Today is the 16th anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords, that brought a formal end to the 36-year long armed conflict. However, 36 years is just an imaginary number, and time is a very fluid and malleable thing in Guatemala. The Maya calendar is not a single calendar but a series of calendrical systems, which overlap and intersect; each of them marks time in a different way. There is a cycle that is based on rituals. Another way of counting time that is based on the moon. There are the b'aqt'uns -- 400 year periods. The b'aqt'un we just completed covers much of the black period that began with the Spanish invasion in 1524, but another way of marking time would be to use 1524 as a nodal point, with a sharp cleavage between the "before" and the "after". So the armed conflict can be seen as just the latest (or not even the latest) in a series of wars -- some more subtle and others more militarized and formal -- against the indigenous population, and so the Peace Accords might mark and end to this particular 36-year long war, but it certainly didn't end racism, discrimination, displacements, denial of full rights, and the use of violence against those who would challenge transnational corporations and local elites.
In the past year, the state has not hesitated to use force against dissenters, and both the state and commercial interests label those who defend indigenous rights as "terrorists" or "communists" -- taking a page from the Cold War playbook of the armed conflict. And so this is a bittersweet anniversary at best. It goes beyond irony to see news announcements that the President of the Republic would be exchanging roses of peace with ex-guerrillas. The news story in today's paper did mention that inequality, discrimination and poverty are rampant 16 years after the war's end -- over 50 percent of the population live in poverty and 50 percent of children suffer from chronic malnutrition. I had to force myself to look at the photos, but at least the one in Prensa Libre was a bird's-eye view; I'm not sure I could have stomached looking at one that featured Pérez Molina's face. A top military commander, he was a signatory to the accords in 1996.
The country is so far from full compliance with the accords. I have spent most of the time since I arrived with activists in the indigenous rights movement, Maya spiritual leaders, community radio activists and while I would not say that people are desperate, there is a sense of .. not just disappointment, but frustration and anger at the slow pace, but also the many setbacks. I have been staying for the last several days with my very dear friends in a poor rural family, and their lives are still a daily struggle, and the promises of the peace accords seem very distant from their everyday challenges. It was I who mentioned the anniversary. It's not that they don't know or don't remember, but ceremonies in Guatemala City, involving photo ops for elected officials and others, are quite remote -- not only geographically, but in terms of helping them meet their essential needs.
For the purposes of full disclosure, I must note that I am writing these lines from the comfort of an elegant café patronized primarily by members of the local gentry, since the electricity went out in the rural household where I am staying -- and because of the gendered division of household labor and responsibilities, the woman of the family does not know how to fix the electricity, only her husband. It doesn't seem to involve anything that major as the electricity has failed several times since my arrival, and the man of the house has been able to get it working again in a few minutes. But he is out working in the family's fields today, up in the hills outside town, and frankly, during the daytime, electricity is not essential to the most of the family's daily routines. One doesn't need electricity to heat bath water on a wood-burning stove, to wash clothes at an outdoor sink, or to cook. They take their corn to a small mill run by a neighbor about 200 yards down the highway, to be ground into masa, and so pretty much all of their daily routines proceed as normal. The only real setback for them is the inability to charge phones. They do have a computer and a TV but generally only use them at night -- I don't mean to portray my friends in some romanticized or stereotyped way as "simple people". But much of the essential household activity can proceed without electricity. They had a fridge (and they also inherited mine) but they never seemed to use it much or plug it in, and I haven't asked what happened to it (maybe sold or given to a relative). It's just the visiting gringa who is dependent upon having a good supply of electricity -- at least on days like today that I am not out on the road, visiting a radio station, but trying to stay put and catch up on things.