As the U.S. press focused attention on the popular rebellion in Nicaragua, in neighboring Guatemala the class struggle took a qualitative leap forward. A series of militant working class actions, culminating in a successful national strike in early October, demonstrated the growing consciousness and organization of the popular forces in the face of mounting oppression. (At the same time, various actions in September put the government on notice that Guatemalan intervention to save Somoza would not be tolerated. These included the shooting of the Nicaraguan ambassador to Guatemala who was also the representative in Guatemala of the Pentagon-sponsored Central American Defense Council - CONDECA, the machinegunning of the CONDECA headquarters, the bombing of the LANICA offices, the Somoza-owned national airline, and a demonstration in Guatemala City of 30,000 people in support of the Nicaraguan Sandinist National Liberation Front-FSLN). BUS FARE DOUBLES In late September, the Guatemalan government approved a fare hike, from five cents to ten cents, for the capital's privately-owned municipal bus companies. This 100 percent increase meant that most workers would have to spend between 20 and 30 percent of their wages on transportation. In response, the National Committee for Trade Union Unity (CNUS), functioning as the coordinating body for the labor and peasant movement, held a general assembly of workers, students and shantytown dwellers. The assembly decided to begin progressive work stop-pages in industry and banks, to call for a general strike in the public sector, and to set up barricades in the main streets of the capital to stop traffic. On October 2nd, street confrontations began when shanty-town residents on the outskirts of the city constructed barricades and peppered the streets with thumbtacks to stop the busses. After twelve hours of battle, which left one infant dead and several people seriously wounded, a thousand police firing bullets and tear gas managed to break through the barricades. The demonstrations quickly spread thoughout the capital and much of the rest of the country, lasting many hours, night after night, and often ending with police firing on the unarmed crowds. In a solidarity demonstration in Quetzaltenango, the country's second largest city, four people were killed when anti-riot police tried to disperse the protesters. NATIONAL STRIKE After a week of class warfare, over 50 people were dead, 400 wounded and close to a thousand imprisoned. Among the dead was Arnulfo Cifuentes Diaz, president of the striking telegraph workers' association, who had been shot by four unidentified men. The association held the government "directly responsible for the incredible bloodbath." "The blood of the people," it added, "is not worth five cents." As the number of dead mounted, the popular movement switched tactics from demonstrations and street confrontations to striking. Public services, including garbage collection, postal and phone service as well as hospitals were paralyzed throughout the country. Bank activity slowed to two hours a day, and production was cut back in a good number of factories. Economic activity in the capital came to a virtual standstill. Faced with the high level of popular discontent and organization among the workers, as well as the instability of the Central American region as a whole, the government gave in and revoked the fare increase, while also granting a $10 million a year subsidy to the bus owners. Shortly thereafter, CNUS agreed to call for an end to the national strike. While calling the fare rollback a popular victory, the CNUS added that it was only a temporary one, since the government subsidy will almost surely be paid by the working class through increased taxes and inflation. THE GOVERNMENT STRIKES BACK Reprisals against the strikers were not long in coming. Police violently attacked a number of key buildings held by strikers, arresting over 400 workers at the post office alone. Hundreds of activists lost their jobs, and the government revoked the legal status of the postal workers' and the letter carriers' associations. More ominously, the Guatemalan military regime is attempting to decapitate the popular movement by eliminating its leaders. A bulletin distributed by the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP) in early November explains why this is happening: In the face of the failure of political maneuvering and reformism [in the form of development plans, appeals for a "national dialogue" attempts to co-opt the popular movement], the Police Chief and the Ministers of Defense and Interior are making repressive and terrorist violence predominate in order to reinforce the exploitative system and stop the development of the mass struggle. If the Lucas government lacks reformist and political possibilities of calming the people's discontent and gaining some kind of popular base, only terrorist violence is left to it". In the days following the strike, attempts were made on the lives of two trade-union leaders. Bodies began appearing at the rate of ten a day on roadsides throughout the country-the corpses, it is believed, of people captured during the October protests. On October 20, following a demonstration commemorating the anniversary of the 1944 democratic revolution, the head of the Association of University Students, Oliverio Castaneda de Leon, was shot sixty times as he left the rally. The attack took place less than a block from the National Palace, in full view of bystanders and of several cars of police, who made no move against the assassins. Several witnesses recognized the license plates of the assassins' cars as belonging to the Commando 6 section of the National Police. On November 6th, the Organizational Secretary of the Association of University Students, Antonio Ciani, disappeared two blocks from his house. Fellow students accuse the government of the kidnapping. A few days before Castafeda's death, his name was included, along with 37 other labor, student, university and press figures, on a death list published by the Secret Anti-Communist Army (ESA). The government has denied any ties with the ESA, characterizing it as a group of "right-wing terrorists" who are working together with the left. However, the EGP bulletin states that: "The Lucas government has created a situation of repression and terror, within which the repressive organizations of the government, the Army, the [right-wing party] MLN and other political and private enterprise sectors are operating. All these ultra-reactionary sectors agree on their policy of attacking the popular movement, but each carries out its own repression, with its own objectives. This is why the repression seems confusing. This is why each sector denies its guilt, accusing the others. The ESA serves the interests of all these groups". However, these tactics have angered people rather than frightened them into silence. Sixty thousand angry marchers protested Castahieda's death, and on November 10 another large demonstration of students, workers, peasants and shantytown dwellers demanded the reappearance of Ciani, holding the Lucas government responsible for whatever happens to him. Echoing through the streets of Guatemala City the people's slogans sum up their determination: "They may assassinate our leaders, but as long as there are people, there will be Revolution!"; "The people united, organized and combative will never be defeated!"; "Against government and business repression, labor and the peoples' organization!".
Tags: Guatemala, general strike, repression, trade unions