Virginia GARRARD-BURNETT, Terror in the Land of the Holy Spirit. Guatemala Under Efraín Ríos Montt. Oxford University Press, 2010 pp 288, hb ISBN13 9780195379648, $65. pb ISBN13 9780199844777, $27.75 Reviewed by Daniel H. LEVINE, University of Michigan.
This is an important book. The author examines the transformations of religion and politics in Guatemala in rich historical and contextual detail. The title points us to the country’s experience during the short lived and exceptionally violent rule of General Efrain Rios Montt in the early 1980s. But this is no ordinary single nation case study. The author provides important insights into the relation of religious change with violence, an area in which Guatemala has been a leading case for Latin America as a whole. How best to understand the violence in Guatemala has generated much controversy. Garrard Burnett’s clarifies alternative views and sheds valuable light on the origins and dynamics of the violence.
The author analyzes the reign of terror unleashed by Rios Montt, sets it in the context of Guatemalan political and social history, shows how the regime worked with a moralizing and religious rhetoric that drew strength from the surge of Protestant and Pentecostal growth in these years. She also turns a careful and critical eye on the ways in which Rios Montt was viewed, and justified, by U.S. foreign policy, the media, and in particular by foreign evangelicals who acclaimed Guatemala as a “new Jerusalem” in the Americas.
Many Guatemalan converts to Pentecostal churches accepted a premillennial view, according to which the violence all around them was part of the end of days, a sign of Christ’s imminent return. To these believers, "Guatemala’s kairos [was] to bear witness to the Great Tribulation, but to rise, faithful and triumphant, with the Lord on the day of his final coming. This was not a rationale for violence so much as an exposition on suffering.” (135) The Rios Montt regime attacked many Catholic lay clergy and lay workers (seen as open to subversion) and promoted Protestant and Pentecostal churches. These churches have had broad appeal in subsequent years throughout the region, where, as in Guatemala, their rhetoric and ritual underscore direct experience of divine power through the cure of illnesses and the acquisition of material goods. Healing is achieved through atonement, “empowerment on earth through proper faith in God. Closely related is the belief that material prosperity is the entitlement of the faithful: money, good health, and security are all tangible evidence of God’s benediction” (164)
The combination of counter insurgency doctrine with religious rhetoric got Rios Montt a free ride from the US foreign policy establishment, much of the media, and in particular from US evangelicals and Pentecostals. Chapter 6 (“Blind Eyes and Willful Ignorance") details the long and sordid history of US involvement in Guatemalan politics and society and the systematic brushing aside of concerns about human rights abuses. For its part, the US Religious Right rallied around Rios Montt, whom they embraced as a “Christian soldier who would vanquish communism and at last bring a godly era of peace, justice, and tranquility to his long-troubled country.” (161)
The killing and terror in Guatemala are not generally as well known as the violence in cases like El Salvador, Peru, or Argentina. But the toll of deaths and shattered lives was enormous, particularly given the small size of the population. In an Epilogue, Garrard Burnett reflects on the meaning of genocide, and applies the concept squarely to Guatemala “in a simple, undertheorized, but exact sense, to mean the large scale killing of a sector of people based largely upon who they are, as defined by ethnicity, religion, or some other alterity, as we saw in Guatemala in the 1980s.” (168)
This thoughtful, passionately argued, and insightful book is a must read for anyone interested in religion and politics not only in Guatemala and Central America, but generally.