Guatemala Indians courted. . .and oppressed. . .by both sides

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The kitchen is in a small hut near the house. Its walls are of bamboo; the floor is dirt. One of the women in the family is slapping green tortilla dough into pancake shapes and cooking them over an open fire. A pot of beans bubbles over one corner of the fire.

Beans and tortillas are the family's typical meal. Rice is served ''rarely,'' and meat once every two weeks or so.

A few yards away is the tin-roofed, dirt-floor home with walls that are adobe for about three feet then bamboo to the roof. In a single room there are three double beds (for seven people), several boxes of clothing, a baby crib - and a sewing machine.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

Except for the sewing machine, Carlos's family is typical of many Guatemalan Indians who are caught between three crushing pressures: poverty, the Army, and guerrillas.

(To avoid attracting unnecessary attention to him and his family, his real name and the exact location of his home are omitted from this article.)

Carlos farms a small plot owned by someone else and has to give the owner half the crop. He estimates he earns an average of about $2 a day income.

But even his earnings are more than many rural families take in, says a US official here. Most Indian families earn about $200 a year, the official says. The national per capita income average is closer to $1,000. In Guatemala the rich are often very rich and the poor very poor.

What are Carlos's hopes for the future? He smiles, leans against the edge of a bed, and says his hope is to own his own land so his children will not have ''to suffer as we suffer.''

He would also like his children to learn to read and write. If he had more income, he would devote it to their studies, he says.

The government has made efforts to increase literacy among Indians. But, says one Indian, there is a shortage of classrooms.

Many Indians own land, but the parcels are so small that they earn little from them. To boost their meager incomes, many Indian men migrate from the northern highlands to the coast during October to January to pick coffee beans and cotton and they cut sugar cane for about $2 a day.

Some Indian leaders have protested a lack of safe transportation to the coast (often workers are jammed into trucks like cattle), lack of sanitary facilities in the migrant housing, and poor quality and quantity of food.

Other Indians, lacking adequate land to make a living, migrate to the cities in search of work.

It is the hope of breaking out of this poverty that guerrilla leaders appeal to when they recruit Indians, according to both Indian and non-Indian sources in this country.

Guatemalan government officials and private citizens interviewed here say the guerrillas are being led by communists. But a rural (non-Indian) community leader long familiar with Indians says, ''Communism is in complete conflict with the culture of the Indians. They're capitalists.

''The people (Indians) are not militant,'' he says. ''(But) when they get pushed too far, they react.''

The guerrillas' approach to the Indians, another Indian says, is to promise land, money, and power if the Indians join the fight. It's an attractive appeal, this Indian says.

The people know all too well that they have so little and they feel government pressure against them, he says. One of the main government pressures is their recruitment into the Army, often forcibly, according to some reports.

Another pressure is the Army and government security forces' action against Indians suspected of cooperating with the guerrillas.

Often such action occurs after the guerrillas have entered a small town or village and given one of their recruitment talks in the local Indian language.

According to a university-educated Indian interviewed in Guatemala City, after the guerrillas leave, the ''orejas'' (ears) of the Army in that place tell the Army who is cooperating with the guerrillas.

''If the family (of the targeted Indians) resists, they kill the family (too) ,'' alleges this source, whose name is intentionally withheld.

There is another kind of alleged oppression that this Indian attributes to either the government forces or private individuals paid by right-wing extremists. (''The results are the same'' whether the action is by state security forces or private individuals, he says.) It is what appears to be a selective campaign to intimidate or kill many Indian leaders suspected of cooperating with the guerrillas.

Indians killed in such circumstances include teachers, accountants, church activists, and other ''leaders of the community,'' he alleges. He said he was kidnapped once himself by plainclothes government detectives, taken to an interrogation center, beaten, then released. As far as he knows, his only ''crime'' was studying for a university degree.

Because the Monitor is not using this Indian's name, it is impossible to obtain a government version about the reasons for his detention.

But a government spokesman, in a Monitor interview, denied charges of human-rights abuses by the government - charges that the US Embassy here, as well as Amnesty International, continue to make.

The third pressure the Indians feel is the wrath of guerrillas for cooperating with the Army. The Army, for example, recently reported the murder of 53 Indians who had refused to pay the so-called ''war tax'' of the guerrillas.

''We can't do anything,'' one Indian says. ''If we go with the guerrillas, we have problems with the Army. If we go with the Army, we have problems with the guerrillas.

''We're between the blade and the wall,'' he said.

The university-educated Indian interviewed said one reason many Indians may have voted for former Defense Minister Angel Anibal Guevara Rodriguez, the declared winner in the March 7 presidential election, is that he promised peace. And, he asserts, many Indians are tired of the conflict.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...