I was writing a short blurb a few days ago about a farmer who works with one of our import partners in Guatemala, who’s green coffee beans we have brought in a few times over the years. It was supposed to be a 150-word write up; a short postcard that we include in all of our orders. It took me forever to write the dang thing. I thought I just needed to loosen up the ol’ writing muscle a bit.
But the longer I agonized over it, the more I realized it was because writing about Guatemala strikes a deep chord with me, and writing some fluffy postcard about how great our green coffee is and what great work we try to do seems empty without acknowledging what has gone on in that country over the last 75-ish years.
To understand what I mean, you have to go back to Guatemala with me when I was adventuring there as part of a cultural immersion and language program after graduating from high school. It was several months of rural homestays across the country, listening to locals boast of their rich Maya history, even as they recounted the painful stories of oppressors trying to break their spirit and rip it from them.
Even now… as I begin to write these next paragraphs, I struggle. Because there is so much that we are ignorant to regarding the civil war and genocide that consumed Guatemala for nearly 40 years through the back half of the 20th century. I strongly encourage you to do your own research on your own time, as anything I write will fall well short.
But we can’t pretend to be aware and thoughtful consumers of Guatemala coffee without understanding even their most recent history. So here is a quick history lesson:
- Guatemalan’s overthrow dictator Jorge Ubico
- Guatemalan Revolution, a.k.a. The Ten Years of Spring, begins
- Gautemalan’s seek to recapture the ideals of ancient Maya culture: collectivism and social equality, with a strong emphasis on agricultural reform, as a specific counter against monopolistic companies like the U.S.-owned United Fruit Company, a.k.a. Chiquita Banana
- (Note: I can’t stress enough how much of a role sustainable agriculture and seasonal/rotational farming plays in Maya culture - like many native peoples across the world, connection to land is sacred)
- The CIA covertly funds and arms a Guatemalan coup d’etat that successfully overthrows the democratically elected Jacob Arbenz
- This US-backed coup, drafted by Eisenhower, is designed specifically to stamp out communism and similar social unions while protecting big business like United Fruit
- The U.S. appoints/backs the election of right wing military colonel, Castillo Armas
- He quickly assumes dictatorial powers, banning opposition parties, imprisoning and torturing political opponents, and reversing the social reforms of the revolution
- Guatemala left wing activists and guerrilla groups convene and fight back
- Various presidents representing the Military Party fight revolutionaries in the Guatemala Civil War, committing heinous war crimes and crimes against humanity that have since been classified as genocide by the United Nations
What started as a corrupt coup against socialism soon proliferated into unimaginable violence and genocide against Maya peoples. During this period, more than 200,000 Guatemala people were brutally killed by the hands of their own government, with more than 50,000 simply disappearing. For 40 years, military regimes rose and fell in Guatemala, their “leaders” acting with impunity as they employed increasingly brutal measures of violence against their people - peasants, cooperative members, students, activists, university staff, church leaders - anyone with centrist or left-leaning political stances.
These were the people I listened to and spoke with while living there. People who witnessed and endured unimaginable tragedy.
In one town I stayed in, a woman not much older than my own mother told us a story of how Guatemala military forces converged on her town, and called on the citizens to meet them in the town plaza in what were supposed to be peace talks. In front of the town's entire congregation, the military called forward the men and boys, all military age males, yet no peace attempts were made. Instead, they huddled them together, tied them up, poured gasoline over them, and burned them alive in front of their families.
The story of this woman has stuck with me. Up on the hill in her adobe home, we could gaze down at the plaza where this tragedy unfolded. Even as a complete outsider it haunts me. I can’t begin to imagine her pain.
These stories were repeated in similar fashion throughout my travels across Northern Guatemala. And while I normally wouldn’t find it appropriate to repeat them, I think the grotesque image they paint is so powerful that it would do the dead a disservice to not mention their plight.
For me, there’s a point to sharing this. It’s a call to educate ourselves, seek justice, and always paint an honest picture. And to remember there are always real people, with real stories, behind the products we consume.
While no amount of green coffee - or whatever it may be - can erase history, my hope is that through awareness and active engagement, we can play a tiny role in the healing process. And help ensure these atrocities never repeat themselves on the doorsteps of any of our neighbors, here or abroad.