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Home arrow Sociology arrow 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.[1] 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.[2]

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.[3]

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.[4] [5] 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.[6] 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.[7]

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:[8]

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.[9]

The Commission has documented 669 massacres, and found that 83% of the victims were Maya.[10] 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.”[11] Although Grandin[12] 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.[13] 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.[14]

  • [1] Guatemala was not alone in this. Several of the surrounding countries also gainedtheir independence at this time. Cf. Manuel Lucena Salmoral, Atlas historico de Lati-noamerica: desde la prehistoria al siglo XXI, Atlas historicos (Madrid: Editorial Sinte-sis, 2005): 147.
  • [2] Initially known as the United Provinces of Central America, the Federation consistedof the present-day states of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Greg Grandin, Deborah T. Levenson, and Elizabeth Oglesby, eds., The Guatemala Reader: History, Culture, Politics, The Latin America Readers (Durham, NC:Duke University Press, 2011), 107 f.
  • [3] Grandin, Levenson, and Oglesby, Guatemala Reader, 108-110. See also Lucena Sal-moral, Atlas de Latinoamerica; Manuel Lucena Salmoral, Breve historia de Latinoame-rica: de la independencia de Haiti (1804) a los caminos de la socialdemocracia, 2 ed.(Madrid: Catedra, 2010); Grandin, Blood of Guatemala; Martinez Pelaez, Patria delCriollo.
  • [4] Grandin, Levenson, and Oglesby, Guatemala Reader, 107.
  • [5] Lucena Salmoral, Atlas de Latinoamerica: 213 f; Grandin, Levenson, and Oglesby,Guatemala Reader, 197.
  • [6] Among the other reforms were the implementations of 8 hour workdays, minimumwages and the right to go on strike. Lucena Salmoral, Historia de Latinoamerica:281-283.
  • [7] Grandin, Levenson, and Oglesby, Guatemala Reader, 197-200; Lucena Salmoral, Historia de Latinoamerica: 281-283; Lucena Salmoral, Atlas de Latinoamerica: 213 f.
  • [8] Grandin, Levenson, and Oglesby, Guatemala Reader, 199 f.
  • [9] The trial of Rios Montt is, per July 2014, on hold, and scheduled to resume in January 2015. Rios Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity andsentenced to 80 years in jail in May 2013. However, this conviction was quicklyannulled by the Guatemalan constitutional court due to illegal proceedings in thelast month of the trial. Will Grant, “Guatemala annuls Rios Montt’s genocide conviction” BBC News, 21.05.2013, Accessed 22.07.2014,; “Guatemala Rios Montt genocide trial to resumein 2015” BBC News, 06.11.2013, Accessed 22.07.2014,
  • [10] Commission for Historical Clarification, “Acts of genocide,” in The GuatemalaReader: History, Culture, Politics, edited by Greg Grandin, Deborah T. Levenson, andElizabeth Oglesby, The Latin America Readers (Durham, NC: Duke University Press,2011), 386.
  • [11] Commission for Historical Clarification, “Acts of Genocide,” 391.
  • [12] Grandin, Blood of Guatemala: 222.
  • [13] Grandin, Levenson, and Oglesby, Guatemala Reader, 501-544; Lucena Salmoral, His-toria de Latinoamerica: 349 f. Manuel Lucena Salmoral points out that the emergenceof popular indigenous movements is a recent phenomenon in several countries ofLatin America. Lucena Salmoral, Atlas de Latinoamerica: 249 f.
  • [14] I refer to this group as “Manuel’s group” for the purposes of this project. I will presentit below.
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