Guatemala: Bird of Peace, Burden of Pain | Sojourners

Guatemala: Bird of Peace, Burden of Pain

Through Guatemala's tropical lowlands flies a brilliant green and red bird with flowing tail feathers. This "bird of peace," the quetzal, has been honored by the people of Guatemala as a symbol of their varied and unique land.

It is a land of kaleidoscopic color: of lush green rain forests, bright Indian weavings, and "lakes that change color by the hour." Tourists, making up the country's third largest industry, are lured by Mayan ruins, exotic volcanoes, and the promise of "perpetual spring." But the calm of perpetual spring belies the calamity of permanent strife.

Guatemala is unique in Central America in that more than half of its population is Indian. These indigenous people have been known for their peaceful life and desire to live in harmony with the land. But they have suffered a series of invasions that have threatened their culture and even their existence.

Centuries ago Spanish conquerors seeking wealth enslaved and branded them. More recent history shows a string of military dictators who ruled in favor of the small landholding aristocracy and condemned the Indian majority to poverty. This line of tyranny was interrupted on October 20,1944, by a revolutionary coup which brought to power the reform-minded educator Juan Jose Arevalo and ushered in a decade of hope for the people.

Arevalo's moderate reform program was pushed even further by his democratically elected successor, Jacobo Arbenz. His radical land reform program targeted the U.S.-owned United Fruit Company (now United Brands), which dominated Guatemala's agricultural system. Of United Fruit's vast landholdings, less than 15 per cent were cultivated. In 1954, the Guatemalan government announced that the company must sell its unused land.

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