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Guatemala: Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny.

Guatemala: Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny.

With all the coverage of Central America, not much has been heard of Guatemala. Sure, Guatemala City made the news last August as the place where the five Central American presidents signed the Arias peace plan. But even though it has the largest population, the worst human rights record, and the most U.S. corporate investment of any Central American country, Guatemala never seems to attract much attention.

Simon, a photojournalist and stringer for Time, has written an odd primer--a cross between a coffee table book of vivid pictures and a recitation of body counts. Some of the 141 color photographs are lovely, such as the pictures of brightly patterned Indian textiles. Others are grim. One shows a soldier dancing with a girl in Nebaj, a town in the country's northern highlands where guerrilla activity and massacres of civilians have been heaviest. We see the girl's face and the soldier's back, complete with a shiny black machine gun. The girl's hand is poised gently on his shoulder as she dances, stiffly and unsmiling. There are also shots of the mutilated bodies.

Simon rightly points out that the violence continues. And she includes a short but interesting interview with President Venicio Cerezo that contains his candid admission that the military controls the country and only lets him be head of state. But the steady tone of outrage can grow wearying, especially since Simon never really allows for the progress of the past two years.

Like others who think the problems of Guatemala have been created by the United Fruit Company and the State Department alone, she does not seem interested in thinking seriously about the gradual changes that could benefit Guatamalans.

Still, the book is important. Presenting its grim, powerful message at a time when the initial success of the Arias peace plan has offered hope to those inclined to be hopeful, it has an effect on the reader analogous to that of Guatemala's most important human rights group, the Mutual Support Group, or GAM, as it is known. Organized by survivors of the disappeared, the GAM often drops in on events, bearing placards adorned with snapshots of men and boys abducted by the military. GAM protests tend to tarnish the fine vencer of democratic reform that is Cerezo's firmest asset.

I am reminded, for example, of the fall 1986 meeting of the Organization of American States at Guatemala City's National Theater. Soon after Cerezo concluded a proud, fiery opening speech, the National Police got into a scuffle with GAM members outside. GAM leader Nineth de Garcia led a knot of protesters toward the main gate, and the soldiers, caught off guard, panicked. Rushing in to block the way, one soldier swung down his wood baton and struck Garcia on the head. A moment later the metal gates were closed and the conflict settled into a noisy standoff, but the violent act hung in the air--like one of Simon's photos. The point was made: high-minded overtures notwithstanding, the wounds wrought by a grisly past still fester.
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Author:Kettmann, Steve
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1988
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