by Louisa Reynolds | 2014/15 IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow
October 8, 2014
Anthropology is all about trying to understand and interpret another society and culture and attempting to explain its complexities and nuances to one’s own society. As a freelance journalist who works in Guatemala and writes for international publications my task is similar as I need to delve into the inner workings of a complex post-conflict society and interpret that reality for a foreign audience.
That’s why I often think that journalists and anthropologists have a lot in common although of course my work lacks the scientific rigor of an anthropologist due to constraints such as deadlines and word limits.
I think that’s one of the reasons why I feel so drawn to anthropology and why I chose to audit the “Violence, human rights, and justice” course, taught by anthropologist Erica Caple James, whose work has focused on violence and trauma in Haiti.
Between 1957 and 1986, Haiti, a former French colony, was ruled with an iron fist by a dynasty of brutal dictators, the Duvaliers, who revived some of the methods used by the colonial administration to suppress slave rebellions.
Haiti was the Southeast Asia of the 1960s, a paradise for voracious foreign investors where sweatshops were allowed to pay Haitian workers 60 cents an hour and in return, Western powers turned a blind eye to the most heinous human rights violations imaginable.
Poverty and exploitation became the breeding ground for the movement that led to the victory of President Jean Bertrand Aristide in the 1990 elections. Aristide was a former Catholic priest of the Salesian order who advocated social reform and championed the rights of the poor. Although he was a moderate, any attempt to change the status quo in Haiti was perceived as a threat to western interests. As a result, Aristide was twice deposed by military coups in 1991 and 2004.
While the opposition and the US government accused Aristide of electoral fraud, Aristide, who was forced to leave Haiti on a US plane accompanied by US military personnel, claims that he was kidnapped and that the US orchestrated the coup against him.
Today, Haiti is a nation ravaged by violence and ranked as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The situation has deteriorated even further since the 2010 earthquake, which destroyed the country’s precarious public infrastructure and left millions living in disease-ridden temporary shelters.
Professor James visited Haiti for the first time in 1995 and was struck by the fact that opulent and wealthy areas were built next to slums and private security agents with automatic weapons guarded the entrance to the local grocery store.
As I listened to Professor James’ introductory class I was struck by the similarities between Haitian and Guatemalan history. Guatemala is a country that has never been able to shake off its colonial legacy; it is deeply divided along ethnic lines, and ruled by a powerful oligarchic elite. In 1954, democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz, a moderate reformist who tried to end the system of debt peonage that had perpetuated rural poverty since the colonial era, was overthrown by a CIA supported military coup. His policies enjoyed the support of the masses but set alarm bells ringing at the headquarters of the United Fruit Company, which had major investments in Guatemala.
The coup that deposed President Arbenz ushered in over three decades of authoritarian rule and a 36-year-long civil war in which brutal counter-insurgency campaigns attempted to quell a number of peasant-supported leftist guerrilla movements throughout the country. The armed conflict left over 200,000 people killed or forcibly disappeared.
Eighteen years after the Peace Accords were signed, Guatemala, ranked as one of the most violent countries in the world, still bears the scars of that bloody civil war. And the fact that Otto Pérez Molina, a retired army general involved in some of the civil war’s most brutal massacres was elected president in 2011, shows how difficult it has been to break away from that authoritarian past.
Professor James talked about how perceptions of Haiti have often been shaped by stereotypes that cast post-conflict societies as being “pre-destined to failure” and depict violence as an “innate trait” in these countries, ignoring the historical roots of this violence and the role played by colonialism and Western foreign policy.
During the years I have spent working in Guatemala, a country often branded as a “failed state”, I have often encountered these stereotypes. Just as perceptions of Haiti have been framed by images of voodoo, rampant sexuality and violence, Central American countries have been branded in a demeaning manner as “banana republics”. The alarmist travel warnings issued by foreign embassies, which can be summarized as “this is an extremely violent country where drug traffickers and vicious gangs run amok and it’s corrupt and its corrupt and ineffective government is unable to do anything about it”, are a clear example of this.
Anthropologists try to interpret other societies and cultures but their scientific rigor is often impaired by ethnocentrism, the tendency to judge others according to one’s own cultural norms and standards. And the history of anthropology itself, as a discipline, has unfortunate ties to colonialism.
As a foreign journalist in Guatemala I have often struggled with similar dilemmas. To what extent is “objective” reporting possible when your perceptions of the country where you’re working are inevitably shaped by your Western background? And how can you write stories about violence and trauma without reinforcing negative stereotypes? Is it really possible to write in a manner that allows foreign readers to grasp that country’s nuances and complexities? I’m still searching for an answer to such questions.