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Guatemala Mayans flex political muscles - The Hindu

Posted By Krishnakant Udavant (kkant@bom2.vsnl.net.in)
August 17, 1996

Title: Guatemala Mayans flex political muscles
Publication: The Hindu
Date: August 17, 1996

On a set of Maya ruins at the outskirts of this capital, the
Vice President of Guatemala last month swore in 21 Maya priests
as members of a new government-sponsored Council of Elders.
Throwing flower petals and sugar into a crackling fire as they
chanted and danced, the shamans in turn bestowed their official
blessing on him.

Two weeks ago came the traditional festival marking the end of
the Maya year. For the first time in memory, those ceremonies,
which invoke Maya gods and for that reason have long been
condemned by the Roman Catholic Church, were not only celebrated
publicity, but also covered extensively by Guatemalan newspapers
and television stations.

After five centuries of bitter repression, Guatemala's Maya
majority is beginning to flex its muscles.

Taking advantage of the political opening that has accompanied
the winding down of the country's 35-year civil war. Maya
leaders are demanding a new relationship with a democratic
government that, for its part, promises to end racial
discrimination here and sees the Mayas not as a subversive force
but as a voting bloc to be courted.

As a result, new Maya political and cultural organisations are
being formed almost daily, expressions of Maya religion and
ethnic pride are on the rise, and there has been an eruption of
books, newspapers and radio programmes in Mayan languages.

The country's leading newsmagazine. Cronica, published a cover
story this month marvelling at what it called he Maya

or the first time, Mayas are speaking for themselves about
themselves, Mr Demetrio Cojti, a social scientist who is one of
the country's leading Maya intellectuals, explained. t is not
that someone is speaking on our behalf, defending us, but that
we ourselves are developing visions of out own identity and
questioning everything, from a colonialist church to our
relationship with the state.

Mr. Richard Adams, an anthropologist from the United States who
has worked here since 1950, said: t really is a renaissance
and a major time of change. Everything is up for grabs.

An estimated two-thirds of Guatemala's 10.5 million people are
of Indian descent, the vast majority of them members of 21
linguistically distinct groups descended from the Mayas.

Discriminated against

But since independence from Spain was achieved 175 years ago,
the country has been dominated by an affluent Hispanicized
minority, known as Ladinos, that has discriminated against
indigenous Guatemala's and scorned their culture.

Conditions have been particularly difficult during the civil
war, which is expected to end with the signing of a peace
agreement before the end of the year.

In that conflict, he exclusionary project of the Spanish-
descended elite merged with the internal security concerns of
the military, one European diplomat here said, leading to a
situation in which, ach supported the other, and
counterinsurgency merged with racism.

But early last year, the government and the leftist guerrillas
of the Guatemala National Revolutionary Unity signed as ccord
on the identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In that document, negotiated under U.N. auspices and due to go
into effect when the final peace agreement is signed, the
government agreed to constitutional and other reforms so far-
reaching that one diplomat here put it, they will force
Guatemala's o redesign their entire society if the changes
are curried out by Congress.

The government pledged to epeal all laws and decrees that may
have discriminatory implications toward indigenous peoples and
officially declare Guatemala a ulti-ethnic, multi-cultural and
multi-lingual nation.

It also promised to ecognize, respect and protect the distinct
forms of spiritually practiced by Indian peoples, romote
official status for indigenous languages and grant greater
political and judicial authority to local indigenous

For their part, Maya leaders feel confident in speaking out now
because they no longer fear falling victim to the military
massacres that wiped out hundreds of villages during the 1980s.
The President, Mr. Alvaro Arzu, who took office in January, has
largely defanged the Guatemala armed forces through purges ofthe
officer corps, recruitment restrictions and budget cuts, so that
the military is more concerned at the moment with its own
survival than repressing ubversives.

Iron fist broken

e want to steer our own boat, Mr Adolfo Ico Tujab, an
interview here. e do not want to be manipulated anymore, and
with the breaking of the iron fist, we finally have some space
in which to promote the rights and interests of the Maya

To turn the state's promises into a binding reality, the
Guatemala Fund of Indigenous Development, a government agency
set up to work with Maya groups, has begun consultations about
new laws to guarantee Maya rights. The Council of Elders was
organized to advise the agency on cultural and spiritual
matters, and had been given authority to ordain priests and
issue definitive interpretations of ancient Maya codices, which
are being looked to for guidance on community matters.

ur people have endured a bitter history of 500 years of
marginalisation, said Mr. Macario Zabala Can, a Mayan priest
who is president of the agency's national advisory council. ut
we have a prophecy that talks of the return of the Wise Men, and
that is exactly what is happening now: We are entering a period
of gestation.

A central demand of Maya groups is that their traditional system
of community land ownership be given the same legal recognition
and protection as individual ownership. But the proposals being
considered for enactment also include plans to incorporate Maya
healers, and spiritual advisers analogous to psychiatrists, into
the country's health care system and to establish bicultural
public schools.

Guatemala already has several hundred bilingual schools. But the
objective there has always been o Castilianize students, or
acculturate them into the mainstream Spanish-language, European-
based culture, rather than instruct them in their own culture,
said Dr. Anabella Griecca, director of the linguistics
department at the Rafael Landivar University here. The
university held conference on Maya Studies, its first, this
week. In the last three years, more than 500 textbooks have been
published in Mayan languages in anticipation of truly bicultural
instruction, Dr. Griecca said.

The Guatemala Constitution has also been published in four Mayan
languages, requiring the creation of an entire new vocabulary
legal and political terms, and the U.N. accord has been
translate into nine different tongues. There is also talk of
organising what Mr. Otilia Lux de Coti, a prominent Maya rights
campaigner, calls political party of and for the Maya

Emerging political group

In mayoral elections last fall, some Indian organisations
steered clear of endorsing candidates of the traditional
parties, instead joining forgather in nonpartisan ivil
committees that in several areas won the overwhelming support
of Maya voters.

In Quezaltenango, the country's second-largest city. Mr
Rigoberto Keme, a Quiche leader, was elected mayor and gave
immediate credibility to the nation of the Mayas as an emerging
political group.

A European ambassador here said, t's too early to draw
conclusions, but if they really succeed in uniting on an ethnic
basis, they can be a tremendous force in the next decade.

Some Ladinos view the new Maya assertiveness as dangerous.
Newspapers and magazines are full of angry columns and letters
expressing fear that Guatemala may be heading down he road to
another Bosnia, or complaining of some of the more fanciful
proposals that a few Maya groups have recently floated, like
renaming the country Guatemala or requiring images of the Virgin
Mary to be dressed in native garb.

thnophobia is symptomatic and recurrent in the agenda of the
populist organisations, which have been characterised by a
discourse directed at ethnic confrontation, wrote Mr. Alfre
Kaltschmitt, a columnist for the newspaper Prensa Libre. hey
are playing with fire.

There is expected to be resistance in Guatemala's Congress,
which is dominated by Ladinos, to many of the Maya's demands.
But outright defiance, or any organised backlash against the
Maya renaissance. Appears unlikely given the obligations that
the Guatemalan government has already assumed in the peace
accords and the international supervision that has come with

acial discrimination is outlawed under existing agreements on
human rights, said Mr David Stephen, director of the U.N. human
rights mission here, nd we are watching carefully the
resurgence of racism in some sectors. To attack the cultural
expression of the Mayans at this stage seems to me to be a
disguised form of racism.

In any case, most Maya leaders say the model they envision for
their country is not Bosnia but South Africa.

y people are aware that the best route is dialogue and mutual
respect, said Ms. Lux de Coti. e don want war or
confrontation. We only want to participate in the Guatemalan
government to the extent of our weight.

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