¡El Pueblo Unido!…My Top Political Lessons from Central America

When this whole Occupy movement kicked off back in September, I wasn’t on the streets of Lower Manhattan. I wasn’t even on the streets of Oakland. I was walking along the quiet streets of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, where my partner Esther and I had just started a three month journey through Central America. So when the Occupy stuff really got rolling in the weeks that followed, I got an email from my brother: “Well, Josh, it looks like we needed you to leave the country for us to start the revolution.” What a guy, my brother.

I don’t know if his statement was true or not (technically speaking, I left the country one day after the first protest on Wall Street), but it was weird to be out of the country, and especially Oakland, as shit was going down. When my brother asked me in that same email, “You sure you don’t want to come back?”, I was tempted but I also knew my answer. I was seeing and learning things in Guatemala that I would never do back in the States. The movement would still be there when I got back, but this was one of my few chances to experience life and politics outside the stars and stripes.

In that vain, we spent the fall in Central America: mainly in Guatemala, but with short stints in Honduras and Nicaragua as well. We spent the first six weeks in Quetzaltenango studying Spanish at an amazing, socialist language school called Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco (PLQ). The one-on-one classes are taught in a way that mixes grammatical practice with information about Guatemalan politics and culture, so I spent my days at PLQ conjugating verbs into the subjunctive tense, all while discussing the fallacies of neoliberal trade agreements. We also had the chance to meet different social activists, including ex-guerrilla fighters, indigenous leaders, union members, and much to Esther’s delight, traditional Mayan midwives. Needless to say, the school was awesome. Any gringos out there who want to improve your Spanish — I can’t recommend it highly enough.

After getting our español up to semi-quasi-conversational status, we started traveling around the country and then across two borders. We visited ancient Mayan ruins, historical colonial cities, and cooperative coffee farms, traveling by bus, boat, and at one point, a tiny plane that was more like a minivan with wings. Between the lush green rainforests, the mountain sunrises, and the joy of seeing two oceans in two days, we went through a million beautiful places. But I’ve always been a people person first and foremost, so to me the most interesting thing was always (surprise, surprise) the politics.

Although Central America has not been swept up in the people’s uprisings that took so much of the world by storm this year, each of the three countries we visited made an important socio-political case study due to their not-so-distant past: a successful revolution (Nicaragua), a failed revolution (Guatemala), and the only poor country in the region that never had a revolutionary movement (Honduras). And the common thread through all there: U.S. intervention. This, plus the fact that both Guatemala and Nicaragua had their presidential elections while we were there, made it quite the advanced sociological seminar.

Here are some of the things, big and small, that I learned from my time south of the border(s). Most of these are things I understand at an intellectual level before, but it’s one thing to read about the Sandinista revolution in a book, it’s something else to be standing inside a cell of the former Somoza dictatorship’s brutal political prison in Leon, which when the people liberated it in early 1979, was the sign for the Sandinista guerrillas to come down for from the mountains because the people were now ready for revolution. So yes, back to the bullet points:

  • Armed Struggle is to be Honored — and also Mourned.
    Among the leftist circles I run in, armed revolutionaries like Che Guevara, the Zapatistas, and our own Black Panthers are often seen as romantic heroes. We idealize these rebel activists who fought and the many who gave their lives for the movement. When it comes to guerrilla warfare, however, the truth, as it always is, is a little more complicated. Take Central America, for instance.In 1960, Guatemalan opponents of the military dictatorship installed in a U.S.-led coup six years earlier began a guerrilla struggle that came to last until 1996. In retaliation, the military government committed massacres and many atrocities not just against the rebels, but against the whole civilian population, mainly poor Mayan villagers. Knowing that they would never win an armed struggle, and unable to bear seeing their community literally decimated, the guerrillas signed the peace treaty in 1996.Since then, however, the problems that started the conflict – the grinding poverty and exploitation of the Mayan majority by a tiny wealthy ruling class – have only continued and in some ways exacerbated. Of the Guatemalan activists I met and talked with, including former guerrilla fighters, there were evenly split opinions about whether starting the armed struggle had been a good decision. The same split emerged about ending the conflict. Violent struggle didn’t work in Guatemala, but nonviolent protest hasn’t had much success either.Meanwhile, in Nicaragua, you have the example of the last successful violent revolution in the world. (All revolutions since then, have actually been non-violent: think Poland, South Africa, Egypt, etc.) Against one of the most brutal (and again U.S.-sponsored) dictators in modern history, Anastasio Somoza, the Sandinista guerrillas waged a low-scale conflict for over two decades. When the Nicaraguan masses rose up in 1979, the Sandinistas were able to seize the moment and finally defeat Somoza. But the victory was not without its losses — every city I visited in the country had its Galería de los Heroes y Martires (Gallery of Heroes and Martyrs), with photos and stories of the town’s young men and women who had given their lives in the struggle. Armed revolution is a strategy, not an ideology. And it’s a strategy that would never work here in the United States. Outside our borders, I won’t make any blanket claims for or against violent struggle, but having visited former battlefields and current graveyards in Central America, I won’t respect it, not romanticize it.
  • There is no “Perfect Movement”
    On a  related note, we often look to the past, or outside our borders, for social movements that were or are “truly revolutionary.” These go for non-violent movements too: we paint Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela as saints whose movements therefore must have been just as saintly. But they were people, not saints, and their movements, like ours today, had their own faults too. In Nicaragua, the Sandinistas did lead the revolution that overthrow a 50-year oppressive dictatorship. They soon embarked on an ambitious literacy campaign that brought the illiteracy rate down from over 75% to 15% in just a few years, and have made massive improvements in health care, land reform, and other key social issues.At the same time, they also quickly embraced the other side that all governments share: corruption. Transparent governance and promoting civil liberties is not the Sandinistas’ strong suit, let’s put it that way. In last month’s presidential election that the Sandinistas won handily, even their supporters acknowledged there was some level of fraud. At the same time, though, they were going to win anyway, and the reason wasn’t bribes. Their leadership in the struggle for self-determination, and their achievements since then, still make them the people’s party of choice. An important lesson for my friends here in the Occupy movement: we will never be perfect – we shouldn’t expect to be – but we can choose a more moral path than the powers-that-be.
  • Mayan Wisdom, part 1: The World Will Not End in 2012
    After going all throughout Guatemala, with its 23 different Mayan groups, one message they all wanted me to take home to America was: “The world is NOT going to end next year! Stop being so crazy — or at least send us some of that Hollywood money from the next John Cusack disaster movie.” Ok, I might be paraphrasing a little bit, but the point was clear. The Mayan calendar is incredibly long (we’re in approximately year 5125 right now) and has cycles that last around a millennium. What is going to happen on December 21, 2012 is not going to be the cataclysmic destruction of the world — it’s going to be the start of a new cycle on the calendar. Just flipping the page to a new, thousand-year datebook.Oh, and that new datebook may possibly usher in a new change of global social consciousness. Which would be awesome, and given current events from Egpyt to Oakland, may already have started a year or two early. The main lesson, again, is: never trust John Cusack.
  • Mayan Wisdom, part 2: All Empires Fall Eventually
    This one comes to you straight from the ancient ruins of Tikal, deep in the northern Guatemalan jungle. With its giant pyramids, economic power, and cultural symbols that serve as both inspiration and intimidation, “Tikal was the New York City of the Mayan empire,” our local tour guide told us. He then preceded to tell us how this once-great city, home to over 75,000 people in 700 CE, was later abandoned as the Mayan civilization mysteriously disintegrated. Whether it was due to overconsumption of resources, internal conflict, or natural disaster, no one really knows why the great Mayan city-states all fell so quickly. But as my tour guide pointed out, “They weren’t the first empire to fall, and they weren’t the last.” And then he gave me, the only American on the tour, a knowing wink.
  • Bananas Don’t Run these Republics Anymore — But the U.S. Still Does
    Guatemala’s coup in 1954, which overthrew their only real democratic government of the 20th century, was done to protect U.S. corporate interests, especially those of United Fruit Company. At the time, United Fruit owned more land in Guatemala than all other Guatemalans put together, and throughout Central America it was known as “el pulpo” (“the octopus”) because it had its tangles in every country’s affairs. Since then, banana lost its place to coffee and other products as the king, and king-making, crop of the region. What hasn’t changed is the amount of unabashed, unmistakable power the U.S. has over “its backyard” known as Central America.Honduras, the one country without a revolution, had the region’s first coup in years in 2009, when U.S.-backed politicians ousted President Manuel Zelaya, a left-center leader who was daring to not follow Washington’s directives. Newspapers throughout Central America acknowledge that the most powerful person in their respective countries is not their elected (or unelected) president, but the U.S. Ambassador. Indeed, the most popular joke I heard over and over again was: “Why has the U.S. never had a coup in its own country?” The answer: “Because there’s no U.S. embassy there.”
  • And yet…not Every Problem Originates from Washington
    Spend any amount of time in Central America, and it’s hard not to come out angry (or angrier) about past and present U.S. foreign policy. And yet, we do not have a monopoly on imperialism, racial oppression, or environmental destruction. The Spanish and, more than I understood before, the British were the region’s original colonizers, and set up the feudal oligarchical policies that continue to this day. The largest multinational corporation that is presently causing controversy in Guatemala with its mines that are destroying rural communities is Canadian. And the country’s own elites, all European descendants of those original conquistadors, are only too happy to exploit and exclude the indigenous and mestizo majority from any social and economic progress. None of this is good, of course. But as American activists protesting the wars, bank bailouts, prison expansions, and everything else done in our names with our tax dollars, it’s important to remember we’re not fighting America per se. We’re fighting capitalism, it all its oppressive forms, everywhere. We’re not the only ones with crazy people with guns in charge of the government, it’s just that our guys’ guns are bigger. (No offense, Canada). So it’s on us for our movement to be just as big. Time to hit the gym, Occupy.
  • Immigration Ain’t Stopping Anytime Soon
    One thing about being from California and traveling through Central America is that everyone – and I mean everyone– asks if you know their cousin in Los Angeles. After explaining to them that the Bay and LA are six hours apart (something I also have to explain to all my East Coast fam who always ask me why I never go to the beach), we would then start talking about immigrant life in the States and life-without-your-migrant-father/brother/cousin in Central America. Everyone I talked to knew that undocumented life was no dream: they knew firsthand about how the economic recession, ICE raids, and anti-Latino racism have combined to devastate lives across borders. And yet, these very same people would then proceed to ask me, “So do you know any jobs I could get up there in California?”No matter how many walls we build in the desert, immigration isn’t going to stop anytime soon. That is fine by me – I proudly live in an immigrant neighborhood in an immigrant state – but is often devastating for the communities they leave behind. Remittances (money sent back from migrant relatives) may help people pay the bills, but no one can call it sustainable development. But people keep coming. How could they not, faced with such grinding poverty and economic displacement, exacerbated in recent years by further U.S. corporate penetration through the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). People are poor, and if they do have a few dollars, they eat at McDonalds and watch reruns of “Who Wants to be a Millionare?” The pull is too strong, despite the risks. Until the U.S. changes our foreign policy in the region to one of cooperation and, dare I say it, reparations, don’t expect any change in the flow of people coming north. But hey, that’s why I’m  about a North American Union.
  • Neither are the Drugs.
    Guatemala is one of the most violent countries in the world, with a murder rate that makes many people wonder if the civil war ever really ended. Honduras is just as bad. Nicaragua, on the other hand, is relatively safe outside of Managua, despite the fact that it’s just as poor as its neighbors. What this means is that Nicaragua was the one country were people out and about at night, hanging out with their neighbors, and making their cities full of life. The reason for this discrepancy is clear, as Nicas were all too happy to tell me: despite their other drawbacks, the Sandinistas have kept out the drug gangs.If there is any U.S. policy that has done as much damage to Latin America as our immigration policy in recent years, it is the immoral, failed War on Drugs. The drug trade exists because there will always be high demand here in the U.S. (yes, I’m looking at you, coked-out hipsters), and the poorer countries to our south are only doing their job in the most lucrative international market they have access to. Unfortunately, the ultra-violent Mexican drug cartels have spread into Guatemala and Honduras, working with the homegrown criminals (including many former soldiers from the war days) and corrupt politicians and policemen to turn the tiny countries into “narco-fiefdoms.” When I was in Guatemala during their presidential election, everyone talked about their choice between “a murdering general and a crazy narco-governor.” The general won, mainly because he promised to come down hard on the drug gangs, but many people wondered if he was in bed with them too. As the saying goes, “Don’t steal. The government hates competition.” Such is the drug trade, from Guatemala City to Washington.
  • Chicken Buses: Making this Interconnected World Go Around
    So…I just looked back on my list and realized that most my points are really depressing. Which isn’t too surprising: Central America is stunningly beautiful, rich in culture and tradition, but when it comes to politics, things aren’t so pretty these days. That said, I want to leave this ridiculously long post on a happy note, and on the same way I left every city in Central America: on a chicken bus.A chicken bus, for those that don’t know, is an old, yellow U.S. school bus that was decommisioned from use back in the States after however many miles, but has found a second life on the streets and highways throughout Central America. It’s not yellow anymore, though. No, these buses are beautifully re-painted with every color imaginable, and they take you to every corner of the country imaginable (including parts on tiny, windy roads that no bus-sized vehicle should probably ever go.) We traveled on these chicken buses, sometimes 100 people deep, with our backpacks alongside massive bushels of corn on the bus roof, through three countries. One of my favorite moments was driving through the small city of Coban in central Guatemala, our red-blue-and-orange bus so packed with campesinos that we had to stand on the three hour drive, the music blasting some terrible evangelical music in Spanish, and I look over and there on the inside of the bus was a bumpersticker that said, “Leave it to Beaver.”From mid-century suburban America to the highlands of Guatemala: that’s what the chicken bus is about. We are all connected in this crazy world, from immigration and drugs to tamales and t-shirts, and nothing represents that better to me than the reused, ridiculously awesome chicken buses of Central America.Rock on, chicken bus, rock on.