Genocide and empire

The Origins and Dynamics of Genocide: Political Violence in Guatemala
Roddy Brett
2015, Palgrave Macmillan
249 pages, paperback

WE LIKE to think of imperialism as a stage in history, a military prerogative of expansive elites hungry for surplus resources and territory to colonise, even a distinct style of domination that some powers reproduce yet others fail to.

All relatively self-contained ideas, imagined geographies that are easy to package, insert within grand narratives, and then ascribe to given historical moments – labels applied to discrete polities past and present that can be used to describe, condemn or absolve.

And, in the English-speaking world, a phenomenon that we have left behind.

The intellectual legacy of imperialism, however, is impossible to dismiss. If imperialism was or is anything, it was or is a state of mind that has contaminated the way we look at the world, essentialising other inhabitants and thereby creating the cultural and psychological distance that is required to dispossess and eliminate them.

It is this psychological distance and its crude reflection in diverse forms of deep, deadly racism that, in the case of the Guatemalan genocide, can help to explain both phenomenon and epiphenomenon: the genocide itself, and how we subsequently ignored it.

As Roddy Brett points out so astutely in The Origins and Dynamics of Genocide, the mass murder of indigenous people in Guatemala’s highlands between 1981 and 1983 under then President General Romeo Lucas García and de facto president General Efraín Ríos Montt had deep historical roots. This explicitly genocidal strategy to exterminate the guerrilla’s alleged base of support within indigenous and peasant communities may have been a contemporary reflection of a Cold War that had turned hot, but the psychology in which it originated harked back to colonial times.

As important, however, was that the invisibility of these heinous crimes outside Guatemala also lies in the complex legacy of imperialism – much closer to home. At a societal level, we turn a blind eye to the slaughter of non-European peoples, because to recognise their full humanity would compromise the edifice of empire that continues to define who we (think we) are: vessels of a superior, rational order. Civilisation.

The fact of the matter is that Guatemala’s murderous military regime was not a vassal of empire, but a reflection of it. This was another phase in the incomplete endeavour of Conquest, one with its origins firmly in Europe. And we continue to rationalise the social, cultural, political, and economic control of “other”, non-white peoples in the same, tired old ways while effusively denying that we do so. It is as evident in our muted response to the collateral carnage caused by Anglo-US bombing in Syria as it is in our muted response to demands by the Kikuyu for justice 70 years after the vicious Mau Mau war.

Save for a few noble exceptions such as Brett, who helped gather evidence for the investigation against Guatemala’s military as part of a team of lawyers and social scientists, the Euro-American academy and public intellectuals largely overlooked what happened in this small, tortured Central American country, so mired were they in their condition: a phenomenon that Edward Said was, ironically, writing about at about the same time as the genocide itself. To Washington, Guatemala only mattered insofar as it formed part of a bigger imperial calculation. While Ríos Montt made the headlines when he was sentenced to 80 years in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity, few noticed when he was subsequently absolved by Guatemala’s court system shortly afterwards.

Brett writes: “Intriguingly, until the trial of Montt briefly echoed across news channels throughout the world in April and May 2013, only to disappear as quickly as it had materialised, Guatemala’s genocide had been so hidden that few academics whose focus lay outside of Latin America had even bothered to refer to or to research it. Concerningly, in fact, its invisibility within the practitioner sphere remains obstinate and disquieting …” [p12]

The Origins and Dynamics of Genocide is an important and ambitious book that helps to fill some of these gaps. It will influence scholarship for some time, not least because it shines a light on such an opaque period but also because it seeks so ardently and candidly to explain what happened and to understand it.

Scholars can take many things from this book – Brett’s mastery of his subject is such that this is likely to become a definitive work of reference that explores key questions about the changing nature of political violence and how this can culminate in genocide. He has been researching Guatemala since 1994, in particular the Ixcán and Ixil regions in the department of El Quiché, and worked as an as investigator contributing to research compiled by the Centre for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH) and the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR) for a witness report to support prosecutions of the military.

But to this reader the most interesting insights relate to the historical roots of the military’s grotesque violence, founded in an ideology of racism and nation-building that reiterated an ancient imperial narrative. Brett describes the emergence of the “indian-subversive” representing a latent and incendiary threat to the Guatemalan elite, and how their genocidal response was fuelled by fear of indigenous sedition combining with communist subversion.

It is interesting to note that similar fears of a caste war were growing in Peru at this time as the Maoist Sendero Luminoso began to prosecute its own prolonged popular war – an overwhelmingly indigenous organisation threatening to encircle and choke the cities (ie white, capitalist civilisation). It is also notable that in both Guatemala and Peru the ends of these terrible wars opened new spaces for the discussion of the rights and identities of the “irredeemable” and inherently dangerous indigenous masses.

Brett writes: “It has been my contention throughout this book that the image of the indigenous population in Guatemala had, since the colonial encounter, been wrought through the figure of the abhorrent other within the discourse and imaginary of the primary political community. Of primitive and slovenly race, the ‘indian’, a pejorative term used to refer to indigenous peoples, represented an obstacle to the country’s modernisation, yet ‘indian’ marginalisation and invisibility, however much an impediment, had to be maintained indefinitely in order to preserve the economic interests and political power of the non-indigenous, primary political community.” [p215]

The great tragedy of Guatemala was that in the context of Ronald Reagan’s second Cold War the complex, messy conditions of the era ripened for genocide, empowering the military to target indigenous and ladino peasants as the real enemy and begin its murderous campaign of ethnic cleansing.

The author writes: “In a country where, since the colonial era, the indigenous had suffered a history of exonerated slaughter, the imminent military threat posed by the guerrilla, forged through the historical menace of the seditious, excluded ‘indian’, threatened to obliterate the values of civilisation that the primary political community believed itself to represent.” [p217]