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Harvard professor explains value of Guatemalan archives

Photo by Brandon Jordan Kirsten Weld spoke about looking into the archive of the Guatemalan dictatorship. In the above photograph, Weld shows one document she discovered.
Photo by Brandon Jordan
Kirsten Weld spoke about looking into the archive of the Guatemalan dictatorship. In the above photograph, Weld shows one document she discovered.

Historian Kirsten Weld visited Queens College to discuss archives found in Guatemala, specifically ones during its civil war.

Weld, a history professor at Harvard University, released a book last year titled “Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala.” In it, she explains the history of Cold War-era

Guatemala during the 20th century and discovery of the archives. The title of the book comes from her research in the country.

“I found a transcript of a meeting of Central American archivists in the late 1960s,” Weld said. “A Salvadorian representative at this meeting said the documents, under the collective care of these archivists, were ‘paper cadavers in need of resurrection.”

From 1960 to 1996, Guatemala suffered a civil war, where the government targeted leftist groups. The government eventually targeted civilians and violated human rights. As a result, more than 200,000 civilians in the country either died or disappeared, Weld said.

In June 2005, Guatemala’s Office of Human Rights discovered documents at a military base by accident. They immediately worked to identify all of them, a process still happening today.

Weld said dictatorships usually document their activities, like former East Germany’s Stasi. In this case, Guatemalan authorities wrote everything down and were taught by U.S. forces.

“You can’t run a counter-insurgency state without a good archive,” Weld said.

The archives total over 75 million documents, which Weld noted makes it the largest discovery of state archives in history.

“This is a place, when you went there at the beginning, feels like it has ghosts,” Weld said.

Discovery of the archives led to prosecutions of figures involved with human rights violations during the civil war, viewed as improbable before 2005.

“Ten or 15 years ago, no one in Guatemala or anyone else with familiarity of recent Latin American politics and history would imagine this thing to pass,” Weld said. “This was an unthinkable situation.”

The Guatemalan government denied any help in uncovering the documents. Without government support, Weld said this responsibility was left to private non-government organizations from Scandinavian countries.

In addition, Weld highlighted how people working at the archives came from different parts of Guatemalan society. From activists to students, Weld saw a community form around the archives.

“When I was working on this project, I was hanging out with these people. It was really amazing to watch a particular worktable of inter-generation experiences,” Weld said.

Overall, Weld said the other disclosures, like NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s documents, are similar to the archives found in Guatemala as they influence a country’s politics.

However, Weld stressed the discovery in Guatemala could not directly lead to justice for crimes committed during the civil war.

“It doesn’t guarantee transparency or justice. Those are things that have to be fought for incredibly hard,” Weld said.

Johnathan Thayer, visiting lecturer at QC and coordinator of archives certificate at the Graduate School, helped organize the event with funding from the Pine Tree Foundation. He figured, along with others involved, students and faculty would enjoy an inter-disciplinary event with a focus on Latin American studies.

“The archives is a nice, central site where a lot of faculty and students studying different things can come together on,” Thayer said.

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