the feet, flayed with whips, Indians are doused with boiling wax as the fire flares up and the books snap, as if complaining. Tonight, eight centuries of Mayan literature turn to ashes.
Memory of Fire: Volume 1 – Genesis, Eduardo Galeano

In January of 1992, just days before the cease-fire in El Salvador, I was sitting in the Central Plaza watching the crowds of people with my traveling partners. We noticed a large crowd in the center listening to a man speaking in English who was accompanied by a translator. I decided to walk over to investigate what was going on when I realized that the man speaking was a preacher from the US. No sooner did I realize this that I turned around and rejoined my friends shaking my head in disgust.

When the crowd finally dispersed I noticed that the street preacher was headed in our direction. Right away he began to speak to us in English and inquired about our being in El Salvador. We told him we were tourists because one never knows when there are people listening in (orejas) on your conversations. Before we could say any more this guy began asking us if we had “come to know the Lord.” We all said no, much to his disappointment, but we were curious enough to know what he was doing here. He said “to spread the Gospel and to win souls for Christ.” We asked him if he was doing anything for these people in the way of food, housing, jobs, ect. He told us no and that those things were not relevant as long as people saved their souls. At that point I remember telling him that he was no different than the long line of Christians who had come here to impose their will on these people. I said if you wanted to preach religion, maybe he might want to follow the model of the late Archbishop Oscar Romero.(1) Looking at me with a confused expression, our missionary friend simply said, “Who was he?”

This encounter reflects for me a fundamental tenet of the relationship that Euro-Americans have had and continue to have with people throughout Latin America. Over the past 500 years Mayans and many other people have had various forms of intervention in their communities by people claiming to know what is best for them. Whether they have been missionaries, statesmen, Peace Corp workers, anthropologists, relief agencies or even solidarity organizations – all of them, in some form or another, have gone to these countries with the position that they were going to “help these people”, “show them how it is done”, make their lives better or simply to “save” them from themselves. The corporate owned media in this country has contributed to this view since it rarely puts into context why there is rampant poverty, street children sniffing glue, political violence, government corruption and ecological devastation. The cumulative effect of watching news stories about Latin America that is mostly disaster related can leave viewers with the sense that “these” people can not take care of themselves. Whether it is on the nightly news or a CARE ad showing malnourished children, the North American public is fed images of dependency and backwardness. From my studies of the local TV news coverage of Latin America it is rare that we are given the opinions and perspectives of Latin Americans on what is happening there and a virtually nonexistent view from Latin Americans who hold no positions of power. (

More and more people are beginning to question this notion of superiority and imperial mentality that permeates all social institutions in this country. Beginning with the observations that took place surrounding the 500 years of resistance by Indigenous peoples throughout the Western hemisphere, some people in the US are confronting their own relationships with the First Nations of North, Central and South America. This is due in part to an increase in solidarity groups sending people to various countries by way of invitation to stand with people in their struggles for justice. Attitudes are also changing because people are becoming more familiar with the rich literary and cultural traditions that give a radically different view of the past 500 years. This transition has not been without resistance, some of it which wants to aggressively cling to the history of the victors, while others are scrambling to find “examples” of well intentioned people that they can hold up so as to not feel completely guilty about being in positions of privilege. One such example, which is even being elevated by the religious left and some solidarity groups, is Bartalome de las Casas. Las Casas, a Dominican priest/bishop who once enslaved Indians himself has been canonized as the “Defender of the Indians.” It is true that Las Casas denounced the enslavement of Indians, argued that they had souls, and left us with a detailed account of the consequences of the genocidal policies directed towards Indians in the Caribbean, Meso-American and South American regions. These are contributions that should not be quickly dismissed when critiquing his involvement in the early years of the European invasion, but they are not adequate reasons for blindly embracing him as the great “Defender.”

What must be challenged are Las Casas’s motives for speaking out on behalf of indigenous peoples. In a collection of propositions that he wrote entitled Rules of Confession, the Bishop of Chiapas said “…once the native rulers have voluntarily and freely accepted the faith and been baptized as Christians, they become bound by another title than before to acknowledge the Spanish sovereignty.” (Las Casas, by MacNutt, pg. 282) Las Casas’s intention was to convert these people to the “true” faith, which in my mind is a blatant display of imperialist thinking. Several scholars have also pointed out that Las Casas advocated for the enslavement of Blacks and Moors instead of Indians to work for the Spaniards. (Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage, Katz & Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples, Forbes)

Las Casas was also guilty of participating and in some ways developing an economic and social system that devastated Indigenous groups throughout the hemisphere. Osage/Cherokee scholar George Tinker says “We must never forget that Las Casas, the hero of the 1992 Quincentenary, was just as committed to the conquest of Native Americans as were Cortes and Pizarro. He only hoped to do it less violently. He accomplished much of his goal by creating the reduccion missionary system (2), used so effectively – and destructively – by later generations of European Jesuits, Franciscans, and even Protestants in both the northern and southern hemispheres.” (Missionary Conquest, pg. 19)

Las Casas is an example of what I would call a liberal conquistador, one that seeks to dominate others in a fashion less brutal than a mercenary, but just as devastating when one considers the long term effects. I chose Las Casas, not because I wanted to single out a religious figure, but because he incarnates the best and the worst of European and Euro-Americans that have come to the Americas with the best of intentions. He can act as an interior mirror for all of us who honestly want to be a part of the liberation of the Americas, by challenging our motivations for what we do and who it ultimately benefits. For me this is fundamental to the work of solidarity.

What I have sought to do in this book is to reflect on the fact that it has been I who have been “saved” because of the people I have worked with in Guatemala/Chipas and those in Grand Rapids who are from Guatemala. In many ways it is I have who been transformed by these people and the experiences I had with them. I do not want to give the impression that I have some romanticized notion of who Guatemalans/Chiapans are, rather I am saying that it is I who really gained from these encounters. It is sort of a reversal of the missionary position, where instead of going to change others I became changed. Who I am today and what I do is in large part because of my encounters with the people of Guatemala and Chiapas.

What I hope to communicate in these pages is that solidarity was not just something I participated in on my journeys to Guatemala and Chiapas, it was something I learned and am learning because of the struggles they have allowed me to participate in. They have taught me profound lessons on community, organizing, and the importance of having a vision. I learned that for them to obtain real freedom I had to learn to listen to what it was that they wanted. I was taught solidarity by not wanting to impose my will, my desires on them. In religious terms, it is as if I was being proselytized by them and sent back to the US to make converts here. I could not simply come back from my trips and claim that I had done “my time.” No, this is not solidarity. Solidarity requires an ongoing relationship and doing whatever it takes to improve, to build upon that relationship. The kind of solidarity that the Guatemalans/Chiapans have taught me is learned solidarity. This type of solidarity requires that after standing with the people in Guatemala/Chiapas that I work here in the US to change the policies that make it nearly impossible to achieve lasting change in their countries. The main difference between dogmatic religion or political ideologies and learned solidarity for me is that learned solidarity is based on real principles of democracy, equality and mutual respect, not just paying lip service to it. Learned solidarity is the desire and the experience of standing with people, of having a presence with them regardless of differences or world-views.

One experience I had of learned solidarity came during my first stint in Guatemala while working with Peace Brigades International. I was working with a newly formed group of Guatemalan widows called CONAVIGUA. They were meeting in a church courtyard in Chichicastenago one afternoon when a group of soldiers entered and made threats. The women defiantly stood their ground and the soldiers left. That night one of the women said to me that they were grateful for our presence that day, but then she went on to tell me something that I can never forget nor ignore. She said, “It is important that you are here, but more important that you return to your country to tell the people what is going on here. The way you live determines how we live.”

This book is the product of learned solidarity. It is divided into three sections, each reflecting on the various ways that this learned solidarity has impacted me. Part I of the book is entitled Q’anjobal Mayans Invade Amway Territory. I share thoughts on being bit by the Central America bug, part of the Sanctuary movement in the 80’s and how I negotiated cultural solidarity in an area permeated with Christian conservatism.

Part II is called Sembramos, Comemos, Sembramos – We Plant, in order to Eat, in order to Plant. This is a saying I learned from a Mayan farmer that reflects the simplicity and consistency in the lives of the Mayans I met in Guatemala and Chiapas. Here I gleaned sections from my journal entries from various trips between 1988 to 2001, where I have had numerous opportunities to accompany and observe the relentless persistence of the Guatemalan popular movements and the participatory democracy of the Zapatista communities.

Part III, The Way You Live, Determines How We Live, is a collection of articles that I have written over the years on various aspects of how US policy impacts Guatemala and Chiapas and what we might do to change those policies. As Noam Chomsky has always pointed out, the responsibility of the citizens of countries that dictate global policies are key in determining the outcome of many liberation struggles around the world.

I am forever indebted to the people I have met and learned from in these pages. My encounters with them have transformed my life forever. It is because of them that I am the person I am today. It is for them that I dedicate this book.

(1) Romero devoted the last years of his life to the poor of El Salvador, but also spoke out vehemently against the injustice committed by the government and the army. He also criticized the US support of both these institutions, a criticism that probably led to his assassination on March 24, 1980.

(2) The reduccion system was implemented by the Dominicans in 1543 as a way to bring the Indians into centralized areas after the displacement caused by the violence from the initial years of the conquest. The Dominicans argued that this was a way to protect the Indians from further harm. The result, however, was that the concentration of Indians made it possible for the church to “christianize” them and for the Spaniards to further confiscate their lands. ( Handy, Gift of the Devil, pages. 21-24 and Tinker, Missionary Conquest, pages. 18-20.)

Read the rest of the book

The Press Commits Another Sin of Omission: When Rape is Passe

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (May 1996)

On April 13, in the Religion section, the Grand Rapids Press ran an article from Newhouse News Service writer Julia Lieblich about a US nun who is engaged in a protest/ fast across the street from the White House. Actually, the article spends more time talking about the “concern” that National Security Advisor Anthony Lake and his associates are having in this case.

The headline reads “Administration officials make late-night visits to see protesting nun.” The title alone is enough to lead you to believe that they are on some humanitarian mission. According to the article, Lake has paid three visits to Sister Diana Ortiz who has been camped out since April 2. In fact, the article gives more print space to the supposed empathy of government officials than that of the reasons for Ortiz’s actions.

The Press article simply states that Sister Ortiz “was raped and tortured in Guatemala.” No other specifics are mentioned. We are given no date or any testimony from Sister Diana herself about what happened. It is almost as if rape and torture were incidental in this case. The article mentions former US Ambassador to Guatemala Thomas Strook’s challenge of Ortiz’s story, but no one who supports her case is cited. For as much as the article reflects the agony of the government officials on this case you might expect the writer to give equal time to the agony of Sister Ortiz. Not so. The specifics of her abduction, rape, and torture are quite available, however. You can find full testimony in publications such as Report on Guatemala, the Bulletin of the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission/USA, as well as a taped interview on Alternative Radio. Any competent journalist could easily find these sources.

Some of the specifics of her case are as follows. She was abducted on November 2, 1989. Her abductors took her to a warehouse-like building, where Sister Diana recounts that she heard “the despairing screams of people being tortured and I watched helplessly as an innocent person was tortured.” She was then questioned and every time she responded men burned her with cigarettes. In all she has 111 burns on her back from the interrogation. She then says, “I was raped numerous times. After pouring wine over my body they used and abused my body in horrible ways that are too humiliating to describe in detail. Then they lowered me into an open pit packed with human bodies – bodies of children, women, and some men, some decapitated, some lying face up and caked with blood, some dead, some alive – and all swarming with rats.” Had any aspect of this testimony from Sister Ortiz been included in the Grand Rapids Press article would it have changed your impression of this case? I think it probably would have.

None of these serious omissions by the corporate media should surprise us though. If we look at the date of the crimes committed against Sister Diana, Nov. 2, 1989, we can make other conclusions about the self-censorship that the corporate media engages in regularly.

According to Noam Chomsky in Terrorizing the Neighborhood, when this story appeared on the AP wire service on Nov. 6, 1989, none of the major media picked the story up, nor were there Congressional calls for an investigation. Just over a month later and right before the illegal US invasion of Panama, George Bush waxed indignantly about what happened to a US woman in Panama. “If they threaten and brutalize the wife of an American citizen, sexually threatening the lieutenant’s wife while kicking him in the groin over and over again – then….please understand, this president is going to do something about it.” (see Stephen Shalom’s Imperial Alibis, pg. 178-79) So, if a US woman is terrorized in a country that the US military is about to invade it is an outrage, but if a woman is terrorized in a country that systematically murder’s its own people (with US government support) it is not worthy of mention? You decide.

Finally the Press article does make mention that Sister Diana is pushing the Clinton Administration to release all classified documents related to her case. They also cite a catholic priest who believes that Anthony Lake’s interest is more posturing than genuine concern. However, the article does not seriously look at the present efforts by the Guatemalan solidarity community in this country to push the Clinton Administration to release all declassified documents related to Guatemala since the CIA-led coup of 1954. In the most recent issue of Report on Guatemala, Jennifer Harbury states that after receiving some declassified documents it is clear that Anthony Lake and other US government officials were either withholding information from her or deliberately deceiving her in regards to the status of her husband Efrain Bamanca Velasquez, who is now believed to have been killed at the hands of CIA paid military officers in Guatemala. No wonder the corporate media is “missing” the real story, it would not only indict the role of numerous US administrations in grave human rights abuses in Guatemala, it would also be self-indicting since the bulk of the information on cases like Sister Ortiz has been available for decades and has not been reported on.

Resurgent Mayan Identity: Human Rights, Elections, and Popular Organizing in Guatemala

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (January 1996)

It was Saturday afternoon in Chichi when we arrived. This was market day where the human activity resembled that of an ant colony. Everyone was busy buying and selling, trading and bargaining. The economic activity of this market economy is radically different from the one that we are used to in the US. It is more of a social event than anything else. Most people who are displaying their wares either made them or grew them. Food clearly dominates the items for sale, thus creating a large potluck atmosphere with people eating and sharing all day long. The smells of the comedores and the sight of tipicas bring great pleasure to the senses, senses that are deadened in the standard supermarket of the North, filled with plastic, preservative, and a multitude of products disconnected from their makers. It is in this vibrant, dynamic setting that the new party members brought their message.

We arrived accompanying members of the newly formed political party Frente Democratico Nueva Guatemala. We were invited to accompany them since the majority of candidates are popular movement organizers who have been on the death squad lists for years and because the government has labeled them an extension of the armed resistance movement. This is a standard tactic used by repressive governments against new parties that advocate anything other than business as usual. This discrediting label did not seem to take effect here in Chichi. The people swamped the pickup truck we were riding in, all extending a hand out to get the literature that was being passed out. Within 30 minutes the flyers and calendars that were being distributed were gone. At first we thought that this was an aberration. Maybe people were taking flyers because it was free or because literature was hard to come by in these rural communities. Our speculations were quickly dismissed when two other party groups arrived passing out their respective flyers. People did not swarm their trucks nor struggle to grab the paper with outstretched hands. While we watched these parties flounder on the street, Maria, a Mayan woman with the Frente, began to speak over a loudspeaker.

People gathered around to hear her powerful words. She spoke with conviction and clarity about the dreams and desires of her people, but she also talked about how her party members have been fighting for justice alongside these people for years. That is why the crowds listened intently and that is why they rushed to take the flyers. All of this was not clear to me at first, because Maria spoke to the crowd initially in Quiche. This was another clear distinction between the Frente and the other parties, they always had local representatives who spoke the local language. Maria did not use much political rhetoric nor did she make idle promises. She spoke as she has spoken for years, about the demand for an end to murder, an end to the disappearance, an end to poverty, and an end to impunity. Only then will the people be able to determine what kind of future they will have.

This scene, like many others i witnessed, reflected the political space that was opening up in Guatemala. A space that was not given to them, but one that they made for themselves. I arrived in Guatemala 3 weeks before the elections on November 12. My intention was to meet with as many people as possible, to gather information, to work on a video about human rights, and to observe the elections. The following is some of the information and experiences of my trip.

Popular Movements and Political Repression

As was mentioned before the public activity of the popular movements is at an all time high. Every time I go back to Guatemala new groups have formed. Some of them form to fill a void in the popular base or to challenge some of the faults of the existing groups. Notable, are the increase of women’s groups and indigenous groups. The women’s groups are more and more challenging the machismo of the ladino and indigenous societies. They have learned from their own experience and that of other Central American women that their issues cannot be subordinate to the revolution. The indigenous groups are also refusing to allow ladinos to set the political tone in a country that has its own form of apartheid, with 60% of the indigenous population still having no effective political representation at the government level. Plus the indigenous groups also do not want to lose their own cultural identity within the national identity, whether that is a totalitarian identity or a nationalist identity.

One of the newest indigenous groups is CONIC, a campesino-based organization that is fighting for land rights by challenging the traditional property system in the courts, but mostly through land occupations. CONIC was born out of the 500 years campaign that has existed in Guatemala formally since the late 1980g’s. Their main objective, aside from autonomy, is to reclaim land that was once theirs. This they believe is fundamental to rebuilding a new society. An enlarged statement on one of their organizational brochures says “The struggle for land, is a struggle for life and peace.”

Another area of increased organizing is with the repopulated communities. These groups consist of communities that were either refugees in southern Mexico since the early 1980g’s or internal refugees who were displaced from their villages and survived in the highland regions. i had an opportunity to spend time with both, once internal (Los Cimientos) and external refugees (Nuevo Mexico in the south coast). Each community was dealing with the lack of sufficient community resources, children adjusting to unfamiliar places and tensions with surrounding communities. At the same time they are essential to the foundation for a new society based upon their experience and ability to survive under extreme circumstances.

Overcoming Impunity

Even with the tremendous political space that has been created by the popular sectors, human rights violations still mar the political landscape in Guatemala. It is in the area of human rights that I spent most of my time, specifically with the group CERJ. This organization, which was born out of the need to resist the forced civil patrol duty of indigenous men that was instituted during Rios Montt’s reign of terror, has now become one of the most outspoken defenders of human rights.

Most of my time was spent between documenting the testimonies of people who had been victims of human rights abuses or witnesses to them, as well as accompanying members of the organization when traveling about since they are constant targets of military repression. In both instances the video camera I brought with was a tremendous asset. One incident that we documented is particularly noteworthy, since it demonstrates the type of repression that most of the groups like CERJ must deal with on a daily basis. Just days after accompanying CERJ members who were campaigning for the Frente in Chiche, a woman and her three children were strangled to death in that same village. This alone was abominable, but to make matters worse the murderers then put up posters throughout the town accusing CERJ of committing the murders. Upon discovering this we went to Chiche to make a public declaration against this defamation of CERJ. The intention of course was to create confusion amongst the villagers, but the murderers made a fundamental mistake, the defamation was written in Spanish in a community where most of the inhabitants could not read and only spoke Quiche. The attempt at character assassination was also a failure since CERJ has won the trust of most villagers by their years of solidarity with Mayan brothers and sisters.

The rest of the country was experiencing similar forms of terrorism. In early October the military entered the community Aurora 8 de Octubre, in Xaman, Alta Verapaz. This was a clear violation of the terms of agreement between repopulated communities and the government that were signed in 1993. When the community members confronted the soldiers, the soldiers opened fire killing 11 people and wounding another 25. This event, which received some international attention, affirmed the analysis of the human rights groups in the country….that some things are not getting better. In fact, most of the groups who have been documenting the abuses said that there have been more human rights violations during the year and a half of President Carpio (the former human rights ombudsman) than during the years of Jorge Serrano. Serrano, the previous president of Guatemala, was forced to flee the country after suspending the constitution and plundering the national treasury. According to the families and Relatives of the Disappeared group, GAM, some 1,433 human rights abuses were documented in 1994. This includes murders, disappearances, death threats, and detentions. In the first 6 months of 1995, GAM had documented over 700 abuses, thus keeping pace with the previous year’s numbers. Still, the major contention that surrounds the issue of human rights is impunity. Everyone knows who is committing the crimes and virtually nothing is being done to stop them. Even the UN, which came out with their 3rd report (early Nov. 1995) in as many years on human rights in Guatemala said “….no one is prosecuted, especially as it applies to the government.”

Vote… if you can

Historically voting has been somewhat of a formality in Guatemala, since most everyone knows that the military runs the show. People either vote out of fear or not at all for lack of faith in the system. Abstention generally claims the majority of votes. This election proved slightly different from the very beginning, not due to the electoral process but to several factors that made the privileged few very uncomfortable.

On October 20, the anniversary of the 1944 revolution, people participated in the usual demonstrations and public rallies, calling on people to reclaim the spirit of that revolution. With the election being just weeks away it added anew sense of revolutionary purpose in the popular movement, especially with the newly formed FDNG. However, a new popular party was not the only thing that motivated people in these tense days.

To add to the excitement and expectations of many people, president Carpio allowed something that most people did not expect. The remains of one of the revolutionary presidents, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, were returned to Guatemala with much fanfare. The FDNG took advantage of Guzman’s return by calling it a “symbol of the return to revolutionary democracy in Guatemala.” This helped set the tone for the Frente as they scrambled to make up for the limited time for campaign organizing.

It was also not only an issue of time for the Frente but also the lack of resources that the “traditional” parties enjoyed. The Prensa Libre said that both PAN and the FRG overwhelmingly outspent the FDNG on election expenses. The money spent on election day alone for party observers, transportation and other expenses were as follows: PAN Q476,100, FRG Q250,000, and the FDNG Q15,000. The FDNG could also not run the types of campaign commercials on the TV and radio that most of the other parties could, nor did they have the resources to give away hats, T-shirts and other paraphernalia with the hopes of buying voters. At one FDNG rally a labor organizer made the statement that “PAN is for the rich, but tortillas, the food of the poor, is what the Frente represents.”

Political violence was evident, especially in the rural areas just prior to Election Day. We saw several military battalions on maneuvers in the Ixil Triangle at 2:00am while traveling on bus from north Quiche. Few of the Frente candidates were harassed, but that was in part due to the fact that most of the candidates were people who have been escorted by members of the international community for the past 10 years. Rosalina Tuyuc, the director of CONAVIGUA, a widow’s organization, was threatened one evening and her vehicle was also stolen just days before the vote. The most ominous form of political repression however, was and remains in the form of poverty. This is something that the Frente kept highlighting in their platform. Democracy cannot exist, nor can you have democratic elections when people are starving. This is something that will certainly plague the country for years to come unless major structural changes are made with the entire system.

All this aside, the most important aspect of this election was the increased participation of the indigenous population. Not in the usual sense of just casting a ballot for some wealthy ladino but in a new way that could be the key to real change in years to come.

“Our cries, pain, and woe from the last several hundred years have begun to end, and now we can begin to listen to our own voices.” This declaration from Nukuj Akpop, a Mayan phrase for “Experiment in Governance,” reflects the present awareness and selfdetermination of many of the indigenous people. Never since the Spanish invasion of Guatemala have indigenous people organized their own election candidates, nor have they had their own platform. Of all the candidates that ran for the Frente, 130 were indigenous, including mayoral candidates, Congressional candidates, and even the vicepresidential candidate was a Quiche Mayan, Juan Leon. This new dynamic gave many great expectations for change and real participatory democracy.

As an election observer it was my job to report on any part of the process that was in violation of election standards, as well as to act as a deterrent to any potential fraud or violence that may occur. I was one of 100 or so independent observers from all around the world. In addition to us there were groups from the OAS, UN and even the Union of European States. These groups had more resources, labeled vehicles, and walkie-talkies to assist in their work. However, they were fewer in number and tended to be in the more urban areas, away from the potentially more volatile rural areas. I worked in the department of Quiche and observed in 5 towns throughout the day.

We did observe some elements of coercion. In Patzute members of the PAN party were giving money to people before they got into line, hoping to buy votes. In San Pedro Jocopilas some parties were displaying party emblems, a violation of Election Day rules. No one could wear a hat, T-shirt, or anything else that had party colors or symbols. Many people also discovered that their names did not appear on the register, even though they had a voting card with a designated number. At the same time there were reports that names of people who had been dead for years appeared on the voting lists. And there were reports of military personnel or civil patrol members around voting stations, also a clear violation. The biggest problem, however, lay with the very structure of the electoral system itself.

Most of the people who came to vote in the areas that I observed in were indigenous. Many of them had never voted before or were not that familiar with the voting process. Matters were complicated by the fact that the voting procedure was in Spanish, thus making it difficult for people who were either unable to read or only spoke an indigenous language. The election representatives at each table were almost exclusively ladino and male. When people had problems, many of them could not communicate with those in charge. The most common thing we witnessed was people were going to the wrong place. Many of the voters had to travel from another town to vote, since not every village had its own station. Upon arriving most people would simply go to the nearest voting site and wait in line, sometimes 2 or 3 hours. When reaching the front they were often told that they were at the wrong voting station. If people were not familiar with the town they were not able to find the other voting stations, and election personnel were not really assisting them. Frustrated, many people simply gave up and went home, never able to fulfill their hopes of voting for change. Clearly the system was fraudulent, at least for the majority poor indigenous population. At one point we decided to tell people which lines to get in when they arrived, since we had copies of the voting station numbers. In spite of these efforts and that of many of the popular movement, nearly 60% of the population either refused to vote or could not because of the difficulties posed by the system.

At the presidential level PAN candidate Arzu was the top vote getter with 36%. Portillo, the Rios Montt-led FRG party candidate, was second with 24%. Of the 19 presidential candidates the FDNG was in fourth with 8%, not bad for the lone oppositional party that had only 3 months to organize. Even the press in Guatemala referred to their position in the results as “A Big Surprise”. At the local and congressional level the Frente did much better. I watched the vote counting in Santa Cruz de Quiche, and at all three tables I witnessed a Frente victory. It was a delight to watch and listen to the vote counters as they kept echoing the words Nueva Guatemala (short for the FDNG). Representatives from the other parties did not seem to be surprised though. These were areas of the country with a Mayan majority and where Frente candidate Amilcar Mendez has worked to defend people’s human rights through CERJ over the past 8 years. Other impressive victories were the election to Congress of Nineth Montenegro, the director of GAM, whom I had escorted for months in 1988, due to constant death threats against her, and Rosalina Tuyuc, who became the first Mayan woman ever elected to Congress.

In spite of these victories, the FDNG went public the day after calling the elections a sham that was fraudulent. On Monday, Nov. 13, the day after the election, the electricity went out in the entire country. We were told that this was the first time that that had ever happened in their history. This means that the election computers went down for awhile, much in the same way as in Mexico in 1988, when it was revealed that the ruling party PRI fixed the election results. We are still waiting on the truth of that mysterious blackout, but many villages did not wait to express their disgust with the election outcome.

A community of recent returnees in the Huehuetenago area were denied the opportunity to vote even though the accord signed with the government granted them that right. In Escuintla hundreds of people were accusing the mayor of fraud. In Santa Lucia Milpas Atlas, a crowd of people set fire to tires calling for a re-election for mayor. People in San Miguel Acatan were so disgusted with the results that they burned the ballots. In Guanazapa, Escuintla, PAN supporters beat several people and took election council representatives hostage. These types of public protest were repeated in Tecun Uman, Olintupeque, and San Aguastin Acasaguallas. As of this writing many towns are still protesting the election results and some are threatening to boycott the January run-off between Arzu and Portillo for the presidency.

It still remains to be seen what will eventually happen with the final results of the election. Many people are wondering how the Frente candidates will fare in Congress or if they will live that long. People are also speculation on whether or not the Frente can deal with internal party problems that have plagued other regional democratic movements. Many things remain uncertain, but one thing is for sure, the majority of the population wants a change. I have no doubts that they will continue to struggle for an authentic democratic society in Guatemala, but as long as US policy remains the same there it is questionable as to whether the Guatemalans will ever be able to achieve authentic democracy.

Why Give a Damn about Guatemala?

If people have even bothered to read this piece on Guatemala, they might be wondering of what importance it has to people living in Grand Rapids. My response is this – US corporate exploitation of most Guatemalans has been going on for at least a century, causing loss of land, poverty, and death. Our consumption of their labor contributes to this vicious cycle of misery. The US government has directly been involved with repressive political policies at least since 1954. This has meant that Washington has directed and supported the bloody political structure in Guatemala that has caused over 200,000 deaths since 1960. Our tax dollars have helped to pay for this brutal repression with the funding, training and arming of one of the worst militaries in the hemisphere

These policies have caused thousands of refugees to flee Guatemala, many of whom have made their way to Grand Rapids. This exacerbates the already difficult economic conditions in Grand Rapids as people fight for jobs with companies looking for the lowest bidder. Since “our” system is inherently antagonistic to “foreigners”, their misery is often extended here. Now, I realize that most of this takes place without our knowledge. This is no surprise since the GR Press more or less chooses to ignore the political realities there. They printed only one piece (with no sources) on Guatemala that was 3 column inches high on the last page of section A on Nov. 12. They received a fax that I sent them a few days after the election, but failed to print it or contact me upon return. So it goes.

I also realize that most of these decisions, ones with brutal outcomes, have been made without our input and no doubt will continue unless we do something. The point is that it is in Washington’s and corporate America’s best interest to maintain these unjust dynamics. They will not change unless WE change. I emphasize we because it must be a collective response. A response that is predicated on our developing a relationship with Guatemalan people and personalizing their suffering. It is my experience that we can count on their continued involvement in the struggle, what is not clear is what our involvement will be.

Image Brokering: PR Firm Hired to Put Spin on Human Rights in Guatemala

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (July 1995)

“A terrorist is not just someone with a gun or a bomb, but also someone who spreads ideas that are contrary to Western and Christian civilizations.” – Jorge Videla, President of Argentina 1976

Earlier this year we were given some information in the corporate media about the CIA involvement in human rights abuses in Guatemala. Several weeks later Guatemala has again fallen into the abyss of International coverage of the BIG Press. This is in spite of the fact that human rights abuses continue, impressive land occupations are occurring and that the country is gearing up for presidential elections in the fall. Because of the corporate media’s blatant omissions one gets the impression that things are just peachy in Guatemala. Unfortunately for citizens of Guatemala and the US the Guatemalan military is not taking any chances on the world’s perception that things are getting any better.

In May, Washington PR firm R. Thompson & Co. was hired for “$420,000 to conduct a six-month public relations effort,” according to a May 15 issue of CounterPunch. “The funds will allegedly improve lines of communication in the US so the government’s story and the truth are fully explained, said a letter from the firm to Defense Minister Gen. Mario Enriquez.” Enriquez initially said the money that was being provided to the PR firm was from “private companies”. He later admitted that the companies are all owned by the Guatemalan military. The firm of R. Thompson & Co. plans to arrange visits to Guatemala by US government officials. Outrageous you say? Well this is not the first time that Guatemala has had help in its attempt to cover up what Americas Watch called “Guatemala’s systematic campaign of terror and human rights abuses.”

In 1979, when the Lucas Garcia regime was implementing its counterinsurgency war against the civilian population, they hired the Hannaford Company to influence some within the US government and the corporate media’s view of what was going on at the time. (see Sultans of Sleaze: Public Relations and the Media, by Joyce Nelson, pg. 40) All throughout the 1980’s and even the early part of the 1990’s Guatemala continued to hire PR firms to bolster their image, especially in the US.

According to a study done by the Center for Public Integrity named The Torturers’ Lobby, during 1991 alone several elements within Guatemala had hired 5 different PR groups to lobby for them in Washington. (Patton, Boggs, and Blow; Schuette & Associates Intl.; Schuette & Associates; Reichler & Soble; and MWW Strategic Communications) These 5 PR firms received a combined amount of $475,000 from military and non-military sources in Guatemala. This PR lobbying was an attempt to reactivate the $2 million of military aid that was suspended by the US government, even though both Americas Watch and Physicians for Human Rights sharply criticized the Guatemala government that year in a report entitled Guatemala Getting Away With Murder. The report said: “Government forces continue to commit torture, murder, and disappearances with impunity.” Now with the help of R. Thompson & Co., an old hand at congressional lobbying, the Guatemalan military hopes to regain its good favor with Washington.

In 1991-92 R. Thompson & Co. was also hired by the Republic of Turkey for $400,000 to put a spin on their international image. Here the stakes were higher, since the potential US foreign aid was listed at $804 million for fiscal 1991. Robert Thompson, who knows his way around Washington, (he was Deputy Director of Legislative Affairs in the Reagan administration) called upon some of his old pals who were questioning the integrity of Turkey. The PR firm lobbied several influential members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, including Michigan Democrat Carl Levin. The aid eventually went through even though a 1992 Amnesty International report entitled Turkey: Torture, Extrajudicial Executions, Disappearances, said that “no practical or legislative steps had been taken and the already large volume of credible torture allegations had, if anything, increased.” The report added: “Systematic practice of torture continues throughout Turkey.”

If the PR firms have their way we will all believe, as the tourist industry has many believing, that Guatemala is a paradise. Don’t believe the hype. More importantly don’t let Congress believe it when they receive slick material from R. Thompson & Co. showering praises on the government of Guatemala for “embracing democracy”. Unlike what the Sprite commercial says, in this case, image is everything, death is nothing, the policy makers obey the image brokers.