Friday, July 4, 2008

Letters from Guatemala: Caren Weisbart

Greetings from Guatemala,

Today, for the first time in history in Guatemala, June 30th in Central Park was celebrated as "The National Day of Heroes and Martyrs" and not as Army Day. Over 15 organizations from civil society collaborated to carry out a march through the streets of Guatemala to remember family members and friends, heroes and martyrs, who gave their lives or had them violently taken away from them during the internal armed conflict. People who fought against military oppression through their poetry, their music, their art; through combat. Families who fled their villages, driven out by the military, never to return home again. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, sons and daughters, sisters, brothers. Students, campesinos, journalists, human rights activists, religious leaders. Today, June 30th, their lives were remembered and celebrated.

The past two years, H.I.J.O.S. along with various other organizations have held a parallel march to the army's march - both taking place at the same time and in roughly the same place. In the days leading up to these two marches, there is always an increase in strange phone calls and threatening messages as well as often violent encounters with people paid to intimidate the organizers of the peaceful march and their collaborators. The march, lead by various human rights and social movement groups, in 2006, came at a tumultuous time in Guatemala. A Spanish judge was in town attempting to hear testimonies from witnesses and those accused of genocide. AVEMILGUA, a group of highly influencial army veterans published articles in national newspapers threatening the security of the march and its participants. In 2007, there was a marked increase in the level of political surveillance (organizers being followed and supposed "orejas" or spies sitting outside of their offices keeping track of the people coming and going). Typical military intelligence procedures. What began as a peaceful march last year culminated in a violent confrontation between those protesting the presence of the army in the streets and the soldiers carrying out their march. Several of the protesters were attacked - some with belt buckles - by family members - civilians who were out supporting the army´s march. Tear gas was launched by the army and several people were taken to the hospital.

This year, 2008, was completely different. After a long march culminated in central park, there was music by old and new artists - those repressed before and who live to tell about it and those who continue to receive attacks and continue to sing about it. There were speeches and poetry. People danced. Different organizations including Colectiva de Mujeres Feministas de Izquierdista, FAMDEGUA, GAM, and H.I.J.O.S. set up a variety of visual exhibits of people disappeared during the armed conflict and hands-on exhibits where people could paint about resistance and peace. The air was filled with happiness and hope, solidarity and courage. It was inspiring to see Central Park filled with families, the youth, the elderly and people from all walks of life learning about the atrocities of the past while celebrating the possibilities of the future. Those on stage were filled with a sea of emotion so strong that many began to lose their voices. One rap artist that many of you know, in the middle of an impressive speech about increased criminalization of youth movements had to cut himself off and sing the next song because he said his "heart is too full of emotion."

As the festivities ended and the crowd dispersed, and as the last pick-up truck carrying equipment, banners, paintings, flowers and instruments pulled away, it was replaced by a military vehicle with six soldiers. The next activity scheduled in the park was the changing of the flag, a patriotic tradition of Army Day.

The road to peace in Guatemala is long. People who lost family members in the war - activists and soldiers alike - are faced with a reality that was designed to manipulate, divide and to perpetuate violence. The remilitarization process occurring throughout the country and seen in places like San Juan Sacatepequez, Chiquimula and Izabal reminds me that peace cannot be signed and then forgotten about. The realities and threats of Guatemala at war continue today.

Impunity continues to reign in Guatemala. But it is days like today that remind me that humanity is a potent flower and that giving up hope would be like forgetting the work of so many heroes and martyrs who gave their lives believing that peace is a possibility.

In solidarity,
Caren Weisbart