Scott's Entry #5

"Overcoming Fear"

Guatemala is an incredibly beautiful place.  Everywhere you go, the people, buildings and landscape are awash in brilliant colors.  It's a gluttonous feast for the eyes.  The indigenous people here have bathed themselves in a rainbow, creating a culture of celebration and intense feeling.

Unfortunately, underlying this luminous canvas is a history of violence stretching back to the days of sock-hops and poodle skirts.

While most people in the U.S. don't know much about the story of this country perched atop Central America, (I didn't until I decided to make this my home for a year) it is rich with both triumph and tragedy.  The central theme has been the same throughout the past 40 years.  People of native Mayan descent are losing their heritage due to discrimination and government policies that make it very difficult for them to earn a living, fight for their rights, and maintain their way of life.  

Perhaps the steepest mountain standing in their way is past Guatemalan President Efrain Rioss Montt.  Montt was "installed" to the high post by military officials in March of 1982 when the existing president was packed off to exile.  Though the majority of Guatemala's citizens lived well below the poverty line and had no way to pull themselves out of the mire, Montt's main goal was to eradicate the indigenous by threatening their very existence. Needless to say his priorities were a little out of whack.   Sounds like a nice guy, eh?  Though his "Presidency" lasted only 16 months, he left his mark on society here.  In the introduction of the book Bitter Fruit, the exploits of Montt are recounted.

Between early 1982 and the end of 1983, the Guatemalan army destroyed some 400 towns and villages, drove 20,000 rural people out of their homes and into camps, killed between 50,000 and 75,000 mostly unarmed indigenous farmers and their families, and violently displaced over a million people from their homes (of whom 150,000 fled into neighboring Mexico.)

Evidence of this devastating time is still etched on the faces of people here, many of which are now older women who were forced to provide for their large families when their husbands "disappeared."  The story is real, and it is still alive.

That is why the upcoming Presidential elections are so important to the people here.  Though the Constitution of Guatemala bans anyone who previously held office by coup from ever running again, Efrain Rioss Montt somehow managed to sneak into this year's election.  He fought the Supreme Court and won... likely spurred by the rampant corruption in the government that allows the FRG (Montt's party) to pilfer over $600 million annually from the country's coffers, as reported by the Guatemalan press last week.  So, today he is hitting the campaign trail in search of votes.  The audacity of his campaign slogan says it all, "Yo  Soy Guatemala"  (I am Guatemala).

So far in this year's election he has promised farmers that he will give them free fertilizer, without telling them how to use it or testing soil to see if it will destroy the fertile ground of Guatemala.  In July, he "funded" a riot for his benefit.  The Guatemalan press reports that hundreds (if not thousands) of people stormed the Capitol building in support of Montt.  However, on closer inspection it was found that the crowd was made up of the very poor, who had been bussed to the Capitol, given a free lunch, and $100 Quetzales each (about $12) to scream and shout his name.  The result was vandalism, destruction, and one dead reporter who suffered a heart attack trying to flee the angry mob.  Here, the day is called "Black Thursday."

Political Poster For Rioss Montt's Party

The Three Fingers Stand For "I Don't Steal, Lie, Or Abuse".  The "Added" Comments Translate To "Gay Theives!"

So far in this year's election he has promised farmers that he will give them free fertilizer, without telling them how to use it or testing soil to see if it will destroy the fertile ground of Guatemala.  In July, he "funded" a riot for his benefit.  The Guatemalan press reports that hundreds (if not thousands) of people stormed the Capitol building in support of Montt.  However, on closer inspection it was found that the crowd was made up of the very poor, who had been bussed to the Capitol, given a free lunch, and $100 Quetzales each (about $12) to scream and shout his name.  The result was vandalism, destruction, and one dead reporter who suffered a heart attack trying to flee the angry mob.  Here, the day is called "Black Thursday."

So, you're probably asking yourself, "Why would the poor support a man who fueled their oppression only 20 years ago?"  The answer is simple - education.  The government of Guatemala only funds education for children through the sixth grade.  Any further schooling is at the cost of the families, who often are struggling just to feed themselves.  There is no such thing as a grant or a loan.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac don't live here.  For this reason, the majority of Guatemalans lack adequate education, and nearly 35% can't read or write the national language, still speaking only their native Mayan tongue.  This is what Montt is exploiting. 

But... there is a silver lining.

Some people who have been hardened by injustice simply freeze.  They are paralyzed by oppression and begin to believe that nothing can change.  This does not describe the Guatemalans in a little-known rural area called Huehuetenango.

Two weeks ago, Rioss Montt was scheduled to give a firey campaign speech in a relatively small village - a place in the western highlands where Montt's reign had caused untold suffering and tragedy in the early 80's.  The people here have every reason to fear him.  Widows remember his armies, and orphans recall the day their parents "disappeared."  The current President of Guatemala is from Montt's party, and strongly supports him with government might.  Still, the will of a motivated public is stronger than fear.

Knowing that Montt's verbal promises might sway the opinions of those without the luxury of literacy or memory, the people of Huehuetenago formed a plan.  Though simple-living indigenous people, they banded together to insure that his words would not be heard.  

Montt's helicopter snaked through the green mountains on its way to the village.   As the chopper crested the final peak, the landing site came into view.  However, as the pilot scanned the area, he noticed something odd.  The flat plane that would be the copter's resting place was dotted with colorful spots.  From high above, the impressionistic painting was, in actuality, hundreds of Guatemalans in rainbow-colored traditional Mayan dress, flooding the landing zone.  The pilot tried time and again to touch down, yet the people would not be persuaded.  Though most measure less than 5' 4" tall, they stood firm, and Montt fled, red-faced.  Those who had been shaken to their core had finally won a battle against the one who fought to eradicate them.

The next day in the Prensa Libre (a Guatemalan periodical), Montt was quoted as saying that "high winds and clouds" made it impossible to land.  However, reporters on the scene noted that it may be the first time in recorded history that a group of people trumped God Almighty and changed the weather. 

So... what's the message here?  The election is still two months away and we don't know the outcome.  Montt is currently running a distant 3rd in the polls out of roughly a dozen candidates. Still, many think that Montt's ability to pay for votes as well as his propensity to take office by force may make the election a mute point.  Those who oppose him truly fear this potential outcome.  I share in their apprehension.

Whatever the outcome, there is a victory here.  In Huehuetenango you have a group of people whose core values could not be compromised.  You have a group of people who banded together to tackle a fierce opponent who seemed insurmountable.  You have a group of people who let their convictions take the lead in the battle between fear and fulfillment. 

Each of us faces a time in our lives when doing the right thing requires hard work and tough choices.  We shudder at the thought of taking a risk.  We're scared of what might be lost in the process.  It is these times when we should remember those colorfully dressed Mayans in that tiny mountain village and ask ourselves...

"What would you do if you weren't afraid?"