“On January 31, 1980, El Quiché literally flamed up into the world’s consciousness when thirty-seven Mayan peasants occupied the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City to call attention to the violence being inflicted on their communities. Guatemalan security forces stormed the embassy, provoking an inferno that killed all but one of the protesters, as well as embassy staff members and others trapped inside the building. Among the dead was the father of the future Nobel Peace Prize-winner Rigoberta Menchu. That night the sole surviving Indian protester was kidnapped from his hospital bed and killed. His corpse was flung onto the campus of the University of San Carlos, the national public university, before dawn.
“The massacre in the Spanish embassy precipitated an international outcry, and Spain broke off diplomatic relations with Guatemala. Not long afterward, a campaign of terror against the Catholic Church that wouldn’t abate for years was launched throughout the misty mountain towns, villages, and hamlets of El Quiché, which was populated mostly by Maya. In the departmental capital, Santa Cruz, the seat of Bishop Gerardi’s diocese, the mutilated corpses of two Church catechists were discovered hanging outside a small radio station. Convents were strafed with machine-gun fire and attacked with grenades. As the fighting against guerrillas intensified in el antiplano, the mountainous central highlands, the Army seized and occupied church buildings, parish houses, and convents, turning them into barracks and interrogation and torture centers. Statues of saints were draped in military camouflage and olive green, as if to remind parishioners to whom they really owed their obedience, at least if it was earthly salvation they sought. The Spanish priest from the village of Chajul, in the Ixil Triangle, was ambushed and murdered. In Joyabaj, Father Faustino Villanueva was assassinated at his desk.”
– pgs. 16, 17, The Art of Political Murder, Francisco Goldman, Grove Press, New York, 2007
We have said to you before in this newspaper that Guatemala is a militarized society, whereas Belize is not, not yet at least. In fact, three or four years ago we published, in serial form, an in-depth study of Guatemala’s Escuela Politécnica, where the Guatemalans train their army officers.
Guatemala’s Escuela Politécnica is the equivalent of Great Britain’s Sandhurst. We Belizeans don’t know anything about the Escuela Politécnica, but we speak with reverence about Sandhurst, and we rate highly those of our Belizean military men who have been trained at Sandhurst.
Before we proceed, let us propose to you that bravery is the quality which men most admire in other men. Where the female of the species is concerned, it may be that beauty is the attribute which ladies most admire in each other, but I know better than to speak for women. Whatever the case, we men are different from women, and I am confident that courage is what we revere most in other men.
There are historians and military experts who rate the British military as the military with the world’s most famous and imposing traditions of battlefield bravery. But, it is for sure that such an opinion would be disputed by and in many other nation-states of the world. I cite what is an arguable opinion in order to give you a sense of the warrior historical background of the British people. In fact, the monarch most revered by the British is their Henry V, and he was their most successful battlefield leader.
In Guatemala even as we write this Wednesday morning, one of their army generals who became their president, Efraín Ríos Montt, 86, is on trial on charges of genocide/crimes against humanity. Terrible atrocities were committed by the Guatemalan military during Guatemala’s civil war in the last three decades of the twentieth century. The charges against Ríos Montt arose out of military atrocities during his 17-month presidency between 1982 and 1983.
This trial represents a brave thing the Guatemalan people are trying to do, because they are trying to clean up their act, so to speak. In the time of the civil war (1966-1996), Guatemala was considered the Central American equivalent of apartheid South Africa. By this I mean that, in both South Africa and Guatemala, there was a neo-European elite which let loose a modern army upon an indigenous majority which had very little ability to resist that modern army. There was a manifestly racist aspect to the organized military violence of apartheid South Africa, and there was a racist aspect to the Guatemalan civil war. The vast majority of the two hundred thousand victims were indigenous Guatemalans, the descendants of the people who inhabited the land when the brutal Spanish conquistador, Pedro Alvarado, invaded from Mexico in 1523.
Men who have been to war are usually hesitant to discuss their experiences, because war, unlike the way it is presented in propaganda movies and comic books, is pure hell. Yet, most societies bring up their male children in an atmosphere which encourages their macho, warlike instincts. Societies do this because male children have historically become the soldiers who have to defend these societies from enemies both domestic and foreign. The world is a violent, dangerous place. It has been so from the beginning of time. That is why the Holy Bible speaks plainly of “wars and rumors of wars.” This is real.
So, then, societies look up to their military leaders as heroes. It is popular for politicians to adapt macho postures in countries which are at risk, so to speak. But there are times when civilian politicians have to rein in their generals, because the generals only understand one objective – total victory. And, the politics of a specific situation may make total military victory an impossibility, or even undesirable. Perhaps the most famous modern instance of this took place near the end of the Korean War, when U.S. president Harry Truman felt forced to sack America’s greatest military hero of that war, General Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur wanted to drive through North Korea: Truman could not afford to risk all-out war with China.
It has occurred many, many times in history that the military and political ruler is one and the same person. Historically, less sophisticated societies most often believed that their best warrior should be their chief, or ruler. Often, this was not a decision societies made democratically. It just naturally followed that the best warrior had the most force, and therefore had the most ability to implement his decisions. In less sophisticated societies, it was as the Arab proverb says: sixty years of tyranny are better than one day of anarchy.
It is because Guatemala is a society which is still struggling to rise out of military oligarchy and enter civilian democracy that they recently returned to a president with a military past – Otto Pérez Molina. During the late 1980s, 1990s, and early third millennium, Guatemala had succeeded in electing civilian presidents. Everyone knew that the Guatemalan military remained awesomely powerful, but at least there were the appurtenances of civilian rule. Now, the issue is shrouded in doubt. Pérez Molina is a civilian president, but his ultimate loyalty is to the military. This is how it has always been in Guatemala.
In mid-December last year, an activist group in Belize jumped the gun, which is to say, spoke out before the formal deliberations on the International Court of Justice (ICJ) referendum began in January 2013, by loudly and publicly rejecting recourse to the ICJ. This newspaper, because of a friendly historical relationship we have had with that activist group since 2007, felt obliged to state editorially that the activist group did not speak for us.
Why did we so state? We did so because Amandala knows that we have very serious responsibilities in Belize; we have very serious responsibilities because we are the leading newspaper here. We can’t speak casually, and we can’t take positions simply because they are popular positions. It is a popular thing to reject the ICJ, and all Belizeans have that right.
On the other hand, Minister Louis Farrakhan, and he is not a man who is anything less than courageous, implicitly spoke against an ICJ resolution, but he proposed a moderate position, a diplomatic position. He argued that Belize should come to an agreement with Guatemala where Guatemala’s sea access to the Caribbean is concerned.
Farrakhan’s position is a less popular position than the activist position. This newspaper has not endorsed the activist position, because we don’t want to send the wrong signals to the Pérez Molina administration. The Guatemalans don’t know what to make of Amandala, because they find it inconceivable that the leading newspaper here would not be a voice of the government.
Recently, you saw how skittish the Guatemalan government is. Their problem is they have to maintain a macho, militarized position, because such a position is politically popular in Guatemala. The risk for Guatemala is that, as a result of their machismo, they will look puerile and unreliable on the regional stage. This game is what is called “diplomacy.” As the leading newspaper in Belize, Amandala has to participate in that game. This is the responsibility which you, the people of Belize, have given us.
Power to the people.