Saturday, June 28, 2008

Intern Report: Jeff Carolin New Hope Foundation (Part 1) (2007-2008)

I guess I've got to admit that my experience here in Rabinal,Guatemala is thus far shaping up to be a wee bit more intense than what I've experienced before in Ghana and Bolivia. Already knowing Spanish has been a huge difference from my time in Bolivia in getting beneath the surface. Another key factor is being here through an organization, Breaking the Silence, that has such deep connections with people and organizations here. I'm being exposed to Guatemala in a way that I can only describe as raw. I imagine what you'd experience travelling through here as a tourist is somewhat different. This intensity also has a whole lot to do (obviously) with the terrible violence that so recently swept through this country. Well, at least those parts of the country far away from urban and international eyes, populated primarily by materially impoverished, rural indigenous people. Whether guerrillas had opened an armed front in those areas wasn't necessarily a relevant factor. The threat of indigenous communities - already active in demanding an end to forced labour, racism, and gross inequalities in the division of land - joining up with armed rebels was enough to attract the white terror carried out by the Guatemalan Army. An army that had been "professionalized" and "modernized" into a hyper-efficient counterinsurgency (read: killing) machine by the best - our southern neighbours. And when international rancour finally cut through bloated rhetoric about pursuing democracy in Central America, there were always Israelis, South Africans, and Argentineans willing to pick up the training manuals and provide the tools of death. Though these allies did become less necessary once Reagan openly declared war on communism in Central America, praising Guatemalan generals as true defenders of democracy, the very ones who are now wanted on genocide charges and crimes against humanity. But, of course, these perpetrators don't just walk free in Guate; they still serve in the democratically elected government.

The numbers are numbing. Almost 500 completely destroyed indigenouscommunities, 200,000 murders, 40,000 disappearances, every rape, degradation, humiliation imaginable, set against a backdrop common throughout Latin America - the jagged legacy of colonialism. 60% of land owned by 2% of the population. All of it stolen from the original owners (now being stolen by Canadian mining companies), forcing the inhabitants onto ever more marginal land, a fact which cannot be separated from rampant child malnutrition in rural areas. A diet of maize and little else means that 14 year-olds look like they're 9. A fact which juxtaposes nicely against another local statistic: Guatemalans have the second highest per capita ownership of private planes in the world.

Guatemala truly is a place of extremes. It is this about Guate that has struck me the most. The full spectrum of human society - the full malleability of human nature - is on display everyday if you care to look. The extremes amplify eachother in a profound way. Here's a rough paraphrasing of my friend Kat's description of Guate: in this country the rich and powerful try to squeeze every drop out of those who have less, those we call the poor. And then these people who we call poor, turn around and offer you half of what they have left. Some examples:

Sitting on a narrow wooden bench with Kat, in front of a modest wooden house, surrounded by three generations of a family, listening to a middle-aged woman, Maria Magdalena, lines hardened in her face, recount how "they" called her husband and oldest son to a bogus meeting where "they" beat them almost until death, along with other community leaders, before lighting them on fire and burning them alive. She goes on to tell us that every year she goes with all the other local widows to search for the clandestine grave that they kno must exist - one of the hundreds that will probably never be exhumed. Meanwhile children from her second marriage pore through every single page of a calendar from Canada that we brought as a gift, along with some passion fruit and oranges. "What do you plant in Canada?," her new husband (we assume) asks us. "It's not the same as here...," I begin. But the subject changes quickly to how they don't have enough money to pay school fees - even though two children are attending the much cheaper school run by the local organization I'm with. Are they asking us for money? Probably. One of the littlest boys breaks away from the calendar to play with the front half of a little plastic truck - the only toy visible. The grandmother moans from her blanket where she's lying a few feet away. Kat asks Maria Magdalena what she would need to improve her situation. "Justice," she states concisely, not with an air of defeatism or desperation, but with confidence and strength, "justice for those who killed our families." We're presented with two bead necklaces as we leave – beautiful but unfashionable by Canadian standards. They thank us for coming. "We don't feel as alone when we have visitors."

The Guatemalan constitutional court just ruled that they are not going to extradite ex-generals wanted for genocide in a case being tried in Spain under international law.

Pressed up against a window, random pieces of metal pressing into my lower back, waiting to take the winding and scenic road back down into the valley of Rabinal, Kat, beside me, is exchanging pleasantries with the SeƱora seated (really close) beside her. Soon we're being offered juicy red grapes, expensive here at 10 quetzales a pound. Will these make me sick? Whatever.

The director of an organization that uses funds from a fair trad coffee farm to advocate on behalf of local campesinos (peasants) for a little bit more land, a slightly better price, a little bit more justice, receives death threats. No one even mentions the words land reform around here anymore, despite the dire need. It's too dangerous. These threats are real: paramilitary groups never disbanded are
out-for-hire by local elites. Then there are the narcotraffickers and the devastating mix of ex-military personnel and organized crime.Actually, the only land reform carried out involves the distribution of what was once rich, fertile land but is now exhausted by decades of coffee production. It's a cruel joke. If you want to taste it, head to Starbucks.

Early Saturday morning walking out of Rabinal, a couple of friends and I are trying to make it to the top of a nearby hill before it gets too hot. After two hours of climbing we're suddenly in the middle of a small corn field where an entire family is working. I recognize the father and one of the sons. They had somehow passed us heading down and had beaten us back to the top. All in a day's work, I think, when you have no access to land. Assuming we had lost our trail, we ask for directions. With broken Spanish and obvious amiability they direct us to the right path so we can continue on our jaunt. They smile and wave us on our way.

Hundreds of Guatemalans working in NGOs clumsily grouped under the heading human rights have been attacked or killed in the last few years. And yet they keep working, struggling for justice. It is profoundly humbling to talk to them.

A friend of mine here in Rabinal, Virgilio, tells me a story of when he was working with street kids in the capital. Walking through a trash pile with a small boy who knew it well, he looked up to see a look of delight on the child's face. He had found garbage picker's gold: two sausages, still whole. With a grin, and without the slightest hesitation, he handed one of them to Virgilio. It's a gift that can't be refused. More precious than any wedding registry. Virgilio accepts it, though he says he'll eat it later.

Knees up in my face, wondering if school buses were always this cramped or if the seats in this decades-old imported American Blue Bird had been taken out and placed slightly closer together to create more room. Apparently, three to a seat on benches built for 2 ten-year-olds isn't efficient enough. A stream of vendors pass through the bus: ballpoint pen for 5 quetzales, but he'll toss in an agenda, scissors, and an eraser for free; a tray filled with coke and pepsi products competing against each other and themselves (monopoly contracts haven't reached street vendors yet) secured by a strap around the neck - workers comp?; a cream made of aloe vera that cures everything; penny candies. Their ages range from 4 to 70. Some sell with an air of good humour, even entrepreneurial spirit. Others are more sullen. But maybe I'm projecting my own feeling of how humiliating and exhausting it would be to spend 365 days a year selling knick knacks? And where does the rise of gang violence fit into this? Given the choice would I spend my life acrobatically jumping on and off buses - from front door to Emergency Exit - hoping to make enough money to feed myself let alone my family, or would I join a gang and know what Real Power feels like. So that I could finally understand what those people in Guatemala City must feel. Those that live in their gated communities and oversized SUVs, and shop in vast stores owned by Walmart and jiggy shopping malls full of foreign chains - Burger King as status symbol - surrounded by more fences and armed guards. I probably wouldn't know that this division of the planet wasn't unique to Guate: the growth of gated communities alongside slums; shiny private health care clinics built in the shadow of crumbling public health facilities; imported caviar served in impossibly wealthy restaurants alongside child-ledlegions of garbage pickers. A world divided into Green Zones and Red Zones. (Thanks for that one Naomi.)

Attending a New Year's Eve ceremony of Rabinal's senior citizens, led by Mayan priests carrying out a service that is a curious blend of offerings to Mayan spirits and Catholic saints, and being welcomed by all to this private gathering with big smiles and that comforting greeting used by the elderly here - a mutual hand to shoulder clasp that lets your arms intertwine. Coffee spiced with chile and cinamon, two little rolls, and their hospitality are all offered with a casual generosity that leaves a deep impression.

A nun who doubles as a healthcare worker, voice heavy with exhaustion, describing the rough going of rural healthcare. With little support from the state how can they be anything more than a band-aid, providing nutritious food to infants. She laments that it will never end like this, "the people have been forced for centuries onto this land that only gives maize and beans. The people are malnourished and so a lot of them lack the energy, never mind the education, to bring their communities forward. How can we provide healthcare without dealing first with this poverty?" In the next room is the lucky group of children who, by chance, have access to this nutrition program.

Though they don't know how lucky they are. All they know is that the puppet show is damn good, and they acknowledge that with smiles and laughter like any other five year old in the world. Though they might be eight. It's hard to tell.

"How is that you, as a foreigner, knows so much more about the history of my country than I do?" Those who don't know their history…

And then, in contrast, just across the border, there are other indigenous Mayans who speak languages that are similar to those here (at least to my unaccustomed ears). Indigenous folk who found themselves in Mexico and not Guatemala and now find themselves beginning their 14th year in open rebellion against the Mexican government. The Zapatista National Army of Liberation might well be the first guerrillas to have understood the power of the internet. Their Mexican and international base of support is large.

I'll admit that at first it felt too trendy riding in the back of pickup on a dusty road to 50 kilometers past nowhere in the Chiapas jungle with bearded and pony-tailed Mexican students from the capital and foreigners with lip rings - all headed to a gathering called by the Zapatistas. But I knew I had to swallow that feeling because it has nothing to do with the Zapatistas and everything to do with the (ironically) image conscious nature of so much of the activist scene that I'm used to. A campus newspaper editor once told me that the Zapatistas are old news. Tell that to the Zapatistas.

As of 5 years ago, 30 self-declared autonomous communities have formed
themselves into 5 municipalities. They run their own autonomous schools and health clinics (with the help of some foreign dollars) and are surrounded by about 50,000 Mexican soldiers in the most heavily-militarized state in the country. This specific gathering was called so that the Zapatista women could share their side of the story. Women clad in traditional clothing as well as ski-masks or face-covering bandanas, depending on personal preference, gave speech after speech describing how their life was better since 1994. They were admittedly repetitive and it's hard to know if that was because Spanish is not their first language or because they have to keep a positive face to the outside world. This was even more apparent in the time for questions.

Question: "What are the main problems you face?"
Answer: "We don't have any problems because now we know how to defend ourselves." But maybe you have to answer that when you know there are surely members of the army in the crowd.

Aside from the speeches, the gathering seemed like a kind of political rock festival. Blankets of Zapatista souvenirs, bracelets, and necklaces, murals on buildings all around the main field with revolutionary slogans and images of armed Zapatistas on horseback, huge group dancing to a synthesized fusion of mariachi and traditional music, lots of dreadlocks, and constant vigilance around the perimeter of the community by the Zapatista militia. The threat is real, though it is unlikely the army would continue its low intensity campaign with so many international eyes around.

Amidst all of this, it was really hard to walk away with a thorough, nuanced understanding of this movement, but I do know it felt really different than the description we received from a bus driver who had fought the Zapatistas as a soldier in the Mexican army in 1994. He told us that they were all lazy, waiting for handouts from the government, and basically they were a bunch of good-for- nothings. (He didn't get the irony when he went on to talk about how unfair it was that Americans all stereotype Mexicans as being less intelligent.)

It was also really different than being in Guate. Beginning with the basic premise of the meeting: all about the Zapatista women. Because of that, no men (local, national or international) were allowed to actively participate except for carrying firewood, looking after kids, preparing food, or carrying firewood. And this was apparent. We were eating the same beans, tortillas, and eggs as in Guate, but it was all served and prepared by men. Men looking after kids. Then there's the prohibition of alcohol. That's a huge change. Then there's young Zapatista women singing a pro-abortion song during the slightly silly but nevertheless entertaining acto cultural i.e. talent show at night. The Zapatistas also love to dance.

Describing these images to the indigenous and ladino Guatemalans I work with here leaves them stunned. After making jokes about how Guatemalan men would never accept those conditions, they tell me a movement like that could never happen here. Some don't even believe that they're indigenous Mayans. I agree with them that in the near future the existence, let alone the success, of a movement modelled after the Zapatistas is unlikely. Also, as I said above, I know very little about what level of success the Zapatistas are actually having and what internal messiness might be going on. But what really sticks with me was what one man said to a few of us right before we left.

There were four of us sitting in his comedor at about 2:30 in the morning waiting for a pickup to take us away from the gathering, drinking a tasty rice-milk beverage (arroz con leche). His manner was one that radiated kindness, gentleness, and humbleness in a way that I've only experienced a few times before (and never in Canada). After chatting about this and that - the gathering itself, the harvest - it came up that he had been in the Zapatista army that came out of the jungle in 1994. He was in Ocosingo that saw the heaviest fighting. 50 Zapatistas died. The army has never admitted how many died on their side. Here's a paraphrasing of what he told us in a quiet, calm, serious voice, without a trace of bravado:

"They came to us in 1992. For two years we trained in secret. Then they asked us if we wanted to make our fight public, and we said yes. In January 1994 we went public with our army. The fighting was tough in Ocosingo. Many died. But for me, I wanted to fight. All the land around here belonged to the landowners. Our fields were small and a lot of children were hungry. Now we've taken the land back. We're defending it and it's tough. But I don't have to walk far to my field now, and there's no more hunger in our community."

venceremos, in peace, jeff

P.S. Back on that bus, the guy beside me got the package deal that featured the ballpoint pen. He leaned over and told me that he did it for the free agenda.