Almost every summer during the 1970s and 1980s, my mother took my siblings and me to visit her family in Guatemala. We were too young back then to understand that the heavily armed soldiers in the street and the frequent military checkpoints along the highways were there because of an ongoing civil war. While one soldier asked the driver where we were heading, the others peered into the back seats, their weapons drawn. Satisfied that we weren’t part of the Guerilla, they would wave us through.
That war had been going on since 1960, following the overthrow of a democratically elected president. They say that it ended in 1996, after a deal brokered by the United Nations, in which the guerillas agreed to turn in their weapons in exchange for land. After the recent presidential elections, however, some have begun thinking otherwise. “It’s a coup in slow motion,” according to the current president-elect, Bernardo Arévalo.
My mother, who came to New York in 1966, was born in a rural town an hour south of Guatemala’s capital. Most of the food and all the morning coffee came from the backyard. She was five when Juan Jose Arevalo become the country’s first democratically elected president. He was followed by Jacobo Arbenz. She remembered when Arbenz passed Decree 900, the Agrarian Reform Law that took hundreds of properties from the rich and redistributed them to thousands of poor people. She remembers hearing complaints that only the right-wing rich lost their land. She also heard that many of those who received the land were unsatisfied with their plots—not enough sun, sandy soil. The land reform proved short-lived.
When the government confiscated and redistributed land belonging to politically connected Americans, the CIA helped oust Arbenz. Though almost no one agreed with how it happened, many were in favor of his removal. They wouldn’t say so publicly because one never knew who had ties to the secret police.
During trips to Guatemala, my mother would sometimes talk to us about the political situation there. Whenever she did, my grandmother would hush her, just in case a neighbor overheard. Talking about politics was off limits.
Mostly, we spoke about things like making coffee. The beans were bright red when picked from their bushes late in the year. They were laid out to dry in the sun, and when the outer skins burst open, they were ready to be cleaned and ground. Almost everyone made their own coffee, and it tasted great in this plain form.
The last time I visited Guatemala was about ten years ago. The small town I would visit in my youth was gone. Instead of cows and horses in the streets, I saw Mazdas and Toyotas. The friendly “good mornings” in the street were replaced with the blaring of car horns and the sound of auto rickshaws buzzing by. The electricity no longer cut off at random times, and most of the streets were paved. The backyards were paved, too.
There was less mud and fewer mosquitoes, but instead of getting their lemons from a bush or short tree a few feet from their kitchens, everyone went to the supermarket.
“It is so different now,” I told my cousin at the time.
“Still feels the same to me,” he said.
During a recent phone call on WhatsApp, I brought up politics.
Juan Jose Arevalo’s son, Bernardo, running on an anti-corruption platform, won the recent presidential elections in a landslide. Arevalo, who wants to build state institutions that will reduce people’s need to migrate, says that the electoral commission and the country’s judicial system have become “co-opted institutions.” Unlike the military-backed coups of his father’s presidency, Arevalo says, “In the 21st century, all over the world, coups are being conducted by lawfare.” The attorney general’s office has raided Arevalo’s electoral offices and seized election materials to prevent his taking the presidency come January.
“These actions constitute a coup that is promoted by the institutions that should guarantee justice in our country, headed by Attorney General Consuelo Porras,” Arevalo said recently. The Public Ministry is investigating allegations that Arevalo’s party—Movimiento Semilla (the Seed Movement)—forged signatures when it sought authorization as a political party, an accusation Arevalo denies.
Demonstrations and street closings have brought much of the country to a standstill. Some can’t get to work, forcing many businesses to close indefinitely. The soldiers are back on the highways.
My cousin was stuck in traffic near Agua Caliente—protesters had blocked the highway—when we spoke on WhatsApp. A nearby restaurant allowed drivers to use their restrooms. The hotels were full or closed along the route, and the stores had begun running out of stock.
I asked him if we were seeing a repeat of the past.
“Hopefully not,” he said then changed the subject, still uncomfortable talking about politics, even with no one around.
We talked about coffee instead. His coffee comes from a jar now.
“It’s convenient,” he said.
“Does it taste as good?” I asked.
“Tastes fake.” He laughed.
When he gets tired of the artificial flavor, where does he go?
“What kind of bean?”
“Guatemalan,” he replied.
Photo by Johan Ordonez/Getty Images