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Years of Terror, Decades of Denial

SILENCE ON THE MOUNTAIN: Stories of Terror, Betrayal, and Forgetting in Guatemala, By Daniel Wilkinson ,Houghton Mifflin: 374 pp., $24

September 29, 2002|NICK CULLATHER | Nick Cullather is the author of "Secret History:The CIA's Classified Account of Its Operations in Guatemala, 1952-1954."

Guatemala's history slips at times into magical realism. In 1902, President Manuel Estrada Cabrera, a character who might have been contrived by Isabel Allende, issued a decree denying the eruption of the Santa Maria volcano, which was at that moment raining ash and flaming debris on the capital. Rather than alarm European investors, Estrada Cabrera sacrificed truth to power, an option exercised again half a century later, this time by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, which announced by radio to the Guatemalan people the existence of a civil war that did not, until then, exist.

The imaginary war soon became real enough, and by the 1980s, the Reagan administration was officially denying massacres perpetrated by the Guatemalan army in return for the army's help in lying to Congress about illegal arms shipments to Nicaraguan Contras. Prisoners of the tales others told about them, Guatemalans expressed dissent by inventing dark legends of robachicos, gringos who came to steal the kidneys of children for sale in American hospitals. With history splintered into a thousand private memories, stories could no longer explain, only conceal.

In 1996, as part of a peace agreement between the Guatemalan resistance and the government, the Comision para el Esclarecimiento Historico, sanctioned by the United Nations, began a search for the "authentic truth" of Guatemala's dirty war amid the debris of deceit and betrayal dating back to 1954. Daniel Wilkinson, a Harvard law student, volunteered to gather stories from La Igualdad, a town in the coffee piedmont surrounded by plantations where the dark glossy beans are harvested and sent north to fill the bins at espresso bars in the United States.

Wilkinson had tried for several years to break the barrier of silence surrounding the community's past. Harvard connections had opened the doors of generals and landowners, but workers and ordinary townspeople deflected his questions with evangelical slogans. The act of storytelling required a trust that years of psychological warfare had systematically broken. "No one believes in anyone anymore," one woman explained.

The silence was thickest around the years immediately before the 1954 coup. During the preceding decade, presidents Juan Jose Arevalo and Jacobo Arbenz attempted to modernize the Guatemalan state. In the early 20th century, law and repression had built the coffee economy, displacing Mayan peoples and binding them in debt to plantations owned by German immigrants.

Arevalo and Arbenz set out to replace this feudalism, instituting a minimum wage and banning compulsory labor. In 1952, Arbenz issued Decree 900, a land reform that might have made Guatemala's social volcano disappear. Leaving the coffee and banana groves intact, it gave workers just enough property to change them from dependents into consumers. It changed the world of La Igualdad, but few would speak of it to Wilkinson. An ex-guerrilla could only recall that his parents had told him "about how for a short time we had been able to live with dignity."

In 1954, the CIA, in one of its first successful covert actions, overthrew Arbenz and his reforms, and Wilkinson's research reveals how thoroughly the counterrevolution stripped away 10 years of progress. Workers were told that the sewing machines and motorbikes bought with their earnings were not theirs and had to be "returned" to the landlord. Plantations expelled workers who had unionized or accepted property under the reform. And there were arrests and executions. Guatemalans learned to fear "politics" that could make jobs, homes and people disappear, and so the memory of what was once hoped for vanished instead.

After a peace settlement ended the civil war in 1996, fragments of the past returned to La Igualdad. Lists of the disappeared emerged from hiding places. Guerrillas came back from the mountains, and the army's presence became less threatening. Wilkinson writes after the manner of Philip Gourevitch ("We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families"), although somewhat less sparely, describing interviews but also the motorcycle ride to the interview, the sudden tropical cloudburst afterward and the hotel rooms to which he arrived, muddy and discouraged, at the end of a long day. Gourevitch's account of the Rwandan genocide asks how a nation heals from the shared memory of trauma; Wilkinson wants to know where the memories come from and who fills the silences in the aftermath of a national catastrophe.

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