25 Jun

Some though not all of the content of this post is also in the photo-essay, Coffee in Guatemala

Antigua, former Spanish capital of Central America, eight a.m. The coffee bar could be in a chic part of Milan. My latte is strong and full flavoured, served with that swirling thing they do with the steaming milk. Typical Guatemala it ain’t. If you care for coffee this country’s a form of torture not seen since the Jesuits switched from delivering it in the here and now to promising it in the here­after. Beyond the cob­b­led streets, red tiled roofs and thick, quake-resistant walls of the bourgeois villas, expensive cafes and banks with armed guards that surround Parque Central – and beyond those few oases in the country where gringa travel in sufficient numbers to warrant the overheads – when you ask for coffee here you get a warm sugary brew the colour of cola with the smell and taste of weak instant. This in one of the world’s great coffee producing nations; a textbook case of cobblers’ kids running barefoot. Why?

A few days ago in Coban an elderly senora named Esther, the first English speaker I’d met since part­ing with Annie, gave me a tour of a finca or coffee plantation. I learned about the growing, harv­esting, sorting and drying of the beans (though much of what she said was known to me from an impromptu tour, conducted by a gang of likely lads in their boss’s absence, of a plantation in Northern Thailand). On the labour side of coffee production, by contrast, Esther was silent. Why? And, other than telling me the finca had been founded in 1874 by a chap named Dieseldorf, she seemed decidedly uninter­ested when I commented that most of the finca seemed to be foreign owned, especially by Germans. Why?

Some 25,000 years ago people entered the Americas, probably from Asia via a long gone ice corridor across the Bering Strait. (Then again, no one who counts will rule out their having rafted across the Atlantic, so come back Thor Heyerdal; you’re wanted.) Over the next fifteen millennia, unhampered by Green Card systems, they fanned out through North, Cent­ral and South America, chasing woolly mam­moth all the way, an activity that ceased around 10,000 BC as the receding of the last ice age forced a switch to agriculture. By then they were leaving archeological evidence of farming and, between 6,000 and 2,000 BC, settling in villages in what is now Guatemala.

Over the next three millennia things hot up as the Maya appear then approach, realise and lose their golden age. In the first millennium AD the great city states at Tikal and El Mirador are built, rebuilt then, time of the Norman Conquest in Britain, abandoned due to overpopulation and the collapse of  irrigation systems too clever by half. In their heyday they have discovered writing and, as with the Egyptians at Giza, embedded extensive astronomical knowledge in their sacred buildings.

From 1000-1300 AD the Maya are back in villages as subsistence farmers, a surviving aspect of this period being a proliferation of Maya tribal dialects. From 1300 to the 1500s a handful of tribes, prob­ab­ly themselves in thrall to the powerful Toltecs of Mexico, are terrorising their more dovish neigh­bours (a surviving aspect of this being the predominance today of just three dialects: Mam, K’iche’ and Kaqchikel). Needless to say, these guys don’t trust one another an inch, enabling the highly organised and gunpowder toting Conquistadors to divide and rule where they couldn’t be bothered to outfight them.

Guatemala proves a bit of a disappointment for the Spanish. Despite what our Rio Dulce guide had told us, whatever expropriated gold the British pirates made off with must have come from further afield. There was silver, true, but nothing on the scale of the Argentine. There was indigo though, a prized commodity from sixteenth century to early nineteenth, when cheaper substitutes crashed the market. Meanwhile a few problems were stoking up for Madrid. It had introduced a rigid and racially based hierarchy designed to keep power and wealth in the hands, not of the Conq­u­ist­ad­ors’ descend­ants, but of those born in Spain. This was a recipe for trouble of course, but instead of the tea parties and War of Independence further north, these colonisers won their freedom via a series of messier routes trigger­ed by Spain’s collapse as a great power, courtesy of Napoleon.

The 19th century sees a to and fro between capitalist liberals on the one hand, feudal cons­er­v­at­ives looking to the good old days on the other. (One more playing out, we might say, of those same forces – vying for how best to exploit labour – that produced the French Revolut­ion and American Civil War.[1]) this too is a messy process but by the final quarter of the century the liberals have won out just as a stagnant econ­omy is about to be revitalised by the soaring fortunes on the world’s commodity markets of coffee. To get in on the action three things are required: land, labour and capital. Capital is the tough­est since the finance mechanisms for production at scale have never been developed in back­water Guatemala. The problem is solved by encouraging immigration from Europe through give-away land prices and near zero taxation. For reasons too lengthy to go into here, but which make fascinat­ing reading, enter­pris­­ing young Germans are especially favoured. (Until Pearl Harbour, that is, at which point the murky leverage of the United Fruit Company is used to secure their expul­s­ion.) Land and labour are easier nuts to crack. A law is passed to trans­fer unfarmed land to the state, with the definition of farming confined to a handful of crops, none of them grown by the Maya, who grow maize and potatoes for their own consumption. These lands are sold at rock bottom prices to the likes of Herr Dies­eldorf. Solv­ing the land problem naturally goes a long way to solving the labour problem too, since the displaced Maya are now dependent for survival on work at the finca. Addition­ally, a barely disguised form of corvee labour forces recalcit­rants to work a set number of days as coffee pickers: a system which, so far as I have been able to tell, operates well into the twentieth century.

I could almost stop here, the next chapter being entirely predictable. The forces that led to the Cuban Revolution, and typically Maoist groupings like Shining Path in Peru, also triggered murder­ous civil wars in Central America. Touching on the Guatemalan version in my last email, I mentioned a book I’m reading, Silence on the Mountain. Its title comes from the fact that neither the finca owners nor the Maya would speak of the terror that swept the countryside for forty years; it was as if nothing had hap­pen­ed. The book’s subtitle is Stories of Terror, Betrayal, and Forgetting in Guatemala.

“If the guerrillas had so much support, why didn’t they win?”

“Things change”, Jorge said. “When the army did what it did in Sacuchum, everything changed.”

“Sacuchum Dolores is a community on top of the mountain,” Cesar explained. “Tell him what happened there.”

“The army showed up one day and found the women washing green uniforms. And none of the men were home. So the soldiers had the families go inside their houses. They closed the doors and they set the houses on fire. The women and the children and the old people were inside, and they burned with the houses. That was the new law of the land. If the government hadn’t done that, the guerrillas would have kept growing. But that was too much. You come home and find nothing – no family, no houses – just ashes. That was too much.”

When the state responds with unbridled ferocity to opposition, the latter has two choices. It can either return that ferocity in equal measure, as happened in the Congo, where the people, women in particular, are subjected to a living hell from both sides. Or it can give up, having seen nothing won, nothing resolved. Guatemala’s opposition took the second choice and that’s why Senora Esther was silent on the labour relations of coffee production, and on why the finca owner in Coban had neither a Spanish nor (an absurd idea of course) Maya name. But why is it so damned hard to get a decent cup of coffee here? In Vietnam, impoverished by thirty years of war and a further twenty of aust­er­ity thanks both to the command economy and America’s vindictive policy of punishing nations friendly to Hanoi, good coffee is nevertheless enjoyed by the masses. In India, no big exporter but still a grower of fine beans, it isn’t, but that’s because an inferiority complex instilled by the British has yet to be fully shaken off. Order a coffee there and the waiter is likely to assure you that “it is only the finest Nescafe that we are using, sahib”.

In Guatemala the masses don’t understand coffee – to them it’s a foul, bitter drink anyway – because it’s always been beyond their reach. Here’s an analogy. The English language preserves with pristine clarity a set of class relations dating back to the Normans. All our names for livestock are Saxon – pig, cow, sheep – while our names for the meats are French – pork, beef, mutton – because, of course, the Saxons tended the animals their masters ate. Something similar is at work here.

I’ll finish with a tip for visiting photographers. Be careful photographing children. Anyone from ultra paranoid England, especially if male, will already be conditioned on this front but here’s something you may not know. During the eighties and nineties a few courageous human rights researchers trickled into the countryside to collect first hand evidence of the terror. Alarmed, the government spread the rumour these barren gringa were intent on child stealing. It was a highly successful ploy that resulted in a few lynchings and, more to the point, silence on the mountain.
[1]    I don’t say the actors – the Dantons and Robespierres, Lincolns and Grants – saw these seismic events in such starkly materialist terms. But with the dust now settled it’s hard, given hindsight and an impersonal perspective, to avoid concluding that beneath the cry of liberation lay the unstoppable aggendas of an emerging order whose mills and factories would first commodify labour, then extract from it surplus value on a scale undreamt of by feudal lord or slave owner.

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