- The Guatemala Reader: History, Culture, Politics ed. by Greg Grandin, Deborah T. Levenson, and Elizabeth Oglesby
In his introduction to Guatemala in Rebellion (1983), arguably a precursor to the work under review, Guillermo Torriello, foreign minister under President Jacobo Arbenz (1951-1954), lauded the book for providing an impartial and objective introduction to his country's tragic yet inspirational history. By "impartial and objective," Torriello did not mean that editors Jonathan Fried, Marvin Gettleman, Deborah Levenson, and Nancy Peckenham were disinterested observers of the conflict that had been raging in Guatemala since the United States overthrew Arbenz's government in [End Page 412] 1954, but rather that they had prepared a reader that conveyed the country's history as accurately as possible.
Almost 30 years later the same spirit has animated editors Greg Grandin, Deborah Levenson, and Elizabeth Oglesby to offer the present volume. As an introductory text it is more ambitious than its predecessor, encompassing culture as well as history and politics. In addition, the growing international focus on Guatemala over the intervening decades has generated an expanding body of scholarship, often based on newly found or released sources, particularly from the last half of the twentieth century, that were unavailable in the early 1980s. This proliferation has enabled the editors to compile a reader with greater breadth and depth and to undertake a more extensive dialogue with scholarly work. It also has allowed them to represent Guatemala's complicated past with added attention to empirical evidence and nuance. The result is not simply a more comprehensive and detailed introduction to Guatemalan history and culture, but a compendium of resources that even the specialist will find extremely useful.
The reader is divided into nine parts: the pre-Columbian Maya, Spanish conquest and colonialism, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the October Revolution (1944-1954) and its destruction, the growth of Guatemala's armed and unarmed popular movements and their repression (1960s and 1970s), counterinsurgency (1980s and 1990s), the peace accords of 1996 and their implications, pan-Maya consciousness and organizing, and a look ahead to the twenty-first century. Each part is comprised of at least six documents, excerpts, or other entries. The editors preface the volume with an introductory essay, and include introductions for each of the sections. In addition, each entry is expertly situated with an explanatory paragraph or two. Finally, suggestions for further reading and a list of sources, organized by section, provide excellent points of departure for further investigation.
In their introductions and choice of sources the editors challenge a number of themes prevalent in the reflections of travelers, political figures, and scholars alike. For instance, they refute the commonplace that violence is intrinsic to Guatemala's people and culture. They argue that from the sixteenth century the country has experienced a unique sequence of events that has repeatedly reinscribed violence within the body politic, beginning with the Spanish conquest and colonialism and continuing with the expansion of coffee and the U.S. overthrow of the October Revolution and the brutal counterinsurgency that followed. In all of these situations violence was used by foreign interests and the local elite to keep the Mayan majority subservient. Yet the editors insist that the Maya, however victimized, have not been victims but historical actors. They have pursued their own aims, sometimes in tandem with other Maya or even Ladinos, typically utilizing peaceful means but not infrequently resorting to rebellion or armed resistance. When the October Revolution removed the shackles of dictatorship, the Maya renewed their efforts to retake control of their towns and land. Like Guatemala's largely urban and Ladino communists, they desired to make the promise of democracy real through economic as well as political gains. Thus, the editors assert, the Guatemalan quest for liberation, both political and economic, was not rooted in foreign ideology or imposed from abroad, nor did it require Ladino leadership. [End Page 413]
In terms of criticism, this reviewer would have...