Before the days of the Spanish Conquistadors, the Mayans ruled these lands. After the conquistadors arrived in 1518, the Mayan population was decimated by European diseases to which they had no resistance. Guatemala declared itself independent from Spain in 1821.
In the early part of the 20th century, Guatemala was run by a succession of military dictators. In July 1944, Dictator Castaneda was forced out of office by protests and a general strike. His successor, General Ponce Valdes was forced from office by a coup led by Major Francisco Javier Arana and Captain Jacobo Arbenz Guzman in October 1944.
After the coup, the country’s first free election was held, and 85 percent of the people elected a prominent writer and teacher Juan Jose Aevalo Bermejo. Bermejo, a socialist who extablished policies in favor of the poor, was criticized by the wealthy as being communist. Arvelo was succeeded by former Captain Jacobo Arbenz Guzman who established a policy of distributing land — including land privately held by wealthy landowners — to the poor.
United Fruit Company, a U.S. based banana company best known for it’s Chiquita brand, took exception to Arbenz’s land reform activities, and persuaded the CIA to overthrow its government. After this overthrow, a succession of military dictators ruled Guatemala. Within a few years after President Arbenz was deposed by the CIA, “guerrilla insurgents” began to fight the imposed government in a bloody and destructive civil war. This fighting continued until 1994 when the peace accords were signed.
Civil War, Violence, Death Squads, & the Human Cost
During the civil war, the fighting was between the government and the people. According to the U.N. over 93% of the human rights violations during the war were perpetrated by government forces and paramilitaries.
Paramilitary “death squads” caused numerous disappearances, torturing and mutilating their victims, and raping and often dismembering the women. The random violence was apparently intended to terrorize the population and discourage any search for justice. After the peace accords were signed, the pattern of the violence changed somewhat, but this pattern of random, violent terrorism continues to this day.
During the war, the majority of the murders were in the country, but now is randomly distributed between city and rural areas. It has been suggested that today’s violence may be at least partially caused by a lack of healing: that people who were killing or witnessing killing during the war have deep psychological wounds that have not been addressed either officially or informally, and their reaction to these wounds may be to continue killing.
Mosogyny & the Macho Culture
Hatred of, or at least contempt for, women is part of cultural reality in the world today. We can see this readily in the U.S. in advertising, in the movies, in music, and in literature. Women are frequently viewed as objects to be exploited for the pleasure of males. At the same time, the U.S. has had significant legal and social advances for women.
About 100 years ago, women earned the right to vote, for example, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act forbade discrimination against women for jobs, although “glass ceilings” and pay differences for women continue. Modern conveniences such as automatic washers and dryers have helped women find time to pursue other things than housework. In contrast to the modern U.S., automatic washers and automobiles are not part of everyday life to the typical Guatemalan woman.
Women, particularly in rural Guatemala, live a subsistence life style, with most effort and energy directed toward keeping the family fed and housed. For the majority, food is cooked over wood stoves, and the smell of wood fires permeates the countryside. Enslaved by daily chores, and with only scant opportunities for working outside the home, women have no opportunity to change a patriarchal structure that has the man in charge of earning the family money.
Impunity, Impunity, Impunity
Guatemalan women are not protected by the law. Until recently, for example, a man accused of raping a woman or girl could exonerate himself by marrying the victim. While this law has now changed, it is indicative of the government attitude toward rape and feminicide. The murders of women and girls are typically not investigated. The official response is typically to suggest that the murder is a “crime of passion” or that the woman was involved in gangs, drugs, or prostitution, and then to cease investigating the murder further.
Because the people committing these crimes are not being identified, not being investigated, not being brought to justice, it is hard to know much about these murderers. We do know they are harboring a great hatred and contempt of women, because in most cases the women are made to suffer, usually raped and mutilated– before they are finally murdered. The numbers continue to climb higher and higher even after the anti-femicide law that passed in April 2008.
Guatemala Geography & Culture
Guatemala may be divided physically into three main regions. The coastal plains are rich agricultural areas where bananas and other tropical crops grow, mostly for the benefit of foreign landowners. The northern jungle, the Peten, is very lightly inhabited, and holds many archeological riches of the Mayan culture. The majority of the people are spread across the altiplano, the high land formed and characterized mostly by the numerous volcanos that erupt periodically.
The Spanish and the indigenous people mixed, and the people who today live a western lifestyle are referred to as “Ladinos”. For the Ladinos, Spanish is the main language. In addition, in modern Guatemala, there are numerous people who speak one of 24 remaining Mayan languages such as Qui’che and Mam. Many also speak Spanish, typically as a second language. This group, to a greater or lesser extent, maintains many old customs including wearing clothing that is hand-made and very colorful, the colors representing the area from which they come. This group is often referred to as “Indigenous”.
Most Guatemalans earn less than one dollar a day. This low income significantly affects their choices, and, as the free market model becomes more and more part of reality, essentially keeps them from buying even their own locally-made goods.