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Frontline/World: Guatemala

Brent McDonald
Frontline/World Fellow
Friday, December 17, 2004; 1:00 PM

In a special online video documentary, Frontline/World Fellow Brent McDonald travels to a country still trying to come to terms with its violent past. With anthropologist Beatriz Manz, he visits the village of Santa María Tzeja, which two decades ago had been caught in the crossfire between left-wing guerrillas and the U.S.-supported Guatemalan army. He investigates the lingering impact of a massacre and witnesses a historic apology by the Guatemalan government.

Watch McDonald's report: Guatemala: Toward Justice.

McDonald was online Friday, Dec. 17, at 1 p.m. ET, to discuss his report.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


washingtonpost.com: Brent should be with us shortly.


Berkeley, Calif.: How would you describe Guatemala's president, Oscar Berger, politically? What is his background and who is his main constituency? Also, do you think Guatemala's military will stay out of politics now?

Brent McDonald: Hi, thanks for the question. Sorry I'm a little late logging on.

Oscar Berger is a former conservative businessman and mayor of Guatemala. I would describe him as a moderate President with strong ties to the U.S. His other policy goals, in addition to apologizing for the state's human rights violations, have been to combat the nationwide rise in crime and to promote business in Guatemala. He is very pro CAFTA. That's Central America Free Trade Agreement with the U.S.

That's about the gist of what I know.


Pauling, N.Y.: Mr. McDonald, how great is resentment for the U.S. government/U.S. citizens in Guatamala and more generally in Central America? Would you say that this is also true of South America?


Brent McDonald: In the places I traveled in Guatemala, namely Santa Maria Tzeja, resentment for the U.S. runs high. However, that's mostly directed toward the government's foreign policy. One man I interviewed, Miguel Reyes, expressed sympathy for what the Iraqi people are now suffering b/c of the U.S. invasion.

Otherwise, I think the resentment has cooled. An American, Randall Shea lives in the village, even married a local village woman, and seems to be accepted quite favorably.

As a reporter, I encountered no direct feelings of hostility or resentment from Guatemalans.


Monterey, Calif.: I have a lot of friends who have visited Guatemala and think it is lovely. I have not, and I hate to admit that it is because I am frightened somehow.

Can you reassure me that Americans have relatively little to fear in Guatemala now, if that is true, or clarify what the reality is?

Thank you.

Brent McDonald: Guatemala is one a very popular tourist destination. I know many people who go there to learn Spanish or to visit Mayan ruins or rural culture. It is a very beautiful country, and the people are amiable.

With that said, street crime should be the number one concern when visiting the country. The center of Guatemala City can be bad. Antigua, which is the old Guatemala City is probably the safest haven. I haven't been, but hear it's beautiful.


San Francisco, Calif.: Is Rios Montt, the former military dictator, still closely allied to the conservative evangelical movement? I remember he used to call himself Latin America's first "born-again" president.

Brent McDonald: Hi, this is a good question, that I'm afraid I don't have a good answer to. You're right about calling himself the "born-again" president.


Arlington, Va.: Hi Brent -- just a comment:
Having lived in Guatemala for more than six years (we moved there just following the signing of the Peace Accords and have just recently returned to the U.S.) and then having worked in conjunction with organizations doing the exhumations, I found your documentary very very compelling, well done and it so captured the spirit, the heart and the inate gentleness of the Guatemalan people.

I have wondered for years why their story has not been told, why almost 200,000 people dead or disappeared did not make headlines like the massacres have have occurred in recent years such as those in Europe.

Maybe it's because they're poor, uneducated, indigenous? What is your take on the lack of media attention to the Guatemalan genocide?

Again, thank you so much for very compelling and moving documentary.

Brent McDonald: First of all, thank you for the compliments.

Of all the armed conflicts in Central America during the Cold War, the civil war in Guatemala was the longest and bloodiest. It was also a largely secret war. I think it was so little reported at the time because it most of the massacres occurred in very rural areas, not easily accessible to jounalists. That the people directly impacted were mostly poor, indigenous communities is likely another reason. Many of these people spoke only their native Mayan dialects, not Spanish. They were culturally cut off from the world.

Massacres were reported in the Guatemalan press, but mostly in a way that tended to be pro-gov't. They weren't typically reported as massacres, but as invasions of insurgency strongholds, or the like.

I don't believe that U.S. backing of the war had anything to do with it not being reported on. To the contrary, one would think this would make it more appealing to the U.S. media.



San Francisco, Calif.: What is your sense of the youth movement in Guatemala? How are they reacting to the apology by Berger? Were you able to interview anyone?

Brent McDonald: This is a really good question. I don't know about a youth movement per se. But from visiting the village and seeing the dramatic performance in video Chapter 5, I have the impression that at least some youth are pro-active about bringing peace and justice to their country.

Along the lines of education, President Berger just recently required that the 1998 report by the U.N. Historical Clarification Commission that first called the situation "genocide,"--will now become part of the core curriculum for public schools in Guatemala.


Ladson, S.C.: This is probably a very interesting and exciting story?

Not to step beside the subject at hand,but do you know Martha Wright? Or at least she was a Wright in college.

Brent McDonald: No, I don't know Martha.


Brent McDonald: Thank you all for joining in the chat. Please direct any further comments or questions to the web site, in the "react" link. I can respond to comments there.


Thanks again!


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