Terror in the Land of the Holy Spirit
While Garrard-Burnett’s book certainly deepens the overall historical record of La Violencia, as those years have come to be known, the book’s real gems are chapters 3, 5, and to a lesser extent chapter 6, all dealing directly with the "religious question" in Ríos Montt's "New Guatemala". Garrard-Burnett worked from Ríos Montt’s nationally broadcast “Sunday Sermons”, where each week he would discuss his vision for a “renewed” – even redeemed – Guatemala populated with sober nuclear families, clean streets and honest citizens.
Existing literature tends to charge Ríos Montt with building his self-styled Christian, New Guatemala at the point of a gun. A spike in Protestant conversions during his tenure seems to support the “holy war” thesis. However, Garrard-Burnett assesses the causal links between Ríos Montt’s Pentecostal Christian faith and the numbing destruction he created, and in the end, she finds that link to be weak. Ultimately, she blames the violence on ideological, not Pentecostal, zeal.
In confirming the jump in Protestant conversions in the La Violencia years, she determines that Guatemalans correctly concluded that membership in a Protestant church could be a kind of survival strategy. But, she says, “it is important not to make too much of this equation…The reasons behind the conversions most certainly had to do with the message of…Pentecostal theology, which promised solace and peace and helped to reorder the lives of people” whose world was ruined by violence (136).
Garrard-Burnett shows that Ríos Montt was not a master puppeteer, but instead was very isolated both inside his regime and internationally. At best, he became an accidental and convenient tool for U.S. evangelicals, even as he became the subject of an internal tug of war within the Reagan administration about how to handle its connection to Ríos Montt’s human-rights disaster.
The book’s moderate tone serves Garrard-Burnett well, allowing her to avoid the “pornography of violence” – what she describes as a kind of wallowing in the gory details - that often afflicts histories of mass violence. It is, of course, not possible to talk about La Violencia without speaking frankly about death. But the author succeeds generally in keeping her accounts of massacres and torture illustrative and not gratuitous.
Garrard-Burnett paints an almost-sympathetic portrait of this genuinely pious and religiously sincere man – a tragic, quixotic figure - who is so often caricatured that true understanding of his motives has thus far remained elusive. She finds that Ríos Montt never fully integrated his faith with his ideology, though he clearly attempted to evangelize his nation from his bully pulpit. Of the General’s bifurcated passions she says:
“Ríos Montt’s particular genius was that he was able to reframe the shopworn objectives of secular nationalism within a new moral and explicitly religious framework…It gave way as soon as the army no longer had need for either it or the General himself” (143).