Bitter earth: counterinsurgency strategy and the roots of Mayan neo-authoritarianism in Guatemala

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Copeland, Nicholas Matthew, 1973-

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Ten years after the Guatemalan Peace Accords heralded the construction of a multi-ethnic democracy, corrupt neo-authoritarian regimes have derailed the Accords, continued state violence and impunity, and implemented neoliberal economic policies that have worsened poverty in Mayan highlands. Strangely, war tattered and impoverished rural Mayans, including many who supported the revolutionary left in the 1970s, provide these parties' main base of support. Stranger still is widespread support for ex-dictator general Ríos Montt, who stands indicted for genocide of Mayans in the 1980s. Mayan support for neo-authoritarians is usually viewed as either an expression of pure democratic free will or as the repression of revolutionary consciousness through fear and/or deception. While the former ignores massive Mayan support for the left and trivializes decades of repression, the latter ignores important changes in Guatemalan political culture and erases Mayan agency. My dissertation reframes this phenomenon by providing a critical genealogy of Mayan political imaginaries in relation to overlapping and competing regimes of power for the last sixty years. During 14 months of ethnographic fieldwork in the right-dominated Mayan-Mam town of San Pedro Necta, I investigated Mayan responses to reformist and revolutionary organizing, state repression, state-led agrarian modernization, and neo-authoritarian development populism. I focus on the effects of these mechanisms on evolving conceptions and practices of politics, development, and community among township inhabitants. Bitter Earth locates the appeal of neo-authoritarian politics in the ways that state strategies have rearranged the conceptual and affective terrain upon which Mayans collectively struggle for economic security, dignity, and racial equality. This research shows the limits of neoliberal multiculturalism, particularly its complicity with colonial governance and counterinsurgency strategy, and orients our thinking towards political alternatives consistent with Mayans' long-term struggles for racial justice and community autonomy.