Thirty-six hours after landing in Guatemala City, I find myself at the home of Marco Antonio Senior, son of airbnb host Cesar. All three kids successfully completed the City Marathon–Cesar and wife Carmen take me along–and are now challenging each others’ results. I am invited to join Marco and son Javier in the hot tub before lunch and opt to write inside. I cannot imagine being in a hot tub in this heat but all the activity is in the backyard by the pool, so I change into my swimsuit and join them.
After getting the political point of view of father Cesar and grandson Marco, I’m curious as to Marco Senior’s attitudes. He holds the more conservative views in the family and is happy to share them.
The 1954 overthrow was before his time but the vicious civil war that followed was not. Thirty-five years. Two hundred thousand dead, ninety-three percent killed by the military. And the Reagan administration enthusiastically supporting the Rioss Montt scorched earth years.
A word about partisan politics.
The first person with whom I shared this project idea was Kristi Vandenbosch, who encouraged me to write my first book and is IMHO the finest advertising executive, ever. She asked a direct question: do you have predetermined conclusions? I assured her, no, I don’t. I suspect she will monitor that commitment.
Already, my discussions here in Guatemala have challenged my assumptions. Things are more complicated than they seem from a distance. But there is an extensive public record on the overthrow and civil war.
My intent, as befits my training by Brian Lamb at C-SPAN and then at FORA.tv, is to aggressively invite and share conflicting views. That will include strong tonic such as this 2004 piece from Corey Robin in the London Review of Books.
On 5 December 1982, Ronald Reagan met the Guatemalan president, Efraín Ríos Montt, in Honduras. It was a useful meeting for Reagan. ‘Well, I learned a lot,’ he told reporters on Air Force One. ‘You’d be surprised. They’re all individual countries.’ It was also a useful meeting for Ríos Montt. Reagan declared him ‘a man of great personal integrity . . . totally dedicated to democracy’, and claimed that the Guatemalan strongman was getting ‘a bum rap’ from human rights organisations for his military’s campaign against leftist guerrillas. The next day, one of Guatemala’s elite platoons entered a jungle village called Las Dos Erres and killed 162 of its inhabitants, 67 of them children. Soldiers grabbed babies and toddlers by their legs, swung them in the air, and smashed their heads against a wall. Older children and adults were forced to kneel at the edge of a well, where a single blow from a sledgehammer sent them plummeting below. The platoon then raped a selection of women and girls it had saved for last, pummelling their stomachs in order to force the pregnant among them to miscarry. They tossed the women into the well and filled it with dirt, burying an unlucky few alive. The only traces of the bodies later visitors would find were blood on the walls and placentas and umbilical cords on the ground.
I asked “Bitter Fruit” co-author Stephen Schlesinger if there was a racial component to the killing, if it was rooted in the history of Spanish conquest and the historical control of the country by a small number of descendent families.
“All of that is true. Humanizing (the civil war is) the most important thing. Mayans would have benefited most from agrarian reform. They suffered the worst. They were exterminated.
“The Spanish hierarchy created an aristocratic class that became the overseers of the land. There was some inter-marriage. The more light-skinned they were, the more dominant in the society. Mayans were scorned as sub-human, getting in the way of people, while white individuals were taking over the land. Mayans became the workers on these plantations. They lived in terrible conditions. Slave-like conditions. Always the aliens, not regarded as human by the aristocratic Spanish. The racial factor compounded the conflict, as Mayans were viewed as short, swarthy, animalistic, not human beings.”
This, from Wikipedia’s entry on Rios Montt:
Indigenous Mayas suffered disproportionately during Ríos Montt’s rule, and it is documented that his government deliberately targeted thousands of indigenous people… The UN-backed Historical Clarification Commission found that the resulting counterinsurgency campaign, significantly designed and advanced during Ríos Montt’s presidency, included deliberate “acts of genocide” against the indigenous population… On 10 May 2013, Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity, and was sentenced to 80 years imprisonment.
Cesar Jr. just gave me a different view from his brother Marco. I’ll write that down and continue in another blog post later tonight. Your comments are welcome.
More on Three Guatemala Generations in the next blog post here:
Visit the Kickstarter page here: