Uncomfortable antidote

The American lawyer Jennifer Harbury experienced at first hand the murderous horror unleashed by the US-backed military in Guatemala


Bridge of Courage
Jennifer Harbury
1994, AK Press
265 pages

Reviewed by Jay Kerr

THERE is no better antidote to the reading of a dry historical text that fails to engage the reader fully in the atmosphere of an era than delving into the personal testimonies of people actually there at the time, even more so if those accounts are reportage: recounted as they are being lived. Bridge of Courage is such a book.

The history of Guatemala in the 20th century is one of struggle and sorrow, a turbulent existence laid out in Noam Chomsky’s excellent introduction.

Chomsky describes a “culture of fear”, sponsored by the US government, that dates back to the 1930s. Some 70 years of violence, murder and bloodshed stain Guatemala’s history and Chomsky surmises that the cause of this horror traces back to policies in Washington.

Guatemala’s brief period of stability and growth came in 1944 when a corrupt dictatorship was overthrown and the country “entered a decade of democracy and growth” with the economic and social reform designed to benefit Guatemalan society as a whole, including the poor.

As Chomsky notes, this new form of governance “won few accolades in Washington, where it was understood that the ‘first beneficiaries’ [of Guatemalan resources] should be US investors”. Furthermore, Washington feared this new economic nationalism that benefited the people might spread across the region and destabilise the region, threatening US investment.

Union leaders targeted

After a blockade was imposed on Guatemala a US-backed coup was staged in 1954 that saw some 8,000 peasants killed in two months of terror that targeted, in particular, union members and indigenous village leaders. The coup leader, Castillo Armas, was elected president in an army-run plebiscite with 99.99 per cent of the vote.

“The Guatemalan economy weakened considerably … the labour movement was virtually destroyed, and rural groups [had] even more difficulty in obtaining favourable government action with the destruction of peasant organisations and the denial of the right to organise, democratic reforms were being dismantled by violence and most of the population was disenfranchised, land reform was reversed and the social gains of the democratic decade were abolished.”

The terror of the 1954 coup returned in the 1960s and 1970s leaving thousands dead and “reaching epic levels of barbarism as the US campaign against democracy moved in to a higher gear”. With some 440 villages destroyed and well over 100,000 civilians killed or “disappeared” by the state during this period the slaughter did not end there but continued, reaching its peak in the 1980s.

It is against this background that we are presented with the testimonies of the guerrilla fighters that emerged on four fronts in Guatemala, in an attempt to resist the unending slaughter of the US-backed central government.

The stories of the compañeros and compañeras, were collected by Jennifer Harbury in 1990 after she had spent some time in the 1980s working in Guatemala as an American lawyer gathering information for asylum cases pending in the US. She became well known for her own story and suffering: for more than two years she went on a series of hunger strikes to secure the release, through Washington, of her husband Efraín Bamaca Velásquez, a Mayan resistance leader who was picked up by the Guatemalan military, tortured over a prolonged period and, eventually, murdered. If any American understands the horror and suffering of Guatemala at first hand, it was Harbury.

The stories are very human in their nature, not displaying a macho dogmatic adherence to an idealised cause but rather a wealth of experience and emotions of the individuals fighting for the liberty of their people and their country. They are ordinary people who have become politicised by seeing the daily oppression carried out by agents of the government everyday. These are the voices of “men and women, old and young, professors and peasants, civil rights workers and Mayan villagers” that made up the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union (URNG).

The testimonies of the revolutionaries focus on the reasons why people made the difficult and dangerous decision to become part of the resistance, describe the early stages of the war, the conditions and hardships faced during the battles of the early 1980s, and conclude with conditions of the present day, with a postscript that lists the last known whereabouts of the people interviewed.

Many of the stories presented in Bridge of Courage are heart-warming, such as that entitled “The Old Man”, which recounts the story of an elderly revolutionary who told many tales to the young recruits that would hardly seem credible, until one youngster became embroiled in a close shave with the army, whilst visiting the old man, and years later heard him recounting that very tale, realising then that his stories were all true.

Some of the stories are funny like that of “Sisifu, the Commando Squirrel” who befriended the combatants in the mountains, and some stories, like those of “Domingo and Lorena”, discuss the breakdown of traditional roles between men and women and the hopes that emerged for the society they wanted to create that would include greater freedom and equality for all and especially the indigenous Mayan population.

But nearly all of the stories are tragic, such as that of “Lara”, which begins with the harrowing lines, “I saw my brother off to the capital a few days before he was killed there. The army burned him to death, him and the other villagers who had gone on the March with him.”

It is hard not to feel a ball of emotion build up as you read these stories, each tale drawing you in with its warm humanity and the ever present reality of these people: these stories are not the product of a grim imagination but the grim truth.

Jennifer Harbury has produced a book vital to helping us understand the reasons why people give up their lives to struggle for a better future, an insight in to the minds of a people forced to take up arms when all else has failed. Bridge of Courage has lost none of its significance since its first publication in the mid-1990s and is as relevant as ever in the present day with struggles for a better life being continually waged across the world.

Jay Kerr is writing a history of anarchism in Latin America

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