Last week I wrote about Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees as the second novel in my Reading Women Writers series. I wanted to briefly revisit it because of the recent news from Guatemala:

On Monday, a Guatemalan court ordered the country’s government to apologize to the Ixil population for the crimes of José Efraín Ríos Montt, a dictator who was sentenced to 80 years in prison for his role in war crimes committed between 1982 and 1983.

The verdict concluded that the army, under the command of Ríos Montt, had engaged in a campaign of genocide against the Ixiles, a small Mayan ethnic group. In that sense, it finally offered an answer to the thousands of victims’ families who had pleaded for justice since the 1980s.

The characters of Estevan and Esperanza are of that Mayan ethnic group, as well as the other undocumented refugees that Mattie protects in her sanctuary. Their daughter Ismene was kidnapped by the government in an attempt to blackmail them into revealing the names of the other members of their teacher’s union so they could be found and killed. They and others fled to the United States, but without paper documentation to prove their lives were in danger they are unable to be granted asylum. The ABC News/Univision story linked above addresses the question of the Reagan administrations role in supporting the Guatemalan government and consequentially their torture and genocide of the Ixiles:

Reagan’s administration ultimately decided to ignore the warnings, and indirect assistance was secretly resumed through the CIA. “Overall, U.S. intelligence, training, political support and assistance to the Guatemalan government and military in the early and mid-1980s uncritically supported counter-insurgency strategies that targeted civilians, in the cities and in rural areas like the Ixil Triangle,” Geoff Thale said. “U.S. policy makers of that era bear some responsibility for the human rights abuses that took place.”

In the novel, Estevan describes to Taylor one of the torture practices enabled by U.S. involvement:

Then out of the clear blue sky he said, “In Guatemala City the police use electricity for interrogation. They have something called the ‘telephone,’ which is an actual telephone of the type they use in the field. It has its own generator, operated by a handle.” He held up one hand and turned the other one in a circle in front of the palm.
“A crank? Like the old-fashioned telephones?”
“Operated with a crank,” he said. “The telephones are made in the United States.”
“What do you mean, they use them for interrogations? Do you mean they question you over the telephone?”
Estevan seemed annoyed with me. “They disconnect the receiver wire and tape the two ends to your body. To sensitive parts.”

“I don’t know exactly how to say this,” I said. “I thought I’d had a pretty hard life. But I keep finding out that life can be hard in ways I never knew about.”
“I can see that it would be easier not to know,” he said.
“That’s not fair, you don’t see at all. You think you’re the foreigner here, and I’m the American, and I just look the other way while the President or somebody sends down this and that, shiploads of telephones to torture people with. But nobody asked my permission, okay?”

Kingsolver wrote about this 25 years ago, and only now has it been meaningfully addressed in at least a small way. It should remind us that whether the U.S. government is trying to “contain communism” or fight a “war on terror,” there are human costs to our actions. Enabling and supplying a dictator to massacre his people just because his government is not communist, or is more secular, makes us complicit in their crimes.

Photo of Tikal Mayan ruins in Guatemala from Wikipedia