A Gruesome Story

Book cover
The Blindfold's Eyesby By Sister Dianna Ortiz, with Patricia DavisOrbis. 480p $25 (paper).

Just 100 years ago, on Oct. 24, 1902, the town crier in the Guatemalan town of Quetzaltenango struggled to make himself heard over the deafening roar of the nearby volcano, which had blown skyward that morning. Despite the noise of rocks crashing against rooftops and the ground shaking beneath his feet, he read by lantern lightthe midday sun had been blocked by swirling ashthe proclamation from the capital that assured the world that there were no volcanoes erupting in Guatemala.

The deception was required by the delusional president of the time, Manuel Estrada Cabrera, who had made the Roman goddess of wisdom the patron of the nation’s progress, symbolizing his proclaimed commitment to public education. That day he was celebrating the grandest Feast of Minerva ever, when the Santa Maria volcano threatened to interfere with the festivities. Eduardo Galeano was later to recount the story of the government’s decision that reality doesn’t exist, and Guatemala’s Nobel laureate Miguel Angel Asturias would immortalize Estrada Cabrera in his El Señor Presidente.

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Delusion, deception and coverup have played major roles in the lives of Guatemala’s ruling elites for much of its modern history. Fear, silence and amnesia have typified the response of the Mayan majority, who have borne the brunt of evil policies emanating from the capitol, a silence that Daniel Wilkinson’s engaging Silence on the Mountain has sought to break. It has largely succeeded.

The story he tells centers around two germinal events: the failed reforms of the Arbenz government, overthrown by the C.I.A. in 1954, and the subsequent repression that continued for decades but erupted into genocidal savagery in the 1980’s. Jacobo Arbenz was elected in 1950, promising land reform. In 1952 he issued Decree 900, the Law of Agrarian Reform, and promptly began breaking up thousands of the largest farms and ranches, turning them over to the workers. Among properties expropriated were the vast holdings of United Fruit, compensated at the value the giant conglomerate had reported for tax purposes, a mere fraction of their true worth. United Fruit’s law firm was also that of then Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and it was not long before a coup was hatched, a military government installed and all talk of land reform silenced.

As Wilkinson was to find out in a series of brilliantly recorded encounters with scores of people who experienced the reform and its aftermath, talk of reform was literally silenced. That he was able to break through that wall of fear-induced amnesia that the plantation workers he interviewed had thrown up, consciously or not, speaks well of this young investigator’s talent, persistence and, often enough, bravery. How could people who had experienced the agrarian reform, who had been on one side or the other of the guerrilla response to the coup, and who had been directly affected by the ensuing war not include any reference to these events in their otherwise detailed accounts to the inquiring journalist? Saber (like the more common Quién sabe?) was the almost universal shrug to any question dealing with those issues. Who knows?

But finally, in what amounts to a well-told and often suspenseful mystery story, Wilkinson elicits enough of the local history of a single coffee plantation to mirror in microcosm what Guatemala’s two truth commission reports (one by the Catholic Church in 1998, the other by a U.N. commission in 1999) were to present on the country at large. He makes the caseindeed, quoting former defense minister Héctor Gramajo to this effectthat it was Gramajo’s army that turned the guerrillas into terrorists.

 

Before his 1983 campaign, he said, they had been something else: an armed organization that was sustained by the civilian population. Their military actions were designed to generate popular support for their effort to topple the government. They were, essentially, a political force. Gramajo’s distinction is helpful: politics is about mobilizing supporters; terrorism about intimidating opponents. Politics is about hope; terrorism about fear. The Guatemalan army made the guerrillas turn to acts of terror by making it impossible for them to do politics.

 

Another way to tell the history of Guatemala’s war, Wilkinson concludes, is that it took four decades of violence to stamp out what the Agrarian Reform had createdthe commitment to the future that those men had shared, the belief that they could transform their nation. It was a place where terrorism did, in fact, win.

Ending on a more positive note, the author correctly observes that one of the goodshe says, perhaps the only goodto come out of the dirty wars in Latin America was that a human rights movement...would mobilize to expose the atrocities being committed in the region and, in the process, build a worldwide network linking local rights advocates to international organizations that had the resourcesand media savvynecessary to publicize human rights abuses around the globe.

Although it deals with some of the same dark underside of Guatemala’s recent history, The Blindfold’s Eyes is of a very different sort. On Nov. 2, 1989, the American Ursuline, Sister Dianna Ortiz, was abducted from a religious center in Antigua and taken, she believes, to the Politécnica in Guatemala City, where she was brutally tortured and raped. She was spirited out of the torture place by someone she identifies as an American accomplice of the torturers called Alejandro and, while being transported by him to the United States Embassy, managed to escape and eventually found her way to the safety of the papal nunciature and thence to the United States.

Her story, ever more gruesome details having unfolded over time, has generated a great deal of attention. It seems fair to say that it is a case that will likely never be solved unless, by some miracle, documents incriminating Alejandro or U.S. government agents emerge. Sister Dianna has her true believers, her doubters and deniers and a host of agnostics, those who are convinced something horrible happened to her but are troubled by aspects of her truly devastating story.

She has been, from the first trauma of her abduction, in need of psychic as well as physical healing. Her story recounts the many efforts made to that end by well-meaning but often ineffectual helpers: her superiors and close friends from her community, medical and mental health professionals, even fellow torture victims. She is disarmingly frank in acknowledging her own naïveté, her emotional fragility, her frequent bouts of depression and of feeling guilt. When some interlocutors express disbelief or find inconsistencies in her story, she has no compunction in detailing their reservations. This is commendable.

What I find less admirable is her a priori assumption that virtually every person she encountered who happened to work for the U.S. government was both evil and probably complicit in her torture or its coverup. This is conspiracy theorizing run amok. Full disclosure: although they are hardly close friends, I am at least acquainted with Ambassador Thomas Stroock, Guatemala desk officer Deborah McCarthy, Rick Nuccio, Tom Fountain and others who are vilified in Dianna’s account, all of whom I believe to be decent and honorable people. (I also know and am indeed good friends with Joe Nangle, O.F.M., Marie Dennis and Alice Zachmann, S.S.N.D., the three people who have probably made the greatest contribution to Dianna’s healing.)

Although she maintains that I do not judge peopleI leave that to God, her account is a very severe judgment of a good number of people, as well as of virtually all the policies of both the United States and the Guatemalan governments. The bishops’ conference of each country is well on record as criticizing both governments, but neither has found it possible to make the blanket denunciation that Dianna Ortiz has issued. A less ideological approach could have made this journey from torture to truth a more compelling account.

Still, one cannot fail to be affected by the pathos and tragedy that have dogged the life of this frail, attractive and utterly sincere young woman, who has endured horrors at the hands of evil men. On March 23 of this year, 22 years after the assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero and the 20th anniversary of the Ríos Montt coup that ushered in the most violent phase of the Guatemalan repression, many in the Mayan community held demonstrations across the country, protesting the fact that despite the historic peace accords of 1996, there continue to be significant human rights abuses that demand addressing.

The voices and experiences of Daniel Wilkinson and Dianna Ortiz stand as reminders that peace, like justice, is a process that must be constantly cultivated and protected.

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