Many people have asked me about the chapters of A Taste of Ashes that refer to Guatemala’s political history and its human rights record. Was/is it really that bad? they ask. Having read the testimony of witnesses and survivors, the carefully gathered (often at great risk) forensic evidence, I can unequivocally say yes. Yes, it was bad and still is. But there is some, at least momentarily, good news to report.
The Rights Action Team posted this news a couple of days ago:
At 6:45pm, May 10, 2013, Guatemalan general Efrain Rios Montt was found guilty in a Guatemalan court of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 80 years in jail. This is an extraordinary and precedent setting achievement, all the more so in Guatemala where repression, impunity and racism remain society wide and systemic.
All respect to and admiration for so many people and so many organizations – most particularly Guatemalan survivors of genocide and other crimes against humanity – who braved on-going repression and impunity to keep fighting for over 31 years for this measure of justice. Deep thanks to so many individual and foundation donors who have, via Rights Action and other groups, supported so many years of courageous, never-ending work for truth, memory and [finally, a bit of] justice. Gracias.
Cheers, we heard, broke out in the courtroom and I have to report that cheers broke out in my house too. If you know anything about the labyrinthine process that is the justice system in Guatemala (read The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed Bishop Gerardi? by Francisco Goldman), you’ll know that this is not likely the end of anything – but it is welcome news to the indigenous people of Guatemala who received the brunt of la violencia during the long civil war in which hundreds of thousands of people died. Montt was the country’s leader for part of that time.
Curiously enough, I had just picked up an old copy of Jacobo Timerman’s Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number and was reading his moving account of his time in detention in Argentina during its military dictatorship in the 1970s. In the beginning of the book, he outlines his ideas of what brought about the end of democracy in his country and the introduction of such violent and brutal repression. In it he quotes a moderate politician – we know who are the killed, but we don’t know who are the killers. And no one seemed willing or able to change that: to find them, name them, and bring them to justice.
This is able to happen, Timerman implies, when the public and politicians raise their hands and say they can’t do anything about it. There’s no point, people say. They’re all the same, people say. Which gets them off the hook. It’s hard to blame people for chickening out when political engagement can mean imprisonment, torture or death. But his words feel especially important this evening as I’m waiting for the results of the provincial election here in British Columbia, where the voter turnout in the last election dropped to 50%, the second lowest in the country.
Maintaining a peaceful society requires hard slogging day after day. It needs us to inform ourselves and raise our voices; it needs politicians who are willing to listen and act. There are no simple answers to complex problems; we must all put in the work to give our politicians understanding and support to find and implement workable solutions. Or we turf them.
Meanwhile – how lovely to think of Efrain Rios Montt named for what he is. Bravo!