Not So Apocalypto: What the Mayan Calendar Tells Us About Latin America in 2012

According to scholars, the fact the Mayan calendar ends by the winter solstice of 2012 is not an omen of the apocalypse, but a rather savvy political move by an ancient monarch. To that end, Global Spin offers its predictions for Latin American politics before this fateful year draws to a close.

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Robert Landau/ Corbis

Maya ruins at Palenque, Mexico.

My friends Nancy and David Orr own a gorgeous bed-and-breakfast in San Cristóbal, Mexico, called the Casa Felipe Flores – and you better book early if you want a room this year. San Cristóbal sits in the mountainous heart of southern Chiapas state, an indigenous region where the culture of the Maya, the Greeks of the New World, is particularly rich. It’s expecting a deluge of visitors, from the academic to the apocalyptic, because 2012 – specifically the winter solstice on Dec. 21 – marks what many scholars believe is the end of a 5,125-year creation cycle on the Mayan calendar. Less scholarly types are calling it the end of the world. “If you’ve studied it you know it doesn’t mean the end of the world,” says Nancy. “Either way, we’re seeing a lot of people coming in search of a spiritual adventure.”

It turns out, however, that this year’s Maya mania may well be the product of ancient political as well as spiritual doings, as the Orrs’ friend Alonso Méndez, a Chiapas native and cultural astronomer, tells me this week. The reason for the hype surrounding the winter solstice of 2012 is that it completes the 13th “baktun” of the world’s present cycle of creation. (A baktun is a major block of Mayan time, like a century or millennium, lasting 394.26 years on our calendar.) That’s significant because it’s believed, according to readings of Mayan cosmology, that the previous creation cycle lasted 13 baktuns – meaning the world this year is about to enter a new phase of creation. Not the end, apocalypse zealots: a new beginning.

But one of the big questions is how and why the last creation cycle came to be defined as 13 baktuns. And that, says Méndez, may have more to do with the spin of Pakal than with the spin of the planet. Pakal the Great (603-683 A.D.) was the most important ruler of the classical Maya. Méndez, who is working at the spectacular Mayan ruins of Palenque in Chiapas, where Pakal reigned, believes new archeological evidence suggests the king and his court manipulated the timelines of Mayan cosmology in order to turn his birth date into a divine milestone.

That effort, which included scanning phenomena like the epochal movements of the constellation Orion, would have required the advanced astronomical skills the Maya were famous for. And a key result may have been a determination that the previous creation cycle – which ended with what inscriptions at Palenque poetically describe as “the re-organization of the cosmos,” says Méndez, “the metaphorical raising of a new house” — had lasted 13 baktuns, and so the present cycle would also last 13. The sages even calculated future events like the important anniversary of a Mayan creator deity, which occurred in 2006, that would signal the end of a creation cycle. “The Maya had created a calendar that was structured to speak to the future as well as the past,” says Méndez, a member of the “Calendar in the Sky” project led by NASA and the University of California, Berkeley. “We think Pakal used that to essentially retrofit Mayan mythology so he could be cast in a pivotal and even divine position in it.”

If so, Pakal was no different than Old World rulers like the Roman Emperor Augustus, whose scribes and supplicants cooked the books to make him a divine descendant of Rome’s mythological founder, Aeneas. So since the 2012 predictions hoopla seems to have political origins – and since the Maya were the political progenitors of Latin America – perhaps some political predictions for the region are in order.

Let’s venture a few, starting appropriately enough in Mexico itself, where a presidential election will be held July 1. Right now it seems a safe bet that Enrique Peña Nieto will win and put his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) – which ruled Mexico as a one-party dictatorship for 71 years until it was toppled in the 2000 – back in the Los Pinos presidential residence. What’s harder to predict is whether Peña will be a competent president – and he didn’t exactly reassure everyone last month when, at a book fair, he couldn’t name three books that had influenced him. Let me suggest he start with A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya, which discusses Pakal, a Mexican leader who obviously read quite a bit.

Moving across the Caribbean (the Mediterranean of the New World, while we’re at it) to Cuba, many are wondering if Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the island in March will help loosen the communist Castro brothers’ grip on power. Answer: If the far more charismatic Pope John Paul II couldn’t do it 14 years ago, Benedict surely won’t. What he can do, however, is help regenerate the Roman Catholic Church in Cuba, which has proven a surprising force for economic reform and could in the long run help bring about democratic change as well.

And then there’s Venezuela, where socialist President Hugo Chávez, who has been in power since 1999, will bid for re-election in October. My prediction: since no one’s ever gotten rich betting against the anti-U.S. firebrand, who has proven a survivor almost as remarkable as the Castros, he’ll win another six-year term. But there’s a big caveat: the cancer he announced he was battling last summer could force him out of the race. If so, expect his panicked party to declare an emergency and postpone the election until it can groom a successor to el comandante.

As for next December: it should be both a great party and a moving experience in Mesoamerica for the winter solstice if you can be there, especially at famous Mayan sites like Palenque, Chichén Itzá or Copán. Says Méndez: “It will be an occasion to celebrate how people can connect with the sky the way the Maya did, the way they created harmony between human life and astronomical events. It inspires us today to be better.” That hardly sounds like the end of the world to me.