Comparison of Social Movements in Guatemala and Bolivia Essay

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Collective Community Action for Social Change in Guatemala as Compared to Two Examples of Different Social Movements in Bolivia

Collective Community Action for Social Change in Guatemala and Bolivia

Today, many of the people of Central and South America share a common legacy of violence as well as an ongoing struggle for social equality and efforts to improve their lot in life. Indeed, this region of the world continues to seek ways to become part of the international community by shedding its banana republic past, but a number of challenges and obstacles to progress remain firmly in place. This paper provides a review of Beatriz Manz book, Paradise in Ashes and Benjamin Dangl's book, the Price of Fire, to compare the collective community action for social change in Guatemala compared to different social movements in Bolivia. A discussion of the challenges they faced the objective of community actions, and how notions of community and nation were transformed in the process is followed by a summary of the research and salient findings in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

To many observers in 21st century North America, the enormous violence that characterized Central America in the 20th century may seem far away and remote, but the people of Guatemala and Bolivia certainly experienced their fair share of misery and violence in the 20th century. In their efforts to solve their own problems, these people frequently encountered violence upheavals that thwarted their efforts at effecting social change in any meaningful way. For instance, in his book, Paradise in Ashes, Manz (2004) reports that some of the fundamental problems faced by the peasants of Guatemala include identifying how to better promote locally-based development projects, how to determine the relationship of Christianity to cooperatives and social change to overcome the existing levels of poverty that are the result of the policies of the Guatemalan government. The adverse consequences of such policies include the unequal distribution of land, exploitation, lack of organization, and rampant unemployment.

Although Manz's book primarily concerns the village of Santa Mar'a Tzeja, the trials and tribulations faced by its residents are indicative of the.".. forces and conflicts defining contemporary Guatemala." According to U.S. government analysts, "Guatemala won its independence in 1821. During the second half of the 20th century, it experienced a variety of military and civilian governments, as well as a 36-year guerrilla war." As Manz points out, the Guatemalan peasants who established the village of Santa Mar'a Tzeja found themselves smack-dab in the middle of this guerilla war. In this regard, Manz reports that these peasants.".. had been squeezed mercilessly by their lack of land and, given the repressive social structure of the country [and] had few political or economic options."

In response, these Guatemalan peasants attempted to carve out a better place to live in the midst of the rain forest, but even in this remotest part of the country, they were not free from the violence that characterized the country for decades. According to Manz, these peasants "embarked in 1970 on what seemed a desperate, if not foolhardy, attempt to colonize a distant, inaccessible rain forest. Paradoxically, the isolated site they chose became one of the centers of the war that would convulse the entire country in the 1980s. As it turned out, Santa Mar'a Tzeja became the first village visited by a small band of men that would grow into the largest of Guatemala's insurgent organizations, the Ejercito Guerrillero de los Pobres (EGP), the Guerrilla Army of the Poor."

In fact, the village of Santa Mar'a Tzeja was destroyed in 1982, but this destruction was just part of the misery experienced by the people of Guatemala during the civil war. The impact of the decades-long civil war on the people of Guatemala was severe. According to a United Nations report, fully 200,000 people were killed or disappeared during the Guatemalan civil war, with almost all of these casualties being the result of actions by state forces and related paramilitary groups.

As Manz points out, "More than six hundred massacres took place, more than half of them in El Quiche province, and during the most intense period of the military onslaught, from 1981 to 1983, as many as 1.5 million people, out of Guatemala's 8 million, were displaced internally or had to flee the country." As a result of this violence and exploitation, approximately 150,000 peasants fled the country to Mexico but this was not the only adverse consequence of the civil war in Guatemala. Indeed, the Guatemalan authorities and paramilitary forces were bent on destroying the very culture of these peasants. The UN report stated that, "The massacres... were not only an attempt to destroy the social base of the guerrillas, but above all, to destroy the cultural values that ensured cohesion and collective action in Mayan communities."

While a few Central American countries such as Costa Rica have managed to avoid this type of violent upheaval in the past, Guatemala in particular experienced some of the worst. According to Manz, the casualties exceeded the totals for El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile, and Argentina combined, and "Ethnic cleansing was practiced on a scale beyond even that of Bosnia. For decades Guatemala especially Mayas, had endured living under a ghastly form of state terrorism." Not surprisingly, these unfortunate people found themselves bound together in ways that they might not have wanted, but in ways that helped them survive and forge a sense of nationality and solidarity that may not have existed previously. The primary impetus for such a grass-roots social movement was fueled in large part by a continuing struggle for scarce resources well into the late 20th century. In this regard, Manz reports that, "Between 1960 and 1980, when the economy expanded, Guatemala still showed the lowest social investment and the lowest taxation rate of any Central American country. Not even the surge in coffee markets between 1975 and 1977, along with a 400% increase in prices, prompted a change in either social spending or the taxation rate."

While the people of Guatemala experienced some of the severest levels of violence in their efforts to forge a new sense of nationality and retain their unique culture, the people of Bolivia did not escape such violence completely either. In fact, since its independence from Spain in 1825, Bolivia has also experience almost 200 political coups and countercoups. According to U.S. government analysts, "Democratic civilian rule was established in 1982, but leaders have faced difficult problems of deep-seated poverty, social unrest, and illegal drug production."

In his chapter, "Revolution in Reverse," Dangl reports that Bolivia has also been the victim of the so-called "resource curse" wherein developing nations with significant resources have been exploited in ways that have prevented social progress and economic development throughout the 20th century. As Dangl points out, the Spanish ruthlessly exploited the people of Bolivia to secure their mineral wealth and left little behind in the way of infrastructure. "To extract the silver, they forced Bolivian men to work in the mines in horrible conditions for months on end. Residents of the city [of Cerro Rico] say the silver could have built a bridge all the way to Spain."

The virtual slave-like conditions in which these Bolivian men were forced to work were not overcome easily or quickly, and these social conditions persisted well into the 20th century. For instance, Dangl notes in his chapter, "Bolivian Moment: The Morales Administration," that this repression helped to propel coca-grower Evo Morales into power. When the violent dust had eventually settled, the facts about the violence that had taken place in Guatemala and Bolivia emerged and the world finally took some notice. According to Manz, the Guatemalan government "never acknowledged the deteriorating plight of poor Guatemalans, even during periods when resources were available to do something about it. In the two decades beginning in 1960, for example, Guatemala recorded unprecedented economic growth while taxation and government social spending nonetheless ranked last in all of Central America, a region hardly known for its progressive vision."

Because resources are by definition scarce, the people of Guatemala and Bolivia are not unique in their struggle to overcome adversity and create a viable livelihood for themselves, but these two countries in particular appear to have been especially plagued by exploitation by their own governments as well as developed nations that wanted their mineral wealth and did not care what their efforts would do to the indigenous peoples of these nations. As Manz emphasizes, even the downtrodden can rise up when things become sufficiently severe, but this did not avail the people of Guatemala at first. In this regard, the author reports, "Not surprisingly, mounting social problems combined with shrinking political options proved to be a volatile combination that finally erupted into armed confrontation in 1962 in the eastern Ladino-dominated part of the country. This revolt was crushed by 1968 without major change occurring in the Mayan highlands. The United Nations report attributes the conflict to the government's "reluctance to promote substantive reforms… [END OF PREVIEW]

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