Hope for the future, responsibility for the past

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Guatemala is a place to which the United States will always be linked, even though many U.S. citizens won’t ever know how they have affected this small country.

I have been studying abroad in Guatemala for three months now, and what stands out most to me are the lasting effects of the Guatemalan Civil War, which ran from 1960-1996. This war, to which the United States paved the way, is believed by many people to be more accurately described as a genocide in Guatemala.

While this war may seem like old news, many U.S. citizens don’t even know it happened. It is not taught in any of the history classes in the public school system in the United States. I believe many Guatemalans would agree with the man who told me, “It will haunt us for the rest of our lives.”

After a popular revolution, Guatemala’s first democratic election was held in 1944, and Juan José Arévalo won. This president introduced a number of social reforms, including minimum wage and increases in educational support. The next president, Jacobo Árbenz, who was elected in 1950, continued these reforms, allocating land to peasants who had suffered from debt slavery. These reforms largely affected the United Fruit Company (UFC), now known as Chiquita. Through propaganda spread by the UFC and the effects of the Cold War, the United States disliked Guatemala and saw it as a communist country.

In 1954, the United States launched a coup d’état, where the forces were funded, armed and trained by the CIA in order to disrupt the government of Guatemala. Through this, Carlos Castillo Armas took over as a dictator. He reversed the reforms, suppressed all opposing political parties and served as the final deathblow to democracy in Guatemala.

The repression of the citizens led the way to the Guatemalan Civil War. The results were catastrophic.

More than 200,000 people were killed in massacres, disappearances and extrajudicial executions. Many people who tried to flee to the United States were not accepted as refugees, because the United States supported the actions of the Guatemalan government. Almost 90 percent of these deaths were civilians, the indigenous Mayan population. All died at the hands of the dominant military power in Guatemala until the Peace Accord was signed in 1996.

The Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala is still discovering bodies of those killed during this war. When I visited the foundation, more than 2,000 skeletons were in the foundation’s small office waiting to be identified. Many of the bodies were found buried on military bases. They were moved from their homes and executed elsewhere so that all families knew was that their loved ones had gone elsewhere.

The foundation is working so that the dead can be rightfully buried, and their families can have closure. The people affected deserve justice, but it is hard for them to find.

Even today, 20 years after peace was reached, the Mayan people are still discriminated against in employment, social settings and politics. Many of them live in poverty.

For example, the dump in Guatemala City is full of scavengers. It was only recently that the government said those people couldn’t live there and started trying to find other living arrangements. They live off less than $5 a day and have no access to upward mobility in society.

I do not write this to say that the United States is to blame for where Guatemalans are at today. The Guatemalan system has never been perfect, and the nation had a long way to go to provide equal opportunity for their citizens before the Civil War.

However, the United States played a role in the atrocities that happened and have continued to cover up its involvement since that time. The United States played a part in delaying reformation and democracy in Guatemala, at the cost of many innocent lives. Citizens of the United States need to be aware that it is impossible to not affect the rest of the world, but we can try to control whether the effects are positive or negative.

In my time living in Guatemala, I have formed a new appreciation for life in the United States. I have also fallen in love with Guatemala and the way this country has banded together for a better tomorrow. Guatemalans live with hope, but many do not deny the violence and disaster of the past.

I hope that citizens of the United States will someday live this way. Where we take responsibility for our actions, but we also live with hope that we can improve things for the larger society.