Turn­ing a blind eye: the mod­ern geno­cide

Geist - - Features - Stephen Henighan

The Power of De­nial

In the spring and sum­mer of 2015, crowds gath­ered in front of the pres­i­den­tial palace in Gu­atemala City to de­mand the res­ig­na­tion of the pres­i­dent, re­tired Gen­eral Otto Pérez Molina. Dur­ing “the Gu­atemalan Spring,” as the press dubbed these anti-cor­rup­tion protests, which on some days drew up to 30,000 peo­ple, I spoke to Cana­di­ans who went to stand with the pro­test­ers in the square. It was fas­ci­nat­ing, my friends said, but it wouldn’t amount to any­thing. We all knew Gu­atemala bet­ter than that.

Gu­atemala’s at­tempts at democ­racy, and a more eq­ui­table dis­tri­bu­tion of wealth, were de­railed in 1954 by a Us-or­ches­trated in­va­sion that re­placed an elected re­formist gov­ern­ment with mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship. In 1961 civil war broke out, last­ing un­til late 1996. Dur­ing the worst years of the war, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the mass mur­der of in­dige­nous Mayan peo­ple by the gov­ern­ment reached pro­por­tions that both the Catholic Church and the United Na­tions, in ex­haus­tive post-war re­ports, clas­si­fied as geno­cide. The 1996 Peace Ac­cords, which ended the war, pro­vided a de­tailed blue­print for a demo­cratic so­ci­ety. Yet, as the Cana­dian scholar Kirsten Weld has shown, Gu­atemala’s mainly Euro­pean-de­scended oli­garchy, which has ruled over its pre­dom­i­nantly in­dige­nous and mixed-race pop­u­la­tion for 475 years, in­ter­preted the Peace Ac­cords not as a ne­go­ti­ated com­pro­mise and a fresh start, but as the sur­ren­der of the po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion and per­mis­sion to re­store the sta­tus quo. Af­ter 1996, the oli­garchy re­turned to busi­ness as usual, en­rich­ing it­self and im­pov­er­ish­ing the pop­u­la­tion, while abus­ing high po­lit­i­cal of­fice through cor­rup­tion and il­licit com­merce, in­clud­ing drug traf­fick­ing.

One fact struck my friends: the pro­test­ers in the square in­cluded not only stu­dents, the po­lit­i­cal left and in­dige­nous or­ga­ni­za­tions, but also peo­ple from Gu­atemala’s mod­est yet in­flu­en­tial (and nor­mally very con­ser­va­tive) mid­dle class. Gu­atemalan­cana­di­ans told me that their cousins back home, who had never done any­thing po­lit­i­cal in their lives, were join­ing the pro­test­ers. So­cial bar­ri­ers that had di­vided the pop­u­la­tion for cen­turies yielded. Young peo­ple used Twit­ter and Face­book to or­ga­nize the protests, but the key to their suc­cess in fi­nally driv­ing Pérez Molina from of­fice on Septem­ber 2, 2015, was their en­gage­ment with his­tory.

Pérez Molina was not merely a cor­rupt oli­garch; sub­stan­tial ev­i­dence ex­ists that for eight months in 1982– 83, he was also one of the mil­i­tary of­fi­cers who or­ga­nized and car­ried out the geno­cide of the Maya. Many of the pro­test­ers had grown up with tra­di­tional mid­dle-class prej­u­dices against in­dios, which per­sist in spite of the fact that most mid­dle-class Gu­atemalans are racially mixed and have sig­nif­i­cant in­dige­nous an­ces­try. The crowds learned that they could not act ef­fec­tively in the present with­out con­fronting the past, specif­i­cally the his­tor­i­cal treat­ment of in­dige­nous peo­ple. Gabriel Wer, one of the protests’ so­cial media or­ga­niz­ers, told a re­porter: “We started off an­gry, de­mand­ing res­ig­na­tions, but have be­come part of a so­cial move­ment where there is a hunger for in­for­ma­tion, change and a new Gu­atemalan iden­tity.” Other pro­test­ers said that par­tic­i­pat­ing in the ral­lies had in­spired them to learn about the 1961–1996 Civil War, which is not taught in schools, and about which younger gen­er­a­tions know al­most noth­ing, to the point where most mid­dle-class peo­ple deny that geno­cide even oc­curred.

The day af­ter his res­ig­na­tion, Pérez Molina went on trial for cus­toms fraud—though not for geno­cide. Gu­atemala has a long way to go in achiev­ing in­sti­tu­tional trans­parency: the new pres­i­dent, like his pre­de­ces­sor, will be backed by the mil­i­tary. Yet the progress that was made in bring­ing so­ci­ety to­gether would have been im­pos­si­ble with­out the pro­test­ers’ recog­ni­tion that their coun­try was built on the abuse, dis­pos­ses­sion and mur­der of in­dige­nous peo­ple. This is not just a les­son for Gu­atemala. In the most in­flu­en­tial re­cent his­tory of geno­cide, Samantha Power’s “A Prob­lem from Hell”: Amer­ica in the Age of Geno­cide (2002), the word Gu­atemala does not ap­pear. Read­ers might ex­pect a Demo­cratic Party policy wonk like Power, who is cur­rently US Am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions, to revel in ex­pos­ing the Repub­li­can Ron­ald Rea­gan’s sup­port for mur­der­ous gen­er­als. But Power de­picts geno­cide as a Euro­pean prob­lem, first suf­fered and de­fined by Ar­me­ni­ans and Jews, and later by Bos­nian Mus­lims,

with over­seas out­breaks in Cam­bo­dia, Rwanda and Kur­dish north­ern Iraq. Mak­ing ex­plicit ref­er­ence to the UN re­port that found the Gu­atemalan Army had com­mit­ted geno­cide, Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton apol­o­gized to the Gu­atemalan peo­ple in Fe­bru­ary 1999—while Power was writ­ing this book—for US “sup­port for mil­i­tary forces” that car­ried out these acts; yet UN Am­bas­sador Power writes the Gu­atemalan geno­cide out of his­tory.

Baf­fling at first glance, Power’s white­wash is de­press­ingly pre­dictable: to ac­knowl­edge the mod­ern geno­cide of the Maya would open up the sub­ject of ear­lier geno­cides against in­dige­nous peo­ple in the Amer­i­cas, sink­ing Power’s made-in-europe the­ory, and chal­leng­ing US na­tional mythol­ogy. Whether white set­tler vi­o­lence against in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties in the US, from King Philip’s War in the 1670s to the so-called “In­dian Wars” of the last forty years of the nine­teenth cen­tury, con­sti­tutes geno­cide is the sub­ject of vir­u­lent polemics. In 2012, when the Col­lege Board in­cluded “the Amer­i­can In­dian geno­cide” as a topic for Ad­vanced Place­ment His­tory for se­nior high school stu­dents, a na­tion­wide re­volt against this de­ci­sion oc­curred. In Canada, as James Daschuk ar­gues in Clear­ing the Plains (2013) and Guy Van­der­haeghe dra­ma­tizes in A Good Man (2011), Sir John A. Mac­don­ald’s policy, af­ter his re-elec­tion in 1878, was to starve in­de­pen­dent-minded in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties rather than shoot them. Our lack­lus­tre democ­racy was un­able to ad­dress in­dige­nous is­sues in the 2015 elec­tion, held in the wake of the dev­as­tat­ing re­port of the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion on the cul­tural geno­cide com­mit­ted by the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment and churches through the res­i­den­tial school sys­tem. From the early 1880s un­til 1996, res­i­den­tial schools de­stroyed in­di­vid­u­als, fam­i­lies, com­mu­ni­ties and lan­guages. The per­va­sive de­nial of crimes against in­dige­nous peo­ples, and the ex­clu­sion of this sub­ject from pub­lic de­bate, means that our elec­toral sys­tem has given no politi­cian a man­date to ad­dress the rup­tured so­ci­ety that we have in­her­ited from neo-colo­nial policy-mak­ing. As the pro­test­ers in the square in Gu­atemala City dis­cov­ered, mean­ing­ful re­form in the present is hob­bled un­til we stop deny­ing the de­lib­er­ate an­ni­hi­la­tion of the hemi­sphere’s first cul­tures. This is true not only in Gu­atemala, but in nearly ev­ery coun­try in the Amer­i­cas.

Stephen Henighan’s forth­com­ing novel, The Path of the Jaguar (This­tle­down Press, Oc­to­ber 2016), is set in Gu­atemala. Read more of his work at and stephen­ Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Stephen­henighan. Stephen Henighan lives in Guelph.

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