The United States has a long history of involving itself in conflicts that arguably it shouldn’t have done. Most of these were fuelled by the Cold War, when the US decided to intervene in various civil and political conflicts around the world in order to try and preserve ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ against the evils of ‘communism’ and ‘socialism’.
Most famously, the US stepped in to prevent a communist political movement from taking hold in Vietnam. It was an historic failure, an unsuccessful blood-bath which scarred both Vietnam and the US: with 58,148 American troops dying in service, and Vietnamese civilian causalities alone reaching into the millions.
Whilst the terror that was the Vietnamese war is well documented, many other battles fuelled by the Cold War conflict have been neglected.
Perhaps one of the least well known is that of Guatemala, a small country in Central America that has long been plagued by violence, poverty and suffering.
In 1954, a coup d’état organised by the CIA ousted Guatemala’s first ever democratically elected President (in order to protect the interest of the American corporation, United Fruit) and provoked a thirty-six year civil war, which is thought to have left 200,000 dead or missing.
It is this conflict that is the subject of the groundbreaking 1983 documentary, When the Mountains Tremble.
The film deals with a lot of complex issues, describing the history of Guatemala from Colonial times to independence, establishing the history of prejudice and exploitation towards the ethnic Indians who form the majority of Guatemala’s population, and explaining the complexities of the civil war and America’s engagement in and encouragement of the struggle.
Using narration from Nobel Peace Laureate, Rigoberta Menchu, the film follows both sides of the conflict to get a sense of the nature of this war. We see the Guatemalan army as it attempts to maintain control over a population, which is highly impoverished and outraged, but is also terrorised into silence and compliance with the status quo. Those who speak out or fight back are tracked down and murdered or tortured to ensure stability.
We also follow the Guerrilla forces, who are fighting for freedom and equality. With them, we hear the stories of the Indian populations who are the victims at the forefront of state-sponsored violence. They tell of how the army torture them, rape them, kill them in order to try and weed out ‘subversives’ who may threaten the government. In harrowing testimony we hear of families burnt alive, we see first hand the aftermath of a massacre of village men by the armed forces. We see helpless people who have nowhere to turn, powerless and voiceless against the iron first of the national military.
This is a documentary that is nearly thirty years old and deals with incredibly heavy issues, but it remains an extraordinary piece of filmmaking that very effectively and objectively explains the events of a conflict and the history of a country, which has often been overlooked in the mainstream media.
Even today, Guatemala is a country entrenched in violence. The civil war may be over, and America has since apologised for its role in the brutal killing of civilians by supporting the Guatemalan military forces, but now, gang-warfare fuelled by drug trafficking has made Guatemala one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Once again, Guatemalans are the victims of US policy, this time, it is the US’s futile ‘war on drugs’ which is further destroying this long suffering nation, alongside many other Latin American countries.
Despite the weighty subject-matter, I hope people will give this a watch…
The full version can be watched on netflix (which is offering a 1 month free trail!) http://movies.netflix.com/Movie/When-the-Mountains-Tremble/70002245