Saturday, June 28, 2008

Intern Report: Jeff Carolin New Hope Foundation (Part 2) (2007-2008)

assorted thoughts on guatemala...

On March 5 the gate of my boss's house got shot up. They tell me that it took some serious bullets to puncture his thick iron gate. I nod calmly, clearly knowing nothing about bullets. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Two assailants were seen by neighbours riding away on bicycles. Drive-by-shooting, Guatemalan style.

Like most acts of violence in Guatemala, it wasn't clear whether it was random violence or a deliberate act of intimidation. Guillermo works for a network of organizations that is attempting to use the bankrupt legal system to bring justice to both the locally recruited militias and the generals/dictators who are responsible for the genocide that happened in Rabinal and in other largely-Indigenous regions in the early 1980s. Anyone who is involved with any kind of similar struggle across the country, however loosely, is a potential target.

And yet, because no one ever leaves notes behind, it's often unclear what the motivation was behind the act - and if indeed there even was one. But one thing is clear. Though the civil war officially ended in 1996 with the signing of peace accords, it's widely accepted that the perpetrators of the violence still hold power locally and nationally, whether as elected officials or behind closed doors. And they don't like being put on the defensive.

Knowing all this meant that at the same time as I was trying, lamely, to express my support for Guillermo, and his visibly shaken-up family, I couldn't help but notice my own feelings. I felt afraid.

For the next two days, especially when Guillermo asked me to accompany him to file various incident reports in shabby police offices, I felt fear for my personal safety. It wasn't fear in the generalized sense of walking down a dark street knowing that I could be a random target of violence or robbery. It was a different feeling - one of being specifically targeted for association with a political movement. If I disassociated myself, I knew I'd be safe. And there it was in front of me, a recognition of why political violence is so effective in destroying any dissent from the dominant line.

This fear quickly faded because I knew that I actually had little to fear. Only in the most exceptional of cases have foreigners been targeted by political violence. I'm protected by the coincidence of my nationality. To the powers-that-be and the international press, my life is worth more. This forced the fear to be replaced by yet another intense, visceral feeling – one of having the structural injustices and inequalities of our world flow right through me.

Talking to one of my colleagues the next day, Rosa the secretary, it was clear that she was scared. "I was alone in the office all morning. I was jumping at every sound." This was a bit different than our usual conversations about the oppressive heat, office politics, and which local variety of the plum-like jocote was in season. Did she have the choice to be here? To a certain extent, yes. But how easy it is to give up a job in a famously unstable economy where you're pulling in 3000 quetzales a month - a relatively good sum - just because of a little mortal fear.

Then I reflected on my own situation. If I were actually in mortal danger, I'm confident that it would be expected by all involved parties – whether Canadian or Guatemalan - that I leave immediately. This isn't my place. I'm just an experience-seeking globe-trotting politically-engaged keen 25 year old.

I'm not speaking here with guilt, as I likely would have been five years ago. Fine, there might be some residual guilt. But that self-description was really what I thought about in the moment. I was looking at Rosa and thinking that no matter how much shared humanity we have - how we sip hot maize porridge from locally-made hand-painted bowls and chat about Rabinal's history and current events - we are born into well-worn global patterns that drastically shape the potential lives that we may live.

In a world of justice, this would be a reason for celebration. We'd toast our diversity of experiences, of perspectives, of understandings. And even in a world in which justice is absent, living here has taught me how to celebrate this diversity in spite of a context which lends itself so easily to dark thoughts. I know that Rosa gets to live in a vibrant community where, to quote my friend Kat, there exists so much abundance amidst material poverty. Where lavish communal celebrations turn all measures of poverty on their heads. I also know that she experiences mortal fear – like so many on our planet – and that she (jokingly?) has asked me to bring her to Canada.

About three weeks later.

Lying in bed one night, getting up, walking to the door of my room, and deliberately locking it for the first time since I've been here, pausing, thinking: the fear has finally seeped in. After five months here in Rabinal, the stories of break-and-enter/murders, muggings, rape, physical assaults, and the post-7:30 deserted streets have finally penetrated my security bubble. I understand why the director of a local women's advocacy organization is contemplating buying a gun, and because of that I understand how Guatemalan elites use seemingly random violence for political gain - and for control.

I understand why the party called the Firm Hand (Mano Dura) led by an ex-general, with a fist as their logo, almost won the election in November. And when they didn't win the election, I understand why they are suspected of ordering the wave of bus driver assassinations in Guatemala City. Fifteen bus drivers and six assistants murdered in one week in February. Officially, organized crime and gang violence are to blame. That's certainly the line the Globe and Mail took in a four part series about violence in Guatemala. But it cant be forgotten that increasing destabilization, "random violence" like this, and ever-deepening fear yield a population more susceptible to control and to the sweet promises of military dictatorship: peace and order.

I didn't expect Guatemala to help me understand 9/11, the Bush Administration, or Bowling for Colombine. But it has.

The power struggle here between wealthy landowners, the military new rich, and capitalist opportunists means that this entire country - its people, its environment, its history – becomes a battleground. Foreign embassies and corporations - like Canada and its mining companies - fuel this war, lending both political legitimacy to bankrupt political parties and expansive amounts of capital to official and unofficial coffers. Capital that is quickly converted into incredibly high rates of private-jet ownership, and into politically-motivated - but seemingly random - murders and assaults carried out by easily paid off gang members living in desperate urban wastelands.

Lately, and surprisingly, this understanding has been coalescing into the eerie feeling that Guatemala is turning me into an optimist.

This feeling has only grown more concrete as I've been discovering what happened here on September 15, 1981 - the massacre in Rabinal proper. Not out in the communities, but in the market and town square that I steer my under-sized bike through everyday picking up tasty post-work snacks of chopped green mangos, tacos, and pizza. It is the least documented massacre in the region, and according to a friend here, in the entire country.

According to the Commission for Historical Clarification, 200 people of all ages died that day when the military opened fire on an Independence Day march. Purportedly it was in retaliation for a failed attack on the military base two days before. An attack supposedly organized by some of the few local guerrillas.

Rumours and anonymous witnesses put the number much higher: a minimum murder count of 1000 in a town that has about 5000 people. Though there were people in from the surrounding communities that day, if it matters. The estimates vary depending on how many trucks were seen leaving Rabinal the next day under military guard to dump the bodies 100s of miles away. Images and smells from that day led to analogies of the annual poisoning of street dogs.

This day remains under-documented because everyone who carried it out and who were its victims are all still neighbours. The leaders still have power and authority in the community and are likely supported by the shadowy networks of power that run parallel to, and heavily influence the superficial party politics of Guatemala's "democracy".

Tad is an American who accompanies local witnesses to trials involving the genocide. One days he tells me, "You know that guy with the crazy grey hair who works at the terminal? He tortured people in the families I visit."

"Yeah, I do know that guy... I was joking around with him the other day. Shit."

Leah points out that the fear (and pain) that exudes from every hushed comment about September 15, and the anonymity of all recorded testimonies about it and most other "better documented" massacres, puts in stark contrast the people who have come forward, in public, to denounce these crimes. People like Jesús Tecú Osorio, who founded the organization I'm with here, and who faced down in court, in a landmark case, the three men who carried out the murder of his family in front of him. It also puts in contrast the continuing vibrancy of Rabinal, its market, its crafts, its people. A contrast that's so strong that it's been chipping away at my cynicism. If they can do this here...

That night, lying in bed, in an attempt to deal with my newly discovered fear, I deliberately thought about all the people I've met here who daily face down fear of both random and political violence - and the grey area between them - to challenge impunity, demand land reform, and reveal the secrets of a dirty war. When I first got here I found this courage both humbling and inspiring. That night I used it instead of warm milk.

in peace, jeff