Thursday, September 01, 2005

Bum Rap

Many years ago I was sitting amongst some newly-made acquaintances awaiting the start of the St George's Caye Day festival in Belize. An earnest-looking Canadian aid worker was filling in a pair of silky-haired Chichi(castenango)-bound OK-yahooligans on the situation across the border. "More than 70,000 people have disappeared in Guatemala, you know."

There was a pause, then one of the girls replied with more than a hint of misgiving , "What...tourists?"

Guatemala gets a lot of bad PR, in many cases deservedly so, but a frustrating amount of it is the result of bad journalism - and into that category has to go Christine Toomey's piece in the Sunday Times Magazine, which was more an exercise in inflamation than information.

I've made plenty of downbeat remarks about Guatemala myself right here in this blog, but there's a difference between the kind of exaggeration appropriate to caricature, and that which discounts the existence of any trace of positive normality in its subject. (When you look at a good caricature you know exactly which traits have been amplified - so the underlying undistended natural balance is somehow implicit.)

You'll get a feel for this lack of perspective from the article's first paragraph:

"There is a country where a man can escape a rape charge if he marries his victim — providing she is over the age of 12. In this country, having sex with a minor is only an offence if the girl can prove she is "honest" and did not act provocatively. Here, a battered wife can only prosecute her husband if her injuries are visible for more than 10 days. Here too it is accepted in some communities that fathers "introduce" their daughters to sex."

To understand why Guatemala is itself practically an organised crime, Toomey tells us that we first need to understand where it is (A "small Central American country sandwiched between Mexico and El Salvador" - though the latter is actually much smaller than Guatemala) and then how the potted version of its history that she offers us can explain the now endemic problem of femicide.

All the simplistic cliches are trotted out: machismo, paramilitaries, the United Fruit Company and Efrain Rios Montt, the former presidente that Ronald Reagan famously identified as the victim of a "bum rap". If anyone cares to read up in any detail about this Protestant coup leader who was in turn deposed at the instigation of the Catholic bishops, they will find that he is no straightforward Pinochet clone with clearcut executive responsibility for mass murder. Yet the groups that like to pinch our consciences need a high-profile hate figure and he's the one they've picked for the job.

From the way Toomey reduces the civil war to its most sensational atrocities, you'd think Mel Gibson will soon be scrambling after the film rights: "Villagers were herded into churches and burnt, whole families sealed alive in wells. Political opponents were assassinated, women were raped before being mutilated and killed. The wombs of pregnant women were cut open and foetuses strung from trees."

She wants us to undertstand that all the nation's baddies, the maras, the oligarchy, the police, the corporate mafia, satanists even, are somehow obscurely united under the umbrella of "hidden powers", and that a consequence of this is the systematic predation of its womankind.

So what if the murder rate is five times that of Bogotá? What of Medellin, or Rio de Janeiro? Why is Bogotá the benchmark? Yes, anonymous bodies show up on Guatemala's roadsides on regular basis, but they are not all female. (Based on my own reading of the local tabloid press, I find the figure of two per day, on average, a little high, but have no reason to doubt her tally of 527 for the whole of last year. I'd wager that not all of those women died because they are women though.)

During the long civil war a great deal of murder and torture was practiced on the Maya by the state, but it would be wrong to imagine that the cycle of violence that started to spin in its aftermath has been exclusively a top-down phenomenon. There is a resurgent culture of brutality within the indigenous population too that no amount of international pressure will mollify. To understand why the police across the region are being so heavy-handed with the maras, you have to appreciate how virulent a threat they pose to civilised norms there.

There's a strong sense of deja vu in all this. In the 90s a BBC programme about the humanitarian activities of UK citizen Bruce Harris whose Casa Alianza organisation was providing a refuge for the street kids apparently targeted for extermination by security forces of that uncivilised dump somewhere near Mexico. The documentary was little more than a piece of unsubtle incitement designed to fill Harris' coffers. Sinead O'Connor even released a single about one of the deceased urchins.

I do wish to register my protest, but not with Amnesty International. Is the only way to create 'awareness' of an issue in cosy Britain, to serve up this kind of disdainful distortion of everyday life in a country most people only get to hear about when the news is fat and ugly? How is it supposed to help anybody trying to make a living in Guatemala if foreign investors "start questioning their business dealings there"?

I remember how sore we all felt back in the 80s when our continental brethren used images of the most depressed post-industrial landscapes of northern England to suggest that Britain's membership of the First World had expired.

Over the weekend TVe reported four violent murders of women in Spain, another country whose males have apparently had some trouble adapting to the changing social and economic circumstances of their wives and girlfriends. I wonder if that was more or less than in Guatemala in the same period? Spain's not such a soft target though.

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