Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Hope and Psychological Space in Guatemala

Central American nation struggles to rebuild after 36 years of brutal civil war.

By Timothy Urdan

Some years ago, I attended a speech by Angela Davis in which she eloquently described the struggle of black South Africans against the oppressive system of apartheid. I was struck by the contrast between Davis' description of the conditions in which blacks lived before the fall of apartheid—including the violence of government militia—and her hopefulness after visiting the country. There was a sense in the air that although apartheid was still the system, things were changing; and, for the first time in decades, there was at least a space in which to hope for better things.

A few years later, I had the opportunity to hear Jesse Jackson speak just a few weeks after one child had thrown another out of a window in a Chicago housing project. He described standing below the window where the boy had landed and died. From that spot, Jackson could see a federal prison, and he thought to himself: "What a shame. If only the boy could have lived a few more years, he would have been old enough to go to prison. In prison, all of the needs he was unable to have met in his short life in the projects could have been satisfied." I have never heard a statement more devoid of hope.

These two stories illustrate the importance of hope in motivating and sustaining efforts to improve the quality of life for individuals and groups. On a recent Ethics Center-sponsored trip to Guatemala—a land of incredible poverty, inequity, and corruption—I was reminded how critical hope is.

During meetings with Guatemalans who are struggling to heal after 36 years of civil war, I was introduced to the concept of psychological space—a sense that there is a window of opportunity, no matter how small, for change to occur. This fragile space must be nurtured, not only by Guatemalans but also by members of the international community; without it, there is no room for hope.

An Overview

Guatemala is a nation of 10 million people. Although it is small, its terrain and microclimates are diverse, ranging from hot and humid coastal lowlands to mist-covered mountain forests. The population is roughly evenly divided between Ladinos (people of mixed Spanish and indigenous ancestry) and the slightly more numerous indigenous Mayans.

Approximately 87 percent of the population live in poverty, with 65 percent living in extreme poverty, making Guatemala the poorest nation in Central America. The average Guatemalan has fewer than five years of formal schooling with less than 2 percent going on to college. The economic gap between rich and poor is the greatest of any Central American country.

To the international community, the civil war in Guatemala was cast as a cold-war struggle between government forces and communist-backed guerrillas. Most of the people we spoke with, however, identified land ownership as the primary source of contention. As land in Guatemala increasingly came to be owned by a few wealthy individuals and corporations, peasants, mostly indigenous, were pushed off their land.

Because the large owners used the land to develop plantations, or fincas, for the production of such exports as coffee, bananas, and cotton, land grabbing by the wealthy was supported by the Guatemalan government and the United States. Today, 64.5 percent of the land is owned by 2.2 percent of the population, and battles over ownership continue.

The cost of the war in nonfiscal terms is immeasurable. One faculty member at the National University of San Carlos described a generation of Guatemalans who have experienced nothing but war. Those attending the university during the war knew students and faculty who were assassinated by the military for simply trying to achieve a measure of peace and dignity. This created a generation of students who have learned that smart people are dangerous in the military's eyes, and the result is a sick and corrupt culture.

Today, the judicial system is in shambles, a consequence of the systematic elimination of skilled, courageous law professors and students who might have been capable of addressing the corruption. Criminals, particularly members of the military who committed serious human rights violations, are virtually immune from prosecution. Several citizens mentioned that the police make them feel afraid rather than secure.

The Persistence of Hope

Despite this depressing history and an uncertain future, many Guatemalans have a clear sense of hope. After providing a richly detailed story of death, destruction, and political corruption, several people we met expressed guarded optimism that the future would bring improvements in living conditions and justice.

Often, they described this hope in terms of space, as in "At least now there is space for things to change." This notion of space—which I refer to as psychological space to distinguish it from the more familiar physical space—was evident both in the words Guatemalans used to describe their feelings about the current political and social climate and in their actions. Two specific examples are described below.

Recovering the Historical Memory

[Centro Comunal]
Photo by Jeanne Rosenberger

As part of the Guatemalan peace accords, the Commission of Historical Clarification was formed with the mandate of uncovering the truth about what happened during the civil war. The commission, however, will not name names; it is limited to attributing "institutional responsibility" for the massive human rights violations.

In addition, only six months were allotted for collecting witness accounts and producing a document. Compounding these limitations is the Law of National Reconciliation, passed by the Guatemalan Congress, which provides amnesty for most crimes committed in the course of military action.

Given these limitations, this history of the war was bound to be inadequate. Therefore, the Catholic Church established the Project to Recover the Historical Memory (REMHI) to provide an accurate account of the war by collecting thousands of testimonials from witnesses throughout the country.

During our visit to Guatemala, we met with two REMHI representatives, Edgar Guttierez in Guatemala City and the Rev. Rigoberto Perez in the highland province of Quiche. According to Perez, who oversaw the collection of 2,500 testimonials in one of the hardest hit regions, the project was impeded by a number of factors.

First, people were afraid of persecution from the military if they came forward to tell their stories. The military threatened witnesses to keep them from speaking about what they had seen during the war. Indeed, on the first day of story collection, Nov. 1, 1995 (a religious day of remembering the dead), the military sent soldiers to cemeteries to impede the process. Second, the work was terribly depressing. The teams of volunteers who collected the stories had to battle nightmares, lack of sleep, and threats to their physical safety from the military. Perez described a period where he lost his faith in life.

Despite the hardships, Perez and Guttierez felt REMHI fulfilled a critical psychological need. The final report will include names of those who committed crimes and human rights violations. Although there is little likelihood the people named will be prosecuted and punished, the REMHI Project and report will provide a moral statement against atrocities committed during the war.

In addition, as Guttierez told us, the purpose of REMHI is to "open a therapeutic space so that those who suffered can talk." The opening of this space is the first step in helping those who lived through the war to "psychologically process" what happened and "break the bonds between victims and victimizers." By engaging in this processing, they can let go of victimization and move on with healing, Guttierez said.

The Finca el Tablero

At one stop on our trip, we met with a group of Mayan campesinos (peasants) who were trying to regain ownership of a finca they claimed belonged to them. The current owners drove the parents of the campesinos off the land and then exploited them as hired workers.

With the support of the government-sponsored police force, the owner has tried to forcibly evict the campesinos five times, resulting in violence and some fatalities. According to one campesino, during the last eviction, a large group of police came in shooting. If the campesinos had not been forewarned of the raid, there is a good chance all would have been killed.

Despite these dangers, the campesinos realize land ownership is their only chance for survival in Guatemala. Buoyed in part by the successful purchase of a nearby finca by another group of campesinos, the 60 families occupying the finca now have the psychological space to believe land ownership by the indigenous Mayans is possible again.

Nurturing Psychological Space

[Kids in front of church]
Photo by Jeanne Rosenberger

The relative calm in Guatemala is as fragile as the sense of hope and psychological space on which it rests. If the space were to close, the sense of hopelessness that led the rebels to rise against the oppressive military would return, perhaps leading to another uprising. Even without the threat of war, there is a moral imperative to foster the hope needed to motivate everyone, particularly those living in difficult circumstances, to persevere and prosper. As illustrated by the Davis and Jackson stories, a sense of hope can be the difference between the senseless waste of life or the triumphant reclamation of freedom.

Nurturing hope in Guatemala is particularly incumbent on Americans. As one professor at National University eloquently reminded us, U.S. government policies helped create the instability that led to and sustained the civil war.

Now, Guatemalan immigrants who live in the United States send a substantial amount of money to their families in Guatemala. Without this money, these families would be destitute, leading to a state of unrest that could quickly disintegrate into war. By forcibly returning these immigrants to Guatemala, not only are we denying our role in creating the conditions that led them to flee their country, but also we are reducing the psychological space and, in turn, the sense of hope.

There are many other actions we can take to widen the sliver of space that now exists in Guatemala. As a number of Guatemalans told us, the international community, particularly the United States, must make the Guatemalan military and government aware we are closely watching what happens there and will not stand idly by as human rights abuses occur.

By recognizing our role in nurturing the psychological space that has emerged in Guatemala, we can help ensure the tragedies that have scarred the people in that country, and others like it, are not repeated.

Timothy Urdan is an assistant professor of psychology at Santa Clara University. His trip to Guatemala was part of an Ethics Center human rights leadership exchange, funded in part by the Santa Clara University Provost's Office.