Friday, February 24, 2012

Genocide, justice and the Maya calendar

As I was preparing to leave Guatemala, events were brewing in the realm of justice. General Efraín Rios Montt, the president who seized power in a military coup in 1982, had been hiding from justice in plain view. It was during Rios Montt's brief time in office (about 18 months, I think) that the worst and bloodiest of the massacres took place.  The Peace Accords granted immunity from prosecution to elected office holders, so Rios Montt was elected to Congress and remained there until January 14 of this year, when his last term expired. Now in his 80s, he stepped down from Congress and was immediately slapped with papers charging him with war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. This has been widely reported in the international and Guatemalan press, so I won't repeat those stories (you can easily find them by searching online). The cases seem to be proceeding. I can't say that my friends and comrades are happy; nothing will bring back those who were slaughtered, and he has not been convicted yet of anything. So far there was simply a preliminary hearing in late January -- and there was a large presence of victims' families, survivors and other human rights activists in front of the court, to bear witness. I wished fervently that I could have gotten on a plane and flown back to Guatemala for that day, to watch the General walk into the courthouse -- this was precisely a week after my return, I think. But people in the community in New Bedford have been watching the case closely, especially those like Adrian who were directly affected themselves (he was tortured, so were his parents and siblings, and several other relatives perished in one of the massacres).

Earlier this week, the court ruled that Rios Montt had to remain under house arrest while awaiting trial; I am not certain when the next court appearance is scheduled.  The wounds of the war are present, just below the surface, in so many places.

At the same time we have the spectacle of the newly installed president cloaking himself in the mantle of multiculturalism in his efforts to cast himself as the great promoter of respect for Maya culture. This past week was a sacred moment in the Maya calendar. February 22 was the culmination of the Wayeb' -- the five day period that  marks the end of one solar year and the start of the next one (there is more than one calendar that the Maya use; there is a sacred calendar that counts ritual dates, and a solar calendar, which guides the planting and harvesting of crops, as well as the long count calendar -- the latter is the one that is ending in December of 2012). President Pérez Molina (the words stick in my craw; usually when we are discussing him among friends in New Bedford, we refer to him as "el genocidio" -- the one who committed genocide -- rather than by name) was photographed attending a ceremony to mark the beginning of the Oxlajuj Noj, which is the start of the new solar calendar, flanked by Maya priests and other dignitaries. The images were kind of galling.  Here a man who presided over the slaughter of thousands of Maya in the Ixil region is now presiding over the country, and portraying himself as a great defender of Maya culture. Here's one of the articles along with a video clip of Pérez Molina placing flowers on the altar at Iximche.
Prensa LIbre article with video

Many Maya communities are, of course, outraged -- although perhaps not the priests who carried out the ceremony that the president attended... but then again, maybe they didn't have a lot of choice in the matter. He is, after all, the elected head of state, and perhaps it would not have been possible to have denied him attendance. I don't know enough about the mechanics and politics of this; but there have always been those who collaborated, not always completely willingly, with authorities.  An equivalent would be to have a Nazi attending a ceremony at Auschwitz, I think, or to have General William Custer as an honored guest at a Ghost Dance.

Maya priests and activists have been busy putting out their pronouncements on the upcoming events, trying to correct some misconceptions, and also critiquing the commercialization, profanation and touristification of the "change of cycle" in December 2012. The Counsel of the Maya Peoples of the West (Consejo de los Pueblos Mayas del Occidente), based in Xela, has issued some statements, and took the opportunity to criticize the government for its hypocrisy -- playing up its support of Maya culture while at the same time granting more concessions to mining companies that are destroyed the ecosystems and livelihoods in Maya communities.  Here is a link to their blog:
CPO blog

For the curious, I have, by the way, been invited by friends who are Maya priests, to come back to Guatemala to accompany them in December, and I will probably go.  I had some doubts, but one of my buddies from Xela argued that I should have no hesitation because the ceremonies to which I had been invited were private, not public, and it was an honor to have been invited and I should show respect by accepting. Additionally, I think the tourist-oriented events will be worthy of ethnographic study.


  1. Hola! My name is Nikki, I'm a junior at UC Berkeley and I stumbled upon your blog while doing research for my own Fulbright application. Last summer, I spent three months in Panajachel as a Fellow for Oxlajuj B'atz', a fair trade and women's empowerment organization, and I hope to return to Guatemala on a Fulbright to research the impact of fair trade on Mayan weaving cooperatives and Mayan communities in general. I would love to hear more about your Fulbright experience in Guatemala and perhaps ask you a few questions about the application process. You can reach me by e-mail at Thanks and I look forward to hearing more about your experience!

  2. Thanks, Nikki. I'm back in the U.S. but actually am heading back to Guate for two weeks. I know Oxlajuj B'atz' a little... I stumbled across them in the course of checking out names for a Maya women's handicrafts association here in New Bedford. We wanted to name our group Oxlajuj B'atz' and so I wanted to check whether anyone else was using the name... and then when I was in Guate I made contact with the group and visited them last year for international women's day. But I didn't go there over the summer at all, unfortunately. Let's be in touch.