Guatemala is a beautiful country with a tragic history. Ransacked by its ruling class and devastated by its military, there is still a chance of rebirth.
Birth and rebirth are everywhere in Mayan mythology, from the plumed serpent Gucumatz to the bearer of lightning Huracan, who created the world and its people, to the lords of Xibalba, whose realm of death is eventually overcome. Guatemala can be reborn. Unfortunately, corruption and impunity are rampant and the country’s newly elected president may be unable or unwilling to challenge the status quo.
Writing about the country in 2012, the New Internationalist noted:
“Guatemala’s troubled present was born out of a bloody past. Once the site of the impressive ancient Mayan civilization, it was conquered by the Spanish in 1524 and endured three centuries as a colony. Since its liberation in 1821, the country has been stained by further bloodshed: US-supported military dictatorships, social unrest and guerrilla uprisings culminated in a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996. The conflict was one of the most brutal in the northern hemisphere: over 200,000 people died and up to 50,000 were reportedly ‘disappeared’. Only now are a handful of those responsible for the atrocities being brought to account.”
With such a reckoning come painful memories. Guatemala is not the only Latin American country to have suffered at the hands of a brutal dictatorship, but it is the only one where the majority of its victims were Indigenous people. More than half the population is of Mayan descent, comprising 29 linguistic communities.
Despite the findings and recommendations of a Commission for Historical Clarification (1997-99) which sought “to clarify past human rights violations and acts of violence that have caused the Guatemalan population to suffer,” many stories remain untold. Today, those stories are being recorded by the Shoah Foundation of the University of Southern California.
Long familiar with human depravity, the Foundation is the legacy of film director Steven Spielberg, who established it in 1994 to record video testimonies of survivors and other witnesses of the Shoah (the name by which Jewish people prefer to call the Holocaust).
The largest audiovisual collection of its kind in the world, the Holocaust Collection now comprises some 53,000 testimonies of Jews, political prisoners, Sinti and Roma (Gypsy), Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and survivors of eugenics policies, as well as rescuers and aid providers, liberators, and participants in war crimes trials. Dedicated to covering other genocides and crimes against humanity, the Foundation also holds four more archives:
- The Rwandan Testimony Collection presents survivor and eyewitness accounts of the 1994 genocide of Tutsis that claimed more than one million lives over the course of approximately 100 days.
- The 1937 Nanjing Massacre, which claimed the lives of up to 300,000 Chinese civilians and soldiers at the hands of invading Japanese forces, is represented by testimonies from survivors and witnesses.
- The Armenian Genocide Collection covers the massacres and deportations under the Ottoman Empire that claimed the lives of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians during the First World War. Interviews were conducted with survivors aged between eight and 29 at the time of the genocide.
- The Cambodian Genocide Collection includes testimonies of Khmer Rouge period survivors who escaped the killing of nearly two million Cambodians from 1975 to 1979.
Recently, the Foundation set up what will become the most comprehensive repository of eyewitness accounts from Guatemala’s 1960-96 civil war. It has already recorded 100 testimonies and plans to gather at least 500 more in the course of the next two years. In a land whose very fabric is woven of myths and legends, the importance of this initiative cannot be overestimated.
The new government of Guatemala has an opportunity to listen to these stories and to right wrongs both past and present. But there is a long and painful road to travel and it would do well to remember the words of Rigoberta Menchu Tum, the Guatemalan Quiche Mayan Nobel Peace Laureate, who wrote:
“There is no peace without justice;
There is no justice without fairness;
There is no fairness without development;
There is no development without democracy;
There is no democracy without respect for the identity and the dignity of all cultures and peoples.”