Remembering is part of healing

Carlos Paredes stands above average height for a Guatemalan. Though, by Canadian standards, he would be considered short.

Carlos Paredes stands above average height for a Guatemalan.

Though, by Canadian standards, he would be considered short.

His well-built, close-to-the-ground frame is best described as solid.

It suits the work he has chosen to do.

Paredes is a psychologist with a group called Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Acción Psicosocial, Community Studies and Psychosocial Action Team.

He splits his time between Guatemala City and Panzos, a small town in the department of Alta Verapaz, where the highlands roll down and meet the tropics in this Central American republic.

Panzos has a bitter history.

Starting in the late 1800s, successive Guatemalan governments, in an effort to encourage foreign investment and the development of export agriculture, expropriated traditional communal lands from the Q’eqchi Mayan people who lived for millennia in the surrounding Polochic River valley.

There grew coffee and cardamom estates, largely in the hands of German expatriates.

Former subsistence farmers, now landless, became effectively indentured peons on the new estates.

Corrupt government officials continued the land grab into the 1900s, and, by the 1970s, the situation had become extreme.

Only the most marginal lands remained accessible to small peasant families.

Large local landowners fretted about the mounting clamor for justice by frustrated Mayan peasants.

They prevailed on the local governor for an increased military presence.

On May 29, 1978 hundreds of men, women and children gathered in the central plaza of Panzos to peacefully protest the land thefts that denied them access to their traditional territory.

Stories differ on why it happened, but the fact remains that the army opened fire on the crowd and massacred 53 people.

“Social, cultural and economic relations in Guatemala have been exclusive, antagonistic and conflictive; a reality which reflects Guatemala’s colonial history,” said Paredes.

The Panzos Massacre marked the beginning of the escalation in a long simmering war against the people in Guatemala.

Paredes’ group attempts to increase understanding of what happened and address the psychological impact on the communities of the 440 recorded massacres that occurred in the 15 years following the Panzos Massacre.

At the height of the repression, the military dictators pursued a conscious “psychosocial” policy of political violence.

They used violence against women, torture and disappearance of community leaders, such as native Mayan priests, as ways to break the will of targeted communities. The indigenous community, which still accounts for 60 per cent of the Guatemalan population and is divided into 24 linguistic groups, bore the brunt of the repression, which, intentionally, turned neighbour against neighbour.

Today, the fact remains that “the state is authoritarian,” says Paredes, “and excludes the majority, lacks social guarantees and closes off political spaces.”

The Guatemalan government still “spends nearly three times as much on the military as it does on health and education combined.”

Though the worst of the repression ended with the signing of the peace accords 10 years ago Paredes notes a disturbing new development.

“Whenever social conflict involves the state it is seen as a crime. There has been a criminalization of social struggle.”

Paredes’ group seeks to mend fractured, wounded communities by helping them recover their suppressed collective histories.

By constructing a shared narrative, communities regain a sense of belonging.

Where uncertainty compromised the future, the group hopes to give a sense of autonomy and control.

Rebuilding shattered cultures and reclaiming indigenous forms of spirituality all are part of the process of community empowerment in Guatemala as well as here in the Yukon or Caledonia, Ontario, where native protestors recently blockaded the main road through town in defence of their rights.