Postcard from Guatemala
"I read the news today, oh boy ... "
JOHN LENNON and PAUL MCCARTNEY
"A Day in the Life" (1967)
T he café that I frequented during the war years no longer exists. It was its own combat zone one rainy morning when the girlfriend of the owner, a Guatemalan of Italian descent, found out that he had been cheating on her. Drenched to the skin, she burst through the door with a basket full of stones, which she began to hurl at him. My cappuccino was put on hold while the startled miscreant spun around, dodging the missiles that crashed into the mirrored gantry behind him. The assault lasted a calamitous minute, my command of Spanish blasphemy increasing with each throw. After the mayhem was over, the owner looked at me and shrugged. He then served me coffee rather than attend to the fallout of spilled liquor and broken glass. He nodded at the table where I had the newspapers spread out.
"As bad as yesterday?" he inquired.
"Even worse," I replied.
"I'll leave you to it."
So he left me to it, reading the news of Guatemala as it was reported in Guatemala that particular day--and for countless others during my visits to the country between 1981 and 1995. Vestiges of a war that began in 1961 and that formally ended with a peace accord in 1996 not only linger but have spawned their own post-conflict predicaments. These are often as challenging for journalists to engage as the ones they grappled with at the height of civil strife from 1978 to 1983. What sorts of items constitute the daily fare of the Guatemalan press but seldom register here in Canada? Another memorable trip--I have made over sixty in the past forty years--affords me the opportunity to peruse and relay.
Sunday, June 30, 2013
T HE DAY BEFORE Canada Day is Army Day in Guatemala. I arrive in the late afternoon and pick up the Prensa Libre, the country's most widely read newspaper, which I read in the peace and quiet of Antigua, the old colonial capital I much prefer to the bustle and frenzy of Guatemala City. Hitherto a gala spectacle of medalled authority and military paraphernalia, Army Day isn't what it used to be, primarily because the national armed forces aren't what they used to be. "AN ARMY OF LEFTOVERS" declares the Prensa Libre headline.
A four-page feature documents the military's demise, the result of the implementation of the peace accord, which called for a significant reduction in army personnel and its prominent role in everyday life. Today, the ranks of the army total 23,000, two thirds its size at the pinnacle of counterinsurgency in the early 1980s, when attacks on unarmed civilians ushered in a reign of terror and, in the eyes of a UN Truth Commission, constituted acts of genocide when perpetrated against indigenous Maya communities in remote highland regions. Now, with ten soldiers for every ten thousand inhabitants, Guatemala's is the lowest such ratio in...
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