New road, same old path for Guatemala

Chorti farmers
Chorti farmers (above) gather outside a chapel that serves as a CRS/USAID food distribution center in El Chucté, Guatemala.
follows the crazy, winding path that the mountains allow it to Cobán and other cities of the Guatemalan interior. Journeys that once took days now pass in hours. This modern, two-lane highway is a tangible sign of hope for Guatemala.

The 1996 Peace Accords meant more than the end of a 36-year-old civil war, they meant the return of development assistance from Europe and the United States, and now scattered electric power lines and new roadways are beginning to reach communities that have been more or less isolated from the modern world since the time of the conquistadors. This may be a good thing.

Ramshackle towns creeping up alongside the highway in precarious plywood constructions—tiny, tin-roofed shacks, shops, and cantinas—are thrown together sometimes within inches of the smoke-belching buses and heavy trucks that roar and lurch along the road. Each morning and afternoon the indigenous women, old as grandmothers and young as grade-schoolers, walk the highway, balancing on their heads brightly colored water jugs—plastic replicas of traditional ceramic, shaped and colored in a mass-produced anti-homage to their handmade ancestors.

The new highway is unsidewalked and treacherous for pedestrians, but the women follow it all the same to communal water stations where they fill their water jugs and then return to their homes on the same long walk back. The people who live farther from the road will have a harder time finding potable water. Even during a normal year water becomes painfully scarce during "dry" months here. After two years of drought, water conditions are especially bad in Guatemala.

The rains returned in May and June, but in six eastern provinces of Guatemala, the rainfall was 40 percent less than normal. Though some villages report good corn crops this season, in-country agents for the World Food Program and Catholic Relief Services are worried about this year's overall harvest.

The WFP's Trevor Rowe reports that some communities have already experienced crop losses as high as 80 percent. He says his agency is gearing up for what could be another year of emergency food distributions while Guatemala's subsistence farmers, primarily non-Spanish-speaking Mam, K'iche', Chorti, and K'ekchi peoples, wait to see how kind El Niño will be this year.

If the rains don't return, Guatemala will be faced with its third futile growing season in a row—not a calamity for a developed economy such as the United States, but a complete disaster in a nation as poor as Guatemala, where more than 75 percent of the population live on less than $2 a day and many subsist virtually outside of the monetary economy entirely. Many of Guatemala's farmers ate up their "surplus" crops and seed in the first year of the drought. They have no seed left for planting, no oil for cooking, no "strategic reserves" to tap, and worst of all, little clean water to drink or clean or cook with.

While the international and local elite in Guatemala City still cruise the Zona Viva nightclub district in air-conditioned BMWs, thousands in the countryside conduct their own style of "cruising," beginning the daily, arduous search for water—water collected from polluted streams, filthy barrels, puddles along jungle trails, anywhere it can be found. Children die in Guatemala of hunger, yes, but also of diarrhea and other easily preventable bacterial ailments related to their poor nourishment and lack of clean water and basic sanitation.

Even before the drought, Guatemala had the worst record of malnutrition in Central America. According to WFP estimates, last year more than 155,000 people were hungry, while as many as 6,000 children were threatened with starvation. Those numbers or worse could be repeated in 2002.

The coffee crisis
It would be bad enough if drought were the only calamity this still tentative democracy had to contend with, but there is much more. The opening of new markets in Vietnam and overproduction in Brazil and Indonesia began what has been called the international coffee crisis. While hurried Americans impatiently watch Starbucks barristas fill their steaming $4 cups, coffee growers in Guatemala have been watching commodity prices drop to the lowest levels in the history of the coffee market.

Guatemalan woman
A young mother waits for her turn to fill a bag of "soy-corn" ration from the United States.

With the midday sun blazing above their heads and their topsoil passing in wind-drawn dust streams before their eyes, anxious farmers have lined up outside a CRS- and U.S. Agency for International Development-sponsored food distribution site on El Chucté mountain in Guatemala's department of Chiquimula. They say the coffee crop is not even worth harvesting and that local markets where they once carried their quintales—100-pound sacks of coffee beans—have completely shut down. Farmers here are willing to try other export crops, but they have no resources and no money to experiment with alternatives.

While they wait for normal rains to return, these farmers say it is not worth traveling to the coast to work on the large coffee fincas as indigenous laborers have done for generations. These normally dependable seasonal jobs are scarce and the pay is too low, even by Guatemala's paltry standards. Many men in El Chucté say they would leave their families behind and go to the cities or, better yet, north to the United States to look for work, but they don't have enough money for the journey.

Instead they wait outside this distribution station and collect what food and cooking oil they can. Each family here carries home enough corn-soy blend and oil for two, perhaps three weeks if the parents don't eat too much, according to a CRS agent. These emergency distributions take place once each month.

Some farmers here say it has been years since they had steady work. It is an enforced idleness they find agonizing. "We are accustomed to work; we're ready for work," says one El Chucté farmer, Ambrosio Ramirez. "The land is good, but if it doesn't rain what can we do?"

"You have to have faith in God," says another farmer, Pedro Garcia, with a shrug. "And you have to have confidence that things will get better. Otherwise you can't get through.

"Ojala," Garcia says, "the rains will return."

Ojala—"I hope"—a remnant of Spanish's Arabic past, an idiomatic drawn from a fragment of a short prayer that begins "Oh Allah."

Squatters' rights
Travel a few miles along Guatemala's Ruta Cobán-Chisec and you will encounter a desperate improvisation along the side of the road. In a miserable collective of despair and hunger, 56 families have "invaded" land just off the highway. In recent months indigenous groups have become more defiant in their challenges to the central government, seizing property and setting up roadblocks across the country to publicize their hunger and their demand for land.

Indigenous people represent 60 percent of Guatemala's 12 million inhabitants. Their languages—24 are spoken here—their customs, and their agrarian culture persist in the face of almost 500 years of "civilization." The drought and the relentless demands of economic globalization are only the most recent challenges these communities have been forced to endure.

The squatters along Ruta Cobán-Chisec have set up precarious stick and black plastic lean-tos on the ground they claim. They're near enough to the highway to be noticed by passersby, so their protest will have at minimum some public relations value—particularly if they are forced off the land, arrested, or otherwise made to disappear during the cover of night. It is an extremely risky gesture to claim this land even though it has long gone unused.

The land, one angry man says, is owned by a German family who left the country a long time ago. Someone else says that it is part of a finca managed by the cousin of President Alfonso Portillo, raising the profile of the protest but also the risk.

All they know for sure is that they believe the land should belong to them. They are the hungry ones, and it was their ancestors' land before it was taken from them by German coffee exporters in the 19th century. "This land doesn't mean anything to them," one man, speaking in K'ekchi, says of the current title holders. "They don't use it; they don't even live here. It means everything to us."

The men have already begun clearing the hillsides along the highway for planting, and the women are cooking the evening's meal over small fires before their lean-tos. "I'm not worried about the army," one of the squatters says. "If they kill us, they kill us." He admits he is a little concerned about what might happen to his children if the military did step in to "restore order" on the highway.

Land and who owns it is an old problem in Guatemala. The coming of peace has added some new wrinkles. The land abandoned by indigenous people as they fled to Mexico during the war, land they may never have had any technical possession of—after all, what do paper claims mean to people who have lived on the same piece of land for generations—has been seized in their absence. In some instances the land has been taken by the same generals and colonels who drove these villagers from the land in the first place. Thousands have been returning to face a new struggle to reclaim what was once theirs.

The need for some kind of land reform in Guatemala is clear. By one estimate, 2 percent of the population controls 70 percent of the productive land. That's a slightly worse proportion than in 1953 when Guatemala's President Jacobo Arbenz began an "agrarian reform" campaign against United Fruit that indirectly led to four decades of war. Arbenz was deposed in a U.S.-sponsored coup in 1954.

In Central American history books can be found sentences like this: "The Indians were left with the least desirable land." The words "least desirable" take on a whole new meaning when removed from the textbooks and placed in the context of the real world where history is still being written. Many of the indigenous villages in Guatemala lie at the base of nearly barren hillsides. Their land is rocky or stripped of vegetation. The subsistence farmers grow their corn, coffee, and beans along impossibly steep slopes, the corn sometimes literally sticking out at right angles from the hills.

"The people here plant their crops with BB guns," an agronomist for Catholic Relief Services jokes.

Surveying the indigenous huts of plywood and assorted pieces of salvaged materials placed in defiance of gravity and rainstorms and common sense at the base of these denuded hillsides, the occasional news reports of death and destruction by mudslide become completely sensible finally, even inevitable. Least desirable indeed.

The war with the past
Guatemala also faces its share of ongoing political problems. Despite the Peace Accords, the country is still locked in a sometimes deadly struggle with its past. Many of the worst perpetrators of the violence that typified the last 40 years of civil strife not only have not been brought to justice since the armed conflict ended, they now serve in positions of power in the current administration or recline in anonymous—and luxurious—retirement along Florida's white sand shores.

These are men who proved themselves capable of the worst human rights abuses witnessed in Central America during the bloody 1970s and 1980s—anything from targeted extrajudicial assassinations and disappearances of government critics, lawyers, doctors, and journalists to the outright liquidation of whole indigenous communities that had been deemed in league with the rebels.

More than 200,000 people died during the conflict. The hardest hit were the indigenous communities caught between the actual combatants or tormented by the notorious "civilian defense patrols" set up as instruments of government oppression in the 1980s. Guatemala newspapers almost weekly report the discovery of unmarked gravesites—bodies hidden under soccer fields on military posts or under the foundations of school buildings—where groups of villagers were discarded in the hope that their bones would never be uncovered again.

The notorious General Efrain Ríos Montt, Guatemala's U.S.-supported president during the worst of the abuses in the early 1980s, is now the leader of the nation's ruling party and president of Guatemala's congress. He is also the man most people say is pulling the strings of the current president, Portillo. Ríos Montt has been accused of genocide because of his scorched earth policy against recalcitrant indigenous during the early 1980s and by most accounts should be locked away in a prison and not—as he is today—contemplating a return to the presidency in 2003.

The accords call for a thorough investigation of the disappearances and massacres that took place during the war. So far though, only the brutal murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi in 1998 (Gerardi was bludgeoned to death two days after he released a damning report on the Guatemalan military's conduct during the civil war) has led to the indictment and conviction of any Guatemalan military.

Only a handful of the estimated 700 or more massacre sites have been investigated, and some of the forensic scientists who visited those sites have fled the country after repeated death threats. The government has shown little interest in digging up the moldering bones of this nation's recent past, though Guatemala's indigenous people remain determined to find out what happened to their loved ones, at least to discover where they are buried.

Lucretia Oliva, an organizer for a cooperative of Guatemalan development organizations, says it is up to the Catholic Church, which retains a great deal of credibility in the public arena, and Guatemala's small and embattled civil society to push for the complete implementation of the accords, even to push that their goals and intentions "stay on people's minds." But without ongoing international pressure—particularly from funding nations such as the United States—it will be hard to maintain the drive to build a new culture of openness and democratic dialogue in Guatemala. What's left behind without these forces, says Oliva, is the existing culture of fear and indifference.

People like Ríos Montt live in defiance of the purported aims of the Peace Accord, to the growing frustration of many people attempting to craft a workable democratic culture in Guatemala. They complain that defense and security budgets are increasing at the expense of health and education in a country where the indigenous population has been almost entirely excluded from education.

The nation's exploding crime rate is the explanation offered by government officials, but the increasing militarization of security services and other government agencies worries many, especially recently disarmed leftists guerillas who have fanned out into political parties, nongovernment organizations, and social service work. Fear and intimidation are again stalking political expression and efforts to alter the economic status quo. Priests, journalists, and human rights workers are again receiving death threats. There is talk of new disappearances and political murders disguised as accidents and common crimes.

"It's not like the '80s," when large-scale bloodletting typified the government's efforts to "contain subversion," Oliva says. "It's more like the '70s," when selective, less obvious killings intimidated political opposition into silence or drove it into exile or armed resistance, she says.

"[The Portillo administration is] talking about forgetting, not apologizing or [seeking] justice," she says. "How can you ask for forgiveness if you don't know the facts?"

"Most of the people who participated in the conflict want peace," Oliva says. "The war was so devastating." Her generation, she says, has been exhausted by violence. But if conditions don't change, she adds, perhaps a new generation of young Guatemalans will see no alternative but to pick up the gun once more.

"There's this tension here," says Betsy Weir, a CRS worker, "that if things go just the 'right' way, the whole thing could explode again."

Signs of hope
There are small but vibrant signs of hope in Guatemala. President Portillo announced in September that he would reduce the size of the military by one-fifth and convert several military installations into schools. During the same month, after years of delays the trial of two officers accused of murdering a forensic anthropologist in 1990 began. If they are convicted, it would mark a significant step toward the end of military impunity.

And there are many agencies at work in the countryside bringing educational opportunities and innovative programming to the indigenous communities that otherwise remain for all intents and purposes ignored by the Guatemalan government. Traveling along that new highway that the Peace Accord built are aid workers from an alphabet soup of relief and development organizations—USAID, CRS, WHO, WFP, and more.

Sepoc Dos
Children of the village of Sepoc Dos (left) are being raised in peacetime for the first time in four decades.

Following the rocky, washed-out trails that lead off the main roads, these agencies are establishing micro-credit programs, building schools, and running health care and sanitation "teach-ins" in a campaign aimed at reducing childhood mortality and making the countryside culturally and economically sustainable. These efforts offer the possibility that the next generation of Guatemala's indigenous people will be able to remain on the land in dignity. Now, thousands drift away each year from villages that have survived decades of conflict and centuries of oppression to disappear into Central America's urban zones in low-paying manufacturing work or into menial labor in the United States.

But bringing opportunity and alternatives to Guatemala's indigenous communities has been difficult and at times dangerous work. Every step forward to liberate the indigenous threatens Guatemala's status quo and invites further oppression. Some communities seem finally too impenetrable to reach at all.

You will not find Sepoc Dos on a map, and you will not be able to reach it in one of Detroit's tricked-out SUVs—it would have blown a tire or somehow broken down long before the end of the "road" to Sepoc Dos.

The entire village is gathered in the church one hot afternoon to tell a handful of visitors of the town's many difficulties in a litany of hunger and need that asks without ever asking: "What can you do to help us? What supplies are you prepared to bring us? How can we survive in this place?" The people here have little faith in their government and diminishing hope in their future except to entrust it to any outsider willing to stop by and lend them a hand.

The young men of Sepoc Dos (the original Sepoc was razed during the civil war) know better than to speak up when their elders are talking to visitors. Despite a journalist's plea to hear something about their plans for the future, despite even the entreaties of their parents, who tell them it's OK to answer, the boys, grouped together at one side of the village's white-washed church smile in embarrassment and study the dusty floor.

Only later, outside the church and away from the supervision of their parents do the young men feel bold enough to speak up. What they say, in Spanish, a tongue their elders have never learned, is that they see no future in Sepoc Dos, that they hope one day to leave and get an education or a job in Guatemala City or the United States.

"There is nothing here," says one young man of 16. He casts his eyes around the village inviting the journalist to follow his gaze. A lush and green gorge traps Sepoc Dos on either side. The village's corn crop grows at impossible angles out of Sepoc Dos' steep hills, and the primitive road that winds through the village is unpaved and treacherous even to simply walk along. There is no electricity, no potable water. Sepoc Dos is just another desperately poor indigenous village, virtually unreachable by any modern conveyance, typical of hundreds of similar villages across Guatemala.

"The economy is bad," the young man says. "I have no educational opportunities. Unless this changes, if I get a chance, I will leave." His friends nod in agreement.

But would he stay if there were education and there were opportunities?

He replies without hesitation. "Yes," he says, and the other boys join in with short nods of their heads.

Kevin Clarke is managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications in Chicago.

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