Social Context

About Xela

Proyecto Lingüístico Quetzalteco de Español (PLQ) is located in the highland city of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Quetzaltenango (more commonly called Xela, pronounced “Shay-la”) is Guatemala’s second largest city and is located in the heart of the Sierra Madre mountains, 2,330 meters (7,652 feet) above sea level. It has an estimated population of 225,000. The population is about 61% indigenous and 34% mestizo or ladino. The Santa Maria volcano (3,772 meters tall) watches over the town. Days are warm and breezy, and evenings are cool, becoming chilly during the winter months between December and February.18151915

Queltzaltenango is characterized by colonial-era buildings, quiet parks, plazas, open-air markets, and narrow stone-paved streets. It is the home of four universities, several technical schools, a sports complex, and a municipal arts theater, as well as several Latin American poets, painters, and writers. PLQ is located in Zona 1, on 5a Calle, a short walk from the Parque Central. In Zona 1, there are numerous restaurants, bars, cafes and internet centers; in short, everything you need to relax, meet people, and stay in touch with your friends and family back home. There are two alternative cinemas in town which feature a range of English and Spanish language movies. Further out of the center are two larger markets, and even a few shopping malls and mainstream movie theatres.

182913_487959707953494_714241848_nThere are plenty of things to do within easy reach of Quetzaltenango. Perhaps the most famous destination is Fuentes Georginas, a series of volcanic hot spring pools set in the mountainous rainforest. Those who want to soak longer than an afternoon may stay the night in one of the bungalows near the hot springs. Zunil, a town at the foothills of the volcano that feeds the Georginas, is famous for its devotion to the Mayan/Catholic deity Maximon. The town is also home to a woman-run weaving cooperative. On the other side of Quetzaltenango is the pueblo of Salcaja, renowned for its textile production and for its Cathedral, the oldest in Guatemala. A bit further away is the Laguna de Chicabal, a beautiful nature reserve and lake nestled in temperate forests. PLQ also arranges weekly trips to places of cultural and social interest, such as the community radio station in Santiago de Atitlan, or centers of traditional medicine located in outlying villages.

About Guatemala

The Maya

The first evidence of human settlers in Guatemala goes back to at least 12,000 BC. Archaeologists divide the pre-Columbian history of Mesoamerica into 3 periods: The Classic period of Mesoamerican civilization (250-900AD) corresponds to the height of the Maya civilization, and is represented by countless sites throughout Guatemala, although the largest concentration is in Petén. This period is characterized by heavy city-building, the development of independent city-states, and contact with other Mesoamerican cultures. These complex societies incorporated artisans, architects, merchants, warriors, priest astronomers, experts of medicine, mathematicians, and farmers. For unknown reasons, these major cities were abandoned around 900 A.D. The most popular theory is that the region suffered a series of droughts that devastated production and caused the abandonment of the huge cities.Tikal-Guatemala-2
The Post-Classic period is represented by regional kingdoms which preserved many aspects of Mayan culture, but would never equal the size or power of the Classic cities.
Hernán Cortés, who had led the Spanish conquest of Mexico, granted a permit to Captains Gonzalo de Alvarado and his brother, Pedro de Alvarado, to conquer this land in the 1520s. Alvarado at first allied himself with the Cakchiquel nation to fight against their traditional rivals the Quiché nation. Alvarado later turned against the Cakchiquels, and eventually held the entire region under Spanish domination.maya1.2280152_std
It is estimated that two thirds of the Guatemalan population died within the first 75 years of the Spanish occupation due to massacres, forced labor, hunger and diseases brought by the conquistadores from Europe. A racial hierarchy was established that held “criollos” (European descendents) on top, “ladinos” (mixed blood) in the middle, and the indigenous majority at the bottom. In transferring land, the encomienda system was used, which meant that the purchaser of the land received not only the land itself but also all the indigenous workers. Effectively, the indigenous people were sold as slaves. Their slavery was increased by a system of indebtedness, under which the finca owners would lend money to their indigenous workers to buy clothes or alcohol for a festive occasion, and the workers would then be required to pay it back by rendering extra days’ labor.
Spain expressly forbid in its colonies the creation of a local manufacturing industry that could compete with imported products from Spain. Spain wanted to maximize its profits; this meant importing raw materials from the colonies and then exporting to them manufactured goods. The major export crops grown by the Spanish were cacao (used for making chocolate), añil (indigo) and cochineal (used as clothes dyes), and these were grown on large haciendas.

Independence from Spain in 1821

On September 15, 1821, the Captaincy-general of Guatemala (formed by Chiapas, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Honduras) officially proclaimed its independence from Spain and its incorporation into the Mexican Empire, which was dissolved two years later. All but Chiapas then formed the Central American Federation (Federacion de Estados Centroamericanos). That federation dissolved in civil war from 1838 to 1840, and Guatemala became a separate country.

Independence from Spain in many ways worsened the conditions for the indigenous majorities, in that the landowning criollo (descendents from Spanish) and ladino (mix of Spanish and indigenous descent) elites began to expropriate what little communal lands had been left to the indigenous peoples by the Spanish, and Mayas were further enslaved to work that land.

The invention of artificial dyes meant the collapse of cochineal and indigo as an export crops. Substitutes were found in coffee sugarcane and bananas, and large extensions of land were granted to Germans in order to cultivate coffee for export, always relying on the cheap indigenous labor force, many of whom had to emigrate from the altiplano each year to work on the fincas.

Guatemala then passed through a series of dictatorships, perhaps the most brutal of which were those of Manual Estrada Cabrera (1898-1930) and General Jorge Ubico (1930-1944). During his regime, Cabrera granted the U.S.-owned United Fruit Company 40 percent of the country’s most fertile land, as well as control over Guatemala’s only real port – Puerto Barrios. Through the port concession, UFCO could control nearly all Guatemalan trade. UFCO also gained control over most of Guatemala’s railways, communication systems and electricity production, earning the epithet “the Octopus,” as it extended its tentacles into, and dominated, all aspects of Guatemala’s most vital production activities.

While in office, Ubico established a repressive secret police force and reinstituted the vagrancy laws under which all peasants owning fewer than 10 acres of land were forced to work 90 days each year, unpaid. He continued Cabrera’s release of national property to foreign interests.

The Democratic Spring

In 1944, the “October Revolutionaries,” a group of dissident military officers, students and liberal professionals overthrew General Ubico. They called elections and in 1945, a civilian, Juan José Arevalo, became the first democratically-elected president in Guatemala, winning more than 70% of the votes. He initiated a series of unprecedented social reforms, including the dissolution of the secret police and vagrancy laws; the legalization of labor unions and political parties; the creation of national literacy programs, farm cooperatives, and voter registration drives; legal reforms that declared men and women equal before the law; the criminalization of racial discrimination; and the establishment of the nation’s first social security and health care systems.

Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán – another democratically-elected reformist president – succeeded Arevalo, winning 65% of the votes on March 15, 1951. Arbenz continued to create a more open society, strengthening labor protections and extending suffrage even further, eventually legalizing the Communist party in 1952.

However, his most important advances involved land distribution. In 1950, two percent of the landowners in Guatemala controlled 70 percent of the nation’s arable land. Arbenz’ agrarian reform was approved in 1952 with Decree 900, which empowered the government to expropriate only uncultivated portions of large plantations. Farms smaller than 223 acres were not subject to this law. Nor were those of 223-670 acres of which at least two thirds were cultivated. Fully worked farms of any size could not be expropriated.

In case of expropriation, the government would pay with twenty-five-year government bonds at a 3% interest rate. The value of a parcel of land was to be determined from its declared taxable worth as of May 1952. The expropriated lands would be distributed only to landless peasants in plots not bigger than 42.5 acres each.

The Agrarian Reform managed to give 1.5 million acres to around 100,000 families
With 550,000 acres of land, only 15% of which was actively being cultivated, United Fruit was the largest landowner in Guatemala. Since the company had undervalued its property for decades in order to avoid taxes, it was not eligible to receive the higher compensation shareholders believed their due. When Arbenz expropriated 400,000 of United Fruit’s lands, the company turned to its connections in the U.S. government.

CIA-led Coup

With strong ties to the Eisenhower administration, including three major shareholders, (UN Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and head of the CIA Allen Dulles), United Fruit executives took advantage of the anti-Communist fervor of the time.

In 1954, the CIA led a full spectrum coup, isolating Guatemala diplomatically, working with U.S. businesses to create an economic crisis, and manipulating Guatemalan public opinion. The reports escalated to the point of inventing military skirmishes and exaggerating the numbers of “Liberation Army” troops prepared to march on the capital and save Guatemala; in fact, the CIA was training a ragtag group of a few hundred mercenary troops in Honduras. CIA planes were convincing, however, as they conducted air raids, bombed strategic targets, and created a fearful frenzy. Led by Guatemalan Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, the U.S.-sponsored mercenaries invaded from Honduras. Fearing overwhelming retribution from the United States, the Guatemalan military did not leave its barracks to defend the Arbenz administration. Seemingly outnumbered and outgunned, Arbenz resigned and fled the country.

Castillo Armas took power and undid most of the reforms of the Arbenz and Arevalo governments, in particular reversing the land reform program and returning to United Fruit the land previously expropriated from it. His regime also began a period of repression of opponents and dissidents, targeting in particular trade unionists and opposition politicians. This provoked discontent, including among more progressive ranks of the military, which spilled out into open rebellion in November 1960 with the first armed revolutionary. Three principal left-wing rural guerrilla groups, the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP), the Revolutionary Organization of Armed People (ORPA), and the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR), conducted economic sabotage and targeted government installations and members of government security forces in armed attacks. These three organizations, along with the outlawed communist party, known as the PGT, combined to form the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) in 1982.

The Worst Years of the Conflict

During this time period there was intense selective repression, directed against trade union leaders and activists, university professors, teachers, progressive intellectuals, student leaders and activists, and progressive lawyers. Members of these groups were disappeared, tortured, and often their bodies would later appear on city streets, usually horribly mutilated. In the late 1970s and early 1980s this repression was broadened to include whole communities and regions in rural areas.

According to the UN-sponsored Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification. more than 200,000 mainly indigenous peoples were killed by State forces, 1.5 million were internally and externally displaced and over 440 villages razed in the 36-year internal war, with the military responsible for more than 93% of all human rights violations. Both former dictators Romeo Lucas García (1978-1982) and Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-1983) have been charged with genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity for their alleged role in planning these atrocities.

The U.S. played a key role in supporting the repressive regimes. Guatemalan graduates of the School of the Americas were directly responsible for many of the gross human rights violations committed during the internal armed conflict. Most Guatemalan officers still are trained in the US Army School of the Americas in counterinsurgency tactics. (SOA changed its name: WHINSEC, Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Fort Benning-Georgia).

In 1980, a group of indigenous K’iche’ took over the Spanish Embassy to protest army massacres in the countryside. The Guatemalan government claimed that the activists set the fire to the building and immolated themselves. However, the Spanish ambassador, who survived the fire claimed that the Guatemalan police intentionally killed almost everyone inside and set the fire to erase traces of their acts.

In 1985 the Army decided that the civilian government could return to power, but with the army still firmly in control. Peace negotiations began in 1989, finally leading to the signing of the peace accords in Dec. 1996.

Post-Peace Accords

November 1999 brought victory for the FRG whose presidential candidate, Alfonso Portillo Cabrera. Following were four years characterized by escalating State violence against human rights defenders and journalists. Oscar Berger of the Grand National Alliance coalition (GANA), which consists of three rightwing political parties, claimed victory in the 2003 presidential elections, although the FRG continued to maintain the highest numbers in Congress, followed by GANA. Since that time, political power in the country has been held continuously by right-wing politicians linked to big businesses and human rights abuses.

There is peace on paper, but the reasons for starting the war have not changed. Poverty in Guatemala is widespread and severe. 62% live in poverty with an income of $2 dollars per day and 20% live in extreme poverty making less than $1 dollar per day. Half of the population is illiterate, 49% of children suffer from malnutrition and infant mortality is high. Only 25% of the population has secure employment, most live in the informal sector of the economy as street vendors and shoe shiners. There is a huge lack of access to education and health care. The poverty is much more rampant in the countryside affecting primarily the indigenous population.

More Information

Plaza Pública – independent, analytical Guatemalan digital newspaper
Albedrío – a compilation of news, opinion, and communiqués
Argenpress – excellent Argentinian compilation of Guatemala news
Prensa Libre – daily newspaper
El Periodico – daily newspaper
Siglo XXI – daily newspaper
La Hora – afternoon newspaper
Emisoras Unidas – radio station with internet broadcast
Radio Sonora – radio station
Noti7 – television news station

Upside Down World – covering activism and politics in Latin America
Rights Action – human rights and community development NGO with excellent news alerts
The Narco News Bulletin – Latin America-wide drug war news and analysis (in English and Spanish)
BBC – the most recent headlines related to Guatemala

Revue – Guatemala’s monthly English-language magazine, viewable in .pdf format
Map of Guatemala
INGUAT – Guatemala’s official tourism commission
Center for Disease Control

Amnesty International USA – Guatemala page
FHRG – Foundation for Human Rights in Guatemala, Chicago
Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA
Guatemala Scholars Network – academics and professionals researching Guatemala
Guatemala Solidarity Network – Based in London, England
Hesperian Foundation – promote community health care
Human Rights Watch – Guatemala page
LAWG – Latin Ameica Working Group
NISGUA – Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala

CALDH – Center for Human Rights Legal Action
EntreMundos – Based in Xela. Provides news, volunteer resources, and more
Gente Positiva – serves those with HIV/AIDS

CIA and Assassinations – The Guatemala 1954 Documents
Guatemala Death Squad Dossier
Guatemala Documentation Project – declassified National Security Archive files
Sex Discrimination in the Guatemalan Labor Force – a HRW report
U.S. Policy in Guatemala:1966-1996 – Kate Doyle and Carlos Osorio

El Movimiento – Klaus Schoenwiese
Our Culture is Our Resistance – Jonathan Moller