NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC'S DISNEYESQUE GUATEMALA: GENOCIDE WITH A SMILING FACE
By Michael I. Niman
reprinted from GUATEMALA SCHOLARS NETWORK NEWS 12/89
Stylistically more suited to a review of Disneyland than Mesoamerica, National Geographic's always smiling camera has taken on "La Ruta Maya" for their October feature. With the flair they are known for, they erase all problems from the quaint colorful lives they portray in Southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize.
The Maya, a contemporary people, are "stepping out of time" as described by a picture caption under a young boy, who being inexplicably wet seems to have been oiled, then watered down to give the photo that rainforest feel. The same caption describes the Maya people, survivors of almost 500 years of perpetual genocide, as "decimated by war and disease." No mention is made as to who's war, and what is meant by disease. Are these filthy people killing each other?
Reading National Geographic's account of the region, what else are we to suspect. Although the people living in what is now Guatemala predominate throughout the article, the reality of their lives and struggles are carefully hidden from National Geographic's rendition of their existence. The village of Todos Santos Cuchumatan for instance supplies brightly dressed people as a myriad of 'photo-ops for the National Geographic crew.
When I visited Todos Santos earlier this year, I left with a very different picture. Embedded in my mind will always be the large cross in the center of town that nobody will speak of. On it is marked the date, April 15, 1982. That is the day the army entered Todos Santos, gathered up all of the present males, and machine gunned them to death. The Todos Santos, whose residents take up 4 pages of color photos represent a different world as they "cheerfully hang out at the local store after a day's work," a caption more suited to a photo of a midwestern US soda fountain.
National Geographic not only photographically rapes the people of Todos Santos, but they rewrite the basic reality of Guatemala. They omit mention of the apartheid-like minority government that has excluded Indians, the majority of Guatemala, from any representation in what the Indians refer to as "The government of the Ladinos." Likewise, the "Scorched Earth" war of genocide carried out by President Lucas Garcia and to some degree carried on by his successor, Rios Montt are also omitted. This would be analogous to a 1949 article on European Jews omitting Hitler and the nazi era.
Also missing from National Geographic's description of quaint Guatemalan villages are the development poles and model villages. These being places where highland Indians now live under military supervision after being victims of forced relocation programs. Actually there are no mentions of, or pictures of military personnel at all in the 55 page feature. Since Guatemala is supposedly an "emerging democracy," this should not sound strange, but the reality is actually quite different. The military is as present as the trees and earth in Guatemala. Their absence in this article, and lack of mention of the war they are conducting against their own population, can only be a purposeful deception.
The only reference to a war is made under a picture of armed (the only pictures of armed people) civil patrolmen in the village of San Mateo Ixtatun. The caption mentions how the patrol members, joined by villagers wielding machetes, drove away rebel forces who attacked a government road crew. There are quite a few curiosities here. Foremost, civil patrols do not enjoy popular support. If indeed there were people with machetes helping them, these people are probably also patrolmen and not simply helpful villagers teaming up to repel nasty rebels. The "voluntary" patrols are actually filled by many forms of conscription. Those who resist their "duty" in the patrols are being killed continuously. Four leaders of the CERJ, an Indian anti-conscription group focusing on forced participation of Indians in civil patrols, joined the ranks of the disappeared in April of this year. Even those who have not resisted conscription have fallen victim to military terror. A number of civil patrolmen were among the 22 victims massacred near the village of El Aguacate in November of '88. All evidence now collected points to military involvement in the killings, this despite the lack of any fathomable motive. More recently, on August 17, 1989, nine patrol members were killed when their picturesque patrol was attacked by government troops. Another patrol in the province of Suchiepequez was recently attacked by government troops after they stumbled onto the scene of the kidnapping of a local union official. These recent attacks, despite occurring during, or immediately preceding the time National Geographic was readying their fable, were of course omitted as National Geographic exploited their civil patrol photo-op.
As for the government road crew this patrol was supposedly helping, no mention was made. This is a shame, since it is the presence of this new network of roads, built with US aid, that are instrumental in destroying the very Mayan culture in which National Geographic venerates. The roads exist for the use of the military and the eventual use of the large landowners who move in and take over Indian lands after they have been cleared and deemed productive. Most Indians travel by foot or with the occasional help of a mule. Their trail system, which in part dates back thousands of years, has served them adequately while also providing a barrier to military repression.
On the subject of the military, ours (the US) is interestingly omitted from the article. There is a US military presence in Guatemala, both training the Guatemalan military, and flying defoliation raids over the rainforest that National Geographic has so praised. These missions are supposedly for marijuana eradication although many people believe that in truth, they are military maneuvers against the rebel F.A.R. army that controls much of the Peten. The theory here is that the forest is the ocean and the F.A.R., the fish. Destroying tracks of forest will eventually flush out the rebels.
Much of the article centers around the Peten, a sparsely populated section of Guatemala which was once the nucleus of the Mayan empire. The National Geographic thinks that these forests would be a nice home for a "theme park" with cable cars or a monorail system serving as an "exciting solution" to the problems of moving masses of tourists through delicate forests without the "uncontrolled settlement" roads offer. Keeping the tourists high enough in the air, I guess, will prevent them from interacting with the quaint villagers which might encourage the hungry masses from setting up camp near the dollars, possibly disrupting the focus of the theme park.
This is quite an ambitious plan, considering the government, who is still eyeing the Peten as a resource to be raped in the most expedient and profitable way, has as of yet not been able to establish the wide-scale oil drilling they had planned because of rebel attacks in the disputed area. Not only is the reality of the F.A.R. neglected, but the military is also written out of the Peten. In fact, the description of the one and a half hour ride from the Belize border to Tikal in the heart of the Peten omits the military bases, roadblocks, searches, etc. one must endure to travel in this region.
If Guatemala can instantly become a land without war, then why not write poverty out of the script? As omnipresent as the military, is the suffering of extreme poverty endured by most Guatemalans. In a land where current wages are as low as seventy cents for a 16 hour day of backbreaking work and as many as 80% of the children are suffering from malnutrition, poverty gets only a passing mention, and of course no pictures.
National Geographic also downplays the existing conflict between Guatemala and Belize. The British troops stationed in Belize to protect that small country of 160,000 people against Guatemala's claims to all of its territory are there, according to National Geographic, "mostly out of habit." Guatemala, who still includes Belize on all of its maps, is first only now recognizing that "there exists a community that has acquired the characteristics of a nation" in Belize, their Northeastern province. To the people of Belize, Guatemala, with its abominable human rights record, trigger happy military, and coup prone government, is still a very real threat. The Falklands/Malvernas conflict is still fresh in most minds and many analogies can be made.
Belize is also an interesting case in this article. Unfortunately the Black Caribbean culture of this English speaking country does not fit in with the Mayan motif. While praising various efforts at preserving Mayan culture in Belize, National Geographic makes no mention of who these people are. Despite a healthy smattering of photos from Belize, there is not a single black face showing in this predominantly Black nation. Moving south down the Caribbean coast to Livingston, Guatemala's only black community, blacks are also not present. The author writes of meeting Mayan fisherman. If he did, it was a rare meeting, as most of the fisherman in Livingston are blacks of Garifuna descent. While unfortunately inconvenient for an article on the Maya, it is reality.
Traveling up the Rio Dulce from Livingston, one will see regularly placed Evangelical Christian mission outposts. These missions, run predominantly by strange right wing US based cults, are omnipresent in Guatemala. While writing about the Mayan rituals incorporated into the Catholic church, National Geographic neglects mention that 40% of Guatemala now identifies as Evangelical Christian, and for various reasons most are now affiliated with churches that are not tolerant or respectful of their Mayan beliefs. This program of cultural genocide is not independent of, but is backed by government coercion. These missions are used to attack the Catholic church, Mayan rituals, native dress, language etc., and are also used to displace any churches that tend towards liberation theology.
Also missing from National Geographic's colorful portrayal of the Catholic church is the fact that more than a dozen priests have fallen victim to the death squads during the past 10 years. Priests certainly are not the only victims in this invisible war. Both Amnesty International and Americas Watch have attested to a recent sharp increase in human rights violations in Guatemala. On the 15th of August, 1989, the offices of the International Peace Brigades, the President of the University of San Carlos(USAC), and the Mutual Support Group for families of the disappeared (GAM) were bombed. A GAM member was kidnapped (this is the first step in disappearing) earlier in the day, a number of other GAM members were forced to flee the country to escape the escalating violence. Seven journalists also fled the country in August. Unable to flee, were eight student government officials from USAC who were kidnapped a week later on August 23.
While the missions, and the army, and the escalating violence are invisible to National Geographic's eye, the government behind them is not. President Cerezo (who's limited power was most recently challenged by a May 9, 1989 coup attempt) is pictured and commended for efforts to preserve Mayan culture as the National Geographic asserts that the Guatemalan government is a friend of Indian culture. A more realistic view would have the government preserve what is marketable and continue their campaign of genocide for what is not deemed quaint.
It is this radiant marketable character of the Guatemalan people that National Geographic has joined with the most repressive forces in Central America to exploit. In painting a picture of tranquility where there is war, and by alluding to respect where there is genocide, National Geographic is, with the powerful weapon of misinformation, joining the war against the Mayan people. In describing the perpetual hell that most Mayan people are forced to live in, the editors of National Geographic have carefully chosen such All-American concepts as "theme parks." Behind the apparent ignorance and insanity of it all, National Geographic is but one more cog in the propaganda machine.