From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Guatemala Dateline: The effect of the ‘other,’ in Guatemala, in the world

by Father David Baronti, for the Inland Register

(From the March 20, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)

We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population.... Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity ... we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We should cease to talk about vague and unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization ... we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.... The final answer might be an unpleasant one, but ... we should not hesitate before police repression by local governments....

– Top Truman policy advisor George Kennan (quoted by Noam Chomsky)

*****

Why come to us? Because we have oil? Let them take the oil, but leave us in peace... this richness has come from God, not us. What is our guilt?

– Baghdad Bishop Shlemon Warduni (quoted in the Inland Register)

*****

Once again, anti-national forces ... have become infuriated with me.... After decades of ... exploitation by international economic-financial groups, I made myself the chief of a revolution, and I won....They do not want the workers to be free.... I wanted to created national freedom in realizing oil wealth through Petrobras.... They do not want the people to be independent.... I choose this means to be with you always. When they humiliate you, you shall feel my soul suffering at your side. When hunger beats at your door, you shall feel in your breasts the energy for the struggle for yourselves and your sons. When they slander you, you shall feel in my thoughts the strength for reaction. My sacrifice will maintain you united, and my blood shall be your banner....

– Suicide note of Brazil President Getulio Vargas, Aug. 6, 1954

*****

A long time ago, I began a short story I never finished.

It began following a trip that I took to Mexico, after my junior year in college.

My mother, sister and I were pulling out of a gasoline station in Chihuahua, and starting up the highway, the morning sun on our left hand side, when a Sally Struthers poster girl pushed a cup towards me, locking her eyes into mine.

No more than I could, could the character in my short story, once back in the sound-protected cabin of his air-conditioned life, extricate himself from those eyes. What did that innocent one feel, as he was driving away from that mingling of his and her figures in each other’s eyes? What did he teach the impressionable one about the world if he, after such a moment, abandoned her as if she were something that a dog left behind? From that moment, a panic began like a tumor in his mind. If I were to think of a literary figure who resembled the young man whom I was trying to describe, it would be Camus’ narrator in The Fall, the would-be gallant, who built up for himself a self-image a Sears Tower high, constructed one story after another, one act after another, of chivalric enterprise, atop which he rested in self-admiring glory, until that terrible moment that he cannot even bring himself to describe, when he abandoned a young lady, whom he had passed moments before on a bridge, in the roiling river below him, to her suicide. It was after this "fall’’ (his, more than hers) that we find him in his new venue – in an Amsterdam bar called Mexico City, narrating the absurdity of his pretended life.

Like that figure, my protagonist experienced the same deflowering: in his sound-proof, automobile with its shock absorbers that buffer him from unpleasantness as effectively as a sound track ending another Spielberg fantasy, he saw himself suddenly as simply driving through life – a spiritual paraplegic, his senses paralyzed: unable to feel, smell, hear, simply (and even that through the protection of opaline glass that made a movie screen of the world outside) glimpsing what passed by.

But, unlike the girl on the bridge, his figure was still alive. He could redeem himself. He stopped his car in mid-alley, before a little shop “barnacled onto the foot of a department store high-rise’’ and left to find that little girl, whose eyes had by then burnt a hole through the arachnoids of his mind.

*****

That little girl, as I think about it, has much to do with my being in Ixtahuacán today.

A philosopher once observed that there are really only two people in the world: you and the other. To the degree that you participate in one other, you participate in all others.

He was wrong. There are really three: you, the other, and the suffering other — that is to say (Mathew 25:31) the one who is not your friend or neighbor, the hungry, sick, naked one, the truly foreign one, as well as the incarcerated or ghettoed poor.

That little girl was my first contact with the suffering other., my first window to salvation that that passage in Mathew offers.

*****

The Inland Register reported some months ago of a doctor who changed his views on abortion when a fetus around which he was operating, grasped his finger. With that one experience of the unborn other, he came to experience all of the others.

Likewise, I, in meeting that Mexican girl, seemed to experience in her all of the others. Just as, a generation ago, the American who saw that extraordinary picture of the naked Vietnamese girl, running at them, burning arms outstretched, hands drooped down, like a baby bird, and away from the napalm that nevertheless had coated her, seemed to understand that that innocent one was one of tens of thousands of little wailing ones fleeing futilely from his own country’s chemical warfare.

If that picture of just that one little girl so touched readers that it contributed, some say, to ending the war, what would have been the readers’ reaction if that girl had been able to throw her arms about him?

*****

The experience of one is indeed an experience of all of the others. That only explains the reasons for the slammed doors - for, for example, the reaction of the Timex dealer from whom Father Stan Rother and I used to purchase watches for our parishioners. We always used to talk amicably with each other, and when I saw him after Stan’s death, we were talking in the same manner, when I happened to mention how Stan had been murdered.

A violent squall rolled over the topography of his features.

“The army did not do it,’’ was the last sound that I heard.

*****

In this watch dealer I met compressed and crystallized Guatemala City’s others. This was a time when one our foremost women Catholics informed a believing Mother Theresa that nothing untold was occurring here. Hardly a person was willing to believe the horror – beginning about 20 minutes from the police station that monitors incoming cars. The 200,000 dead, the million more, living either on the city’s sidewalks or wandering, terrorized, through the forests.

*****

One can be sympathetic to the Guatemala City dwellers for their unwillingness to believe the complicity of their officers. It would be at least as difficult for most Americans to believe that Colonel H____, from his own country, monitored Guatemala’s torture practitioners in the early 1980s, when the violence was at its worst.

Perhaps, it would take an experience such as Stan had, shortly before he died ... struggling for possession of the person being drug away, even as he stared eye to eye at the kidnappers.

*****

One of the most uncomfortable realities of my years here is that the press selectively ‘’protects’’ us from the suffering other. If it neglected to report the Guatemala genocide, it also neglected to mention (among many other examples) the 8,000 in the San Miguel barrio of Panama, who were killed in our “aseptic’’ invasion in 1989, as it neglected to report the 1970s Cambodian bombings that killed more than Pol Pot, as it neglected to mention the American role in the overthrowing of constitutionally elected presidents in the Congo (Labumba, ordered assassinated by Eisenhower), Iran (Mossadegh, in 1953), Guatemala (Arbenz, 1953), Brazil (Vargas, twice, in the ’40s and ’50s, Quadras and Goulart in the ’60s. In the first case, the president committed a gaucho-like suicide on the night of his ouster, leaving a now famous – at least in Latin America – explanatory note behind) – all of whom were replaced by near-genocidal dictators – as well as a telephone book list of others. The San Marcos Diocese of Guatemala recently issued a booklet with 10 authors featured, including Robert Bowman, a Viet Nam veteran, now bishop of Melbourne Beach, Fla., who in an open letter accused the president of lying when the latter proclaimed that America is victimized by terrorists because she defends democracy and liberty and human rights. Rather, Bowman said “we are hated because our government has committed odious actions. In how many countries have agents of our government deposed popularly elected leaders, substituting them for military dictators, puppets anxious to sell their own people to American corporations?’’

David Halberstam, the New York Times reporter in the Vietnam War, insists that this failure to report was not (at least in his case) the fault of the reporter. He wrote in his book The Best and the Brightest that every paragraph that reporters in the field sent about the war was rewritten by editors in New York.

*****

Little has been written about what was perhaps history’s greatest genocide – against Native Americans. If it is only now, that our grandfathers’ names have been forgotten, that Hollywood acknowledges their victims’ otherness, one wonders how long it will take for those Middle Easterners of the film Air Force One, for example, to become human again?

Not for at least as long, according to the San Marcos booklet, if Donald Rumsfeld has his way: “All of the (Taliban) soldiers must be killed. There will be no allowing them to lay down their arms’’

Already, according to the same source, tens of thousands of innocent Afghans have died for the 3,000 in New York:

“In November 2002, 5,000 Taliban prisoners were put in containers and transported to the city of Sheberghan. More than a 1,000 died asphyxiated, and the rest were machine gunned by the Northern Alliance in the presence of American solders who also participated in the massacre, ‘breaking the neck of one prisoner’ and ‘pouring acid on the heads of others’” (Ramonet, El Pais, 9.4. 2002).

*****

From the beginning of these Dateline columns six years ago, I have avoided mention of my own activities in an effort to render a soul picture of the people here.

That is why, for example, I have not mentioned the road that you have helped the people with, or, more importantly yet, the building of our church. It seemed so important to me that the people here have not only a face, but also a soul, for you readers.

Now that our country is again contemplating war against an other that has already suffered as no other, I can only hope that in some small way that meeting the “other’’ in Guatemala has helped someone somewhere (as it has helped me) meet all others.

(Father Baronti, a priest of the Diocese of Spokane, has been a missioner in Guatemala for nearly three decades.)


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