Prof. Isaacs has included Haverford students on many of her research trips to Guatemala. Here she and members of Poli Sci/History 233 learn about genocide and the exhumation of victims.
Prof. Anita Isaacs Observes the Charged Political Situation in Guatemala
Q: What’s the latest thinking on the assassination itself?
There is something strange and frightening about this chronicle of a death foretold. It is possible that the tape was made under duress. And it is odd that someone whose life had been threatened would have gone out bicycling, on his own, on a Sunday morning. The entire episode might have been orchestrated to discredit the government. It’s impossible to know and dangerous to speculate. If the tape was made under duress, in whose interest would it be for the lawyer to make these allegations? One can’t discount what the current government says, that this was a conspiracy by a hard line right to delegitimize a government that is challenging its historical control over the state. But the investigation might well confirm the veracity of the accusations. It’s pretty clear that organized crime has infiltrated the Guatemalan state.
Q: Any reason to hope that we’ll ever know who did this?
98% of all crimes in Guatemala remain “unsolved” by a corrupt and inefficient judicial system. However, given the high profile nature of this incident, there’s hope. One of the few institutions that has any credibility in the country at the moment isn’t a domestic institution at all: it’s the the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, a UN- headed commission set up by the outgoing vice president who was determined to do something to root out organized crime. He aligned himself with local and international NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and railroaded through the congress and his own party an agreement to establish this commission, two years ago. It’s headed by a Spanish jurist with a long record of experience prosecuting organized crime both in Spain and Central America. The Commission will handle the investigation with assistance from the FBI: there is a terrific US ambassador in Guatemala who has courageously aligned himself with victims of violence and immediately responded to the government’s request for an FBI investigator. I believe there may be answers. It’s going to take time. It’s extremely murky.
Q: How do the events fit into the longer arc of Guatemalan politics?
Several issues are converging at once. Some are longstanding; others are new. The seedbed is the existence of organized criminal networks, which are a legacy of the genocidal conflict. They are fueled by a prevalence of weapons (a legacy of the war), a culture of violence, and US immigration policy, which deports Guatemalan gang members. Arrested here in the US – they get deported home, where the gangs reconstitute themselves. The “balloon effect” of the crackdown on Mexican drug trafficking also comes into play. The analogy goes like this: squeeze a balloon – the Mexican drug trade – and it merely pops up somewhere else – in this case, across the border in Guatemala. The traffickers have shifted their operational base south, where they’ve set up an alternative base and new trafficking routes. Where there are drugs, there is violence. All this is further fueled and perpetuated by impunity, as I mentioned before.
Q: Are there broader political forces at play?
Yes. The current government has behaved much like the new populist left in other Latin American countries like Argentina or Venezuela in that it buys its constituency – in this case by establishing a culture of patronage enabled by cash handouts. Make no mistake, there is much to be lauded about giving poor families $40/month on the condition that they send their kids to school and take them to the doctor. But the problem is that it creates a dependency of the poor on the state for continuous favors and, happily for the state, establishes a captive base of support. What we see now is the government mobilizing its base to protest in support of the government. No surprise here: the dependent population sees a threat to the government as a threat to their subsidies. A disturbing part of this is that the vast majority of pro-government supporters are impoverished indigenous Guatemalans who are essentially being used and find themselves in opposition to government opponents who are demanding a legitimate end to impunity. So in the literal and virtual “town squares” across the country you have a battle that resonates with very complex issues of class and ethnicity, with people set in opposition to one another undermining a unity that should, or could exist in another political context.
Q: You were in Guatemala over the weekend (May 16-17). What did you go there to do?
There were two mass mobilization demonstrations in the capital, one organized in opposition to the government and one organized in support. I went to Guatemala to observe the two protests and to get an on the ground sense of the nature of the political crisis.
Q: What is your sense now of that crisis?
My sense is that the situation is extremely serious. The political ramifications of the murder are deep and far reaching. The country is extremely polarized politically and the same political fault lines that gave rise to the civil war in the 1960s have resurfaced.
Q: What did you observe at the demonstrations?
One of the protests was in front the municipal building, the city hall in Guatemala City. That was organized by the anti-government protestors--mainly young, urban and elite Guatemalans--through Facebook and various other websites. People were asked to attend the protest wearing white, which was designed to symbolize a move away from mourning the lawyer's death and towards peace and justice. They were referred to as “los blancos,” or “the whites, which is also fraught with symbolism because everybody on that square was white in a country where the majority of the population is indigenous.
The second group, which mobilized at the presidential palace, was mostly Mayan and poor. That demonstration brought people in from the countryside, the segment of the population whose support had ushered this president into power. They were also representatives of the communities most affected by the genocidal civil war. Eighty five percent of the victims of the Guatemalan genocide were indigenous.
Curiously, the media misrepresented the numbers of protestors. They tried to create an equivalency between the two protests. The reports said 30,000 demonstrated in front of the municipal building and 40,000 at the presidential palace. That 30,000 figure looked about right, but I would say there were at least 250,000 people surrounding the presidential palace.
The misrepresentation is significant, because the real numbers reflect the relative power distribution in the country. The anti-government protestors, mainly members of the economic elite, threatened to call a national strike to shut down the country. Even though they are a minority, they are extremely powerful by virtue of their economic control. By contrast, what we saw on the square in front of the presidential palace was the power of numbers. That’s the only leverage the the poor have in Guatemala, but it is a potential source of real power.