Turning a blind eye: the modern genocide
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. Guatemalan-Canadians 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.