Research Highlight: Ryan Denholm

by arowsey on February 4, 2021

I had the opportunity to speak with Ryan Denholm concerning his experience participating in an independent study with Dr. Bañuelos Montes which focused on actions committed by the Guatemalan military during the Cold War.

Can you describe what your research project is about?

My research project is about atrocities committed by the Guatemalan military during the latter part of the Cold War. I set out to use testimonial literature (that told through the eyes of individual witnesses) in order to document and analyze the nature of the human rights abuses committed. Additionally, I analyzed the relation of these crimes to the broader geopolitical landscape at the time, which is why I entitled my research “El costo humano de geopolítica” (the human cost of geopolitics). Grave human rights abuses were committed with assistance from U.S. tax dollars, under the pretext of “fighting communism.” 

I read and wrote about two works of testimonial literature: “Death of a Guatemalan Village” by Victor Montejo and “After the Bombs” by Arturo Arias. The former is a work of nonfiction written by a schoolteacher in the indigenous village of Tzalalá who witnessed the military execute civilians. The latter is fiction written through the eyes of an imagined boy, named Máximo, describing the Guatemala that he would have grown up in, marred by violence and destruction. Especially damning is the way that Arias follows Máximo’s growth and development; whereas in the United States many of us take for granted life milestones like falling in love for the first time, in Máximo’s case his first date is interrupted by military men violating his girlfriend. While again, this is a work of fiction, many of these types of crimes (and much worse) occurred within the context of Cold War geopolitics. My completed research becomes, in essence, a rebuke of U.S. Cold War foreign policy in Guatemala for the way in which it aided and abetted some of the 20th century’s most horrific atrocities.

What made you decide to pursue your topic?

My freshman year at Roanoke, I took a Latin American history course taught by Dr. Wallace Fuentes. In that class, for the first time, I began to gain a more clear picture of the region’s history and its relation to broader geopolitical discussions. Prior to college, as a middle and high school student in public Virginia schools, I was  often taught broad oversimplifications about the Cold War, like that the United States won without anyone dying. Dr. Wallace Fuentes’ course sparked in me a desire to more fully understand the politics of the region and the way that Washington’s power has shaped its development. 

As a Spanish minor, my discussions with Dr. Bañuelos Montes often involved the politics and history of Latin America, as well. Him and I both share an interest to academically explore human rights abuses that were committed in Latin America during the Cold War. Guatemala is the perfect case study of this. 

Why did you decide to do research?

I decided to do research in order to pursue a topic of academic interest more fully, and to work one on one with a faculty member. This independent study with Dr. Bañuelos was a great opportunity to do that. 

How has your experience with your research advisor been?

It has been a pleasure to work with a research advisor as engaged and as knowledgeable in his field as Dr. Bañuelos. He provided me with academic guidance that was invaluable to the completion of my research. I learned a lot from him and the readings that he provided me with.

What has been your favorite or most interesting of your research project so far?

The most intriguing part of my research has been what I have learned about U.S. Cold War policy in Guatemala. As an American who wants his country to pursue good in the world and uplift those in other countries, learning about the atrocities committed in Guatemala with U.S. financial and logistical support is disheartening, to say the least. It has been sobering to learn that while our presidents are happy to pay lip service to ideals of democracy and human rights, when it comes to tangible policy, too often these principles have been ignored. 

For example, in my research I learned that President Reagan, despite having clear evidence of the genocide and atrocities being committed by the Guatemalan military against indigenous people, praised dictator Efraín Ríos Montt as a man of great personal integrity and provided him with military equipment. As an American, this research leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth and a renewed desire to work towards building a country that actually practices what it preaches, politically.

What would you say to current and incoming students interested in doing research? 

Just do it! I would encourage any students interested in doing research to talk to a professor who is knowledgeable in a subject that they are interested in. By working one on one with a faculty member, I was able to pursue a subject of interest at a deeper level than can otherwise be attained.

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