Punishing peace

DEC war by other meansWar by Other Means: Aftermath in Post-Genocide Guatemala
Edited by Carlota McAllister and Diane M Nelson
2013, Duke University Press
390 pages, paperback, plates

THERE is a strong desire to be optimistic running throughout the contributions this collection of essays about the highly complex legacies of Guatemala’s civil war, but this is repeatedly tempered by the harsh reality of the country’s current condition and the sense that any use of the term “aftermath” is premature and heavily loaded.

After a 36-year civil war that claimed 250,0000 lives and evolved into a genocidal scorched-earth state counterinsurgency campaign, this tortured country today does still not resemble anything like the stable, post-transition democracies found elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Guatemala is enduring a public security nightmare with a body count now as high as some of the worst periods of the war. Peasant farmers are still being violently evicted from their land, this time to make way for western agricultural priorities such as biofuel crops. Army generals are still in power, but this time through “democratic” elections. Perpetrators of genocide remain at large and the huge quasi-state structures of the region’s drug-trafficking cartels are spreading their tendrils throughout the structures of government and everyday life.

Given this condition, the editors insist that the recent period – a new constitution, the return to elections and civilian rule, peace accords, the return of refugees, and the work of truth commissions and UN peacekeepers – is best described as a “post-genocide” period to make it clear that the bloody events of the 1980s have not been overcome.

The book explores the war and postwar period itself and seeks to place the causes of the insurgency and state’s genocidal response against the indigenous Maya in a far longer period of complex colonial social and economic relations. Greg Grandin’s eloquent contribution, for example, situates the state’s brutal counterinsurgency structures within a 500-year Conquest history and the relationship between the state and the indigenous majority.

Contributors also look at the imposition of highly inappropriate US economic norms on a debilitated and divided society struggling to emerge from this catastrophic period, drawing attention to Washington’s uncompromising and blindly ignorant ideological motives for supporting mass murder in its indigenous backyard. They examine the role of the postwar forces in Guatemalan politics – the left, the right, the military – and the complex challenges facing those who campaign for racial equality and an end to de facto apartheid.

An important feature of this book is how the essays both engage with a new generation of Guatemalans who have come of age in the aftermath of war and genocide but also, and unlike similar North American collections, include Guatemalan scholars themselves such as Matilde González-Izás and Jorge Ramón González Ponciano, whose work is made available here for the first time in English.

Within the large corpus of detailed and often introverted scholarship about Guatemala, one often struggles to ask what lessons can be learned from this persecuted country and applied elsewhere in an effort to ensure that it is not dealt with as a sui generis case and that the forces at play can be understood as the same forces shaping weak, ethnically divided and colonised societies everywhere.

The editors of this book have ensured that there are some answers in it, and point out from the outset that their label “post-genocide” for the so-called transitionary period approximates the notion of the postcolonial, where nominal independence can hide ongoing subordination.

This approximation is valuable to anyone coming to the study of this small country for the first time, and is precisely how scholars should now be developing the implications of the Guatemalan condition for a wider audience.

That the indigenous people of Guatemala have suffered a unique scourge in our lifetimes is beyond doubt, but their experience needs to be placed in a more global and comparative context that can enable it to be compared with that of other peoples oppressed by a state in the hands of a minority racial elite allied to an imperial power and advancing an alien capitalism.

The violent enclosure form of rural exploitation by ethnically dominant elites of a highland culture, for example, is not unlike that which occurred in Ireland and Scotland hundreds of years ago, and both countries are still struggling to achieve a complete statehood today. Such comparisons draw attention, above all, to the long duration of the postcolonial condition and hence to the real contingency of such terms as “aftermath”.

Given this, Guatemala may, in fact, offer contemporary lessons that cast light on why small countries with post-colonial societies continue to find it so hard to move forward, and how they remain divided by deep-rooted perspectives that hark back to a previous era.

Such work could build on the real sense of solidarity with the long-suffering Guatemalan people that can be found throughout this book and mean, ultimately, that the message is coloured by hopefulness, if not hope.