Virginia Garrard-Burnett on La Violencia in Guatemala

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I first went to Guatemala as a young and very naïve graduate student in 1980. It was only a few months after the Spanish Embassy fire, an event I knew about only by stumbling across it in Time magazine.  A key turning point in the long civil war there, the fire resulted when the police sought to forcibly evict peasants and others who had occupied the embassy to protest state violence against peasants; killing all 36 occupiers.   I asked an advisor at Tulane if it was a safe time to go to Guatemala, and he replied, “If you wait for a safe time to go to Guatemala, you’ll never go there,” a reply that was both generally true but also specifically wrong, in that Guatemala in 1980, was in the upswing of an unprecedented and catastrophic cycle of political violence that would last well into the middle of the decade.

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I returned to Guatemala again in 1983 and continued to live there most of the time through 1984. When I first came back in May 1983, things had changed quite dramatically from two years earlier. General Efraín Ríos Montt had taken power and was still in office (at least for a few months more); the worst of the violence had already passed and an enforced calm was evident everywhere. On the road between Guatemala City and Antigua, propaganda slogans were inscribed in large, white, emphatic letters: La Nueva Guatemala es Paz y Desarrollo; Otra Obra Más Del Gobierno, La Nueva Guatemala es desarrollo y progreso [The New Guatemala is Peace and Development; Another Government Work; The New Guatemala is Development and Progress].  It was difficult and sometimes impossible to travel to many parts of the highlands, especially to what the government still called the “zones of conflict,” but even outside those areas evidence of what had happened was everywhere, from burned-out buildings, fields and buses, even along the main tourist artery, the Pan American highway, to the civil patrols doing drills in every municipio wearing new straw hats supplied by the government and carrying “weapons” (often just machetes or even wood roughly carved to look like a rifle) and spanking-new Guatemalan flags.

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On one ill-advised trip with friends to Panajachel in August 1983, we passed a civil patrol that had just killed a man; they had impaled his body with their flagpole and hung him out on display, right on the edge of the Pan American highway. Most striking of all during this period were the people we met—thin and haunted women; (a few) men; dirty, runny-nosed and amoebic children; women trying to nurse famished babies from desiccated breasts. Numbed into silence by fear and trauma, people were attempting to reconstruct their lives, but their own muteness was drowned out by the larger silences of official information, which was scanty, erratic, and astonishingly contradictory. The communist insurgents had forced the government’s hand. A scorched earth campaign had taken place, in order to root out subversion. The government had reclaimed an active presence in the highlands, and was doing good works and public action to help people recover from the horrendous acts of violence that had recently been perpetrated by. . . . well, whom?

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On one ill-advised trip with friends to Panajachel in August 1983, we passed a civil patrol that had just killed a man; they had impaled his body with their flagpole and hung him out on display, right on the edge of the Pan American highway. Most striking of all during this period were the people we met—thin and haunted women; (a few) men; dirty, runny-nosed and amoebic children; women trying to nurse famished babies from desiccated breasts. Numbed into silence by fear and trauma, people were attempting to reconstruct their lives, but their own muteness was drowned out by the larger silences of official information, which was scanty, erratic, and astonishingly contradictory. The communist insurgents had forced the government’s hand. A scorched earth campaign had taken place, in order to root out subversion. The government had reclaimed an active presence in the highlands, and was doing good works and public action to help people recover from the horrendous acts of violence that had recently been perpetrated by. . . . well, whom?

Still louder than the rumors were the silences, holes in time and space that no one seemed to wish to fill. In the early 1980s, people rarely spoke openly of what they had seen and heard. The term “la violencia” was never uttered, though people would sometimes speak quietly of “la situación.” At first, I attributed the great silences to people’s understandable unwillingness to confide in a stranger, or to an inability to communicate dangerous and intimate information in a language—Spanish—that was not native, often to either of us. I also thought at first that silence might be a matter of misplaced deference, a long-established habit of distance and filtering that has served generations of subaltern people. All this, probably, was true, but there was also more to it than that: silence can also be a form of communication.

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The shifting sands of rumors, disinformation, misinformation, wishful thinking, self-delusion and lies make the production of history for this period unusually difficult; when our colleagues caution against “positivist” linear narratives, one wonders if such a thing could even be possible. Nevertheless, Guatemalans have, over the past decade, found it important to try to come to grips with this history. The “recuperation of the historical memory” describes the process through which activists, politicians, scholars, and, especially public intellectuals — both Mayan and non-Mayan — have attempted to  capture and contextualize the past. They seek “a usable past” in part to construct a better future—to consciously construct the kind of “imagined community, necessary for modern state building” that Benedict Anderson famously described. But, as Nicola King observes in her book on historical memory and narrative, all Guatemalans, and in fact all who deal with history, must also come to grips with what Freud called “Nachträglichkeit,” (“afterwardness”)—an awareness that memory, as it functions in the present, must inevitably also incorporate some sense of “what we didn’t know at the time” and the guilt that goes along with that knowledge.

Thanks to the work of two separate truth commissions, at this moment in Guatemala, there is something resembling a consensus on a historic memory of the early 1980s. At least in the public intellectual forum, this consensus sees coming to terms with racism and genocide as the point of departure for understanding the nature of state violence and for establishing a common base on which to (re)build civil society. In post-conflict Guatemala as elsewhere, social actors seek to rationalize the events that make up their own lives and those of their communities.

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My own construction of a history of this period relies heavily on primary sources that, up until this time, have remained relatively untouched. These include the guerrilla documents recently acquired by the Centro de Investigaciones Regionales (CIRMA) in Antigua and a selection of church-related documents having to do with Catholic Action that are housed at the Centro Ak’ Kutan in Cobán, Alta Verapaz. I have also made extensive use of documents from the US State Department and US intelligence services that have been declassified and organized by the privately-run National Security Archive based at The George Washington University in Washington D.C. Finally, I used a large collection of documents and “ephemera”—domestic and foreign newspaper clippings, published government decrees and public statements, official copies of legislation, government-run “public service” ads, press releases, human rights reports, guerrilla pamphlets, papers, posters, and propaganda broadsides, and government-generated visual propaganda, including posters and signs; I also utilize covert reports put together by exile groups, transcripts of Ríos Montt’s “Sunday sermons,” and personal interviews that I and others collected when we were living in Guatemala back in the day. This personal collection will eventually find its way into the Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas at Austin.

The careful reader will notice that I never had the opportunity to interview General Ríos Montt myself, which is a pity, but it was not for lack of trying. In July 2006, Ríos Montt offered one of his only public comments referring to the extensive human rights violations that took place under his watch in the early 1980s. “During my government, the Army obeyed its orders, and some violations (desmanes) occurred, but I was never told,” he said. “All these kinds of accusations are part of the political persecution [of me] on the part of terrorists who lost the war.” Such remarks suggest that a conversation might not have been very fruitful anyway, as the intervening decades have apparently not left the General in a reflective frame of mind.

Virginia Garrard-Burnett, Terror in the Land of the Holy Spirit: Guatemala Under General Efrain Rios Montt, 1982-83

Two unusual books and two documentaries on violence in Guatemala

Photo Credits:All Photographs are ©Jean-Marie Simon/2011.
You can find more of her work on her photo blog: Guatemala: Eterna Primavera, Eterna Tirania

1. Indian festival under Army control, Gumarcaaj, Quiché, 1984.
2. President electo Otto Pérez Molina as Army commander of Nebaj garrison, Quiché, 1982.
3. Army occupation of La Perla plantation, Ixcán, Quiché, 1982.
4. Newspaper hawker reading the headlines to villagers, Sololá, 1983.