on March 12, 2003
Daniel Wilkinson's "Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror, Betrayal, and Forgetting in Guatemala" is a balanced and well-written chronicle of State terror. The author dedicates many years, abandons law school and runs up credit card debt to research and write a glaring historical account of the struggle between large landowners and the poor in Guatemala.
Wilkinson's early focus is on the 1950 presidential victory of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán. He then explains the daring 1952 implementation of a far-reaching Agrarian Reform law called Degree 900. The author reaches out to Guatemalan students who favored the reforms and declared that peace, "required greater equality and greater equality required a redistribution of land in the countryside."
Wilkinson then flashes back to 1892 when twenty-three-year-old Friedrich Endler leaves Germany for Central America. Endler eventually becomes a large coffee plantation owner and it is through him the author explains the historical struggle with poor illiterate workers who provide the labor that builds a coffee nation.
From there Wilkinson flash forwards to 1954 and the carefully choreographed CIA overthrow of democratically elected President Guzmán. Shortly thereafter agricultural students protested, "We who receive an education paid for by the people have a debt to the people! We who have the power to analyze have the responsibility to criticize! An agronomist should carry, in one hand, a machete...and, in the other, a machine gun."
The remainder of the book is a painstaking tale of documenting the State terror of the 1980's when 200,000 Guatemalans perished. Quite frankly, parts of this book are brutal. Nevertheless, the author must be commended for risking his life and traveling to the interior and urging the poor to testify before the Guatemalan Truth Commission that officially investigated the atrocities of the armed forces.
In conclusion, Daniel Wilkinson courageously points a finger at Washington for being so obsessed with the fear of insurgency that they rationalize away qualms and uneasiness. He even quotes an American embassy official who was uneasy with early military abuses and wrote in 1968, "the record must be made clearer that the Untied States Government opposes the concept and questions the wisdom of counter-terror; the record must be made clearer that we have made this known unambiguously to the Guatemalans; otherwise we will stand before history unable to answer the accusations that we encouraged the Guatemalan Army to do these things." Unfortunately, no one in Washington was listening. This is a tier-one book...buy it.
on April 15, 2005
So you know that the civil war in Guatemala was between the military and the guerillas with, tragically, so many of Guatemala's indigenous population caught in the middle. You might even know that lack of land and racist policy drove the war. But do you really know how it came to be and why?
This is what this book will do for you. It will take you deep into the politics and events that led to the bloodshed that was most apparent during the 1980's. It will reveal why Guatemala is still bleeding from this war. It will show you why so many Guatemalans are for the most part silent about what really went down during that war.
Silence that spurred Daniel Wilkinson, a young Harvard graduate from the States, to hop on a ratty motorcycle and travel throughout the country interviewing countless numbers of people in a quest for the truth of what went on on the mountain, and why there has been silence there for so long. This book isn't stuffy, it's not authoritative. In fact, most of the time it is apparent that Wilkinson doesn't know what he is doing half of the time he is in Guatemela. Which makes him very real as a person. You kind of travel along with him, it's THAT good. Wilkinson doesn't go for shock value in the retelling of his events. His is a firm, quiet truth and he tells his tale, his experience in this book, focusing on why getting to the truth is nearly as horrifying as the truth itself.
Pick this one up for a better, deeper understanding of the civil war in Guatemala. As you read it in your comortable house your perception on life just might change. I know mine did.
on January 29, 2006
time and again i let myself be surprised by the atrocious acts committed or supported by my government. the hypocricy of the CIA and of US foreign policy in general is nothing new, but this book tells guatemala's story from a very personal angle. the repressive practices of the post-50's guatemalan government are shocking and important to understand in and of themselves, along with the US involvement in those practices. but what is most outstanding about this book is the human face wilkinson puts on the tragedy. in his travels on a harvard fellowship, he meets many of the major players in the drama, as well as the ordinary people who suffered from the violence. the result is a book not entirely sympathetic to the guerrilla fighters, not entirely condemning of the guatemalan government, but entirely focused on the outcomes of the civil war that are still being faced by the rural poor in the guatemalan highlands. we are responsible as us citizens -- if we are us citizens, that is :) for understanding this story, since our government is largely responsible for supporting the violence over so many decades.
also, this is an amazing read. it's intelligent, funny, well-written all around. it's not entirely chronological, but more like a travel journal-cum-historical flashbacks. i read it in preparation for a trip to guatemala, and am so glad that i did. everyone should read this book.
on January 26, 2010
As a Guatemalan well-versed in the sad and tawdry history of my homeland, it is refreshing to read an account of my country (by a foreigner, no less) that connected with me on so many levels. Whereas other reviewers were of the opinion that Wilkinson's little asides were self-indulgent exercises that distracted from the main thrust of the book, I thought his anecdotes worked very well. I guess you have to be a Guatemalan familiar with its lingo, landscape, people and rural traditions to appreciate the texture Wilkinson brings to life in his meticulous retelling of the horrific events that transpired during the civil war.
In fact, Wilkinson does his best work when constructing his anecdotes. My paternal grandparents labored on and raised their family in a coffee plantation not far from La Patria, the focus of Wilkinson's account. My grandfather, I believe, was a plantation clerk. My father worked as his adjunct. When I was a child, I remember the excitement of visiting my grandparents in their small house on the plantation, going from the capital city where my parents had settled to "La Finca" in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Wilkinson's description of the looming volcanoes, the crystalline air, the sharp pungency of moist soil, the rutted dirt tracks, the forbidding rainforests, the foaming streams, the torrential downpours, the "posadas", the misty sunrises, the iridescent "cafetales" after dusk, the small market towns, the women in "trajes" of riotous colors, the Christmas "fiestas", the trundling buses, the old clapboard houses with peeling paint, and countless other details flooded me with a nostalgia that no other book ostensibly about Guatemalan history and politics has been able to elicit.
His descriptions of the people who inhabited these plantations were also spot on, with their "si pueses", general timidity and superstitions (I beamed with delight when he noted the myth of "La Llorona", for example, which no other book on Guatemalan history that I have read has ever done). In my mind's eye I could hear and see Wilkinson's conversations with plantation people, the cadences in their voices, their mannerisms. But what was especially noteworthy was Wilkinson's description of their unnerving need for silence. What struck me, even as a little boy, when I went from the capital city to "La Finca" was how plantation people, including my grandparents and father, were so much more fearful of making noise than people in the city. Half the conversations I heard adults carry out in the plantation were in whispers, almost always like they were afraid others might overhear them, even if they were walking in plain daylight by themselves on some road, or deep within their own homes. As a child I ascribed this odd behavior to culture, but never to anything more nefarious than that. Then along comes Wilkinson's book, which helps fill in so many gaps of my general knowledge about those long-gone days of my childhood. When I grew older I would ask my parents about these things--the whispering, the burned-out buildings hidden in a forest clearing just outside the plantation, the origins of my grandparents, who looked very Mayan in their physical features--but they generally clammed up or changed the subject, practicing their own version of the "saber" stonewalling that Wilkinson experienced at every turn during his early days of investigation.
And whether or not he did this intentionally, Wilkinson also sneaks in among his descriptions some astute allusions to "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and "El Senor Presidente" by Miguel Angel Asturias. The inclusion of these literary homages made his book rise to another level above the more prosaic, plodding, social-science accounts of the Guatemalan terror with which I'm familiar.
Another notable feature which I thoroughly appreciated was his detailed retelling of the formation of the guerrillas, and how they arose in the context of the plantations and the aborted land reforms of 1952. In most other histories of the civil war that I've read the focus is on the terror itself, with the army as a disembodied puppet-monster crushing defenseless indigenous peasants while controlled by an all-powerful self-interested European elite and the U.S. government. There was nary a description or analysis of the guerrillas themselves--who they were, what they sought to accomplish, and most importantly, how they sought to accomplish it and how close they came to accomplishing it. In this book I finally got a thorough analysis, and am shocked to find out that the guerrillas were much more powerful, had greater reach into the population and were closer to triggering a revolution than any other account I have read. And I might as well have been this misinformed because for the Guatemalan government acknowledging how close it came to collapse was (and still is) not in its best interest, and for the leftist intellectuals who wrote the previous accounts I've read, it works better to elicit sympathy from outsiders if the peasants come off as completely helpless victims of U.S. imperalism rather than people with real agency and real fighting capabilities who were trained in Cuba. This book also provided me with the first pictures of the guerrillas I had ever seen (the Guatemalan press and government did a thorough job of minimizing, whitewashing and blackballing the guerrilla threat, since it took me this long to finally learn the truth, and even to see what the guerrillas looked like).
Wilkinson's book also painted the army in a more three-dimensional manner--as a rag-tag bunch of soldier-amateurs who were trained in counter-insurgency by a rabidly and blindly anti-communist U.S. goverment. The influx of Cold War American money and training transformed the army into the most powerful autonomous institution in the country, separate, and at times scornful of, the European business and plantation elite. So, in this more realistic construct, it finally makes sense to me why the Guatemalan government and army had become so hideously repressive: the scorched-earth campaign killing masses of rural peasants was a (sadly effective) last gambit of a tottering regime desperate to see off the biggest existential threat it had faced in its history, while the European elite this regime served looked the other way, unconcerned and unsullied by war, politics, and massacres.
If I could give this book 10 stars, I would. It has filled me with so many emotions, and has done such a thorough job providing answers to so many of the questions I had about my histories--personal, familial and national. Thank you Mr. Wilkinson for sticking your neck out, venturing into a strange and violent land, and coming out with this wonderful, heart-rending account of my tragic but beautiful homeland. It's a must read for anyone, Guatemalan or not, who wants a comprehensively realistic and entertaining overview of the recent history of my country.
on April 23, 2006
I agree with the other reviewer who suggested that US citizens have a responsibility to read this book, since the US is responsible for much of the suffering that's been going on in Guatemala - and other parts of Latin America. Fortunately, there are civic groups like the School of the Americas Watch ([...])that are providing assistance to the victims of our violence.
I worked with an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala and the story he told of his village being destroyed was heart-breaking. I'm always glad to discover authors like Daniel Wilkinson who are sharing the sort of information that our establishment media marginalizes. Information that people like us can disseminate in our own grassroot networks.
Along with Wilkinson's book, I'd recommend the DVD "When the Mountains Tremble," which features Rigoberta Menchu - who, predictably, has been smeared by defenders of our military establishment and self-serving myths that go with it. Additionally, I recently bought "Guatemala: Never Again!" to honor Bishop Juan Gerardi, who was murdered a couple days after he turned in the manuscript.
Some may be interested to know that the song "The Flowers of Guatemala" by R.E.M. is about US foreign policy in Central America. Lead singer Michael Stipe mentions his intent during an interview in the progressive Christian magazine "Sojourners."