October 17, 2003

Xela, Guatemala (III)

16 years ago today, Carlos, René and Danelo, three politically active University students here in Xela planned to meet in order to discuss protest strategies. Carlos was late to that meeting and so lived. René and Danelo were kidnapped, tortured and murdered.

Carlos later founded El Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco de Español, the Spanish school that, through an unlikely series of coincidences, I've come to study at.

The story of René and Danelo is not an uncommon one here. Guatemala is well known for its atrocious human right record and brutal manner of dealing with dissension. In recent years, at least 100,000 have died opposing the poverty and corruption rife in this country, and another 40,000 are "disappeared".

I spent two mornings this week with "Renaldo"; a lifetime guerilla with a people's resistance army. At age 8, his father was kidnapped and tortured by the military. His father, a political activist, escaped, but would spend the next ten years being hidden and nursed back to health by priests. Renaldo is close to my age, and has had a rifle slung over his shoulder as long as I've had a backpack over mine. He's a quiet, affable man, but a little time with him belies memories I can't even fathom. He recently left active duty as a guerilla to work with a leftist grassroots political party.

I couldn't have picked a more interesting time to be here. Guatemala holds its election Novermber 9, and several candidates of varying degrees of corruption are competing for the presidency. Campaign logos are posted, painted, and strung on every available surface (logos are more effective than words due to the illiteracy rate), and pickups drive around town incessantly with speakers blaring campaign jingles. The incumbent, a self-admitted murderer under whom more Guatemalans have died for political reasons than under any other president, has a catchy jingle using children singing his praises.

Bribery, deception and intimidation are accepted election practices in Guatemala. The poor are bribed with much-needed items such as clothing and fertilizer - something that isn't hard to do when 40% of the population, or about 60 million people subsist on less than two dollars a day. Farm workers - a huge percentage of the population - are easily persuaded to vote according to the interests of the land owners since disfavor would make finding another job next to impossible; 2% of the population in Guatemala controls 75% of the arable land - a statistic unmatched anywhere else in the Americas. Another common tactic is sending party workers into areas devastated by the current government, and have them explain to people that if they don't agree with the current government's practices, they should cross out the party's symbol on their ballot with an "X" - the ballot selection mark. People are also told that the voting is videotaped, and that the current government will know who they vote for. In the past, parties have even bribed the power company to turn off power in areas favored to win by opponents, bringing voting to those areas to a crawl and causing them not to be included in the count.

These are the more benign techniques practiced here. I have heard first-hand accounts and seen footage of how dissidents are handled violently - the likes of which I hope never to see again. This is as much as I'll mention for the safety of the school and their affiliates.

Tonight there was a memorial gathering at the school in honor of René and Danello. I had the honor of attending. Their friends and families were there, so were political sympathizers and other affiliates of the school. Carlos spoke, as did the families and a local priest. There was food, music and song - a sombre celebration of life. This, I realized, is what I admire most about Guatamalans - their resilience. They are strong. They choose to be thankful for what they have, despite having every reason not to.

Posted by dhuska at October 17, 2003 09:02 PM