Friday, July 15, 2011

Why it pays to have friends who are ex-guerrillas

Meeting and befriending people who were in the armed resistance -- that is, members of one of the guerrilla organizations that took up arms against a repressive state regime -- has not been an especial aim of mine while I have been in Guatemala. One assumes that there are people in communities throughout the country who went into the mountains with the guerrilla or who were supporters and sympathizers, but given the level of silence and fear that still surrounds the "internal armed conflict", I would not casually ask anyone about her or his involvement.  Nonetheless, during the last month or so, I've learned that several of my acquaintance/comrades/friends are ex-insurgents. Not too surprisingly, these are mostly people associated with the community radio movement and some of the affiliated NGOs. I say "not too surprisingly", because the community radio movement that is currently waging a battle for recognition has its roots in the clandestine, revolutionary or insurgent radios that sprang up in Guatemala during the years of the armed conflict. In some cases, individuals who now play a leading role in community radio came out of the guerrilla movement, and in others, the radio stations themselves may be latter-day incarnations of rebel radios.  And it makes sense: the guerrilla movements throughout Central America established their own means of communication to combat the monopoly of information by the government and armed forces (in Guatemala, during the armed conflict, it was literally the army that decided who was granted a radio frequency and who wasn't). And now, the real community radio stations (ones that are controlled by and serve under-represented communities) serve as a means of access for people who are excluded from the highly monopolistic commercial and mainstream radio (and I would include here the stations that are labeled "pirate" radio in Guatemala -- those are simply for-profit stations that don't have licenses and steal bandwidth). 

I have a lot of reflections and observations about community radio, but my associations with people who spent time in the armed struggle have offered a few reflections on the utility of having friends who are ex-insurgents -- especially in a country where roads are poor, services are sketchy and everyday life is unpredictable.  I have not asked anyone to talk about his or her participation but in the course of normal interchanges they have pretty spontaneously offered insights and shared some experiences.

So here's why it's good to have friends who are former insurgents:

1.     They are very, very patient.  I tend to be a bit of a gringa when it comes to punctuality -- my own, not that of others. If I make plans to meet someone at 4, I get uncomfortable if I see that I am running late (because of heavy rains, bad traffic, whatever) and usually try to call or text to let the person know. However, my ex-insurgent friends all take this completely in stride and don't express annoyance. As one of them pointed out, during the war they often had to wait for long stretches of time (hours, days, weeks) for supplies, instructions, or contacts, and became very good at passing the time.

2.    They keep very cool in stressful situations.  I hesitate to use the word "emergency" because what we might label minor emergencies (say, a car broken down on a dark and infrequently traveled stretch of country highway) or a sudden illness hardly compare with things that passed during the war, or more dire emergencies that beset people in rural communities with alarming frequency.  So, the ex--guerrillas I know usually have ample experience with both everyday life in rural areas and wartime exigencies and thus can be counted upon to provide an oasis of tranquility during misadventures.

3.    They are usually quite good at offering practical advice and solutions to the above.  

4.     They are very resourceful and are usually pretty handy. In the field, I imagine, they had to know a little bit of everything: how to fix cars and other machines, some basic medical treatments, how to stay nourished with few resources.  So, the other day my battery kept punking out but luckily I was running errands with an ex-insurgent friend, who correctly diagnosed the problem (rust on the battery terminals and the bolts that connect the battery) and cheerfully improvised a solution (in the rain, at night, in a parking lot).

5.    They also are usually good with directions. One of the first lessons when assigned to particular region or city, I was told, was "learn the terrain." In the case of cities, this meant learning many alternate routes for getting around discreetly so as not to attract the attention of the military.

6.     The passions that moved them to join the armed struggle are rooted in a deep love for the land and a commitment to its people.  They are highly attuned to, and appreciative of, the beauty to be found in everyday things: the contours of the mountains, the play of the red light at dawn, the texture of a piece of weaving.

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