Mark Twain has been quoted for having uttered the words “history does not repeat itself, but rather it rhymes”. Eleven years ago, I lived in the homes of the Ixil ethnic group, in communities of victims of the massacres perpetrated during the dictatorial regime of General Efrain Rios Montt. During this time, I was carrying out an investigation on the impact of Guatemala’s forty year armed conflict in the Ixil. The Ixiles described to me in detail the military and paramilitary actions that culminated what the UN sponsored Truth Commission described, in 1999, as ‘acts of genocide’ and in crimes against humanity. Today, three decades after the end of one of the most brutal counterinsurgency campaigns in the Latin American region, as a result of the interminable struggles of courageous Guatemalans, finally General Efrain Rios Montt and his colleague, General José Mauricio Rodríguez, face charges of genocide. Ixiles now tell their testimonies to the whole world. However, for now, the trial remains at a standstill, given the tactics of the defence to stall the trial and impede the slow, but inevitable march of justice.
The truth-seeking in the legal sphere driven by the survivors’ organisation the Association for Justice and Reconciliation and their legal representatives, the Center for Human Rights Legal Action represents the first time in the domestic courts of Latin America that a former Head of State is obliged to answer for the crime of genocide, a crime punishable in the aftermath of the Second World War, typified in response to the Nazi Holocaust. Significantly, the crime of genocide is much more than the sum of its legal parts; rather, its commission implies the existence of a state and society suffering from profound ethnic division, socio-cultural and political dilemmas, and lacking just and equitable norms and values, and a consensual and internalised national identity.Within the contemporary history that acknowledges the commission of genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, the scream of the Guatemalan genocide has remained inaudible. Moreover, and significantly, the case of Guatemala has been excluded from those countries recognised as having experienced genocide provided by the British organisation, The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, which commemorates this heinous crime on January 27th each year. So far, then, in addition to receiving financial and military support from a number of countries during the counterinsurgency campaign that defined decisively the genocide, the Guatemalan state, which still vehemently denies the genocide, and those individuals that share this vision and who have seethed into the public imaginary during the last weeks, have enjoyed the complicity of sectors of the international community in hiding this dark and macabre history.
Despite the mention of “acts of genocide” that appears in the report of the Historical Clarification Commission, there has been no explicit international recognition of the occurrence of the crime in Guatemala. What would explain the absence of the Guatemalan case in the history of mass atrocities at the international level? The lack of strategic geopolitical interest in the case of Guatemala during the immediate post-conflict period, unlike the above cases, perhaps could represent one of the decisive factors in its invisibility. However, international involvement in the internal dynamics that shaped the conflict during the Cold War and international development aid in its aftermath have been systematic. The international financial and military support for the insurgency, particularly from the US government, was celebrated by political and economic elites, in fact, it was instrumental in the military outcome of the conflict. At no time was it perceived as a violation of sovereignty by Guatemalan elites. However, pamphlets distributed this week by organisations that oppose the trial of Rios Montt and General Mauricio Rodriguez, and popular mobilisations in Guatemala City have called for ‘internationals’ to stop intervening in Guatemala’s internal affairs. The Foundation Against Terrorism has alleged that funding of human rights organisations by Norway and Sweden is a violation of the country’s sovereignty. Guatemalan elites employ the sovereignty card strategically when it suits them, as they have done systematically in the past. History does not repeat, it rhymes.
The post-conflict reconstruction process has been characterised by a struggle to decipher and collectively build the political, economic, legal and socio-cultural parameters to determine the future of the country. At the same time, the process of understanding and clarifying the past represents a key political debate, where truth and history are not predetermined but rather mutable objects whose narration inevitably contributes to the construction of collective memory and the identity of the nation-state. The trauma and violence inflicted by the security forces during the conflict broke intentionally cognitive assumptions about the self and the world and imposed a state of silence on those voices that sought to critique Guatemala’s racist oligarchy. During this time, legal impunity for the perpetrators of mass atrocities has been accompanied by social impunity: the indifference of a deeply racist society to the suffering of indigenous peoples. This ethnically diverse society has experienced the impact of the conflict in a disjunctive manner, building contradictory truths about the historical conditions that precipitated the violence in the first place. The post-conflict period has been a dialogue of silence about the incontrovertible truth of Guatemala’s genocide, leading, ultimately, to a failed process of national reconciliation. What do Guatemalans fear in recognising the truth of their dark and brutal past?
In April 2013, the calm and assertive voices of the witnesses from the Ixil forced the whole world to hear and reflect upon Guatemala’s mass atrocities. Guatemalans are now being forced to look in the mirror and see their own reflection, as Dorian Gray saw the hideous painting that evidenced his own disfigurement. The witnesses in the trial, and Ixil women in particular, testifying in front of the Court of High Impact Cases on the sexual violence and massacres they suffered, have marked a before and an after in Latin American history, and broken the perception and the reality of a State, of a military institution that are untouchable and unaccountable. The legal truth seeking by courageous Guatemalans will continue, even if the Constitutional Court annuls the trial to date and returns it to a previous stage with a new judge who, in the past, has institutionalised impunity through a series of questionable rulings. This ongoing process is essential to prevent genocidal history from repeating itself or, in fact, from rhyming and places at the centre of the debate the question as to whether, at least in the minds of the victims, the genocide and its enduring impact have indeed ever ended. History then will continue to be made.
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