Guatemala: Country profile

25 February 2002

Music censorship and restrictions in Guatemala

Excerpt from A Survey Of Censorship And Restrictions On Music In Spanish America

by Jens Lohmann




Ricardo Arjona

Introduction (excerpt)

Through a most often violent history, free expression has been one of the most important victims of repression in the Latin American countries. During the decades dominated by the mainly military dictatorships in the last half of the 20th century repression was systematic and intense. Writers, journalists, artists and not least musicians where among the preferred targets of the dictatorships. Many musicians were cruelly tortured and then killed, as was the case of the popular Chilean songwriter Víctor Jara who was taken prisoner under the coup in September 1973, placed in the Chile Stadium with five thousand other prisoners, was recognised, brutally tortured, forced to sing and killed.

From the mid-1980’s the dictatorships were gradually replaced by freely elected, civilian governments. But did censorship and restrictions on the freedom of expression also disappear? Do musicians have the freedom to create, publish and present their music? Officially yes, but has this been the real situation during these last 15-20 years?

A general view

Officially no country in Latin America has political censorship. All countries have signed and ratified The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the American Convention of Human Rights, also known as The Pact of San José de Costa Rica from 1969.

Article 13, par. 1 in the latter says:
“Every individual has the right to freedom to think and express himself freely. This right includes the freedom to search, receive and spread information and ideas of any kind, without considering frontiers, orally or by writing or in printed or artistic ways, or through any other procedure he shall elect”
(My free translation from Spanish, jl).

All governments sustain that there is freedom of expression in their respective countries. But the range of interpretations is wide and apparently arbitrary. Which means that censorship is a fact in most Latin American countries, though rarely as explicit political censorship, but most often disguised as charges of “immorality” and “violation of public decency”, etc.



With one of the most violent histories in the continent up till recent years, no one will wonder that Guatemala is a country with a long and deep rooted tradition for censorship for political, religious, moral and even racial or ethnical reasons.

No wonder that most of the country’s big artistic names – from the Nobel Prize winner in literature (1967) Miguel Angel Asturias (1899-1974) over the fabulous writer Augusto Monterroso (1921-) to the internationally popular songwriter Ricardo Arjona (1964-) have preferred to live in exile.

Brutal dictatorships like the one described in Asturias’ El señor Presidente and even worse have dominated Guatemala’s history, with the exception of ten years of democracy and reforms 1944-54, and a difficult and slow peace and democratisation process since a peace accord between the government and the guerrillas was signed in December 1996.

The most brutal period in the country’s history were the years from the coup in 1954 to the signing of the peace accord in 1996. An unknown number of people were arrested, abducted, tortured, massacred, disappeared, perhaps several hundred thousand, by repressive, right wing military dominated regimes

Freedom of expression was formally guaranteed, but with certain limitations. In the Government Charter adopted by Colonel Enrique Peralta Azurdia’s de facto government in 1963, article 22, paragraph 7 says: “Issuing of thoughts by any means of diffusion is free, without previous censorship, except for the limitations impossed by the law” (my free translation from Spanish, jl). With the new constitution from 1985 the limitations were formally abolished, but in practice they were still in force, as the military’s power was not limited in spite of having (more or less) democratically elected, civilian governments from 1986 on.

Anything regard as communist was considered against the law and banned. Journalists, writers, artists, musicians were force to self censorship through threats and intimidation and through terror consisting in abductions, torture and murder of those who, according to the authorities did not “respect” the rules of the game. There were two alternatives: keep quiet or go into exile.

Even though journalist were the preferred targets of repression, musicians did not go free. One of the best known cases is that of the singer and musician Alberto Rubén Ochoa Ochoa from the marimba orchestra Lira Marquense (the marimba is considered the typical and national instrument in Guatemalan music) had become quite popular with several records in the late 1970’s. The orchestra toured the country with an ample repertoire, including the popular song ‘Maldita violencia’ (Damned Violence), which referred clearly to the political violence and repression from the army (the years 1978-83 were among the most violent and bloody). In October 1980 Ochoa was found dead. His funeral became a mass demonstration, but after that other musicians kept silent.

One testimony from the Western department of Huehuetenango told researchers from the Commission to Clarify History (Comisión de Esclarecimiento Histórico) about the situation in the early 1980’s:

“Everybody knew that the Army could come at any moment and search the houses, and because the soldier’s lack culture was so big and they could not read, they believed that every book they found was communist. Therefore we opted for not having neither book, music nor green clothes in the house”.
Radio stations were strictly controlled by the Army, specially in those areas were the guerrillas were active or present. Specially those stations transmitting in one of the country’s 22 different indigenous languages were considered suspect of being instruments of the insurgents. Thus programmes and music in indigenous languages were often banned, if the radio stations were not simply closed down – often after intimidations, abductions and assassinations of some of the reporters and announcers.

Today the situation seems to have improved. But it is mainly in the bigger cities. Here it is now possible to attend concerts even with controversial musicians like Ricardo Arjona – who has had several of his songs since the late 1980’s censored and banned, among them ‘Jesús es verbo no sustantivo’ (Jesus is a verb not a substantive), considered blasphemic, and ‘Señora de las cuatro décadas’ (Ms of the Four Decades), considered immoral.

The situation for indigenous musicians is far more difficult. They are discriminated because they are indians, and it is normally very difficult for them to gain access to many radio stations. The argument is often that the audience prefers more modern music, that their music does not sell. Unfortunately it is very difficult to find documentation, but this is a very important area to research – in Guatemala and in other Latin American countries with a significant indigenous population, as discrimination is common from Rio Grande to Cap Horn. Guatemala is perhaps the worst country when it comes to discrimination of indigenous cultures, and could be a good place to start a research on censorship of indigenous people’s music.

There is a good network to draw on among the many human rights organisations, local and international, which for many years have been working to document the repression during more than forty years and its effects on the Guatemalans and their identity today.







This is an excerpt from ‘A Survey Of Censorship And Restrictions On Music In Spanish America’ by Jens Lohmann. Published by Freemuse. Copenhagen, 2002.

Jens Lohmann is a Danish journalist and author. He is known as one of Scandinavia’s most knowledgable experts on Latin American music. Born in 1940 and grew up in Mexico.



More information on the internet

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (open for everyone to edit):
‘Ricardo Arjona’

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