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Holidays in the Sun

Holidays in the Sun

By Josef Schneider
May 2008

I studied Spanish for two and a half years at the University of Texas, but I wasn’t a particularly diligent student. On visits to Mexico it was all I could do to order diner and find a hotel room. My Spanish hasn’t gotten much better since, but the occasions when I’ve wanted it to be have been getting more frequent. So I decided to take a month or so to attend a Spanish language immersion school in Guatemala with facilities both in Quetzaltenango and in the mountainous countryside two hours outside town.

Quetzaltenango is Guatemala’s second largest city and the capitol of the western highlands. This gray and charmless town is popularly known by its pre-conquest name, Xela. It’s only a tenth the size of sprawling Guatemala City (about 100,000 vs over 1 million). You couldn’t really call Xela typical of anything, but like Guatemala as a whole, the region is split about evenly between indigenous Mayan people and non-indian, mixed-race, native Spanish-speakers known as Ladinos.

Guatemala is a place of startling natural beauty. The very ground beneath your feet is alive. The frequent earthquakes have thrown down Xela more than once and forced the capitol city to relocate twice. The mountains were formed by volcanism and many are still active, showering the countryside with ash almost every day. Perhaps it’s because of the ash that it is so lush and fertile. It seems one could grow anything there.


And yet the people of Guatemala are appallingly poor. In the countryside I saw villages where people lived in corrugated metal shacks with dirt floors. Four-and-a-half foot women carry bundles of firewood that weigh more than they do, so they can cook over stoves that fill their homes with smoke. The government does not perform waste disposal, so the countryside that looks so impressive from afar is littered with trash, mainly plastic that will not decompose for hundreds of years.

Most people extend their diets the way all poor people do, with cheap starches: corn tortillas, pasta, and rice. They fill the belly but don’t pack a lot of vitamins. Here the country poor are actually better off than those in the cities because even a small plot of the incredibly fertile land can provide bananas, avocado and limes without much effort. Chickens are cheap and provide eggs and occasionally meat, and are ubiquitous even in the city.

What I observed wasn’t out of the ordinary. According to the World Bank’s Guatemala Poverty Assessment, in “2000, over half of all Guatemalans – 56% or about 6.4 million people – lived in poverty.” The same report confirms what one can see with one’s eyes: Poverty is higher among the indigenous (76% of whom are poor) than landinos ( 41%), and it is higher in the countryside where three quarters of the population live in poverty.

Guatemala is still very much rural country. As Byron Garoz and Susana Gauster of the Land Action Research Network wrote:

“Agriculture is central to the Guatemalan economy and society, representing 23% of the Gross National Product in 1997, and with 61.4% of the population living in rural areas in 2000. Agriculture in Guatemala is characterized by extremely unequal land distribution. In 1998, according to the Ministry for Agriculture, Grains and Food (MAGA in Spanish), 96% of producers cultivated 20% of the land mass and lived in subsistence conditions. At the same time 0.2% of producers possessed 70% of the land, with large areas of land used for production of agricultural exports.”

So, the majority of Guatemala’s population are agricultural laborers with tiny subsistence plots of land or none at all. Estimates of the percentage of the rural population that have no land at all begin at 26.6% and go up from there (see Guatemala Backgrounder in PDF). It’s been this way since Guatemala’s economy became centered on large-scale coffee plantations in the late 19th Century.

The coffee plantations (known in Guatemala as fincas) were, and sometimes still are, company towns. The workers live in housing provided by the plantation owner. Their children go to school if the plantation-owner provides one. They get medical treatment at the finca-owned clinic. Sometimes they are paid in company script that can only be redeemed at the company store. That’s if they are paid at all.

A worker and union organizer at the Finca Nueva Florencia, came to the mountain school to tell us how 11 years ago the owner of the finca stopped paying the workers. But he expected them to continue to work his fields for the privilege of living in the company houses and being allowed to cultivate small kitchen-garden plots. The workers went on strike for back wages or ownership of some of the land. For almost 11 years they have faced legal pressures and violent reprisals from the owner’s hired goons. Meanwhile they hire themselves out as day laborers in the nearby town when there is work.


Even when the rural families have land of their own, the plots are often so small that the men have to hire themselves out as day laborers. I could hear them. The mountain school where I studied is a few hundred yards down the road from three landless rural communities. Beginning at 4:30AM we could hear the pickup trucks rumble down the road and blow their horns to take the men to look for work in construction in the nearby towns. They had to pay the drivers to take them from home and back, and if they didn’t find work that day it was money wasted.

There is construction work to be had largely because of the huge number of Guatemalan men who have gone to work in the United States and send remittences home to their families. According to a World Bank working paper, The US-Guatemala Remittance Corridor, the Guatemalan Central Bank estimated that in 2005 remittances were close to US$3 billion or 10% of Guatemalan GDP. This “represented the largest single source of foreign currency inflows, equivalent to 80 percent of the country’s total exports.”

If only these families had access to economically viable plots of land their menfolk wouldn’t have to take the dangerous path to the US to become undocumented laborers. According to Land Research Action Network, “the National and Indigenous Peasant Coordination (CONIC) has calculated that of the 10.8 million hectares of land in Guatemala, only 2.8 million hectares have been cultivated …. Another 2.4 million hectares of arable land are idle or misused.” Why not redistribute some of that idle land to the landless peasants?

Yeah, that’s been tried.

The period from 1944 to 1954 is known in Guatemala as the “Ten Years of Spring”. The Urbico dictatorship was overthrown in 1944 and a parliamentary democracy was put in its place. In 1951 one of the leaders of the democratic movement, Jacobo Árbenz Guzman was elected president. He vowed to “convert Guatemala into a modern capitalist nation through industrialization and land reform.”

At this time the average large landholder only cultivated 19% of his land. In 1952 the Guatemalan congress passed, and Pres Árbenz signed, the Agrarian Reform Law, Decree 900. This provided for the expropriation with compensation of idle land and redistribution of uncultivated state farmland. Between 1953 and 1954 31-40% of the landless labor force received some land through the Árbenz reforms.(see Guatemala Backgrounder PDF)

In 1953 Árbenz proposed to expropriate and redistribute over a quarter of a million acres of unused land owned by the New Orleans-based United Fruit Company (now known as Chiquita). United Fruit was the largest single landowner in Guatemala. They also owned the rail road, the only Atlantic port, the telegraph, and ran the Guatemalan postal service under contract for many years. In the States United Fruit was represented by the law firm of John Foster Dulles who at the time was the Secretary of State under Pres Eisenhower. His brother Allen Dulles was then director of the CIA.

While Árbenz himself wasn’t a Communist he legalized the Communist Party and tolerated trade unions. The US government began a propaganda campaign labeling Guatemala a threat to the US and a potential Soviet ally in the hemisphere. Meanwhile, the CIA organized a contra army of disaffected Guatemalans in Honduras who invaded from there with air support from CIA planes which bombed the capitol. In June 1954 Jacobo Árbenz was overthrown.

Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas was installed as the new dictator of Guatemala. All previously completed land-reforms were annulled. There has been no land reform in Guatemala since then.

If you want to know more about the 1954 coup in Guatemala I recommend starting with William Blum’s book Killing Hope.

From 1954 to 1986 Guatemala had a series of repressive military governments. In 1960 a group of nationalist junior army officers rose in revolt against the dictator of the day. This began a civil war which officially ended only in 1996 with the peace accords which were more or less a surrender by the guerrillas.

The conventional, conservative estimate is that 200,000 people were killed in the 35-year Guatemalan civil war. That’s 1.6% of the current population of the country. If an equivalent number of Americans were to be killed the figure would be 5 million people. According to the Guatemalan truth and reconciliation commission that was created under UN auspices by the 1996 peace accords, the Commission for Historical Clarification (CHC), 93% of the the killings were by the army and it’s paramilitary death-squads, 3% by the guerillas, the rest by unknown actors. The vast majority of those killed were civilians. At it’s worst, in the 1980s under President Gen Efraín Ríos Montt (a favorite of Ronald Reagan) the massacre of civilians reached a level that the Catholic Church and the CHC have declared genocide. Entire villages of indigenous people were rounded up by government forces, herded into the local church, raped, tortured and murdered. Then the church was burned to the ground. Mass graves are still being found in the countryside.

Singling out the indigenous for extermination seems strange to me because I have been told by ex-guerrilleros that the insurgents were mostly ladinos — that is non-indian, mixed-race, Spanish-speakers. I cannot explain this except to note that the tiny, white Guatemalan elite are notoriously racist.

The genocide was also directed at Catholics. In the ’80s the Church was full of sympathy for the poor majority and a “liberation theology” that both the government the Vatican’s theological enforcer Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Bennedict XVI) considered Communist. Guatemalans told me that being an Evangelical Christian could save your life during the massacres (Ríos Montt is one).

Throughout the war, and up to the present day, the Guatemalan military received aid and weapons from the US government and officers were trained at the notorious School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. As was true in El Salvador and is in Colombia today, those units whose officers had been to the School of the Americas had the worst human rights records. For instance Guatemala’s “elite” Kaibiles whose signature act was to cut the babies from the wombs of pregnant women. (Question for you military types: How elite can you be if you never actually fight an armed enemy, but only murder civilians?)

If you’re interested in learning more about the genocide in Guatemala the Catholic Church, after years of investigation, produced a report called Guatemala: Never Again. The Archbishop of Guatemala, Juan Gerardi was warned not to publish it, but in 1998 he defied death threats and did so. Two days later his body was found outside his home, his head had been crushed with a concrete block. Three military officers and a priest were convicted of his murder.

Boy, weren’t those Sandinistas terrible? You know, Hugo Chávez is a dictator? The oligarchy that run Guatemala though, those guys are all right.

You have to wonder at the ignorance of Americans who would ask undocumented Guatemalans working in the US, “What part of illegal don’t you understand?” Overthrowing foreign governments is not legal. Aiding and supporting genocide is not legal. There is a mountain of illegal acts perpetrated by the US government against the people of Guatemala that have resulted in the desperate poverty that drives them to leave home and family to seek work in the United States. It’s perverse. It’s as though the police beat and rob an innocent man. They take his job and burn down his house. Then they warn him that it is illegal to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, or steal bread.

I remembered a lot of this recent history from the ’80s, but learning more of the particulars from people who had lived through it, while at the scene of the crime, put me in a near constant state of rage. The perpetrators of the genocide have immunity from prosecution in the 1996 peace accords. Some are still in the military, some are in Congress. One, Gen Molina, came in second in the presidential election last year. Every time I saw a policeman or soldier who looked over 40 I thought, “What did you do during the war, you murderous bastard?” I felt like I was living in Germany in 1948 and there had been no denazification. I was furious that I was sharing the streets with war criminals.

After a couple weeks of this I thought, “Well, how new is this anyway?” I’ve probably passed war criminals many times on the streets in the States. US soldiers in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq tortured, raped and killed civilians. I may have ridden the train with one of the bastards who trained the Kaibiles or the Salvadoran Atlacatl Battalion. Henry Kissenger won the Nobel Peace Prize and lives fat and happy in the States. Elliot Abrams got a presidential pardon and helps make US foreign policy to this day. This new perspective helped me contain my fury a bit. It’s less acute, but it’s now coming home with me. I’m not sure if that counts as feeling “better”.

Today, Guatemala is overseen by a government so corrupt and incompetent that it can only reliably do the minimum that a state must do: prevent a new state from rising up and replacing it.

The army has no legitimate reason to exist. Guatemala has not fought a war against a neighbor since 1871. The richest country in Central America, Costa Rica, doesn’t even have an army. Guatemala’s army only exists to repress the people. With arms and training from the US government, they do that well enough.

The police are useless at preventing crime — all the Guatemalans that I spoke with think the police are involved in it themselves, especially the illegal drug trade. I’ll cite some statistics to try to give you some idea of the scale of the problem, but keep in mind that in a country where suspicion of the police is near universal, and so most crime unreported, official statistics are suspect. The official statistics put the violent death rate in Guatemala at about 45.2 per 100,000 inhabitants. In an article entitled “Guatemala: A Failed State?” the Spanish newspaper El País put the number at 60 per 100,000 (for comparison it says the rate in Spain is less than three). According to the FBI the rate in the US is 5.9 per 100,000.

Whatever the real numbers are, everyone everyone in Guatemala is preoccupied by crime. In the countryside we were told not to go out walking after dark and the mountain school was guarded all night by a gentleman with a machete. We were told not to go hiking on the hill that looms over the Xela school without a large group because of the many muggings that had occurred there. During my stay students and teachers were mugged in Xela’s central square – the teacher on a Sunday afternoon. Yet, it is commonly held that Xela is much safer than Guatemala City. The crime wave is even flowing into the Spanish colonial disneyland that is Antigua, threatening the all-important tourist dollars.


The school administration advised us that, if we became ill or injured, not to go to the public hospital for they had no medicines to give us. We were to go to a private hospital that serves only those who can afford to pay. Unless they have a private well and filters people must buy potable water from private vendors. Some of the rural poor resort to drinking from rivers and streams with predictable results for child mortality. According to the UN 8% of Guatemalans do not have access to safe drinking water. As I mentioned, no governments, local or national, collect trash. So people live amidst trash heaps or burn their trash, and inhale the fumes.

According to UNESCO, 30% of Guatemalans are illiterate. Last month recent statistics were in the news that showed that, at least in the department of Quiche, illiteracy is rising.

The government does not provide free primary education. The nominal minimum wage in the countryside is 70 Quetzales (Q) per day (it’s more in the cities). That’s about $10 US. But laborers in the country are actually paid only Q20-Q30 per day. Women are paid less than men and children are paid less still. Public school has an enrollment fee of Q150 per year, but parents also have to provide uniforms, text books and supplies. Enrollment fees for Catholic primary school are Q300. Just to make the public school enrollment fee for one child a family with one minimum-wage earner would give up 5 to 8 days’ pay. And families in Guatemala never have just one child. Thanks to social norms, the lack of respect for women’s rights, and the Catholic Church’s disapproval of contraceptives, Guatemalans have large families. Sometimes they have to choose which of many children will attend school. If only one can go it is invariably the eldest boy. So, illiteracy is much more frequent among women than men.

People are poor. Families are large. School is expensive. So, children are put to work (see Understanding Children’s Work in Guatemala). According to the International Labor Organization (ILO) one fifth of children in Guatemala between the ages of 7 and 14 work. Some sell things in the street. Others work in mining, garbage picking or the fireworks industry. Most prevalent by far is farm work.

Even for those who do learn to read, what of it? There are no bookstores in the countryside that I saw. Books cost about the same in Guatemala as they do in the US, making them an expensive luxury. There are no public libraries. Public schools don’t have them. The few rural houses that I visited had no books. So what are they to read, street signs?

I found this lack of books more upsetting than illiteracy. I didn’t learn to read until I was 8 years old. What motivated me to become a reader was that I could find a book about any subject in the world that interested me. From dinosaurs to Greek mythology, they were all available at the library. To this day all my plans to improve myself or the world around me begin with a search for a book. What if you cannot get your hands on a book at all?


Some schools have computers with the internet. This helps. There are hundreds of Spanish-language newspapers online and Project Gutenberg puts books with expired copyright on-line were they can be downloaded and read for free. But the number of computers is few and the children are many. Time on them must be shared.

Clearly, Guatemala needs profound social change. But the republic is a sham-democracy of the rich. Electoral politics are dominated by two factions: one conservative, the other outright fascist. Neither show any sign of being interested in land reform or public works beyond road building. The oligarchy that runs Guatemala does not care if they live in a cesspool so long as their own individual lily pad is clean and shiny. Gives you an idea why Hugo Chávez refers to the analogous class of Venezuelan oligarchs as los esqualidos — the squalid ones.

Even if led by politicians of good will, I don’t think that state agencies that are fundamentally corrupt can serve as effective instruments of social change. Once the culture of an institution or agency is set can it be changed?. You can remove some of the worst bad-apples, but can you remove enough to change the institutional culture? Can you replace everyone?

Change will only come from below. But my teachers told me more than once that “There is no social movement in Guatemala.” I’m not sure how I should take this. Perhaps they were referring to an old-left ideal of a unified organization with a logo and a charismatic, fearless-leader type. Or, perhaps, they were right.

The former leadership of the guerillas, the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG), have splintered into many small parties and organizations that have little influence and many disagreements. Even if they were solidly together, I’m not sure I’d put much hope in organizations that seem to have an old-school Guevarist Communist ideology.

México also does not have a unified social movement. But they have a wealth of movements like the APPO in Oaxaca, Andres Manuel López Obrador’s campaign to prevent the privatization of the state oil company PEMEX, and the Zapatista-founded Otra Campaign that is explicitly a movement of movements.

The struggle of individuals and communities for land continues in Guatemala. Peasants squat and work idle land. But it doesn’t seem to be widespread or organized as it is with the MST in Brazil.

I visited an organic, coöperative coffee farm run by ex-guerillas near Colomba called Santa Anita La Unión. This seems like a very worthy, hopeful project. According to the members whom I spoke with it is run in a profoundly democratic and ecologically sound way. I don’t think there are enough such projects to constitute a movement. But they could be the seeds of one.

Perhaps, Guatemala is still too exhausted from 35 years of civil war and genocide. Perhaps the lack of any national, leftist media and the more fundamental problem of illiteracy prevent the connections that could give rise to a social movement. I don’t see a lot of hope in Guatemala. The spirit of resistance seems isolated, dormant. There are many opportunities for charity, few for solidarity that I could see.


Even though I came to Guatemala to study and not just to look at ancient ruins and mountain lakes, as I walked the streets I kept hearing in my head the Sex Pistols’ song “Holidays in the Sun” — which opens with Johnny Rotten screeching “a cheap holiday in other people’s misery”. But that’s just me. If you can hike up the pyramids of Tikal or enjoy a nice lunch in Antigua while remaining oblivious to the poverty and violence that surrounds you, Guatemala might be the vacation spot for you.
All photos by myself except “toting firewood”, which was taken by Michael Ewens. Be well, Michael. Thanks to Juliette Doman for research help. The map of Guatemala is courtesy of the Central Intelligence Agency.