Women find hope despite poverty in Guatemala

Tears rolled down Misty Taibe’s cheeks when she recalled the people she encountered while working as a human rights observer in the tiny Guatemalan village of El Nuevo Triunfo.

There was no road connecting the remote western village to the rest of the country. No doctor lived there, and residents lacked basic amenities like electricity and plumbing. Despite all this, Port Orchard resident Taibe was profoundly inspired by the spirit of the people.

“They gave me inner peace and taught me to make due with what they had,” Taibe said.

She learned about the volunteer opportunity through the Kitsap Universalist Unitarian Fellowship, and returned to the Perry Avenue church Friday, Feb. 1 with human rights observer Linda Jones to share the experience. The event was a fund-raiser for the volunteer program.

The two women spent 11 months in refugee camps with villagers who returned to the nation following the 41-year Guatemalan Civil War.

Neither witnessed the paramilitary violence toward indigenous people that was common in the 1980s, but they stressed there were human rights abuses just the same.

“People say, ‘So you didn’t see human rights violations?’ and I reply, ‘I saw them every time I opened my eyes — the grinding poverty. When a woman can’t get to the hospital when she dying during childbirth, that’s a human rights violation,’” said Jones, a volunteer from Minnesota who lived in La Quetzal in northeast Guatemala.

Taibe knew a villager who sustained a manchette cut on his hand, which became gangrenous. She urged him to go to the doctor, but he replied he could not travel the long distance and had no means to pay for health care. He died two weeks later.

“That’s the kind of violence we’re talking about,” Taibe said.

The volunteers, who returned to the U.S. in December 2000, delivered babies, worked in the fields and aided womens’ cooperatives — small businesses organized to produce goods for market or care for children.

They also observed a landmark trial in which three military officials were convicted for the 1998 murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi.

Shortly before his murder, Gerardi released a report indicting the Guatemalan government for its role in the mass slaughter of indigenous people, dubbed the “scorched earth policy.”

The observers were threatened by military personnel, Jones said, but they attended the trial to protect the lawyers and witnesses, who had no other security.

Both women told the crowd of 35 that the trial filled them with hope that the crimes of Guatemala’s past might soon come under the scrutiny of law.

“The judge urged (the lawyers) to pursue the case to the highest levels,” Jones said.

The Guatemalan Civil War began in 1954, when the military led a CIA-backed coup against the administration of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, the country’s elected president.

Genocide and human rights abuses during the civil war took a turn for the worse in the early 1980s, when the Guatemalan army, backed by the CIA, began a campaign of genocide against the Maya peoples. Several hundred Indian villages were obliterated and their inhabitants, presumed to be guerrilla sympathizers, were either killed or forced into exile in Mexico. Nearly 200,000 people were killed, and 1 million displaced, Jones said.

The protracted struggle officially ended on April 7, 1995, when the current Guatemalan government and leftist guerrillas signed an accord to protect the rights of the 23 different Native American groups in the country. However, the United Nations recently reported that Guatemala still operates with apartheid, Jones said.

Jones and Taibe worked in villages where the displaced people returned after the war.

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