Home Sociology Balancing the World: Contemporary Maya ajq’ijab in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala
A violent history
The history of the Guatemalan state starts 15 September 1821, when the Spanish colony revolted and declared itself independent. However, true independency was not achieved until 1839 - until then, Guatemala was first annexed by Mexico for two years, and thereafter a part of the Federal Republic of Central America.
The newly founded independence brought new problems. Freedom was won by a military coup d’etat by Rafael Carrera, who then proceeded to rule Guatemala until his death in 1865. A highly militarised state was to be the norm, and Guatemala would be ruled by dictators, mostly military, for the next 80 years.
Guatemala had been part of Spain for nearly 300 years, and though the Spanish crown no longer had any power, the Catholic Church was a major influence on politics and daily life.  If the military controlled national politics, then the Catholic cofradtas, ‘saint-cults' can be said to have controlled local politics.
In 1944, the dictator Jorge Ubico was overthrown in the so-called Guatemalan October Revolution by a “movement for democracy,” led by students and reformers.11 Elections were held, and one of the leaders of the revolution, the teacher Juan Jose Arevalo, became the next president. He, and his successor Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, implemented a series of reforms, including agrarian reforms. The agrarian reforms gave the Guatemalan state the right to take and redistribute uncultivated land. A lot of the Guatemalan land was owned by companies from the USA, especially United Fruit Company. This threat against US interests, combined with the fact that Arbenz legalized the communist party, led the CIA to stage a coup in 1954, inserting right wing military general Carlos Castillo Armas as president and ending the period which later has become known as “Guatemala’s ten years of spring” This was the first of several coups arranged by the US in Latin America during the Cold War.
The 1954 coup led to a lot of political turmoil, and 1960 saw a military uprising by leftist activists as a reaction to the new oppressive regime. Many of the activists were called arbencistas, supporters of Arbenz and the reforms he had tried to implement. They formed the first Cold War guerrilla group in Guatemala, Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes, and this is seen as the start of Guatemala’s bloody civil war. The US government continued its intervention through the de facto dictatorship of Guatemala at the time; as Grandin, Levenson and Oglesby write:
In turn, Washington stepped up its provision of equipment, training, and financing to security forces, even as repression grew ferocious. In 1966, US advisors set up and trained a death squad that kidnapped and assassinated more than thirty opposition leaders, many of them arbencistas. This marked the inauguration - well before Chile, Argentina, or El Salvador - of political “disappearance” as Latin America’s signature act of state terror. The following year, the Guatemalan military, with significant assistance from the US military, launched its first scorched-earth campaign, killing about eight thousand civilians in order to defeat an estimated three hundred guerrillas. In an important way, these events of the 1960s - more than the 1954 overthrow of Arbenz - signaled the point of no return for Guatemala, after which the state and its henchmen, with support from the United States, committed mass terror to defend its interests.
36 years would pass before peace accords were signed and the civil war officially ended in December 1996. The so-called scorched-earth campaigns were a recurring atrocity in these years, with the short reign of General Efrain Rios Montt in 1982-1983 generally regarded as one of the worst periods. At the time of my writing, he is being tried for war crimes and genocide in Guatemala, partially based on the findings of the Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH), which was established following the peace accords.
The Commission has documented 669 massacres, and found that 83% of the victims were Maya. Because this is a much greater proportion than the ethnic distribution of Maya, CEH concluded that the massacres were “directed
systematically against Maya population groups [...] with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, those groups.” Although Grandin raises some doubt as to whether the massacres actually were racially motivated, they were nonetheless perceived as such by large parts of the population.
In recent years, the newfound peace and the uncovering of atrocities against the Maya population has led to the establishment of several Maya movements and organisations, set to revive Maya culture and restore pride in being Maya. In addition to focusing on the atrocities of the civil war, the rhetoric of these revivalists often highlights a discrimination against the indigenous population dating back to the Spanish conquest. The groups range from sociopolitical groups such as the Pan-Maya Movement to smaller groups focusing on art, science and history. Most of my interviewees belong to such a group, focused on what they call “Maya perspectives” on science, politics, history and spirituality.
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