Guatemala City can be a dangerous place. Back in January of 1971 having just arrived in this highland Central American capital city and found a modest hotel room I decided to go out for a short walk before settling in for the night. The hotel clerk suggested that this might not be the best idea. I stepped out on to the street despite his advice. The not too distant clatter of automatic gun fire prompted a quick rethink of my decision.
The next day I quickly decamped the city for the then distinctly more tranquil banana growing Department of Izabal down on Guatemala’s Caribbean coast. The tropical rainforest there really only spread out and somewhat hid from view the poverty crippling this country though. The basic injustice of a highly stratified society maintained by the heavy hand of the US-backed military really couldn’t be ignored either in the city or on the coast.
Guatemala had been made safe for corporate investments in 1954 when then US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen Dulles, head of the fledgling CIA, orchestrated the overthrown of the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz. It seems that Arbenz had had the temerity to launch an agrarian reform campaign that sought to turn over underutilized land to landless campesinos. One of this country’s largest landowners, the United Fruit Company, which both Dulles brothers were shareholders in, was not amused.
You cannot for any length of time expect to deny basic human rights and fundamental equality to a people. Military repression and economic oppression can keep the social and political lid on a society for only so long. People organized. Violence broke out around this rich, verdant land. The year 1971 proved to be only a lull in what became a 36-year-long civil war in Guatemala. It officially ended in 1996.
The end of the civil war did not bring with it a resolution of the fundamental problems dividing Guatemalan society. For awhile it did bring the hope of change. Activists like labour lawyer Enrique Torres who had fled to Canada as a refugee along with his wife Marta Torres their five children, could return to Guatemala and resume his labour union and human rights work. Both Enrique and Marta had been legal advisors to the Coca-Cola workers’ union in Guatemala, which sadly achieved international attention because of the vicious murders of its leaders in the 1970s and 1980s.
Marta and Enrique helped establish the Christian Task Force on Central America from their exile home British Columbia in the 1980s to assist in focusing Canadian solidarity efforts towards this region. Marta came to the Yukon as one the Social Justice Global Solidarity speaker in the 1990s to share their story and the urge Yukoners to continue to seek to build, along with people in far-off countries like Guatemala, a just global order.
Word spread quickly through solidarity networks earlier this week that 71-yea-old Enrique Torres had been attacked in Guatemala City and subsequently died. The local press there has reported it as a robbery. Friends are not so sure. The two attackers took more than money from Enrique who had continued his work on behalf of trade unionists and political prisoners in Guatemala. They also stole selected papers from his brief case.
Politically motivated violence appears to be on the rise again across Guatemala. Leocadio Juracan, general co-ordinator of the Campesino Committee of the Highlands, which organizes the production of Fair Trade coffee among other tasks, reported from San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala, as well this week that the countryside is being remilitarized. Juracan wrote that “they have initiated there repression and persecution, including in the last two weeks … the assassination of a priest in Santa Rosa and the detention of campesino leaders in Cunen, Quiche.”
Hopefully, Leocadio Juracan will be able to visit the Yukon this May and share the story of his organization’s struggle for economic and social justice with us. The courage of people like Enrique and Marta Torres or Leocadio Juracan mustn’t fail to ignite a spark of care and concern among us. After all they are up against the same negative economic and political forces we see at work around us too. Their struggle is ours also.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact email@example.com.