Anybody even remotely familiar with Latin America history is aware that indigenous peoples were subject to horrific processes of dispossession, repression, racism, and extermination throughout both the colonial and the national periods. Sadly, destroying native lands and communities in the name of greed remains a major issue in the twenty-first century:
In a rare encounter between the Ayoreo tribe, Paraguay’s Environment Minister, and a Brazilian rancher responsible for the large-scale destruction of the tribe’s ancestral land, the rancher has rebuffed the Ayoreo’s plea to stop destroying their forest, the last refuge of their uncontacted relatives. [...]
Ranching company Yaguarete Pora S.A., owned by Ferraz, has been illegally clearing the Ayoreo’s forest to make way for beef destined for the European, Russian and African markets, and was recently granted an environmental license to cut down more forest, causing global outrage.
Obviously, this is horrible on any number of levels. The blatant disregard for indigenous rights and the obviously anti-indigenous attitudes of the rancher and his company deny treating indigenous peoples as equals under the law, thus dehumanizing them and reinforcing structures of anti-indigenous racism that have operated in Latin America for centuries. And this is not just a South American problem, or an indigenous problem; that the land is being cleared to provide European markets with food really does make this a global issue, providing yet another reminder of the tragic roots that can and do rest behind much of industrial food production. And while our focus regularly (and not unfairly) falls on deforestation in the Amazon, a recent study found that the highest rate of deforestation in the world is in Paraguay’s Chaco, where the Ayoreo (and others) live. What’s happening in Paraguay is in many ways an old story – outside economic powers disregarding indigenous rights and threatening indigenous peoples while also destroying the environment, all in the name of global trade. That it is an old story, yet one we still see today, is yet another sad reminder of the ways that power structures dating back to colonial times insidiously persist well into the 21st century under new guises.
-Peru has launched its biggest exhumation ever, as it tries to find victims from the violence between the Shining Path and the Peruvian state between 1980 and 2000.
-Peru is not the only country exhuming victims of violence. In an attempt to find two missing police officers, forensic scientists in Mexico got more than they expected when their search led to the discovery of 64 bodies buried in mass graves in Jalisco and Michoacán, with the bodies showing signs of torture and indicating they are the victims of ongoing violence between cartels. In spite of the discovery, the two police officers remain missing.
-In the wake of a close election and allegations of electoral fraud, Honduras will hold a recount after thousands took to the streets in support of Xiomara Castro, who allegedly lost the election to conservative candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez (who got 37% of the total vote) and whose husband, former president Manuel Zelaya, was removed from office in a coup d’etat in 2009. The recount comes amidst outsiders’ observations allegations of chicanery and after Honduras’s electoral council was very slow to issue the data from the November 24 election, adding to suspicions of fraud.
-Rio de Janeiro governor Sérgio Cabral announced that he will leave office 9 months early after seeing his popularity plummet in the midst and wake of protests last June, when millions of Brazilians took to the streets to protest a number of causes, including political elites’ disconnect and corruption. Cabral himself became a particular target of that anger in Rio de Janeiro.
-The bad news for governors is not limited to Brazil. In Mexico, former governor of Tamaulipas Tomás Yarrington faces charges in the US of having ties to the drug cartels while he was in office during his 1999-2004 governorship.
-Costa Rica closed a probe into the 1984 bombing that killed 7 journalists and Nicaraguan Contras and wounded 20 more people, after forensics revealed that the attacker died in the late-1980s.
-Mexico’s Senate has approved electoral reform that would allow reelection and would strengthen Congressional power in the face of executive power even while approving President Enrique Peña’s efforts to increasingly privatize the state-run PEMEX oil company in Mexico.
-Francisco Flores, the former president of El Salvador for the conservative ARENA party, is under investigation for the misuse of upwards of $10 million that Taiwan donated to El Salvador during his presidency, money that apparently never made it to its intended institutional destinations.
-Finally, in Brazil, Guaraní indigenous leader Ambrosio Vilhava, whose struggle to help protect Guaraní land was documented in the 2008 film Birdwatchers, was found stabbed to death after his father-in-law allegedly killed him. While the circumstances around his death remain unclear, the fact remains that his death marks the loss of an important activist and leader in Brazilian indigenous mobilization.
-Yesterday, Chile marked the fortieth anniversary of the coup that overthrew democratically-elected president Salvador Allende and ushered in the 17-year military dictatorship that killed over 3000 people and tortured tens of thousands. Even while the date was commemorated, the search for justice for some continues. Family members of murdered folk singer Victor Jara, whose hands the military cut off before killing him in 1973, have sued an officer tied to the murder who now lives in Florida, while former friends and colleagues of US journalist Charles Horman demand an investigation into his own death in Chile shortly after the coup (a story that was portrayed in Costa Gavras’s 1982 film Missing).
-Of course, Chile is not the only country continuing to pursue justice decades after the rise of right-wing military regimes. It recently extradited judge Otilio Romano to Argentina, where Romano is wanted for his role in cases of torture, disappearances, and other crimes.
-In the wake of wire-tapping scandals that revealed the US spied on Mexico and Brazil, the Obama administration has begun trying to patch up its relationship with Brazil in the wake of the revelations (and as President Dilma Rousseff weighs whether or not to cancel a planned state visit to the US in October).
-Thousands of teachers in Mexico continue to take to the streets in protest of a new educational law that would create mandatory evaluations, reforms they say erode labor rights.
-As Cuban doctors continue to travel to Brazil to help with medical care in the country (one of the many issues raised in massive protests throughout Brazil in June this year) and even enjoy the support of a majority of Brazilians, that has not stopped them from facing racism from some Brazilians, including Brazilian doctors who oppose the Cuban doctors’ presence, a powerful reminder of the ways racism operates within and in between Latin American countries.
-Another former Guatemalan guerrilla is set to face trial for his role in killings during the civil war that left 250,000 Guatemalans dead or missing, providing another reminder that the court system in Guatemala has gone after more than just military human rights violators.
-Brazilian prosecutors have launched an effort to prevent Canadian mining company Belo Sun mining from creating an open-pit mine in the Amazonian basin, arguing such a project will devastate indigenous communities and the environment.
This is sickening and horrible:
A construction company has essentially destroyed one of Belize’s largest Mayan pyramids with backhoes and bulldozers to extract crushed rock for a road-building project, authorities announced on Monday.
The head of the Belize Institute of Archaeology, Jaime Awe, said the destruction at the Nohmul complex in northern Belize was detected late last week. The ceremonial center dates back at least 2,300 years and is the most important site in northern Belize, near the border with Mexico. [...]
Nohmul sat in the middle of a privately owned sugar cane field, and lacked the even stone sides frequently seen in reconstructed or better-preserved pyramids. But Awe said the builders could not possibly have mistaken the pyramid mound, which is about 100 feet tall, for a natural hill because the ruins were well-known and the landscape there is naturally flat.
This is not the first time the destruction of ruins has taken place in recent memory. Still, there is almost never a time where wanton destruction of valuable historical sites isn’t awful. It’s reasonable to build paved roads, but there had to be better ways to go about it than such destruction. It’s just an awful story.
Recently, an image had been making its way around on social media. The image showed Chief Raoni, an indigenous leader in traditional dress, crying, purportedly weeping at the Brazilian government’s decision to proceed with the Belo Monte dam. However, that simplistic narrative, while employed for the causes of indigenous rights and environmentalism does a disservice to the actual culture, life, and story of the indigenous man and his people, as Angela Kristin Vandenbroek reported:
The picture is not of Chief Raoni crying and grieving about the Belo Monte Dam. The picture is not a picture of grief at all. His tears were tears of joy after being reunited with a family member, behavior which is customary among the Kayapó. Chief Raoni is not a powerless man fighting an impossible battle. In the fight to protect the Amazon and its people, he is a leader who has been working with local, national and international communities since 1978, when he appeared in a documentary named Raoni on the deforestation of the Amazon. Since then, he has befriended Sting and the President of France, has written a memoir, has traveled around the world, has facebook, twitterand a website, and although he has not yet stopped the building of the dam he and those he has collaborated with have managed to delay, hold up and tie up the project with court battles, controversy and petitions for thirty-eight years. He has also managed to rally the support of 438,707 (and counting) people worldwide using an online petition.
As Vendenbroek points out, the image alone suggests a powerless indigenous man overcome by an all-powerful state; as his actual biography reveals, he is anything but powerless.
Nor is that the only problem. Though Vandenbroek does not extend the analysis this far, the image also reinforces stereotypes that are ensconced in Latin American history dating back to the first colonial contacts with Europeans. The early decades of contact spurred a whole series of narratives and portrayals of indigenous peoples as backwards, uncivilized, and uncouth. Sometimes, these narratives were “positive,” viewing indigenous peoples as living in virtually Edenic existence; more often, they were derogatory, used to cast an “uncivilized” other that stood in contrast to the “civilized” European (a status not all Europeans were convinced applied to Europe). In these narratives, the indigenous peoples were destined (or doomed) to surrender to European notions of civilization and “progress,” be it through extermination or through conversion. Certainly, such tasks were easier said than done, but early in the colonial era, at least, Europeans imagined a world in which the “noble” or “uncivilized” native gave way to European domination of the Americas.
Though the contexts and centuries have changed, the image of Chief Raoni accomplishes a similar task; instead of colonialism or Europeanness, however, “modernity” and technology are the new unstoppable forces, but the indigenous culture defeated and forced to surrender to these new understandings of “progress” is still present. Yes, the tale is now cast as tragic, but the portrayal still draws on stereotypical notions of indigenous cultures as less technological or more “traditional,” and thus, noble, but doomed to fail in the face of “progress” (now defined in terms of “modernity” and technology, but once upon a time defined in terms of “civilization” and Europeanness). Indeed, it is fair to ask: would the image have resonated quite as strongly with people on social media had Raoni dressed in blue jeans and a t-shirt, or even a business suit? Perhaps it’s cynical, but it doesn’t seem unfair to suggest the answer very well could be “no.”
To be clear, the impacts of the Belo Monte dam will be devastating to indigenous groups and environment alike, and it seems likely that tears have already been shed over its impact on indigenous communities and others who are already being direclty affected by its construction. But that is not what this meme is ultimately about – it’s about a mis-representation of indigenous cultures in order to advance a cause. One can agree with the cause, but it would be better if it did not rely on such stereotypical memes and narratives to bring home its point.
-Though the higher-profile case, the conviction of Guatemala’s Efraín Ríos Montt was not the only triumph for human rights and justice last week. In Uruguay, General Miguel Dalmao was sentenced to 28 years in prison for his role in the murder of a professor during Uruguay’s military dictatorship (1973-1985).
-Brazilian indigenous peoples have once again occupied the site of the Belo Monte Dam to protest the impact it would have on their lands and on the environment, even while government officials accused the indigenous people of being tied to illegal gold-mining. Though failing to provide any actual evidence of mining among indigenous peoples, the government’s charge is discursively not-insignificant; illegal gold mining takes a significant toll on the environment, while arguments against the dam are often predicated upon the negative impact it will have on the environment. By leveling such accusations, the government seems to be trying to delegitimize indigenous claims by portraying them (again, without offering any actual evidence) as hypocrites who protest environmental damage even while enriching themselves through other forms of environmental degradation.
-In another reminder of the detrimental impacts of liberalization of markets and free trade agreements on local economies, over one hundred thousand Colombian farmers have gone on strike in protest over the weakening of the Colombian agricultural sector, as cheaper products from North America and elsewhere flood the Colombian market, destroying the livelihoods and jobs of Colombian farmers.
-In a powerful reminder that in military dictatorships, members of the military can and do also suffer repression, sixteen Brazilian soldiers spoke before the Brazilian Truth Commission, testifying about the persecution and torture they suffered when they remained loyal to the government of João Goulart, whom the military overthrew in a coup in 1964.
-Pope Francis proclaimed sainthood status for hundreds this past weekend. Included on the list were Mexican María Guadalupe García Zavala and Colombian Laura Montoya, the first saint from Colombia. However, not all popular saints (those whom people praise as saints but who lack official canonization from the Church) received the Pope’s endorsement, as the Vatican recently declared Mexico’s Santa Muerte, or “Holy Death,” to be “blasphemous.”
-Hundreds of Cubans, led by Mariela Castro, marched against homophobia in Cuba, seeking to further equal rights and treatment for members of the LGBT who have faced cultural, social, and political repression over the years.
-Speaking of homophobia and hatred, homophobic Brazilian congressman Marco Feliciano (who is currently the head of Congress’s human rights commission, offering a sad commentary on the nature of Brazilian congressional politics), cancelled a hearing on a homophobic project to find a “cure” for homosexuality after having earlier taken to Twitter to defend his project.
-After months of relative silence, former Haitian leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide has recently begun speaking out about the challenges facing Haiti and offering some criticisms of the current government of Michel Martelly.
-Finally, Brazil has announced a plan to bring thousands of Cuban doctors to Brazil to help in Brazil’s underserved areas. Greg Weeks does a great job unpacking the various aspects of the story, including how the plan reflects ongoing inequalities in Brazil (a sample take-away point: “When asked if any doctor was better than no doctor, CFM President Carlos Vital responded in the negative. “Pseudo treatment is worse than no treatment,” he said. “If you don’t have a doctor in your city, you can go to the next city and have a quality doctor.” Sure, just go 100 miles to the next city if you don’t have a doctor. Nothing to see here!”)
For those who missed it yesterday, after a long and curious trial that saw plenty of twists and turns, a Guatemalan court found former general and military ruler Efraín Ríos Montt guilty of genocide and human rights violations. Ríos Montt, who governed Guatemala from 1982-1983, oversaw some of the worst human rights abuses in a thirty-six year civil war full of them. Indeed, in 1982, alone, violence and scorched earth tactics that the Guatemalan military employed killed around 75,000 people, with an overwhelming number of them Guatemala’s indigenous peoples. In its ruling, the court found Ríos Montt guilty of ordering the murders of 1771 Ixil Mayans during his time in office. Given the targeting of a particular ethnic group for extermination, Ríos Montt faced charges not only of human rights violations, but also of genocide, a first in Latin American history. With his conviction, the court sentenced Ríos Montt to a total of 80 years in prison – 50 for genocide, and 30 for human rights violations.
Of course, while the conviction marks the end of the trial, it is only the beginning of the legal processes. Ríos Montt’s defense has already begun to mount its challenges to the ruling, appealing to the Constitutional Court. Expect future appeals to refer to Ríos Montt’s age or his health (an appeal Peru’s Alberto Fujimori also recently made, albeit unsuccessfully and based on false evidence). And of course, Judge Carol Patricia Flores’s efforts to annul the trial and return it to where it stood in November 2011 (efforts that Judge Yasmín Barrios overruled) provides a legal opening for the prosecution to demand Ríos Montt be released. And even if neither Barrios or Flores ever have anything to do with the case again, there are still legal openings for Ríos Montt. Other judges can still get involved in the case, and unfortunately, as important as this conviction is, the fact remains that the elite and powerful still often benefit from their connections to judges, be it through personal connections, financial connections, or even intimidation. And there certainly was evidence of the potential for intimidation in the courtroom yesterday. Such intimidation could be used not just against the Ixil who were there commemorating the triumph of justice, but also against judges in the country. And even if intimidation is unnecessary, it’s entirely reasonable to believe the appeals process could drag on for some time. All of this is to say that the conviction is not the end of the matter, and Ríos Montt can quite possibly die outside of a prison cell.
And then there’s the question of prosecuting others involved in the human rights violations and genocide that took place in Guatemala. Though Ríos Montt is ultimately responsible for the murders of tens of thousands of people during his rule, there were still those officers and soldiers who carried out the extermination of the Ixil and others. Among those linked to what the courts have now ruled was genocide is none other than current president Otto Perez Molina, who was an officer in the “Ixil Triangle” where many of the murders took place. Though currently enjoying presidential immunity, will prosecutors eventually investigate Perez Molina himself? Or other officers who enforced Ríos Montt’s orders on the ground? This remains to be seen. Ríos Montt’s conviction should not be the last, but the first of many convictions for human rights violations and genocide; yet it is far from certain that that will end up being the case.
Yet even all of these complications cannot erase what happened yesterday. The appeals process is not limited to Ríos Montt; should any ruling come that favors him, prosecutors, victims, rights groups, and others can likewise appeal, meaning the legal proceedings can continue. Like Augusto Pincohet, who faced indictment and house arrest but died before he could be convicted, Ríos Montt, who is 86, will spend the rest of his life in legal battles. His name, his reputation, and his legal standing have fallen beyond repair; in simple (but not-unfair) terms, he’s become a “villain” in history, something that the narrative history of Guatemala has long demonstrated but that the court system itself has now upheld. Any potential legal technicalities going forward cannot undo the legal and symbolic fact that Ríos Montt became the first Latin American military leader convicted for genocide, and the first leader in the world to be found guilty of genocide in his home country’s own court system. From now on, histories of Guatemala can refer to Ríos Montt as a man convicted of genocide. The conviction provides some small (if still incomplete) sense of closure to his victims and their families. And that in and of itself is a profoundly important thing.
As the trial of Efraín Ríos Montt appears to be headed back to square one after the Constitutional Court’s ruling, NACLA has a fascinating piece up on Israel’s ties to Ríos Montt:
Known as “Brother Efraín,” a fundamentalist convert of the California-based “Church of the Word” (Verbo), Rios Montt thanked his God in heaven for anointing him as Guatemala’s president, but on earth he thanked Israel for establishing his March 1982 military coup. Israeli press reported that 300 Israeli advisors helped execute the coup, which succeeded so smoothly, Brother Efraín told an ABC News reporter, “because many of our soldiers were trained by Israelis.” Through the height of la violencia (“the violence”) or desencarnacíon (“loss of flesh, loss of being”), between the late 1970s to early 1980s, Israel assisted every facet of attack on the Guatemalan people. Largely taking over for the United States on the ground in Guatemala (with Washington retaining its role as paymaster, while also maintaining a crucial presence in the country), Israel had become the successive governments’ main provider of counterinsurgency training, light and heavy arsenals of weaponry, aircraft, state-of-the-art intelligence technology and infrastructure, and other vital assistance.
[...] A February 1983 CBS Evening News with Dan Rather program reported, Israel “didn’t send down congressmen, human rights activists or priests” to strengthen Israel’s special relationship with Guatemala. Israel “taught the Guatemalans how to build an airbase. They set up their intelligence network, tried and tested on the [Israeli-occupied Palestinian] West Bank and Gaza, designed simply to beat the Guerilla.” Timemagazine (03/28/83) chimed in that Guatemalan army “outposts in the jungle have become near replicas of Israeli army field camps.” At one of these Israeli outposts replicated in Huehuetenango (among the areas hardest hit by the genocide, with the second highest number of massacres registered by a UN truth commission), Time continues: “Colonel Gustavo Menendez Herrera pointed out that his troops are using Israeli communications equipment, mortars, submachine guns, battle gear and helmets.” Naturally, as Army Chief of Staff Benedicto Lucas García had stated previously: “The Israeli soldier is a model and an example to us.”
In spite of emphasis on US support for Guatemala and other brutal regimes in Central America in the 1980s (and certainly the US absolutely was the keystone in supporting these regimes), it was not the sole actor. Both Augusto Pinochet’s government and the Argentine military dictatorship of 1976-1983 sent weapons and military aides to right-wing military regimes in Central America. That Israel, more often than not an ally of the US during the 1980s, was also a willing supporter of Ríos Montt is an untold part of the story, but not necessarily a surprising one, for rarely do authoritarian regimes work in a bubble cut off from international support from a variety of countries.
And of course, that also means Israel was directly tied to a regime that committed genocidal acts itself. There is a quotation from Ríos Montt’s own press secretary in the 1980s that gets at the heart of the mindset behind the regime’s brutal tactics, which may have killed tens of thousands of Guatemalans in 1982 alone:
Look, the problem of the war is not just a question of who is shooting. For each one who is shooting there are ten working behind him.” Rios Montt’s press secretary added: “The guerrillas won over many Indian collaborators. Therefore, the Indians were subversives, right? And how do you fight subversion? Clearly, you had to kill Indians because they were collaborating with subversion. And then they say, ‘You’re massacring innocent people’. But they weren’t innocent. They had sold out to subversion.
This certainly appears to be genocide, or “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” And it is not as if the targeting of indigenous groups was a secret even at the time. As an evangelical pastor at the time himself put it,
The army doesn’t massacre Indians. [...] It massacres demons, and Indians are demons possessed; they are communists.
That is, simply put, the targeting of an ethnic group for massacre, for destruction, and it was a fact that people at the time were willing to admit. Ríos Montt’s trial may be undone by a technicality, but the historical evidence overwhelmingly points to genocide in Guatemala under the military leader. That Israel supported such a genocidal regime is tragically ironic, if somewhat unsurprising, in the context of the final decade of the Cold War.