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The Washington Quarterly 24.2 (2001) 59-72

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Memory without History:
Who Owns Guatemala's Past?

Patrick Smith

In the light and not in the light, in the darkness and not in the darkness, ... motionless and in movement

--Miguel Angel Asturias,
Men of Maize1

On the edge of the Plaza Mayor, Guatemala City's vast central square, a small block of stone supports a Plexiglas case, within which burns a single finger of flame. Seven simple words chiseled into the side of this modest monument explain it. "A los heroes anonimos de la paz," the inscription reads--to the anonymous heroes of the peace. Which heroes? What peace? One need not ask, for these references are made unmistakably clear by the date given beneath: December 29, 1996, when the government and its guerrilla opponents signed accords ending a civil war that had rent Guatemala for 36 years.

Next to the stone, the flame, and the plastic case, a marble plaque lies flush to the ground, invisible until you are directly upon it. It was placed there by two associations of university students in February 2000, and it is decidedly less restrained than the official commemoration by its side. It quotes from the work of Otto Rene Castillo, "poeta revolutionario de Guatemala":

But it is beautiful to love the world
with the eyes
of those who have not yet been born. 2

These lines are familiar among literate Guatemalans. In them, the future is honored along with the past in the Plaza Mayor.

There is something altogether tentative, even furtive, about this tableau. The plaque is no bigger than a tabloid newspaper. The flame is the size of a Bunsen burner; its case is almost opaque with scratches, graffiti, and patches of singed plastic. It projects all the majesty of a battered mailbox and is easily [End Page 59] missed in the enormity of the square, but this provisional impression is misleading. The Plaza Mayor is the most explicitly public space in all of Guatemala. This assemblage is meagerly made, one surmises, precisely because its implications loom so large. It suggests a reclamation--not just of space, but of time. It posits an ineluctable link between what happened and what is to come--between the past and the future. In these implicit assertions, it asks: who will occupy the public space of Guatemala? There is another way to put this question, of course: what does it mean, after so many years of war and tragedy, to be Guatemalan?

To read the Guatemalan dailies these days is to enter upon familiar concerns: the health of local industry, the exchange rate of the quetzal, the latest political maneuverings, the rising incidence of crime. The present pales, however, when compared to the nation's preoccupation with its past. It is the past that imprisons Guatemalans and is the source of a lingering sense of menace as palpable as the stones in the Plaza Mayor. The past is the true news, for it remains undecided, and it is the past to which people know they must refer so as to see ahead. A prominent social scientist named Edelberto Torres-Rivas and Edgar Gutiérrez, a close advisor to President Alfonso Portillo, recently discussed these matters. "Many people fear the past," Torres-Rivas says. "They don't want to remember." Gutiérrez looks the other way. "We live in a time of uncertainty toward the future," he says. "Many of us fear it." To understand Guatemala is to recognize that these statements amount to the same thing.

Guatemalans, it must be said, began to address their problematic past even as they negotiated the agreements that ended the war. Signed at intervals during the 1990s, the peace accords include detailed social and economic provisions intended to redress longstanding inequities in Guatemalan society. 3 Then came the truth commission reports. In 1994, Bishop Juan Gerardi and other Catholic leaders launched the Recovery of Historical Memory Project, or REMHI, the first comprehensive attempt to document and analyze the violence. In 1998, it published four volumes under the...


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pp. 59-72
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