Genocide and Resistance in Guatemala

This post was contributed by Dr Silvia Posocco of Birkbeck’s Department of Psychosocial Studies.

December 2016 will mark the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Guatemalan Peace Accords that ended thirty-six years of conflict. The roots of the Guatemalan conflict lie in a history of colonial conquest and US imperialism. In 1954, a CIA-sponsored coup d’état overthrew the democratically elected government of President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán. The coup sought to shore up US economic interests and specifically protect the operations of the United Fruit Company – a corporation trading in bananas and other tropical fruit. During this 36-year-long conflict, a succession of US-sponsored Guatemalan governments waged a structural assault against indigenous Maya communities, the poor, and those associated with left-wing and social justice activism, and armed struggle. From the mid-twentieth century, these individuals, groups, and communities with historical experiences of violent exploitation, racist domination, and dispossession were progressively marked as subversive and deemed to be ‘internal enemies of the state’ within the counterinsurgency logics of anticommunism and Cold War geopolitics.

guatemala-1070741_640Children were engulfed in the violence that swept over the country. One in every five persons killed by ‘ejecución arbitraria,’ or ‘arbitrary execution,’ during the conflict was a child. One in every 10 persons forcefully disappeared was a child. Not all forcefully disappeared children were killed; rather, many were internally displaced. Some were institutionalized and eventually adopted transnationally. Among those who were internally displaced and those who crossed the Guatemala–Mexican border as refugees during the conflict, children made up the majority of those who died. The conflict left over 200,000 people dead, the majority Maya, and the United Nations-sponsored Commission for Historical Clarification concluded that ‘agents of the State of Guatemala, within the framework of counterinsurgency operations carried out between 1981 and 1983, committed acts of genocide against groups of Maya people’ in four specific regions of the country (Maya-Q’anjob’al and Maya-Chuj in Barillas; Nenton and San Mateo Ixtatán in North Huehuetenango; Maya-lxiI in Nebaj, Cotzal, and Chajul, Quiché; Maya-Kiche’ in Joyabaj, Zacualpa, and Chiche, Quiché; and Maya-Achi in Rabinal, Baja Verapaz).

I have conducted research in Guatemala as an anthropologist since 1999, where I first worked with ex-combatants of one of the four guerrilla groups operating in the country up to December 1996 – the Rebel Armed Forces, who were part of the umbrella organization Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity. Since 2009, I have been researching transnational adoption circuits and the movements of Guatemalan adoptees to the Global North. I have found transnational adoption networks to be intertwined with the history of political violence and the multiple dynamics of structural and military assaults against Maya communities. At the ‘Genocide and Resistance in Guatemala’* conference in September, I will be presenting a paper focussing on the case of a group of Maya children forcefully removed from their families and communities in the region of Alta Verapaz in 1983. The case helps us to understand the nexus between transnational adoption and genocide.

The conference will be a remarkable event that will bring together scholars whose work has been immensely influential in drawing public attention to events in Guatemala. Their work with individuals and communities over time has also shaped and sustained an agenda for a politically and ethically committed anthropology.

*In September 2016, the Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, in collaboration with the USC Latino Alumni Association and the USC School of International Relations, will host the international conference ‘Genocide and Resistance in Guatemala’. The conference is organised by, Professor Victoria Sanford (Lehman College, CUNY) and Professor Wolf Gruner (USC).

Further reading:

  • Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer (2005) Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, Revised Edition, New York: David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies
  • CEH (Comisión de Esclarecimiento Histórico)/United Nation Commission for Historical Clarification (1999) Guatemala: Memory of Silence, Tz’inil Na’tab’al, Guatemala City: United Nations.
  • ODHAG (Oficina de Derechos Humanos del Arzobispado de Guatemala) (1999) Guatemala: Never Again!, Guatemala: ODHAG.
  • ODHAG (2006) Hasta Encontrarte: Niñez Desaparecida por el Conflicto Armado Interno en Guatemala, Guatemala: ODHAG.
  • Posocco, Silvia (2011) ‘Expedientes: Fissured Legality and Affective States in the Transnational Adoption Archives in Guatemala’, Journal of Law, Culture and Humanities, 7, 434–456.
  • Posocco, Silvia (2014) Secrecy and Insurgency: Socialities and Knowledge Practices in Guatemala, Tuscaloosa: Alabama University Press.
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‘Enhanced Interrogation’ in the Spanish Civil War: the Curious Case of Alfonso Laurencic

This post was contributed by Dr Carl-Henrick Bjerström, Lecturer in Modern European History at Birkbeck. This post first appeared on the Hidden Persuaders blog on Friday 15 June 2016.


Earlier this year, Professors Daniel Pick and Paul Preston recorded their conversation about the rediscovery of Alfonso Laurencic, a designer of highly unusual prison cells during the Spanish Civil War. Inspired by their discussion, Carl-Henrik Bjerstrom, specialist in Spanish Republican propaganda, delves into the circumstances surrounding the creation of these cells and the scandals that followed. While Laurencic’s experiments are a strange case within the history of psychological warfare, how they came to be documented by Francoist forces tells us even more about coercion and propaganda within the Spanish Civil War.

“We’ve all got those friends or family members who consider ‘modern art’ a form of torture. Next time they complain about an exhibition you bring them to, just tell them how relieved they should feel that they didn’t fight in the Spanish Civil War […]; they could have found themselves subject not just to actual torture, but torture directly inspired by modernist aesthetic principles”.¹

Colin Marshall’s tongue-in-cheek comment on was typical of media responses to the story of Alfonso Laurencic, a Frenchman who designed psychologically disorienting torture cells on behalf of the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. The story first appeared in January 2003, when El País reported on the findings of art historian José Milicua, and soon spread to news outlets all over the world. Intrigued by the curious case of Laurencic, Daniel Pick, principal investigator of the Hidden Persuaders project, recently talked to Paul Preston, one of the foremost contemporary experts on the Spanish Civil War, to hear whether Laurencic’s innovations amounted to an experiment in psychological warfare.

In the context of modern Spain, Laurencic’s bizarre prison cells were certainly unique. Describing the cells’ design, Paul Preston draws attention to bricks cemented to the floor in a zig-zag pattern – designed to hinder any walking in the cell – and to the concrete bed placed as a 45-degree angle, making it impossible for prisoners to lie down without sliding off. Prisoners were also forced to listen to an amplified metronome at different speeds – an innovation probably related to Laurencic’s background as a musician – and were kept within sight of a clock that ran too fast. Such devices were added to maximise the psychological distress of prisoners and perhaps contributed to practices of ‘enhanced interrogation’.

Photos of Laurencic’s cells on Calle Zaragoza, Barcelona.1939.2

A photo of Laurencic’s cells on Calle Zaragoza, Barcelona.1939.2

Yet the feature that captured journalists’ attention in 2003 was not the attempt to manipulate prisoners’ sense of time, but the seemingly psychedelic shapes and patterns painted on the prison walls. This obsession derived from a perceived link between Laurencic’s designs and modern art: it appeared as if the visual language devised by artists like Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, foundational and universally revered innovators of contemporary art history, had been converted with surprising ease into an instrument of psychological torture. Among more serious-minded writers there was a sense that Laurencic’s designs may not only speak of the cruelties of civil war but also of a dark potential inherent in the utopian visions that shape our modern artistic heritage ².

However, this view is problematic in several ways, as my reflections below will show. Most importantly, it excludes from accounts of Laurencic’s case its most evident contemporary significance. As Paul Preston emphasises, the story of Laurencic needs to be situated in its proper socio-political context. Once this is done, it becomes clear that it is not a story about modern art but rather a story about the Spanish Civil War and its immediate aftermath.

* * * * *

The Spanish War of 1936-1939 was an unequal battle fought between various forces loyal to a legitimately elected centre-left government, on the one hand, and politically, socially, and culturally conservative supporters of rebelling sections of the Spanish Army seeking to halt the government’s modernising reform programme, on the other. The Republic was from an early stage fighting against the odds, and in spring 1938, when Laurencic designed his cells, the Republican government faced an unprecedented political and military crisis. Rebel forces, led by General Francisco Franco and strengthened throughout the conflict by generous arms shipments and logistical support from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, had launched a blitzkrieg offensive across the north-eastern region of Aragon. Within weeks they reached the Mediterranean Sea by the Valencian town of Vinaròs, thus cutting the remaining Republican zone in two.



The dire military situation exacerbated internal political tensions within the Republican side. The Republican war effort, which received isolated but vital military aid from the Soviet Union, was weakened by in-fighting. This was due both to resentment caused by the Spanish Communist Party’s influence over political and military affairs and to a de-centralising and collectivising grass-roots revolution pursued by semi-autonomous left-wing forces. It also intensified the hunt for spies and other fifth columnists, known to be operating within left-wing organisations and the Republican Army.

In this sensitive situation, it is perhaps remarkable that Alfonso Laurencic, a music-hall pianist and self-styled architect who had been a sometime member of libertarian, dissident communist, and mainstream socialist unions while making money selling false passports, ended up working for the Republican state intelligence services. But seen from another perspective, he may have had just the skills needed in such desperate times. In their hunt for fifth-columnists, the Republican intelligence services resorted to various shady tactics. Interrogation often took place in so-called chekas: secret prisons first used by radical left-wing groups operating independently of the Republican government. The existence of the chekas was not officially acknowledged by the Republican government but government officials were aware of their continued use throughout the conflict. Cells with the kind of brutal innovations ascribed to Laurencic were uncommon – according to Paul Preston, there were four of them in the Republic as a whole – but their exceptional nature has nonetheless led observers to ask whether they show a hitherto unknown dimension of the Spanish Civil War, evincing the use of sophisticated psychological torture.

However, when details from Laurencic’s trial are studied carefully, the psychological aspects of his gruesome work appear less significant than first assumed. The torture technique used in the Barcelona cells designed by Laurencic were predominantly physical. Descriptions and illustrations in a published contemporary account of the proceedings repeatedly focus on a box in which prisoners were placed and forced to endure hours in excruciatingly painful positions. Even the misleading clock on the wall was not primarily used to disrupt prisoners’ sense of time but psychosomatically, to intensify the sensation of hunger. There is moreover little evidence that any aspect of these designs emerged from real understanding of the psy-sciences. Laurencic referred to the allegedly bewildering patterns and colours on the prison walls as ‘psycho-technic’ additions, but his inspiration in this respect seem to have come not from scientific work but rather vague artistic ideas about the impact of colours on mood. At first sight, this appears to strengthen impressions that Laurencic took inspiration from painters of modern abstract art, especially perhaps, Kandinsky and Klee. Yet on closer inspection even the link between Laurencic’s prison designs and abstract art seems tenuous, as Paul Preston suggests in his conversation with Daniel Pick. Although the actual patterns painted on the prison walls seen in photos of the cells may have been found in paintings by Kandinsky and Klee, they do not necessarily bear more relation to these artists than they do to the geometrical patterns of a chess board or any abstract decoration. Neither did painters of abstract art aim to use their formal exploration as a means to alter psychological states, for good or bad. The one modernist movement which was interested in psychological experimentation was the Surrealists, and, incidentally, a scene from the classic Surrealist film Un Chien Andalou – the opening scene where an eye is slashed open – was shown to prisoners being interrogated in Republican chekas. In this case modernist art did indeed serve as an instrument of torture.

To place abstract art in general in the dock on the basis of Laurencic’s experimental cells, as many commentators have been tempted to do, is not only empirically questionable, but also, as mentioned in the introduction, to miss the real significance of his case. For it was not modern art that was on trial here. In the greater scheme of things, it was not even Laurencic who was the true target of the Francoist prosecution. What was being questioned and judged in the courtroom was, fundamentally, the legitimacy of the Republic that had employed his services. This is clear once we consider the socio-political context of the Laurencic trial and shift our focus to the main source of the Laurencic story: a contemporary book-length account of the court proceedings, written by R. L. Chacón: Why I made the ‘Chekas’ of Barcelona: the court martial of Alfonso Laurencic (1939).³

In his book, Chacón includes several details implicating – directly or indirectly – the Republican government in Laurencic’s crimes. Witnesses testify that ministers in the Republican government knew about the secret prisons but did nothing to close them down. Revealingly, there are also oblique references to the presence in the prisons of foreign agents. Although their nationality is not mentioned, it is clear, as contemporary readers would have understood, that such agents would have been Russians working for the Soviet secret police, the NKVD. Thus, by linking the chekas both to the Republican leadership and Stalin’s henchmen in Spain, the trial, as described by Chacón, appeared to produce further evidence to support the Francoist view of the Republic as a sinister communist plot inflicting pain on honourable ‘Spanish gentlemen’ (a section of the nation to whom Chacón dedicates his book), merely to serve the interests of an evil foreign power. From this perspective, the horrors of the chekas were ultimately attributed to the ideological influence summing up all things abhorrent in the Francoist universe: the so-called ‘Judeo-Masonic-Bolshevik’ conspiracy, believed to be an international force of which the Spanish Republic was but the most recent and threatening expression.

Such references make clear that Chacón’s book served primarily as a propaganda piece justifying Franco’s post-war repression, often taking the form of vengeful mass trials. I have not found further information about Chacón himself, but considering the slogans scrawled on its back pages – ‘Russia is Hell! Franco will save Christian civilization!’ – there can be no doubt that both author and publisher were deeply sympathetic with the Francoist ‘Crusade’, as the civil war was often called by Franco supporters. To them, the Republican experiment had tainted the nation with sin and the political ‘diseases’ of liberalism and socialism, making it necessary for the Army violently to purge the body politic of ungodly and unhealthy elements. Having achieved military victory, the victors moved ruthlessly to exclude from all social and political spheres every group associated with the vanquished, denounced collectively in Franco’s Spain as ‘Anti-Spain’.

Chacón’s book contributes to the dissemination of this narrative; its language and structure even dramatizes it in striking ways. On the surface, Chacón purports to provide a witness account of the procedure. He claims to operate in a documentary mode, mirroring the expected objectivity of the juridical process – an objectivity which in fact was entirely absent in the political trials of the early Francoist era. Yet on closer inspection his documentary account, like all documents, elicits particular responses from its reader by employing a series of literary devices. The scene for Laurencic’s trial is carefully set: the court room is described in detail, as are the reactions of the expectant audience when Laurencic is brought before the judge to testify. The cross examination of the accused and other witnesses is transcribed in the form of a dialogue. Such stylistic choices create suspenseful drama, turning Chacón’s book into something akin to a modern inquisition play.

Indeed, rather than a documentary record, its real function is that of a literary show trial, seeking to terrorise and stoke fear in its readers in order to facilitate the regime’s task of enforcing nationwide obedience. The logic of such propaganda, backed up by credible threats of torture and death, arguably produces a political parallel with methods used in Laurencic’s cells. Francoist trials were not only a way to eliminate the internal enemy, but also a means to keep the entire population on edge. (‘All of Spain is a prison’ was a common saying in the early Francoist years, making the parallel with the chekas clearer.) Chacón’s curiously distorting description of the Laurencic trial serves this goal by showing the implacability with which the regime intended to carry out its ideological project. This project intended to resolve, with brutal force if necessary, the conflicts generated by Spain’s disparate experiences of modernity; conflicts which in this case found their symbolic resolution, described in vivid detail by Chacón, on the morning of 9 July 1939, when Alfonso Laurencic was executed.

1 Colin Marshall, ‘Modern Art Was Used As a Torture Technique in Prison Cells During the Spanish Civil War’, 29 October 2014. See

2 The clearest example is a video by Elise Rasmussen entitled ‘Checa’. See

3 Orig. Por que hice las ‘Chekas’ de Barcelona. Laurencic ante el Consejo de Guerra.

Dr Carl-Henrik Bjerstrom is Lecturer in Modern European History at Birkbeck College. His current research is on Republican print culture during the Spanish Civil War, particularly the role that trench journals played in the Republican nation-building project. His first book, ‘Josep Renau and the Politics of Culture in Republican Spain, 1931-1939: Re-imagining the Nation’ was published earlier this year.

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Training mental health professionals in China

This post was contributed by Viviane Green from Birkbeck’s Department of Psychosocial Studies. In 2014,  Viviane Green was appointed as the First High End Foreign Expert in the Field of Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy by the Chinese State Administration of Foreign Expert Affairs.

Chinese model familyMental illness is heavily stigmatized in China. Dr Zhang, a Chinese psychiatrist, has characterised his culture as ‘other-centred’, with families not wishing to burden a professional with their problems, underscored by shame and anxiety at losing face by talking about family troubles in public. Despite this, there has been a huge growth in the demand for counselling and psychotherapy. There is general acknowledgment by the Chinese child and adolescent psychiatric establishment that early intervention programmes are needed, especially for the millions of left behind children (those left with family in the countryside for long periods while parents work in the cities). In a population of 1.368 billion, there are 20 000 psychiatrists, which gives some indication of the scale of the need for training mental health professionals.

Since 2012 , in collaboration with my Chinese colleague Dr Wang Qian (Child Psychiatrist and Analyst), I have been involved in the Sino-British Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Training Program for Children and Adolescents. This began as a one-off five-day training event and has rapidly developed into a three-year programme. It comprises two annual five-day sessions and weekly seminars over the internet with experienced UK-based child psychotherapists and psychoanalysts, in which students report on their weekly observations of a mother-infant relationship within a family setting. Three clinical groups have been established where students present anonymised clinical case studies. A specialist fortnightly seminar for developing Chinese clinical supervisors is about to be launched.

In the development of the programme many questions have had to be considered.

Is there a culture for psychotherapy in China?

The radical and rapid social change which China has experienced since the 1980s has undoubtedly created psychosocial stresses impacting on families. There has been large-scale internal migration. Social security has ended and there has been a breakdown of traditional family structures. Parents born during the one child policy (1979-2016) are now a ‘squeezed middle’, caught between ageing parents on the one hand and their child on the other. The one child policy, in the Chinese view, has created a generation of ‘little Emperors’ – children with more limited social adaptive capacities. There has been an increase in individuality, with young adults torn between conformity and autonomy. Increasing levels of anxiety among ‘anomic’ youth and overstretched parents struggling to make ends meet may have created the conditions ripe for a psychodynamic approach to flourish.

What are the challenges for the British teachers and the Chinese students?

Students are highly motivated with a traditional deep respect for teachers. They come with varying depth of understanding and experience. Sometimes a wide gap reveals itself between the ‘cognitive’ level and clinical understanding. A good deal of basic thought has to be given to how to ‘teach’ students to really listen and reflect without stepping in with ‘solutions’.

The challenge in teaching students who have long been involved in a highly competitive, structured, formal chalk/talk educational system that stresses achievement is how to foster peer group learning where peer group engagement is valued. It has meant explicitly avoiding stepping into the role of ‘expert’ and inviting participants to develop their thoughts or seek out the views of others in the group.

Is a psychodynamic approach founded on a Eurocentric model relevant to a Chinese context?

We are all aware that our model is Eurocentric and this is particularly apparent in the mother-infant observation seminars, where the observations are usually of a child growing up in a three generation household. Grandparents are omnipresent and often offer the childcare while both or one of the parents is at work. The particular dynamics between mother/father and paternal or maternal grandparents are part of the fabric for consideration. We are also aware how this affords a child an unusual degree of emotional investment.

A core question both at the level of theory as well as clinical practice is how we think about the self. Is the individuated self, where it is deemed a healthy norm to gain independence from the family of origin, one which needs recasting in the Chinese context, where instead of an ‘ego’ there is an embedded ‘wego’?

In moving between the ‘universal’ (i.e. we are all social beings with a mind and a developmental timetable which unfolds) and the ‘particular’ (the specific ways in which a culture may draw up the lines of internal conflict) we are in a process on-going learning from our students. It is in the relative safety of the smaller group clinical and mother-infant observation seminars that we get a more ‘intimate’ sense of what profoundly concerns the students and also what sparks lively debate, for example a sense that having been born a girl rather than boy can carry a sense of disappointment.

Looking to the future

The programme has clearly flourished since 2012 with the first cohort having graduated and a second cohort having completed their first year. The next steps needed to secure its future include the development of a framework for formal accreditation, identifying clinical competencies and embedding the programme in a university context, to give it greater sustainability.

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Guilt, pity and shame in humanitarian and human rights communications

This post was contributed by Dr Bruna Seu from Birkbeck’s Department of Psychosocial Studies

NGOs often use images designed to induce feelings of guilt in order to encourage donations

You have just sat down for lunch. You switch on the TV and you are confronted with the image of a malnourished child. Somebody is measuring their arm with a tape and the appeal asks you to donate £3. It’s simple: you have your lunch, they don’t. You feel guilty and you give.

This guilt-inducing formula raises much-needed revenue for NGOs and humanitarian organisations, so it is understandable why they return to it time and again. However, my research into the way the public responds to information about human rights violations and humanitarian crises suggests that using guilt as a fundraising tool is problematic.

The problem with guilt in humanitarian fundraising

The pain of guilt inspires in people a new capacity for reparation and the desire to right the wrong. While a monetary donation can momentarily alleviate the guilt inspired by humanitarian appeals, for many it does not constitute a sufficiently reparative action.

A more desirable aim than finding a way to momentarily alleviate guilt is to develop a feeling of connectedness with those suffering. Development of a meaningful understanding of the issues at play is hindered by narrow, racially-stereotyped portrayals of developing countries, which ignore the role of domestic actors in the global South and reinforce the perception that more charity is required rather than fundamental political and economic change.

A further problem is that the sheer volume of these guilt-inducing messages leads to a sense of hopelessness and helplessness that shuts down routes to improved understanding and connectedness, creating a vicious cycle where we feel guilty, donate to alleviate guilt, and then ignore the suffering other until we are bombarded by further guilt-inducing messages. This cycle leaves no room for alternative thinking that would increase awareness of development issues or behavioural engagement in the form of volunteering and campaigning.

Participants in my studies have shown awareness of guilt being part of their immediate reaction and that when ‘it wears off’, as they put it, they are left with nothing to hang onto. So we have a self-perpetuating cycle whereby people donate partly because they  feel pity, compassion, guilt and they want to help; partly because they don’t know what else to do; and partly, as a consequence of these two. Donating is a way of ‘switching off with a clear conscience’.

Shame vs guilt

My research is now beginning to consider the experience of shame as opposed to guilt, and whether this would lead to more meaningful engagement in the issues. There are many potential problems to invoking feelings of shame. However, while guilt is related to an action – something we did or didn’t do, shame is about the whole of ourselves. Yet, precisely because it is personal, rather than relating to a bad action, it rests on relationality – what needs repairing is the link with the other. Let’s say if guilt messages are of the kind ‘skip lunch – save a child’ and a child dies because you did not skip lunch, of course you give – you ‘did the right thing’. But what if messages prompted reactions such as: ‘I don’t want to be the kind of person who is informed of such horrors and doesn’t do anything.’?

Contrary to guilt, regulated by the world of norms and laws which is the territory of the superego – the self I ought to be, the referent in shame is the ego ideal – the self I wish I could be. It might seem a small difference, but one that shifts the terrain from the transactional to the relational. I am no longer saving the other, but on the contrary it is with the other that I can be saved. When the bond between self and other is intact we feel pride and harmony. Maybe such a relational mode could return dignity and power to the other and make us agents not of hand downs but of our own betterment as human beings.

This article is based on a talk that Dr Seu gave recently at the Dartington Centre for Social Research

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