Guatemala’s Long Wait

Author’s Note: This is an unpublished essay about my trip to Guatemala in Nov/Dec 2013. 

Guatemalans are accustomed to waiting. Students arrive late, wedding guests enter halfway through a ceremony, and a rendezvous at quarter past four takes place anytime that hour, sometimes the next, or not at all. This cultural idiosyncrasy can engender anything from mild amusement or annoyance to outright irritation. For the newly untested, this can be a gruelling exercise in patience.

My first experience occurred in traffic in Guatemala City en route to the Historical Centre. The city’s inhabitants and its police department were rushing past our stationary vehicle, magnetised by a protest taking place in the main square. My driver, growing tired of waiting, recommended that I get out here and walk the remaining blocks. Exiting the taxi, the first thing I noticed was the NO ORINAR (do not urinate) sign on the wall. The second thing I noticed, this time via my nostrils, was that the sign was merely decorative.

Guatemala City lacks decoration, to put it mildly, and charm, and a fully functioning water system, among other things. It is a mess, but a reasonably well designed mess, with long avenidas running through the numbered Zonas and masses of bright greenery clashing strangely with the fast food billboards and dilapidated buildings.

The noise directed me to the plaza, and I had just stepped over a stray dog when a young man saw me and immediately offered his services as a dealer of marijuana. Unfortunately, he took my ‘no, gracias’ as an indication that I preferred cocaine.

This was my introduction to Central America, where the stereotypes of dirt, drugs and decay sought me out upon arrival, and have seemingly lost their ability to shock or challenge expectation. When I told friends and colleagues of my decision to travel to Guatemala, a perplexed look was followed by the certainty that part of the journey would be undertaken by donkey. Such is the country’s image – only just scraping the edges of modernity, almost two decades after the end of the civil war and the nominal transition to representative democracy, which seems to be taking a long time. But, after all, Guatemalans know how to wait.

Despite the offer of a ‘buen precio’, I brushed off the young man and walked toward the protestors. A second man quickly approached and engaged me in conversation, and I was suitably wary, at least at first. He was a short man of indigenous descent and he was wearing his best threadbare blazer and a friendly smile that soon allayed my fears. His name was Hector.

Hector was a forty-five year old teacher from outside Santa Cruz del Quiche, about one hundred and fifty kilometres from the capital. He told me that the protestors mostly comprised of fellow teachers, many of whom had not received a salary for five months, and that they would wait until the relevant spokesperson arrived and addressed their grievances.

“When will that happen?”

“They will be waiting a long time,” Hector said.

Hector was only slightly involved with the protests. He certainly sympathised with their demands – he hadn’t received a paycheque for three months, and this had been trying. What really brought him to the city was his electricity account, as his lack of funds meant that he needed an extension on the payment. Guatemalan bureaucracy had kept him in wait that morning and he missed his bus, and was now killing time. He had lived in Guatemala City as an adolescent and offered his services as a tour guide. His English was very good, having spent two years in Cleveland, Ohio many decades ago (“the best time of my life”), and he jumped at the opportunity to converse with a native speaker. More importantly, our departure from the main square seemed timely, as the protests were growing and the teachers now found company with anyone else who had a grievance, which seemed to be everyone. Men in uniform began to match the protestors’ numbers, and Hector told me that the moods of both can change rapidly, and that staying here would mean waiting for violence.

It is often thought that the countries that wander into the international news headlines live in a state of perpetual crisis and underdevelopment. Rather, they too often swerve between progress and ruin: Baghdad was a thriving, cosmopolitan city long before it lay in rubble; Mali was the poster child of successful democratic governance and religious tolerance before it collapsed into theocratic gangsterism; Kabul had a rudimentary railway at the beginning of the 20th century, but not at the century’s end. And on it goes. Guatemala, like a few other Latin American countries, was once a promising experiment in social democracy. Jacob Arbenz, the second democratically elected president following Guatemala’s October Revolution, initiated numerous reforms that gave great hope to anyone whose heart beats on the democratic left: healthcare, social security, agrarian reform, voting rights, and much else. For a too brief period of time, Guatemala was a model for Latin America, rather than the epitome of its problems. As the post-World War II democratic surge was quickly swallowed by authoritarianism, Pablo Neruda observed that Guatemala was “shining light down the path of freedom with a brilliant splendour.” A young Argentine doctor wrote that “this is a country in which one can open up one’s lungs and fill them with democracy.” Such words are a sharp rejoinder to the notion that Latin America and hope cannot be uttered in the same breath.

The second chapter of this story, however, has become the signature example of misjudged Cold War foreign policy, so familiar as to flirt with the banal: a CIA orchestrated coup in 1954 assassinated democracy and ushered in a series of military dictatorships, a civil war of two hundred thousand casualties, and a level of state sadism matched only by the likes of Hussein, Taylor or Milosevic.

Guatemala’s most notorious dictator, or he ought to be, is Efraín Ríos Montt, and his undeserved distance from the names above has probably been to his benefit. Ríos Montt was in power between 1982-83, when five hundred and fifty-four of the civil war’s six hundred and twenty-six UN documented massacres took place. In the Pentecostal language of fire and brimstone, Ríos Montt sermonised on the necessity of cleansing Guatemala of unsavoury elements: the guerrillas, the indigenous, anyone in the way of progress. This required not just bloodshed, but extirpation, and the UN eventually declared that the military campaigns against the Ixil community amounted to genocide. Ríos Montt, however, was spared from prosecution through his membership of Congress, where he sat in immunity for many years.

“He is a bad man.”

Hector didn’t look like he was capable of uttering a word in criticism toward anyone, and this was all he would muster. A true statement, but still too generous. Guatemala has no Srebrenicas, and yet many. The shame of Guatemala isn’t just that genocide took place under watching eyes, but that the world’s demand for justice came too late. Here, the reaction remains muted at best: the defilement of civil society continues, and Guatemala’s struggle is one that the country makes, for the most part, alone.


Despite this, Guatemala seems to be redrawing its negative image, defying, if only subtly, its violent trajectory. Hector took me on a thorough tour of the Historical Centre and the edges of the adjacent Zonas, areas neither one of us would have entered just a few years ago when the city was in the violent grip of the maras – the gangs – and when a murder took place for every hour of the day. Almost all these victims were adolescents. Perhaps the best indication of progress, and the subject to which Hector and I made intermittent return, was that Ríos Montt had recently faced trial and received a conviction. Despite his denials, despite the current president’s dismissive attitude and the alleged intimidation of witnesses, Guatemala’s courts sentenced Rios Montt to eighty years in prison: fifty for genocide and thirty for crimes against humanity. He listened to recordings of his boasts of military control played back to him, shattering his denials of knowledge and culpability. He had to face his victims and listen to their stories of rape and murder – I won’t repeat them here and readers can look them up for themselves. Be aware that the testimony makes words like harrowing seem timid and inadequate.

“It was the first time someone who did genocide was convicted in his own country”, Hector told me, but he said it without satisfaction. And I already knew why.

The conviction had been annulled on a dubious technicality, and a second trial scheduled for 2015, so that the sickly Ríos Montt is allowed to wait for death.

Hector explained this decision in terms of the military/business complex ruling Guatemala since the end of the civil war, which was right. This didn’t animate him, though; only a tired indignation crept over his face, as though he had been waiting too long for some things to change.

Hours had passed now, and we skirted the main square, where a few of the protestors lingered.

“Look, they are still waiting.”

Guatemala has no great monument to its tragic past, no place where the truths are laid out and the crimes acknowledged, so that a society broken by violence can be reassembled, piece by piece, and the festering wounds can begin to heal. What happens in the absence of this? What happens when the promise of an historic genocide conviction falls apart, and the pieces become harder to discern, or no longer fit? How long can a nation wait, even one so accustomed as Guatemala?

Hector took me to the most affecting memorial I have yet seen, but we didn’t remain long. Perhaps he couldn’t stand to, as it might have broken him, as it broke me. It is a lone wall in Zona 1 covered in frayed pieces of paper, each bearing the name and face of the victims of genocide, or those who have been ‘disappeared.’ They look like missing person posters, and in a sense they are, but no one is waiting for these individuals to be found. Their fates are known. The text that accompanies each image makes the simple demand for justice. The effect is to feel implicated in this struggle, trapped by the knowledge of what occurred, and what remains to be done. Maybe you’ll feel this way, too. Perhaps Guatemala can find a reckoning with its past and break free from its violence, so that the stereotypes we employ become tired and trivial. Or perhaps Guatemala has already been waiting too long, and we’ll soon see the signs of an inexpiable past: blood spills yet again as our guilt and sin begin to stink, like the piss and shit that caked the nearby sidewalk.

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