Thursday, May 1, 2008

Human Rights in Guatemala

For those of you interested in my Human Rights activities, I went to Guatemala this past week to participate as a member of a Delegation to celebrate the life, death and mission of Bishop Juan Gerardi, who was murdered 10 years ago last Saturday.

Guatemala was ruled for many years by a military junta after the 1954 CIA-led revolt against the democratically elected President Arbenz. During the early 1980s there was a wave of violence against civilians who were believed to be helping (or at least sympathizing) with the guerillas who were opposing the military. Massacres occurred at more than 400 mainly indigenous villages, which involved torture, rape and sadistic killing of women, children and men. It is estimated that approximately 200,000 people, primarily indigenous, died or disappeared between 1980 and 1992 during La Violencia.

As a result of international outrage and pressure, the government and guerillas entered into Peace Accords, which were finalized in December 1996. A part of the agreement was the formation of a sort of truth commission, known as the Historical Clarification Commission, sponsored by the United Nations. It was supposed to supply the historic record of what had happened during that time. However, because of military pressure, the Commission was not allowed to name victims or perpetrators of massacres.

The Catholic Church in Guatemala was under no such restrictions. It formed the Recovery of Historical Memory Project, known by its Spanish initials as REHMI. Under Bishop Gerardi's guidance, it trained interviewers and took testimony from survivors, observers and witnesses. On April 24, 1998, REHMI released a four-volume report titled GUATEMALA ¡Nunca Más! [Never Again!]. It named villages, victims, manner of torture, abuse and killing, and more importantly, it named the alleged perpetrators and their superiors, and their training and direction in degrading, torturing, raping, then killing the victims. Bishop Gerardi wrote the introduction and explained the methodology and intent of the Report.

Two days later, as he returned home in the evening, Bishop Gerardi was attacked and beaten to death in the garage of his rectory. The entire story of the killing, the coverup and the subsequent investigation, prosecution, trial and conviction of the perpetrators is set forth in Francisco Goldman's book THE ART OF POLITICAL MURDER: Who Killed the Bishop? I recommend it highly, and I have a copy if you are interested in reading it. The book reads like a detective murder mystery, except that all the characters are real.

Although we were in Guatemala to honor Bishop Gerardi, we spent most of the week in meetings with various non-governmental organizations (NGOs). We talked to representatives of: Catholic Relief Services; Association for Justice and Reconciliation; NISGUA; Guatemalan Cultural Action (ACG); the Paz y Reconciliation ministry of the Pastoral Social de Quiché; a microcredit women's cooperative sponsored by ACG; Grupo Apoyo Mutuo (GAM), a mutual support group for survivors of those killed or disappeared; CONGCOOP (an academic group studying the effects of CAFTA-DR in Guatemala); the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights in Guatemala; the Protection Unit of Human Rights Defenders (Unidad de Protección de Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos); FAFG (Fundación Antropología Forense de Guatemala), which exhumed and examined the bodies of victims to determine manner of death; and Scalabrini House, which provides shelter and ministers to migrants on their way north. We also attended a Commemoration service on Thursday, at which Rigoberto Menchu spoke, and where she officially unveiled Bishop Gerardi's name as a victim of the violence. Finally on Saturday we attended a Memorial Mass at the Cathedral, then marched with many others to the Rectory where Bishop Gerardi was slain. I was able to stand before the Memorial erected in the garage at the place where he died.

It would unduly lengthen this e-mail to describe the above meetings or any of them. I invite you to call me for coffee or lunch if you are interested in hearing more (or even if you are not).

From the meetings and my time in Guatemala I have several items of Good News and Bad News. First the Bad:

1. Corruption is endemic and pervasive and extends to the highest levels of government.

2, Impunity is almost universal, whether for "street crimes," violence against women and domestic violence, or for actions against human rights defenders, or for political crimes. Between 80 and 90 percent of crimes are never even investigated. Of those investigated, only about 3 percent are prosecuted, and about 1 percent of the defendants are ever convicted and imprisoned.

3. There is pervasive violence against women, and domestic violence. Very recently, a judge convicted a jailer of raping a jailed indigenous woman. The conviction was celebrated as unique, against the large numbers of rapes which are never reported or prosecuted.

4. Economic hard times are present in Guatemala. The promised benefits of CAFTA-DR have not been received by the mass of the people. As in the U.S., the benefits have accrued to the top and the rest are being left behind. Large numbers of people are leaving their homes to cross Mexico on the way to the U.S. to escape the poverty at home.

5. There is a real danger of actual starvation, especially among children. On more than one occasion, we heard a representative remark that there will be actual starvation in Guatemala during the coming year. This appears to be much worse than the malnutrition which is endemic in the rural areas.

Now, the Good News, little as it is:

1. Despite the obstacles and setbacks, human rights defenders continue to pursue justice. Courts are beginning to pay attention to them. Convictions are occurring. But the process is painful, slow and dangerous. It sometimes seems like three steps forward, two back; two forward, one back; three forward, four back, and so on.

2. The Peace and Reconciliation Ministry in Quiché is actively working on mental health issues. The Quiché people suffered greatly. They sometimes watched the soldiers rape, torture and kill or disappear relatives. They sometimes came back after a massacre to view the destruction of their village, attend to any survivors and bury the dead. They fled to the hills and watched their children die from untreated disease and hunger. They had no shelter. The mental and physical suffering was enormous.

Therapists at the Peace and Reconciliation Ministry have been present before, during and after exhumations to help the survivors work through their pain and anger. The job is very difficult, because there are hundreds of thousands of survivors and very few therapists. Group sessions are helpful, but there are really too many people in too much pain. (Interestingly, Catholic Relief Services told us that it too is beginning a Survivors Support network in Guatemala City; perhaps there is hope there.)

3. ACG in Quiché has started a women's microcredit cooperative for indigenous women. They form into groups of five women. They are then interviewed and receive credit counseling. They may borrow Q500 or Q1,000 (1 dollar equals approximately 7.40 Quetzales). They pay the loan back on a weekly or biweekly basis, including approximately 20% interest (which is said to be slightly lower than a commercial bank, if the woman could get such a loan). The cooperative is flexible in repayment and accepts reasonable excuses for delays, such as sickness, childbirth or other good reasons. According to the facilitator, there are approximately 475 loans outstanding. When I asked about the rate of default and repayment, the woman remarked in a surprised tone, "Why, they all pay it back."

We interviewed some of the women about what they had done with the money:

a. One woman bought small chickens, which she then sold in the market after they were larger.

b. Another bought and raised chickens for eggs to sell and to sell the chickens for meat in the market. She is able to sell eggs to her neighbors, and her own children are able to eat meat on a periodic basis.

c. Another raised turkeys. Her example was that she purchased two small turkeys for Q50 each. After they were grown, she took them to market and received Q200 and Q250.

d. Another opened a small tienda (store) in her home to sell small items to her neighbors.

e. Another helped her son open a tire repair business. She is a widow, and he lives at home. With the business he is able to support her and pay back the loan.

f. Another purchased a number of buckets and tubs, which she then sold in the market. She started with small buckets, but from the money she made, she is now able to buy and sell larger tubs for a greater price.

g. Another purchased a cow. She now sells milk to her neighbors.

The feeling of empowerment among the women was almost palpable. They are not docile and submissive. They are knowledgable of their rights and are willing to assert them. It is amazing what a small amount of money and a lot of counseling has done for these women and their families.


This e-mail has been much too long, but a lot happened in Guatemala while we were there, and there is much to celebrate and to be concerned about. Having been there and having participated, I feel obligated to pass along my observations and feelings. I hope you will forgive me if I have gone on too long.

Frank Schneider

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