Sunday, July 17, 2011

Inescapable politics

The last week or two has been a series of shocks for the country as a whole, and especially for the Maya activists I know.  The bodyguard of the daughter of war criminal and presidential frontrunner Otto Pérez Molina (charges of genocide were recently brought against Pérez Molina) shot and killed an agent of the transit police.  An Argentine singer, famous for his messages of peace, Facundo Cabral,  was murdered a week ago en route to the airport after playing two concerts here. Don Alfonso Bauer Paiz, a revolutionary from the 1940s and 1950s still venerated by many young (and not-so-young) Guatemalans, died (in his case, at age 93, the causes were more or less natural). And then most recently, Enrique Sam Colop, a well-known journalist and one of the leading Mayanist intellectuals in the country, died suddenly at age 56 a few days ago. Colop was known, among other things, for what is widely considered to be the definitive translation into Spanish of the Mayan sacred text, the Pop Wuj (probably known to many of you as the Popol Vuh).  A friend wrote the following commentary about Colop:
"The cornfields are crying, the flowers are crying, the footpaths are crying, the rural townships are crying. Those who loved you are crying, those who loved you but never told you are crying, those of us who read you are crying... and upon reading your version of the Pop Wuj, we truly grew... we are crying because you had the courage to express in public what many of us didn't dare to..."

The death of Cabral was marked by thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of people taking to the streets in mourning and protest against the violence. There were statements from all of the political parties condemning the violence (and many using it as an occasion to attack the current government for not doing more to stop crime and guarantee security). The killers were apprehended fairly rapidly -- at which point the president immediately took the airwaves to laud the police for the speed with which they carried out the investigation (and to take credit for bringing about a speedy solution). His completely unironic enthusiasm about this great achievement prompted a friend to reflect that there was something deeply wrong with this picture. Instead of talking about how great it was that they found the killers in two days, the police and the government should have been to do more to prevent crimes like this from happening.

Electoral violence has become a commonplace. Many political candidates have been assaulted and several killed. A mayoral candidate in one municipality was arrested for having ordered the murder of two candidates from rival parties. This begins to sound like a plot from a grade B horror flick.

I have been discussing, intermittently, with friends why there is so much support for Otto Pérez Molina, especially here in Quiché where he led massacres. He apparently makes many campaign appearances in a highly militarized fashion, arriving by helicopter. During the war the sound of military helicopters almost invariably meant an attack, disappearances, torture, and rape, the very sound brings back a sense-memory, or an inherited sense memory for people who are too young to have many direct recollection of the war, of intense and lasting fear. His party's discourse stresses security (very much on people's minds with the high murder rate, the daily news stories about armed attacks, bodies or parts of bodies discovered on roadsides, in ditches), and taking a hard line against crime. "Mano dura" (literally, hard hand) is one of the slogans: and it is often materialized in the shape of a clenched fist. I don't think it's meant to be comforting, actually. One reading would be an assurance to citizens that the government will take a hard line against "delinquents" and organized crime. Another "take" is as a reminder of the  armed might of the state (and perhaps a call to historical memory -- there are still a lot of people who buy into the argument that the military actually calmed the country down and stopped the violence during the worst years of the war).  We haven't gotten much farther than "the Stockholm Syndrome" as a possible explanation, or that people have become so inured to military rule that they see it as the norm.

Here in my little town, Sundays are now filled with the sounds of election songs. I live near the Patriota headquarters and they had their sound system going until about 6 p.m.  

I have been thinking about what I will do on and around the election day. Although, as I've noted before, the elections and electoral politics were not part of my original research focus, I will be here on that day, and most likely everyone I know will be somehow wrapped up with the electoral process on that day. So I've thought about what I might be able to do that would allow me to be of some use on that day. Could I be some sort of observer (although I'm neither a Guatemalan, and thus capable of being a poll watcher, nor am I of the stature of a Jimmy Carter and thus good material for "international observer"). I don't yet have an answer; I've asked some friends who are involved with the Frente Amplio if anything occurs to them. 

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