A young human-rights worker explicates a half-century’s violence and terror in a small Central American nation.
Wilkinson served on the “truth commission” whose report on Guatemala “prompted Bill Clinton to do something that would have been unthinkable for a US president during the cold war: issue a formal apology for the US government’s past support of abusive regimes in Guatemala.” Those regimes carried on a war that had been fought for generations by the European colonial powers against the native Maya population. The Indians were merely striving for better working and living conditions, but the government created by a US-backed coup in 1954 was able to frame this long war in the context of an anticommunist crusade. Hundreds of thousands of Indians were virtually enslaved on coffee plantations supplying the brewpots of America and Europe, while many others were murdered by death squads and the army. Seeking witnesses to these events among people understandably reluctant to talk to a white man, Wilkinson eventually turned up the sad stories and fascinating details that pepper his narrative history: the tales of disappeared villages and massacred Indians who did not “cooperate actively in the progress of civilization,” of desperate relatives seeking some sort of communion with the dead through the offices of spiritualists and priests; the morose confessions of a former army officer, trained by American instructors to “think in the political terms of democracy versus totalitarianism, United States versus Soviet Union,” who participated in the bloodshed before dedicating himself to political reform; portraits of plantation owners and workers locked in a cycle of dependence and patronage that must be undone before things can change at all, much less for the better.
Worthy of comparison to Roger Cohen’s Hearts Grown Brutal (1998), Eric Carlson’s I Remember Julia (1998), and other fine studies of savage wars in little-known places.