Saturday, January 17, 2015

Tia Nosh

This is a completely frivolous blog entry, that will mostly be of interest to people who understand both Spanish and a little bit of Yiddish. There is a restaurant along the main highway in Guatemala, CA-1, also known as the Pan-American or Interamerican highway, on the stretch of road between Huehuetenango (the city), and Xela (i.e. Quetzaletenango), called Tia Nosh. 

The name has always made me chuckle, because as someone who speaks Spanish and who knows a little Yiddish, the name seems funny. Tia is the Spanish word for aunt. Nosh is undoubtedly a K'iche' equivalent or nickname for some female name in Spanish (I say this authoritatively because Posh is the K'iche' equivalent of Sebastian, so it stands to reason that Nosh is the K'iche' equivalent of a female name).  

So a Guatemalan would read this as Auntie So-and-So's restaurant. However, nosh is also a word in Yiddish. It means "to snack or nibble". 

As in, "I noshed on the leftovers." It is also a noun, referring to the snack itself. "Would you like a little nosh?" So, in my view, this is a perfect name for a roadside eatery: Auntie Snack.  I should add that I have never eaten at this restaurant. I am generally in a rush when I traverse this stretch of highway and unless I am really, really hungry I also don't like eating by the side of the road, especially with all the diesel fumes in Guatemala. So I cannot recommend the cuisine.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Spanish Embassy, 34 years later

On January 31,1980, peasant and student leaders, mostly from the department of El Quiché, occupied the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City as a way of making visible their demands upon an unresponsive government, as security forces had already begun to launch attacks against community leaders. State security forces surrounded the embassy and cut off power, and then there was a massive blaze and nearly all of those inside, Embassy employees as well as protestors, died. Only two people escaped alive, and one of those '-- a Guatemalan who had helped the Ambassador flee -- was assassinated shortly afterwards, as he was recuperating from his injuries. For over 30 years the case lay dormant but in October of last year, the slow wheels of the Guatemalan justice system began to crank again and, nearly 35 years after those events, the prosecution started to unfold its case against Pedro Garcia Arredondo, who at the time was a police commander. Over 30 witnesses have been called in the last few months,and I had the opportunity to witness what was supposed to have been the last day of testimony (two witnesses who had been called by the defense did not appear and so there was another day of testimony set for Monday of this week, but I was not able to attend as I was en route to Huehuetenango). 

Because I had no press credentials, my friends advised me to give them my camera and tape recorder since non-journalists were generally not permitted to tape or photograph, and they handed them back when we were inside (I gave them copies of the audio recording so it wasn't entirely bogus, and stayed close to the other photographers and videographers so that I would not stick out (any more than I would already stick out as a frizzy-haired gringa). There was a panel of three female judges (one thing that I will say about Guatemala's legals system is that there are a lot of female attorneys and judges, although one of the qualifications to be a female attorney in Guatemala seems to be wearing extremely high stiletto heels). The chief witness was the former Spanish ambassador, who had been dispatched to Guatemala immediately after the fire, arriving on February 1 and beginning an investigation that resulted in a pretty hefty report to the Spanish government. He was a tall, reserved and yet quietly powerful figure, speaking very thoughtfully and at times forcefully. He laid out his investigations in painstaking detail, at time relying upon the report and consulting other notes he had brought. I will not go back over all my notes and repeat everything I wrote down, but some of the key points he presented were the presence of some kind of chemical that had a paralyzing effect. In other words, they had sent for a toxicology report and it seemed that something had been used to paralyze the victims. Another point he raised was evidence of an accelerant, and what I understood was that both this and the other chemical were not garden-variety substances but more specialized, not something that you could pick up at the corner store. Also, some of the bodies had bullet wounds. He was very clear and unswerving in his testimony

When it came time for the defense to cross examine him, they tried unsuccessfully to find holes or contradictions, or force him into a corner. They were reduced to asking what seemed to be pretty silly questions and the judge seemed to concur, supporting many of the other sides objections that the questions were irrelevant, or telling the defense attorneys that the witness had already answered their question.  They asked him about his relationship to the diplomatic service and whether he was no longer in the service. He explained patiently that while he was not an active member, and was not serving as an ambassador to anywhere, he was still a member of the diplomatic corps and would be until he died, and that he carried a diplomatic passport and still enjoyed the privileges of being a diplomat. They asked him who had paid for his trip and his lodging. He answered that the foreign service of Spain had paid for his ticket since they felt that his presence was important since it was, after all, their embassy that had been burned and their employees who had perished. The current ambassador, he added, had offered to put him up (the current ambassador and a few other embassy officials sat directly behind the witness).  The defense attorneys then turned to one page in the report and asked about a specific phrase that the ambassador had used: that when these events had occurred and there was an international outcry, the Guatemalan government reacted like a wounded animal.  What did he mean, asked the attorney, by the phrase, like a wounded animal.  Like a wounded animal, he replied. The defense attorney persisted, but what did you mean by that.  Like a wounded animal, he replied, a bit more testily. I think what I wrote is completely clear. The attorney asked, But what does that mean to you? He retorted quickly, What does it mean to YOU? At this the judge intervened and said, It seems that they do not understand what you were trying to say. Can you rephrase it for them? And then he said, It reacted like a cat (and I didn't catch the entire phrase but I think it was something like a cat whose tail had been stepped on). This was met with a generalized chuckle or laugh, and the judge would not let the defense attorneys persist with this questioning.  

The next witness was a doctor who specializes in forensics. He was not especially impressive. He simply interpreted some of the medical reports that had been prepared at the time, and in a few cases declined to offer much interpretation.

The last two witnesses were called by the defense, and they were both relatives of victims. One was the son of a woman who had been the private secretary of the Ambassador and had worked at the embassy for many years. He had heard about a disturbance and left his work to drive over. He reported that the protestors had locked the embassy and were not letting people in but he managed to slip inside one of the doors. He said that he tried to offer himself in place of his mother, whom he saw as a hostage but that the peasants who were there, whom he said had machetes and molotov cocktails, said that no one was leaving and he eventually was forced out. He said that he stayed outside and watched, and then there was an explosion, the implication being that the peasant leaders had ignited bombs, and then the building went up in flames. In response to the other side's questions he said that he did not hear any gunshots. At the end, he was allowed to make a statement about why he was there, which I thought was highly unusual. He said that he had not spoken to anyone or participated in any events that were organized by victim's families for 34 years, but that he was tired of people using his mother for their own benefit and to support their own causes. When he was done he shook hands with all the defense attorneys and the defendant and then turned and curtly waved to the other side.

The last witness in some ways contradicted the first one, as he claimed to have heard gunshots but did not hear an explosion. He was an elderly man, fairly infirm and frail, who came in a wheelchair and had to be helped into the witness chair. He was full of fury, and started to launch into a diatribe as soon as he was asked to identify himself. The judge had to tell him that the only thing he was being asked to do was state his name and identity, and would have to wait to answer questions. His testimony was long winded and repetitious, and the defense kept asking him to repeat the same details about how he came to the embassy and what he saw. He insisted on calling the protestors guerrillas and the judge allowed that to stand. She allowed him to get away with a lot of pontificating, in my view. His testimony was so repetitive that a few of us nodded off during it. He insisted that the Spanish ambassador was the main person at fault along with the guerrillas who had molotov cocktails in their morales (woven or crocheted bags worn over the shoulder). How he saw inside their bags when he was in the street outside the embassy is not clear. However, at the end of his testimony, the judge allowed him to make a statement attacking Rigoberta Menchu, who was there as one of the two plaintiffs. He went on about how wonderful the Maya culture was and how in the past everyone got along and there were no problems and now it was Maya against Maya, implying that it was because of people who wanted to stir things up. Especially Rigoberta, who wasn't deserving of the title because she was not for peace. Very hateful and again, surprising that the judge let him rant on.Not only did she let him rant on but she invoked religion and apologized to him on behalf of the Guatemalan government and offered him comfort for his suffering. All of which again seemed highly unusual.

Leadership on trial

When the business and political elites find opposition to their plans, they resort to repression and the criminalization of their opponents. At least that's how it goes down in Guatemala. In the community of San Juan Sacatepequez (in the department of Sacatepequez; there is a town called San Juan Sacatepequez in the department of San Marcos, just to keep things interesting), business interests have been working to establish a cement factory, against the opposition of many in the community. This has gone on for several years, and in the past year the situation has gotten more tense and conflictual.The company has hired thugs to intimidate residents, especially those in the opposition. Women in the communities have complained of assaults by the police and private security guards hired by the company. The town's mayor has been bought out by the company and has tried to pull people away from the opposition movement. In April, as I described in an earlier post there was a peaceful protest and a hired thug tried to disrupt it. He provoked a mob response and ended up dead. Barbara Diaz Surin, one of the leaders, was charged in his murder, and I decided to attend her trial, together with friends from the Prensa Comunitaria. Prensa Comunitaria is an independent news service that was started in the aftermath of the massacre of October 4, when the army opened fire on a peaceful protest on the Inter American highway, led by the authorities from the 48 cantons of Totonicapan, resulting in 8 deaths.

On Thursday, January 8, we headed out in a complicated route as we had to pick up several people along the way. One of our colleagues, Lucia, lugged along some heavy shopping bags full of staple food items. Since the tensions have risen in San Juan Sac.,the community leaders will not allow anyone from the outside to enter. So it is not possible for people to bring donations for the families of the people who are facing trial or who are in jail. Lucia knew that some of the family members would be there and so she had gathered donations so she could bring them to the courthouse and hand them over there.

One of my friends is part of the legal team and so we had talked about the trial a little bit in the day or two before. He was very worried because he saw the case as being entirely political and not really about legal issues or evidence. The only evidence that had been presented so far was the testimony of the man's son, and my friend Juan thought there were some problems with his testimony, based upon where he said he was standing in relationship to his father, and also the number of people who were part of the mob. Also, in his experience, leaders do not act the way Doña Barbara was supposed to have acted. They generally try to calm things down rather than stir them up. There are already several leaders who have been jailed on equally trumped up charges, and two of them have 50 year sentences, but this would be the first time that a woman had been sentenced for a political crime of this magnitude and for a sentence so harsh.

 When we made it to the courthouse in Mixco, we were able to find parking close to the courthouse and then encountered a long line of people waiting outside. Some of them were family and supporters of Doña Barbara and her co-defendant, while others were probably waiting for other cases. We helped Lucia lug the large bags full of food so that she could turn them over to the intended recipients, and then walked past the first set of guards. I walked in with my friends from the media, a little anxious since I did not have any press credentials. Upstairs, we found more friends and supporters, along with the attorneys and the defendants. The courtroom was small and the security guards did not want to allow all the media in. So we waited, and eventually most of us were able to go in (the guards wanted to limit it to one person from each media outlet and there were four or five people from Prensa Comunitaria). I flashed my UMass Dartmouth ID and said that I was with a unviersity radio station in the U.S.  Not true but it worked, that plus white skin/foreigner privilege.

The courtroom was tiny, and there was only room for about 25 people. I didn't understand all of the proceedings because I am not well versed in Guatemalan legal procedure, but much of the discussion focused on whether the trial could proceed, and some technical issues. Ultimately, after about an hour, the judge decided that the trial would be postponed because there was a video from the day in question that the Ministerio Publico had, and which they had not provided to the defense. So the Ministerio Publico would have to produce the video and let the defense review it in order to mount an adequate defense. 

After ensuring that both Doña Barbara and Don Basilio had understood fully and were in agreement, the judge ordered that the new date would be February 17. Doña Barbara seemed both relieved and anxious, and while people crowded around her afterwards, her first comment was that what she wanted to do was see her daughter. I spoke to Juan afterwards and he said that this had been the only strategy that they had come up with, because they felt that the judge had a very negative attitude. In Guatemala there are no juries. Cases are decided by a judge or a panel of judges, as far as I can tell, and since many judges are political appointees, the judiciary is far from neutral.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Modem madness

Sadly, I did not take advantage of the days when I had wifi in Guatemala City and Olintepeque, and now I find myself with very little internet access now that I have gotten started blogging again.

 For the last several years I have been able to have easy access to the internet because cell phone carriers in Guatemala, like those in some other developing countries, have developed easy-to-use USB modems, which means that anywhere there is a cellphone signal, you can plug in one of those modems and be online shortly. Once during tne 2011 presidential campaign I got stuck in trying to pass through a town where there was a political rally underway. There was only one through road and traffic was completedly stopped and there was nowhere else to go. So I pulled out my laptop, plugged in my modem, and set to work.

I brought my modem with me but I didn´t need to use it for the first week since I was staying with friends who had wifi, and so this morning as I prepared to leave for Santa Eulalia and Barillas in Huehuetenango, where my friends do not have wifi, I went to the cell phone company to check out my modem. I thought maybe I would need to buy a new SIM card in case mine had expired -- the one in my phone was still working, which was a pleasant surprise as I didn't have to get a new one. There are cell phone kiosks (not full service stores) in many shopping centers and commercial areas and so I talked to someone at one of the Tigo kiosks when I was out having a cup of tea with a friend yesterday. She told me I had to go the main store, which is in one of the biggest shopping centers in Xela. So, this morning I set out in the opposite direction of the road that would take me to Huehuetenango and managed to find the shopping center. The street it is on is crowded with stores and centros comerciales (shopping centers -- mostly strip malls) and the sign announcing Pradera Xela is set back quite a bit from the road so I missed it the first time and had to do some complicated manuevering to get back (it's a divided road, and there aren't any easy places to go around the block). The young woman to whom I was assigned took a look at my modem and said the modem was fine (she plugged it into a different machine) and we tried it in my machine but kept getting an error message saying that the application quit unexpectedly. She went to talk to a technician. He told her the modem was not configured for my operating system. She brought me the newer modem that they have but that, too, didn´t work. We checked: it is compatible with Mac OSX 10.8 and 10.9. I have Mac OSX 10.10.1    The only option was a regular wifi modem that would not be mobile. It has to be plugged in, and it costs nearly $100.  I then went to the two competitors, Claro and Movistar, and found out that all their modems were only compatible with OSX 10.8 and 10.9. No one has a modem that is compatible with the more recent operating systems.

So, for the moment, the only way I can get online is to use someone else´s computer and their modem (and of course pay for the airtime, many of my friends here don´t have monthly plans but buy airtime by the day when they need it). Kind of like loosies. By the way, loosies are probably the main way that people in much of Latin America buy cigarettes, especially the rural and urban poor, as few people have the money to buy full packs of cigarettes. And few people have cell phone plans. They purchase air time as their funds permit. 

Quick rundown: from genocide trials to drag queens

For some reason it has taken me several days to feel that I had anything much to write about, and the psychic space and time to write it. Since I am nearly halfway through my stay this invariably means that I will be playing catch-up the entire time.  

So, this first foray will just be a summary, as much so I can keep things straight for myself as for anyone else's benefit. I find sometimes that I can't remember what I did two days previously -- where I was, and with whom.  

I had planned to spend the first handful of days in the capital as there were some important political trials that I wanted to attend. The retrial of Rios Montt was set to begin the Monday I arrived. Rios Montt had been convicted in a previous trial but after pressure from the right wing, the verdict and sentence were overturned and the court ordered a new trial which was set for January 5. However, there was a lot of speculation among my friends that the trial was not going to take place; that the judge would find some excuse for not proceeding with the trial or issuing a pardon. Rios Montt pulled a Mubarak and showed up in a hospital bed claiming to be seriously ill. The defense team asked for the judge to be removed because she had written a master's thesis a decade ago about genocide, and the trial was postponed -- this occurred before I arrived. But when I bought my ticket I thought there might be a chance to see part of the trial.

Then there was a hearing in the case of Barbara Diaz Surin, one of the leaders of the resistance movement in San Juan Sacatepéquez, where there has been opposition to a cement factory that is being built.  Last spring there was a confrontation between residents who had organized a peaceful protest, and a man who residents argued had been paid by the company to create disturbances (women in the community have brought claims of sexual assault and rape against private security guards and police). The man was brandishing a machete and the crowd set upon him. Someone, or more than one someone, hit him over the head with a piece of wood and he later died of his injuries. Barbara was present at the confrontation, and because she is highly visible as a leader, she and one other person were charged in the man's death. The entire case to this point relies upon the testimony of the victim's son, and Barbara is facing a possible 50 year prison sentence.

The last trial is the case of the Spanish Embassy bombing in 1980. The Embassy, for those who might not remember, was occupied in January 1980 by representatives of a peasant organization, the Comite de Unidad Campesino (CUC) and student activists, and the Embassy was set on fire, killing nearly everyone inside. Two people escaped alive --the ambassador and one other man (but he was later assassinated in the hospital where he was recuperating from his injuries). One of the top police officials at the time is now on trial for the fire that killed over 30 people, including Rigoberta Menchú's father Vicente Tum. Like the trial of Rios Montt, over three decades passed before this case actually saw the inside of a courtroom. 

While the Spanish embassy trial is not directly related to my research it seemed like an important opportunity to witness a historic event, and so I decided to spend the first week in and around the capital, since the Spanish Embassy hearing was set for Friday. I had misunderstood some communication from an attorney friend about Doña Barbara's trial -- I thought it was set for Tuesday but it was actually scheduled for Thursday, and once I realized the mistake there wasn't really time to make a trip to anywhere distant. However, I did make two short trips on Wednesday, one to visit the resistance movement in La Puya, and another to visit a women's organization in Santiago Sacatepequez that is planning to bring a legal case around intellectual property issues.

There is an entirely separate research project that I have been working at slowly and intermittently about the "reinas mayas de diversidad sexual" -- "Maya queen" pageants of Maya men wearing Maya women's clothing (or Maya drag queens). I had "befriended" the winner of last year's contest (it was only the second one) on Facebook and we had set up an interview in Mazatenango, a city on the south coast of Guatemala, for Saturday, after which I was planning to head to Xela to interview one of the organizers of the pageant.  

When I arrived in Xela late Saturday night, I went to my friend Jose Luis' home in Olintepeque to find that he was at a ceremony that was taking place to ensure an auspicious start to a project to rebuilt the bridge at the main entrance to Olintepeque. And Sunday I had been invited to go to Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán, a town near Xela, where every year the local authorities take the precious documents that are the original titles to the lands that constitute the municipality and show them to the population. The documents are guarded closely by a committee of respected citizens and the committee hides the documents in a different place each year; no one other than the committee knows where they are kept but with great ceremony they are revealed to the public on January 11.

So, that is a quick snapshot of the week.