Guatemala: A violent past and present

Guatemala 2008

Guatemala 2008 (Photo credit: diskmix)


In my reading before departing for the field school, I am learning a lot of about Guatemala’s violent and poverty-laden history. They are indeed a very impoverished country. Around 10-12% of the country’s GDP comes from remittances, or money being sent to Guatemalan citizens from their family members who are working abroad. I just read a fascinating and eye-opening book called Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror, Betrayal, and Forgetting in Guatemala by Daniel Wilkinson. The book explores their 30-year civil war which ended in 1993, the effects of globalization (namely through coffee production), disputes over land ownership between the indigenous Mayans and the plantation owners, the egregious human rights violations of the workers on the coffee plantations and also of citizens by their own government.


Coffee Plantation

Coffee Plantation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The most eye-opening thing I learned was that the U.S. played a major role in causing the massacres of hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans at the hand of an abusive military government through our monetary and military support. In the early 1950’s during the Cold War, the CIA convinced the U.S. government to remove the Guatemalan leader, Jacobo Arbenz, with a military junta leader Carlos Castillo Armas, claiming that Arbenz was a puppet of the Communists. Arbenz had been fighting for agrarian reform in the country by giving land to the poor for subsistence farming so they wouldn’t be dependent upon nor exploited by the coffee plantation owners any longer.  According to CIA documents though, turns out the Arbenz government didn’t have any ties to the Soviet Union after all; yet the U.S. continued supporting the military junta nonetheless, arguably to protect their own business investments in the United Fruit Company which was based in Guatemala (another book explores this further called Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala  – this link also shows a documentary available on YouTube about the subject). The saddest part of all this was that the CIA knowingly lied to the U.S. Congress, the American people, and the world about the reality of the situation in Guatemala, and knowingly supporting violence and killing in the name of anti-Communism, even though they knew there was no Communist threat.


English: Tikal Mayan ruins Guatemala 2009 this...Today Guatemala still struggles with violence. The civil war ended in 1996, but the country still struggles to build a supportive, well-structured government to address the ravages of poverty, malnutrition, violence, racism, and fear that plague the country. The indigenous Mayans have been suffering extensively from exploitation, racism, and abuse since the Spanish conquest through today where they continue to be seen as “cheap labor.” Hundreds of Mayan villages were massacred during the brutal Civil War.  They have been dispossessed of their lands time and time again – for coffee growing, for mining, for newer types of farming – and limited access to education, healthcare, and other basic services. Many of them are illiterate, cannot write, and do not speak Spanish. Their native languages are not nationally recognized either. ‘Tis a far cry from the revered ancient Mayan culture we often think of…



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