My day both began and ended with the incredible Ruth Messinger. She and I went for a 45 minute walk this morning at 6 AM (at the policy summit in DC in May, she and I were also among the handful at the gym at 6 AM), and over dinner this evening she offered the group the State of AJWS Address, along with her own story of self.
In between those two events, we had a four-hour drive northwest from Guatemala City to Quetzaltenango, during which we had Sacred Space, a fascinating chevruta study on human rights, in addition to hearing the story of our guide “Rambo,” a fascinating and complicated character: He was born in Guatemala, raised in Canada, and returned to Guatemala at age 15 because he wanted to enter the military academy; he was a commander in the Guatemalan forces during the bloodiest part of the civil war in the 80’s; he speaks some Hebrew (both because he was trained in Israel in intelligence work and because as a guide he specializes in Israeli tour groups); and he apparently believes that all should be forgiven and forgotten about the civil war, while also saying that “if there were another conflict, I might be on the other side.” I also seem to recall that he attended the School of the Americas, though I hope I’m wrong. Nonetheless, because of his military past and the complications that that history raises, he cannot attend any of our meetings with us due to the sensitivities of the NGO’s.
(FYI, an unfortunate truth is that Israel sold Guatemala its arms during the civil war when the U.S. no longer supplied them, and therefore Israel is neither beloved by the right nor the left in Guatemala today. The right feels that Israel should have supplied, not sold, the arms — Guatemala recognized Israel’s independence in 1948 and apparently felt it deserved something more generous in return. The democracy and justice-seeking left feels that Israel took the wrong side in the civil war.)
In the meantime, we have two translators on our trip, one who works for an NGO that takes testimony from women about their experiences from the war and believes that there can be no forgiveness without justice, and the other translator who is finishing her PhD about the security forces during the war and bemoans the fact that kids are growing up with no knowledge of the bloody history of this country, nor with understanding of why they’ve been displaced from the places that their ancestors had lived. (I should also note, now that I’m mentioning our Spanish-English translators, that there are 21 different indigenous languages in Guatemala, that Spanish is a second language for all of the indigenous women we are meeting, and not all of them even speak Spanish. This can make them organizing amongst themselves difficult.)
The war (“la violencia,” to some) is a painfully sticky issue here, one yet to be reckoned with despite a truth and reconciliation commission established in 1994 and despite the ongoing testimonials that are still being collected. Over 150,000 people were killed and 50,000 disappeared, more than that of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Argentina, and Chile combined. In 2013 former military dictator Efraim Rios Montt was indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity. The court overturned the conviction less than two weeks later, a big blow to Guatemala’s still-fledgling democracy whose court system only punishes 2% of all crimes. Zury, the woman whose presidential campaign poster I posted previously, is — guess what?– the daughter of Montt! (There is a reason her last name doesn’t appear on the posters.)
I have been wanting to offer you this history lesson (it fascinates me), but now it leaves me with no time to report on the remarkably moving afternoon we spend with the Mayan midwives of CODECOT (Coordinadora Departmental de Comadronas Tradicionales de Quetzaltenango). Since we are spending some time with them again tomorrow, I will hold my remarks until then. By the way, you can always go to the AJWS website for more information about any of the organizations that they support.