Miguel Angel Asturias was born in Guatemala City in 1899. He received his law degree from the University of San Carlos of Guatemala. After finishing at the University, Asturias and a few colleagues founded the Popular University of Guatemala for those who could not afford to attend the national university. In 1923 he went to Paris where he wrote El Señor Presidente. Due to it’s political implications he was unable to bring the book with him in 1933 when he returned to Guatemala. At that time the dictator Jorge Ubico ruled Guatemala. The original version was to remain unpublished for thirteen years. In 1944, the fall of Ubico’s regime brought Professor Juan José Arévalo to presidency. Arévalo immediately appointed Asturias cultural attaché to the Guatemalan Embassy in Mexico, where the first edition of El Señor Presidente appeared in 1946. The book was later translated into english as The President in 1964. (Encarta, 2000).
The President begins with a murder of a colonel by a homeless man whom is referred to as the Zany. The police took many homeless people in for questioning to find out who caused the murder of Colonel Sonriente. The police made the homeless people say that it was General Canales and Abel Carvajal, the lawyer who committed the crime. They did this by beating them until they said that it was the two men who murdered the Colonel. One peasant, the Mosquito, insisted that the Zany committed the murdered and would not give into their beatings. The Mosquito was beaten to death because he would not give the Judge Advocate the answer that he demanded.
The President gave orders to Miguel Angel Face, the President’s confidential advisor, to help General Canales to escape. He told Miguel, also referred to as the favourite, to do this without being seen by the police. Miguel decided to get the help of Lucio Vasquez and Genaro Rodas. He did this by telling them that he was in love with General Canales’s daughter Camila. He wanted to go to the house and kidnap her. The plan that he told Camila and her father was for Camila to yell out of the window “Burglars have broken in! Help! Burglars!” Which would give the General time to escape. Then Miguel and his two helpers would kidnap Camila. He was to bring Camila to one of the General’s brother’s house.
Genaro Rodas’s wife went to General Canales’s house to warn him of the anticipated arrest. She arrived too late, he had already escaped. The soldiers found her at the house and arrested her. The soldiers and the Judge Advocate then proceeded to the house of Abel Carvajal, the lawyer, to arrest him.
The Judge Advocate repeatidly questioned Señora Rodas as to the where a bouts of General Canalas. She answered each time that she did not know and did not see him when she came to his house, for he had already escaped. The Judge Advocate had her baby brought from her house. The baby was crying because it needed to be fed by his mother. The Judge Advocate told her that she could only see her son if she told him where the General was. She was then physically forced to crush quicklime for hours. They took her back to her cell and later brought her son to her. The baby refused to take his mother’s milk because he tasted the sharpness of the lime. Her son died.
Carvajal, the lawyer was sentenced to death. They kept him waiting in a cell that was three yards long and two and a half wide. He was held with twelve other prisoners sentenced to death (his wife was never given the location of his burial). In this cramped space, the prisoners did not have any toilets, leaving them to stand in their own fecies. In a cell further down was Lucio Vasquez who was going to be sentenced to death for the murder of the Zany. Genaro Rodas was whipped and beaten while in prison, for being the accomplice to Vasquez. He was later let out by The Judge Advocate to watch Miguel.
Camila became very sick. Miguel had been looking over her constantly. He was very fond of her. He went to seek help to find a way to cure her. He was told that his great love to her would cure her. He was to marry her. He did marry her and she eventually became well. All did not accept the marriage. Some thought that it was disrespectful to the President.
Towards the end of the story, Miguel feels that the President’s informants are watching him closely. He is later called by the President to go on a mission. He is to go to Washington and report what is being said about the President. He makes plans to go, later Camila would go to Washington after him. They would then live their lives there, away from the chaos in Guatemala. When he reaches his ship to go to Washington, he sees Major Farfan, a man that he had helped out when orders were sent out to kill him. Miguel told him to get on the good side of the President, a murderous crime that would serve him two months in jail. It would show his devotion. He was wrong to be happy at the sight of him. The Major had someone else take Miguel’s place and led Miguel to a train was he was beaten. The other man with the Major was Genaro Rodas.
Camila waited patiently for a letter from Miguel, which never came. Miguel was in a prison. He had a small dark cell. The only form of a toilet was a can passed on by each prisoner. When Camila questioned every authority as to the whereabouts of her husband, she was turned away. Someone later told her that he was in Washington.
Miguel learns in prison that his wife had married the President out of revenge towards him. She was told that he had left her. Miguel scratched his body to death after hearing this.
While reading this book, I could not stop thinking about how corrupt this government is and how glad I am to not have to live in that constant state of fear. The President gives orders to have someone killed, even if it wasn’t justified, and then doesn’t reveal where the burial is located. After researching Guatemala, I found that this is still true. Many people have been killed during the Civil War and people today are trying to find out where they are. The government doesn’t investigate into these matters thoroughly and tries to scare people away from investigating these crimes.
The people of Guatemala feel that it is not enough for the government to say, “I’m sorry.” They want to have the appropriate judicial investigations, punishing those responsible and to provide them with compensation. They feel that that government should support the efforts that are being made to exhume victims from clandestine cemeteries used by the army during the conflict. Under the Peace Agreements of 1996, the government committed itself to adopting measures beneficial to national peace and harmony, preserve the memory of the victims, promote a culture of respect for human rights, and strengthen the democratic process. Yet the government has failed to follow through with it’s commitments. (Amnesty International, 1998).
The military commissioners have acted as local agents of the army since the 1930s. They have been responsible for enforced military recruitment, providing information to the army and eliminating suspected political opponents. They have been tied to numerous cases of human rights violations such as the murder of Presbyterian pastor Manuel Sasquic Vásquez in June 1995. Vásquez’s body was found at an unmarked grave on July 7,1995. His throat had been slit and he had thirty-three stab wounds. He was the coordinator of a Kaqchikel Maya Human Rights Committee. Residents say that he was killed in retaliation for his human rights work and because he was the sole witness to the previous short-term abduction of another member of the Human rights Committee in Panabajal. The authorities withheld information about the body and refused to cooperate with the Presbyterian church and MINUGUA. (Amnesty International, 1996).
One year earlier, Pascua Serech was murdered in August 1994. Serech was trying to end the civil patrols by the forced service and to end village youths being forced into the military. He was also trying to end the many human rights violations such as disappearances and extra judicial executions that the military had carried out in the area. Shortly after ordering the detention of those believed responsible for Serech’s death, the judge assigned to investigate the case was shot execution style. The detainees were then released. (Amnesty International, 1996).
Bishop Juan José Gerardi was the Bishop of Guatemala and Coordinator of the Human Rights Office of the Archbishop of Guatemala. He was head of the public presentation of the Roman Catholic Church’s inter-diocesan Recuperation of the Historical Memory Project (REMHI) of April 1999. This project was designed to generate testimonies of the tens of thousand of extra judicial executions and “disappearances” suffered by civilians, the large majority of whom were indigenous people, during the civil conflict which encompassed Guatemala for over three decades. REMHI found the army responsible for approximately seventy per cent of the violations investigated. Two days after this presentation, unidentified assailants battered Bishop Gerardi to death as he returned home. The army denied any involvement in the murder and the government promised a full investigation. By the end of the year neither the circumstances nor the perpetrators of the killing had been established. Human rights activists believe that the government’s motive behind the killing was to warn individuals looking to identify perpetrators of past abuses. (Amnesty International, 1999).
In May of 1999, Public prosecutor Silvia Jérez Romero de Herrera was killed while traveling through the countryside. She had been involved in prosecuting the case of guerrilla leader Efraín Bámaca who disappeared after being taken into military custody in 1992. This case was also to be the subject of examination by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Herrera was also handling various criminal cases that officials may have been involved with. (Amnesty International, 1999)
Celso Balán, who works for the Legal Action Center for Human Rights, has been traveling to remote villages to help people find the remains of their friends and family who were among the two hundred thousand killed during Guatemala’s thirty-six year war. Last August he was abducted by two men who interrogated and beat him, then drugged him and dumped him in a cemetery. Balán thinks that someone in the Guatemalan military ordered his abduction to intimidate him. (Gonzalez, 2000).
These are just a few examples of how the government tries to intimidate or murder people who seek judicial investigations. Amnesty International has pages, upon pages of articles, which contain human rights violations in Guatemala. I question why someone would knowingly risk their life trying to get questions answered by government officials that turn a deaf ear upon their people. A quote by philosopher Jorge Santayana answers this question, “Those who forget the past are condemned to relive it.” Amnesty International’s comment toward that statement is as follows: “That is precisely what has happened in Guatemala where cyclical violence and state-sponsored human rights violations have occurred over and over again. That is why Amnesty International firmly believes that burying the past does not pave the way to a future of peace an reconciliation.”
I believe in order to establish a peace between government and society, the human rights abusers have to be taken from their authoritative standing. Also they should be sentenced to a jail sentence (without the option of buying off their prison time at fifty US cents a day as has been done in the past) that is suitable for their crime. “The independent and unobstructed judicial investigation of alleged violations of human rights is of utmost importance, both from the point of view of the victim and his or her relatives and to prevent the recurrence of similar violations.” (Amnesty International, 1999)
“Asturias, Miguel Angel.” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2000.
Gonzalez, Richard. “Rights in Guatemala: At Risk Still.” New York Times. 5 Nov.
2000, sec. 1: 12.
“Guatemala.” Amnesty International Report 1999: Guatemala. 1999. Amnesty
“Summary of Amnesty International’s Concerns (January 1995-January 1996).”
Guatemala in 2000 Annual Report. 2 Jan. 1996. AMR 34/003/1996. Amnesty
“Those Who Forget the Past are Condemned to Relive It.” Guatemala in 2000 Annual
Report. 2 Dec. 1998. AMR 34/037/1998. Amnesty International.