4. Empowering the Oppressed – The Mayas


The territory of modern Guatemala once formed the core of the Maya civilization of the highlands. Most of the country was conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century, becoming part of the vice royalty of New Spain. Guatemala attained independence in 1821 as part of the Federal Republic of Central America, which dissolved in 1841.

The largest Mayan ethnic groups are the K’iché, Q’eqchi, Mam, Ixil, Uspantek, Chuj and others who live mostly in the central and western highlands of Guatemala. Brightly colored clothes of the Mayas living there represent their local village and ethnic group. The Maya religion is Roman Catholicism combined with the indigenous Maya religion to form the unique syncretic religion which prevailed throughout the country and still does in the rural regions prior to 2010s of “orthodoxing” the western rural areas by Christian Orthodox missionaries, mostly coming from the United States. The new Protestant ideology completely eliminates traditional Maya religious beliefs in its adherents. Another US attack on traditional Maya life.

The social classes in Guatemala were similar to what has been described for Mexico, except that the indigenous Mayas were and still are a majority in the country. The ruling criollo class has never been more than 18% of the whole population and is to some extent mixed with Indian blood. The mestizos are also populous but within their class are often counted Mayas who have relocated to the cities and sometimes taken up the mestizo identity to ease their lives. Add to that the strong influence of the conservative Catholic Church which has overwhelmingly supported the criollos cause.

After the 1871 revolution in Guatemala, the new Liberal government under president Barrios, escalated coffee production in the country. This however required much land and many workers. To find the people needed for the work, Barrios established the Settler Rule Book, which forced the native population to a near enslavement to work for low wages for the landowners, who were criollos and later German settlers. The government also confiscated common native lands. It became a practice for ensuing governments to be very accommodating to mostly US companies seeking opportunities in Guatemala. Getting huge swaths of public lands for free and paying no taxes to the state. Secret payments were instead paid to government officials. The most famous of these companies is undoubtedly the United Fruit Company (UFCO). In 1931 president and fascist Ubico set laws that allowed UFCO to enslave poor peasants to work in their fields and kill those that resisted the enslavement.

Guatemala endured a bloody and brutal civil war from 1960 to 1996, after a US supported coup d’état in 1954. The underlying causes lay in the above mentioned scandalous foreign enterprises and their terrible effects on mostly poor Mayan peasants. The US Monroe Doctrine from the 1890s called for an increased US influence in Latin American countries and forcing out of European competitors. This resulted in unwavering support of US governments to military dictators in Guatemala and elsewhere in Latin America who replaced democratically elected governments with military dictators. US strategic thinking was that if a leftist government managed to control one country in Latin America, the US backyard, then other countries would inevitably fall under leftist influence and the Soviets would get a foothold on the American continent. The Domino Effect Theory in practice.

In Campeche.

Military, paramilitary and security police members were trained by the US in the infamous School of the Americas in Georgia. After returning home they put their training to use by torturing, terrorizing and murdering those deemed to be opposing the rule of right wing governments. The old elite criollo guard, now mixed with recent German immigrant landowner class, supported these right wing governments who resisted any change in the Guatemalan social order. Their critics, stamped rightly or wrongly as leftist sympathizers, that managed to evade the political cleansing, went underground and soon started a guerrilla movement to survive and resist the persecutions. Finding a fertile ground among the majority Maya populations who had endured merciless oppression for centuries, they organized and started fighting back against the military junta. Lacking logistic and military support, the guerrilla movement, which never numbered more than 6,000 men, faced governmental forces of more than 550,000 soldiers and paramilitaries, organized, trained and equipped by the US, Israel and other countries. At one point in the war in May 29th, 1978, the Guatemalan army committed a massacre of 100 Q’eqchi’ Mayans in Panzos in Alta Verapaz department, in the hotly contested Ixil Triangle.

The bloody and brutal civil war and the cruelty by the army, police and intelligence services against overwhelmingly innocent Mayan peasants and poor people in general, was in reality an ethnic cleansing and genocidal murder. The violence was mostly committed by state agents against perceived opponents. It is estimated that 93% of the violence was committed by government forces. Forced disappearances to get rid of undesirable peoples was widespread throughout the country. Up to 200,000 people disappeared or were killed by state agents during the whole conflict. Whole villages and countrysides were slaughtered on a genocidal scale. Most of the violence was concentrated in the western part of the country where the majority of the Mayas live. More than 440 villages were destroyed in a campaign to destroy the Maya people and eliminate the country of its indigenous heritage. This started with the presidency of dictator Efraín Rios Montt 1982-83. This genocidal campaign resulted in the drastic reduction of the official Maya population of the 1980s of 60% of the Guatemalan population, to 40% as it is in 2015. Many Mayas fled to the cities from the countryside simply to survive. Many of them lost their identity there.

International outrage put increasing pressure on the government to seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The end of the Cold War in 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union helped in this regard as US interests now shifted away from Latin America. This resulted in a peace agreement signed in 1996, after more than 36 years of conflict. Former president and army general of Guatemala from 1982-83, Efraín Rios Montt, was prosecuted in 2013 for his part in the genocidal war, the massacre of 1,700 Ixil Mayas. Although convicted in the first round, that trial was declared a judicial anomaly a few days later. It wasn’t until 2015 that trial was resumed. Although international organizations and indigenous activist groups are continuing to shed light on the atrocities and exhuming mass graves, justice for the victims and their relatives, families and friends is unlikely to become a reality in Guatemala. The shadow of the perpetrators is too strong as they mostly live as free men in the country and exercise a considerable influence behind the scenes. The present and past governments come mostly from the elite upper class of criollos. A wall of silence and inactivity has been erected as the criollos themselves are guilty of encouraging and supporting the genocide.

Since the 1996 peace accords, the Mayas have been able to organize their rights struggle and revitalize their culture. In 1985 the Academy of Mayan Languages of Guatemala (ALMG) was created. The recognition of ALMG as an autonomous institution funded by the government was a major achievement for Mayan self-representation. The ALMG is a Pan-Mayan institution represented by the 21 Mayan linguistic communities in Guatemala. The new political Mayan movements and their Pan-Mayan stance has sometimes contrasted with the traditional village and language group focus of the older people. Such a contrast is to be expected considering how long the Mayan majority has been suppressed in Guatemala. The people only had the village authority as their only representation in the Mayan reality. Other higher level agents were representatives of the ruling class who despised them and whose major role was to suppress and eliminate their traditional culture and way of life. The ALMG’s role as a Pan-Mayan movement has brought the Maya identity to all walks of modern day life for ordinary Mayans. It is no longer an empty metaphor for related languages and similar cultural practices, used mostly by scholars, Maya today has a more fuller meaning as representing real life people.

The salt fields near Mérida in Mexico.

Another important development in the Maya awakening was the Assembly of Civil Society (ACS), which pushed indigenous issues on the table for discussions between the army and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), one of the largest guerrilla movements that after the peace accords formed a legal political party. More recently, the formation of the Truth Commission (Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico de Guatemala), with the participation of Mayan intellectuals, have been called to rewrite Mayan history.

Increased freedoms means that Mayas have been able to participate in the political process in Guatemala. They have however been unable to focus their powers into parties that could provide some rights for their people. The ruling parties have paradoxically gotten too many of their votes, even though these same parties are not interested in Mayan representatives. Even though the political development has stalled, on the cultural level things have been progressing quietly but firmly. On cultural, linguistic, political, and religious levels, the different Mayan nations are unifying in a Pan-Mayan movement. This increased self awareness, pride and autonomy in recent years is what academics are calling ‘Mayanness’. For the Mayas themselves the end goal is to create a pluralistic and democratic multi-ethnic Guatemalan state.

Cultural tourism has helped local economies but has sometimes mixed effect on traditional culture. Tourists want spectacular things to see and sometimes they are simply invented to satisfy demands. Among Maya leaders in Guatemala today is Rigoberta Menchú, a Kiche Maya political activist. Radio stations now exist that broadcast partly or wholly in Maya languages. The ruling class tries to halt all these developments. Whether they can keep that up in the future only time can tell. The Mayas have managed to break the ice and smell the free air. For them there is no going back. Or, to quote one of Rigoberta Menchú’s most favorite lines:

“We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle or zoos. We are people and we want to be respected, not to be victims of intolerance and racism.” – Rigoberta Menchú, 1992

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