Reflections from GHRC Founder Alice Zachmann

This year, GHRC Founder Alice Zachmann wrote a letter to our supporters, which we wanted to make available to all those who may not be on our mailing or email lists:


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Sister Alice Zachmann

Dear friends of Guatemala and GHRC,

Some time has passed since I last wrote to you about our common concern for the people of Guatemala, but the situation there is never far from my mind. Though I’m no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, I still serve as a member of the Advisory Board, and am still often asked why I founded the organization.

The answer to that question lies in the intertwined histories of Guatemala and my own life.

My first visit to Guatemala was in 1975. In many ways it seems so long ago, yet in other ways, such a short time ago. I traveled that first time to visit a friend, Sister Rita from my community, who was a missionary in San Lucas Toliman working to support the efforts of the people to improve their lives. After a week, I was smitten by the natural beauty of the people and the country, but appalled by the poverty, neglect and discrimination against the Mayan people. I left with the determination to help as much as I could by sending supplies to the clinic with anyone I knew going to Guatemala. I continued my ministry at a parish in St. Paul, MN until October of 1981 when I received a request from Guatemalans and returned missionaries to visit them in Washington, DC.

Since 1954, when the US overthrew the democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz because of his social reforms and his attempts to reclaim lands taken from the Guatemalan people by the United Fruit Company, Guatemala has been a killing field. In 1981, very little of the information about the repression, disappearances and massacres occurring in Guatemala appeared in our news media. It wasn’t readily known that the US was providing aid to the Guatemalan military, making these atrocities possible.

This situation led many Guatemalans coming to the US and missionaries returning from Guatemala to the conclusion that it was necessary to form a Guatemala Human Rights Commission in the US. This Commission could channel information about abuses to people in the US and to Congress, and undertake public actions to protest US aid to the Guatemalan military. Having gone to DC, I was asked whether I would be willing to undertake such a challenge. I accepted and officially began the organization on Sept. 20, 1982 in a tiny office in Catholic University. We the founders envisioned a Guatemala where the rights of the people were respected, as well as an end to the war and to the aid given by the US to the Guatemalan military.

Volumes could be written about our activities in the first 20 years of the organization when I served as director. Many wonderful, but also sad memories remain: the faithful staff, interns and other concerned people who made heroic efforts to bring about change; the loyal contributors without which very little could have been accomplished; and the grateful Guatemalan people for whom we wanted peace and freedom from the atrocities they experienced.

The war ended with the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996. Hope arose for too short a time.

Though the atrocities of the war ended, new violence soon appeared: feminicide, drugs, killings, ongoing torture, gangs and the confiscation of lands from the people for the imposition of mines and dams. During the war, we knew who was perpetrating much of the violence. Afterward, it was not so clear. Since my resignation as director in 2002, I have seen the organization accomplish so much more, meeting the current and changing needs of those in Guatemala.

For example, this past year, GHRC responded to the crisis of unaccompanied children coming to the US from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. They helped people understand what many of these children were fleeing, and pushed the US to respond with compassion. They mobilized thousands of people who were looking for some way to help, to contact Congress, or come out for one of the rallies in front of the White House.

As we did during the conflict, GHRC advocated against funding to the Guatemalan military, and convinced the US Congress to keep the conditions on funds from the State Department to the Guatemalan Army. These conditions led to the signing of a historic executive order by President Pérez Molina that will provide $154 million in reparations to communities affected by the Chixoy hydroelectric dam in Baja Verapaz.

I have been especially happy to see the opening of an office in Guatemala and the support that GHRC can offer with staff present in the country. When human rights defenders are threatened or attacked, GHRC offers emergency and long-term support. The staff there can also monitor the government and document the human rights situation, as we have always tried to do.

How does it feel to see the work one has begun, continue and achieve more than one could have dreamed of doing or having the courage to do? I feel constantly grateful, and every time I read about the many efforts being made to enable respect for human rights, I think of how grateful the Guatemalan people must also feel.

My admiration for the work accomplished by GHRC under ever-dire circumstances in Guatemala leads me to a request: For the sake of the Guatemalans, please contribute to the ongoing work of the staff and board at GHRC/USA.

Their work continues to be so essential. It brings to mind an answer we received when we told our partners in Guatemala how badly we felt about not seeing progress in what we were attempting to do on their behalf. Their response was, “Do you realize that without your work, the violence would even be worse?” I encourage you to continue to contribute as generously as you can so as to avoid greater human rights violations in Guatemala.

With gratitude and blessings for all of you, as friends who have enabled GHRC to do its work for thirty-two years, with faith and hope,

Alice Zachmann, SSND
Founder and Advisory Board Member

P.S. Your donation will have double the impact if you give before the end of the year. Thanks to the generosity of one of our donors, all gifts through December 31st will be matched.
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