Saturday, April 9, 2011

Guatemala Part 1: Dark past, brighter future

Sawdust painting at Hotel Barceló in Guatemala City. These long, multi-paneled paintings called alfombras (rugs) are of exquisite design and color. They are an ancient part of Guatemala's Catholic traditions. Sawdust alfombras line the parade routes for religious processions at Santa Semana (Easter Week) and other occasions. Although they are beautifully intricate and take many hours of create, they are temporary works of art made of painted sawdust and flower petals.

Carole and I visited Guatemala for 10 days during March 2011.  But, you say, isn't this blog about Mexico? True enough. However, we have always viewed Mexico as a base of operations and a springboard to more far-flung adventures. In future, we may visit Costa Rica, Panama, Peru, Ecuador, even Chile, while continuing our adventures in Mexico itself. 

Guatemala borders 4 other Latin American countries and has coasts on both the Atlantic and Pacific. With an area only about the size of Tennessee, and a population of only 14.36 million, Guatemala is not large. However, in many ways it is the center of Central America. In the Classic Era of pre-hispanic times, the center of the Maya world was in Tikal in the jungles of Guatemala's northern Peten region (near Flores in the map above). For most of the 20th Century, Guatemala was the center of the United Fruit Company's world-wide banana trade, and today Guatemalan coffee is considered among the best in the world. The US has viewed the country as so strategically important that it has intervened militarily--overtly or covertly-- at least three times in the 20th Century. These interventions led to some of the darkest and most brutal episodes since the Spanish conquest of Guatemala under the ferocious Pedro de Alvarado.

Skyline of Guatemala City from our balcony at Hotel Barceló. In many ways, Guatemala City is a modern city with gleaming office buildings, an efficient international airport, luxury hotels like the Barceló, and  parkways full of expensive, late-model cars. We spent only about 1.5 days in the city. It was not really what our adventure was about and, having lived in and around several big cities, Carole and I have had our fill. I almost didn't include Guatemala City in this post, but finally decided it would be an important place to start our story about the visit. Probably the most interesting part of our visit to the city was a stop at the Museum of Archaeology which will be included in Part 2 of this series. However, to appreciate the green and fragile shoots of democracy and economic development now emerging throughout the country, a look at Guatemala City is useful. To understand how important it is to encourage those fragile shoots, we must acknowledge what has gone before, as uncomfortable as that might at times be.

Our chariot for the adventure. Caravan Tours conducted our adventure, the same company that took us through the colonial cities and ancient archaeological sites of southern Mexico. With two of their tours under out belts now, Carole and I cannot say enough good things about this company. We chose to use them because we didn't want to attempt a completely new country on our own. For all Mexico's largely undeserved reputation for violence, Guatemala appears to have a considerably higher rate of random crime. The precautions that Tour Director Jorge Fuentes took, in conjunction with the Guatemalan Ministry of Tourism, ensured we had a trouble-free visit. The precautions also indicated to us that they viewed the problem as very real and worth guarding against. In the end, we had no crime problems whatsoever, not even a theft by a pickpocket among our 42-person tour group. Jorge, who also goes by "George" for those unfamiliar with Spanish names, was the ideal tour director. He was extremely efficient and conscientious without being overbearing. Friendly and cheerful to everyone, he was a fountain of information able to field the most obscure questions with aplomb. He met us at the airport when we arrived late in the evening and, at 5:00 AM on departure day, he was there to ensure we got on the right shuttle back to the airport. Note to Caravan: don't ever let this guy leave your employment! He is a jewel.

Palacio Nacional faces the Parque Central, or main plaza of Guatemala City. Due to volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, the capital of Guatemala was moved several times over the centuries before ending up at the current site of Guatemala City. In turn, there were several predecessors to the current Palacio. The previous one, built hastily in 1921 to help celebrate the Centennial of the nation, was derisively called the Palacio de Cartón (Carton Palace). After it burned down in 1925, various designs were floated for a replacement. The present building was constructed between 1939 and 1943.

Closeup view of the Palacio's front. The Palacio was constructed in the Neo-classical style popular for public buildings in the mid-20th Century. Its full name is Palacio National de la Cultura (National Palace of Culture) and it was the headquarters of the President of Guatemala for many years. Today the Palacio is a museum and is occasionally used for important government events. Interestingly, it is the origin of all roads in the Republic and located in it is a spot known as Kilometro Cero (Zero Kilometer). Ironically, the Guatemalan president who finally ordered the construction of this beautiful building was General Jorge Ubico, one of Guatemala's longest-lasting dictators.

The US Embassy squats fortress-like behind high fences and checkpoints.  Until Guatemala's 36-year Civil War ended in 1996, its people had never in their entire history known real democracy or freedom except for a brief "Ten Years of Spring." This period, from 1944-1954, was brutally ended by an invasion and military coup designed, organized, and financed by US Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA was so proud of its success that it ordered a special manual written as a guide for overthrowing  governments, whether democratically-elected or not. The manual later became public through information released by the US State Department. Associated with the manual was a list of Guatemalan politicians, union leaders, and community activists targeted by the CIA for assassination. The CIA later used the tactics of its Guatemala model in the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion against Cuba (1961), and in coups all over Latin America including the extremely bloody coup against Chile's popularly elected president Salvador Allende (1973). Although Cold War anti-communism was the ideological excuse used to justify the Guatemala invasion and coup (and the others as well), the real reason was the economic interests of the United Fruit Company, today known as Chiquita Brands International, famous for its Chiquita Banana ads. After the successful coup, the CIA sent experts to comb through Guatemala government records to find evidence that President Arbenz was pro-Soviet or unduly influenced by communists. Like the weapons of mass destruction used to justify a 21st Century US invasion, no evidence was ever found.

Now labeled as a "technical school" this grim-looking building was a fortress during the Civil War. For security reasons, Jorge did not want our tour group to get out of the bus during our drive around Guatemala City, except for our stop at the Archaeological Museum. This explains the limited number of pictures I took in the city.  Like this one, many of the photos are only partial shots that I snapped through our bus window. The United Fruit Company was a US business that got its start in 1899 and flourished in the early and mid-20th Century. It became so powerful in Guatemala that it virtually ran the country. The company owned huge amounts of arable land, much of which it allowed to lie fallow while millions of campesinos had no land at all. It controlled the telegraph, postal, and railroad systems. In order to discourage competition with its railroad, United Fruit discouraged new road building in Guatemala. It also dominated the external trade of the country through its control of Guatemala's main port. When Guatemalans overwhelmingly elected President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán during the Ten Years of Spring, United Fruit became alarmed. Arbenz aimed to develop Guatemala in ways that would make it independent of United Fruit, and that would bring benefits to the millions of poor people of the country. One of the ways he proposed was to nationalize much of the fallow land and redistribute it to landless campesinos. In compensation, he offered to pay United Fruit the amount the company had claimed the land was worth in its tax declarations. Caught in its own tax dodge, United Fruit spluttered with outrage and turned to the US government for support.

Young soldiers we met on our visit to Tikal in northern Guatemala. While the army had a fearsome reputation before and during the Civil War, since the war it has been down-sized from 50,000 to about 20,000 now, and otherwise reformed. When we met these polite and friendly young men, they were assisting tourists by taking pictures with the tourists' cameras so people could be in their own photos. They were so nonchalant and easy-going that I had to encourage them to look fuerte (strong) for the picture. Things were different in the old days and United Fruit had a very long arm. In 1954, John Foster Dulles was Secretary of State under President Dwight Eisehower. His younger brother, Allen, was head of the CIA. The elder Dulles was also a partner in a law firm representing United Fruit, and Allen Dulles sat on the company's Board of Directors. Further, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs John Moors Cabot had previously served as president of United Fruit. The company's principal lobbyist Ed Whitman was husband to President Eisenhower's personal secretary. Many later CIA-supported Latin American coups had similar economic underpinnings and similar conflicts of interest.

Grey fortress perches on a cliff top in the middle of Guatemala City. This fortress probably resounded with the tramp of 16th Century Spanish soldiers, as well as their late 20th Century counterparts. The 1954 coup was followed by decades government mismanagement and corruption, as coup followed coup and members of the military elite scrambled for the spoils. In 1960, a campesino revolt erupted that turned into a Civil War lasting until 1996. During this period United Fruit changed hands several times. Its reputation grew so bad, even in the United States, that the company found it wise to change its name. However, "Banana Republic" became the nickname for a small country dominated and exploited by multi-national corporations, a definite reference to the history of United Fruit Company and its successors. In the late 1970's the Civil War grew in intensity. The US Carter Administration made disapproving clucking noises but did little to rein in the excesses of its Guatemalan military clients. With the advent of the Reagan Administration, the repression grew exponentially. Reagan got around the US Congress' restrictions on military aid to Guatemala by arranging for Israel to be the supplier. The Guatemalan junta leaders were only too happy to see the arms spigot turned on full blast, and an end to those pesky clucking noises about daily atrocities.

The Guatemala City Catedral faces Parque Central. The Catedral Primada Metropolitana de Santiago houses the Archdiocese of Guatemala. Between 1782 and 1815, the main body of the church was constructed. The steeples were not completed until 1867. The massive baroque and classic-style structure has survived numerous earthquakes, although not without occasional damage. During the Civil War, the Catholic church in Guatemala protested the growing repression. In fact, many of its village priests were involved in the Liberation Theology Movement which spread across Latin America in the 1950s-60s. Liberation Theology attempted to return Christianity to its roots by organizing poor people for social justice and human rights and against oppression and poverty. For this the priests and their flocks were often targeted for assassinations and sometimes wholesale massacres. We did not alight to enter the Catedral, but the bus paused in front long enough for me to examine through the windows the curious writing on the pillars supporting the wrought iron fence you see above. 

Twelve multi-sided marble pillars stand in front of the Catedral, all covered with lists of names. The top panels on each side of each pillar list Guatemalan municipalities (counties) and towns where atrocities occurred during the Civil War. The one above highlights Municipalidad de Huehuetenango in Guatemala's western highlands, and lists the towns within the municipality subjected to massacres, including the chief town of Huehuetenango itself. Jorge, our Tour Director, pointed out an interesting tactic used by the Army. He was drafted at 18 and was the only non-Maya soldier in his Army unit. The Maya, who are the largest and poorest part of Guatemala's population, don't see themselves as a single ethnic group. Their attitude is much like the Sioux, Cherokee, Apache and other indigenous people in the United States who do not see themselves as "Indians." Another similarity to US indigenous people is that the different Maya groups have long-standing animosities between them, sometimes going back hundreds of years. The Spanish organized their Guatemala province along the lines of the 21 separate Maya ethnic/language groups that then existed, and this remains the pattern of political organization today. The Army recruited heavily among members of one of these groups, and used their long-standing animosity to make it easier to carry out atrocities on the others.

The Sanchez list. The panel above lists all the people with the surname Sanchez who were executed by security forces in one community. You will find the names of a number of women on the list who were probably also raped and tortured before their execution, a common practice according to security forces' records recently released. The US Army runs a long-established school to train Latin American military and security officers.  Once called the School of the Americas (SOA), it was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC). The name change was caused by similar reasons to that of United Fruit Company's change of name. The SOA, as it is popularly known, trained the top leaders of virtually every Latin American coup (most recently Honduras in 2009) and the perpetrators of nearly every atrocity committed since the school was founded. Texts obtained from the school's curriculum contained detailed training on torture and assassination. The US Army hastily admitted they were genuine, but claimed they were not longer being used. However, there is no doubt their lessons were both well learned and widely used. In Guatemala, the SOA trained most of the officers of the three juntas that ruled at the height of the Civil War (1978-1986) when the atrocities were greatest. These included 4 of 8 officials of the junta under General Lucas Garcia, 6 of the 9 under General Rios Montt, and 5 of the 10 under Mejia Victores. The SOA doesn't just sponsor generals, but trains Latin Americans down to the junior officer level. When the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission and the United Nations Truth Commission investigated at the end of war, the names of SOA graduates appeared again and again as the actual perpetrators of assassinations, extrajudicial executions, torture, and rape, and "disappearances." Similar patterns are found throughout Latin America. By the end of Guatemala's Civil war, the list of dead had risen to 200,000. The equivalent loss in the US would be 4.2 million people. Overwhelmingly, these were civilian non-combatants. Also overwhelmingly, they were killed by military, police, and other security forces led by men trained and armed by the US.

Banco de Guatemala shows the new face of the nation. Artistically designed, the Banco de Guatemala symbolizes the new prosperity now emerging as the Civil War, which ended in 1996, fades into the background. While I was only in Guatemala a short time, I came away with the impression of a people anxious to move away from their terrible past and busy with the tasks of building democracy and becoming prosperous. Signs of First World investment are everywhere. Guatemala City has more McDonalds Restaurants than any city in Latin America. Signs and billboards for US and European businesses abound. Despite its high rate of random crime, Guatemala has only a relative handful of publicly-funded (and poorly paid) police. Heavily armed private security forces fill some of the void. According to Jorge, Israeli security businesses are particularly active. The public accountability of these private forces raises a serious question in my mind, along with another problem. What if your business or neighborhood is too poor to afford private security? Privatization seems to mean that those without, do without. The solution of the poor is sometimes vigilante justice, a dubious and dangerous alternative.

In 2006, Guatemala's Congress ratified the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). This treaty eliminated most formal trade barriers between the signatories for services as well as goods. The practical effect has been mixed. US corporations have benefited through the ability to penetrate the Guatemala markets, while Guatemala companies have found they win few contracts in the US. In addition, the treaty restricts the ability of signatories like Guatemala to favor the development of local businesses and small farmers over multi-national corporations, or even to ensure that public services--such as security--are delivered by publicly accountable entities. The greatest beneficiaries seem to be US-based multi-national corporations seeking to "out-source" operations to Guatemala and other Central American signatories. They can shut down US plants, move the facilities to Guatemala, hire local workers at rock-bottom wages (with few enforceable labor protections) and avoid expensive environmental regulations. One could argue that Guatemalans do get the jobs, however low-paid. Unfortunately, experience has shown that multi-national corporations can just as easily shut down Guatemala factories and move to countries with even lower labor or environmental standards. Exactly that has happened with many of Mexico's "maquiladora" factories set up along the US border after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). While diverse foreign investment is certainly preferable to United Fruit Company's monopoly, the jury is still out on Guatemala's future under CAFTA.

Tourism is a growing business in Guatemala. Above, the Hotel San Carlos was formerly a stately mansion built in a 19th Century French architectural style. Guatemalans at all levels, from owners of luxury hotels to street vendors, seem almost desperate for tourism to expand. While there, we felt treated like royalty. When our tour started, Jorge would announce on the bus that we were a certain number of minutes from arriving at our next restaurant or hotel, "and the staff is very excited that you are coming." At first we laughed, thinking he was joking with us. However, he was speaking the plain facts. Staff would often come out and greet us at the door, wreathed in smiles and extending warm greetings. The sudden arrival of 42 paying guests was a happy economic jolt. Everywhere we went our every need was treated with almost anxious solicitude. I felt a bit embarrassed at times to be the object of so much attention.

The other end of the scale. Our tour of Guatemala City included passing near large neighborhoods of the poor, built on the sides of the steep ravines that cut through the city. While we were treated like royalty, these people received somewhat less favorable treatment. If they are lucky, workers living in these neighborhoods may have a job at one of the outsourced factories recently departed from Ohio or North Carolina or elsewhere in the US. In addition, 50% of Guatemala's population engages in some form of agriculture, "often at subsistence level outside the monetized economy" according to the US State Department. The demobilization of large numbers of soldiers, as well as much smaller numbers of guerrillas, meant that the labor market at the time was flooded with young men looking for jobs. It is no wonder the crime rate rose, particularly since so many of these young men had become inured to violence.

Yet another side to the city. For all its problems and dark history, Guatemala is full of beauty, both natural and man made. Some of the avenues we traveled were lined with wonderful statues and monuments like this deer (elk?). The Maya have been great craftspeople and artists for thousands of years. There seems to be a growing appreciation of this among non-Maya Guatemalans, and indigenous culture is celebrated everywhere. In addition, there is a growing recognition of the tourist potential this creates, and Guatemala has been working to develop and improve great archaeological sites like Tikal and Quirigua, both of which we visited and will be shown in future segments of this series.

A pretty girl smiles as she make tortillas, Guatemala-style. She wears a beautifully embroidered huipil (blouse). The tortillas she is making on the griddle are smaller and thicker than the Mexican version to which we have become accustomed. Quite tasty, we thought.

A street vendor chats with private security guards. At first I thought there was some sort of problem, but it seems they were just young guys hanging out, chatting up a girl. Guatemala abounds with street vendors, and in tourist-oriented areas they can be quite aggressive. Jorge warned us that if we were not interested that we should not pretend any interest, even through politeness. Such interest is almost a guaranteed sale in the vendor's mind. I found that a polite but firm "no, gracias", repeated several times if necessary, would do the trick.

Sawdust portrait of a Maya woman draped in finely embroidered clothing. Back at the Hotel Barceló, I took a few more pictures of the sawdust alfombra in the lobby. This is an example of the appreciation Guatemalans are developing for their Maya heritage. The woman wears an embroidered huipil, and carries another embroidered garment over her arm. On her head is a folded cloth, sort of a serape, that doubles as a hat or a wrap if it gets cold.

The real thing. This woman could have stepped right out of the sawdust painting. We encountered her in front of the Palacio Nacional. Our bus halted for a stop light and suddenly there she was, trying to sell to us through our closed windows. If the energy and entrepreneurship of the Maya people could ever be harnessed to their own purposes and benefit and with proper financing, they would "eat the lunch" of a lot of more sophisticated First World people.

This completes Part 1 of my Guatemala series. I apologize for delving so deeply into dark matters, and high-level economic policy. I actually feel very positively about Guatemala, and the rest of this series will show a land of great beauty and cultural richness. However, to fully appreciate the rest of this series, I felt that an understanding of the current and historical context of Guatemala would be vital. I always welcome feedback and comments. If you would like to respond, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you want to leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim 


  1. Jim
    I love your blogs on your travels but this time I think you went too far into politics. I am a student of history so to read your blog was a little too much as we know all countries have some darkness in their past. I'm always interested in your wonderful pictures on your travels. Keep up the great work.

  2. While Guatemala may be considered the center of Central America, as you do, it is notable that it borders a North American country.

    I enjoy your posts. I am not at all bothered by your inclusion of what Anonymous referred to as politics.

    Thanks for your posts.

  3. Ron- Thank you for your nice comments. In referring to Guatemala as the "center" of Central America, I was more referring to culture, history, and economics than geography. However, as I will show in a future post, the tectonic dividing line between North and South America runs right across Guatemala. We actually passed over a small bridge along the major fault line that establishes the division.

    Que le vaya bien, Jim

  4. Thanks, Jim, for your update on Guatemala which I am sharing with my wife, Ki. She visited there about 20 years ago researching a novel, and largely unaware of the "troubles" when she made her travel plans. She soon found out: a German consul in Antigua told her about tortures in the plaza, a high school friend she ran into in Atitlan was also an arms dealer, and her flight from Tikal was held up overnight due to an attack on the airport. She got updates from some Italian mercenaries she ran into there...Speaking of politics, did I miss your discussion of same re: Oaxaca, and have you visited San Cristobal in Chiapas?

  5. Hi Jim, so wonderful to come back to your blog and get caught up on your adventures. I can't count the times I've shared your blog address with friends who are intimidated by the violence we hear about in the news up north.
    I'm so grateful that you champion what is beautiful, enduring and timeless about Mexico and all of south America. I remain an admiring fan or your work. Warmest regards to you and Carole,
    Inez Barragan

  6. I am thinking we should have left our camera at home! Viewing your pictures and reading your blog is a trip down memory lane... one we will be sure to visit time and again.

    It was great to travel with you and Carole.

    Looking forward to future posts.

    Serese & Mark

  7. Congratulations Jim!!!

    Great Job!!!

    Politics and History go hand by hand. Well, certainly there is history and History.
    To understand a society you have to look into the ancient past as well as into the contemporary History. This cannot be separated. Students should understand this.

    I enjoy your posts very much.

    Muchas gracias y saludos a Carole!!!

  8. I'm very much enjoying your blog, Jim, partly because of your trips outside of MX. We traveled Central America by sailboat and spent 6 months in Guatemala in 97-8. Hard to believe now that we hadn't a clue about the politics, except for a young lad who visited us in a Lago Isabel anchorage who told us about family members he'd lost. And of course the guards with guns were everywhere, but that did not seem unusual. I like revisiting our travels (as with this post), seeing glimpses of new places, and learning more about each country's bright and darker sides. Every place has a spectrum of experiences!

  9. Hi! Love these photos of Guatemala. My husband is Guatemalan and we enjoy visiting. I was wondering if you would mind if I used your photo on my blog ? I would be happy to provide a link back to this original post. Since I probably won't be notified if you respond to this comment, could you please email me at quezada1103 at gmail dot com? Thanks!


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim