GUATEMALA Keeping the Lid On

September 25, 2007

On Tuesday, August 9, the Guate-
malan army's top officials met to
decide the fate of the civilian govern-
ment of Christian Democrat Vinicio
Cerezo. The president and his cabinet
were also meeting in an emergency
all-day session, as helicopters hov-
ered above the National Palace and
coup rumors spread. Two days later,
40,000 workers marched in the pour-
ing rain to kick off a series of work
stoppages and strikes. High school
students protesting the unsafe condi-
tions of their school buildings clashed
with police. The week ended with a
tense 15-hour standoff between riot
police and electrical workers furious
at the state-owned company for with-
holding their paychecks in retaliation
for a work stoppage.
Far from being a pacified and
stable "model democracy," as Wash-
ington officials proclaim, Guatemala
is a bubbling cauldron. As of Novem-
ber, the lid appeared to be back on,
but new eruptions are almost certain.
A Coup in Stages
The constant bullying of the gov-
ernment by the extreme Right, in uni-
form and out, came to a head last
May 11 when two rebellious army
garrisons marched on the capital. Al-
though they failed to overthrow the
government, it now seems clear that
Cerezo ceded whatever authority he
once held, in order to remain in of-
fice. Most of the Right's agenda has
been met-no talk of land reform, no
new taxes, no dialogue with the guer-
rillas, no new relations with socialist
Susanne Jonas, who co-edited
NACLA's 1974 book Guatemala,
teaches Latin American Studies at the
University of California, Santa Cruz
and is on the staff of Global Options
in San Francisco. She is currently at
work on a new book about
countries, and no attempt to limit the
activities of right-wing terrorists in or
out of the security forces.
The hopes awakened by the return
of civilian government have been
dashed, as recent months have seen a
precipitous rise in right-wing vio-
lence. The Right has taken to "send-
ing messages" with greater fury.
While they lash out at specific tar-
gets, entire constituencies get the
message. The progressive weekly
newspaper La Epoca, one of the only
experiments in independent journal-
ism in 35 years, was firebombed in
June to underscore the limits of press
freedom. A medical clinic run by Fa-
ther Andr6s Gir6n's peasant move-
ment was firebombed and Gir6n him-
self was nearly assassinated. A bomb
was planted in the theater where stu-
dents had organized a Latin American
songfest. Kidnappings, disappear-
ances and murders of labor and stu-
dent leaders are all on the rise. Lately,
death threats have been made against
top Church officials who favor timid
land reform proposals, the deputy
foreign minister for his affiliation
with a group promoting dialogue with
the guerrillas, progressive journal-
ists-the list goes on.
This sinister "message system"
permits the ultra-Right to keep alive
the specter of the open brutality and
massacres of the early 1980s that cost
100,000 lives (mostly Indians) and
destroyed 440 villages. The Cerezo
government did not prosecute human
rights criminals of past military re-
gimes; it is impotent to stop their ac-
tivity in the present, or even to keep
them out of government posts. In
July, a criminal court judge presiding
over the trial of top officials of the
feared Treasury Police was kid-
napped and held for several days.
Two days after his release, he freed
all the defendants. One official com-
mented cynically on television that in
Guatemala, being kidnapped is "part
of the job description."
Cerezo also faces opposition from
less extreme sectors of the Right, who
argue that the army handed power to
the civilian government in 1986 only
to see it frittered away by indecision,
ineptitude and corruption. Particu-
larly within the army, support for
Cerezo-and thus for his defense
minister, Gen. H6ctor Gramajo-is
tenuous and vacillating. Many call
the Christian Democrats "watermel-
ons": green on the outside, red on the
Those who seek to maintain the
Cerezo government, like Gramajo,
argue that a coup would return Guate-
mala to the long diplomatic isolation
which ended when Cerezo took of-
fice, jeopardizing essential financial
and political support from abroad.
Pro- and anti-coup factions seem to
have reached an uneasy compromise:
destabilize the Cerezo government
just short of overthrowing it. The
Right thus ensures that all policies
will be tailored to suit its interests-a
"coup in stages," as one observer put
Neutralizing "Active Neutrality"
Cerezo has tried to maintain some
initiative for his stance of "active
neutrality" in the conflict between the
United States and Nicaragua. This
policy was actually initiated by the
military governments of the early
1980s, and is considered by many to
be a "policy of state" rising above
partisan politics. For others on the
Right, however, it is the core of the
Cerezo problem; and it is here that
U.S. pressures have become crucial.
The United States is playing a
double game in Guatemala. Washing-
ton may publicly support Cerezo, but
in its search for regional allies against
Nicaragua, it has strengthened the
small sector of Guatemalan society
that supports the contras-the ex-
treme Right-further undermining
Cerezo's authority. (In fact, the Rea-
gan team has had close ties with these
groups since 1980, when they were
running Guatemala's infamous death
"Guatemalan neutrality just plays
into the hands of the Nicaraguans," a
leader of the ultra-Right Movimiento
de Liberaci6n Nacional (MLN) told
7me the day after Sec. of State George
Shultz's diplomatic blitz last August.
"People in Washington-in fact,
people high up in the White House--
have told me off the record that they
regard Cerezo's position as hypocriti-
cal." In the MLN view this is just one
more indicator that Cerezo is "paving
the way for socialism," as Frei did for
Allende in Chile in the 1970s. "Of
course," he concluded, "we have to
think about an election in 1990. We
can't think only in terms of a coup."
From the other side, leading
Christian Democrats viewed Shultz's
trip as a "detonator," giving the Right
a new excuse for overthrowing the
government. Though he failed to get
Guatemala to sign a strong con-
demnation of Nicaragua, Shultz did
successfully undermine "active
neurtrality" by the very fact that
Cerezo agreed to a meeting in Guate-
mala that excluded Nicaragua.
The Shultz visit also stirred up a
longstanding, very live debate within
the Guatemalan army between the
proponents of "active neutrality" and
those who see it as inconsistent with
anti-subversive policies at home. In
the wake of Shultz's visit, Guatemala
shook with suspicious military ma-
neuvers characteristic of a coup-the
army's method of wresting conces-
sions from Cerezo. On the negotiat-
ing table this time was Cerezo's pol-
icy towards Nicaragua, the last pro-
gressive card in his deck.
Keeping the Space Open
All summer long, even at a time of
increasing right-wing political vio-
lence, a crescendo of protest rose
from the streets of the popular bar-
rios. Government measures lifting
price controls on food, bus transpor-
tation and other necessities placed
them beyond reach. Many people be-
came so angry that they began to lose
their fear. This became visible, for
example, in the furious faces and
raised fists of the grandmothers in the
town of Amatitlfn, as police were
stoned while arresting young pro-
The Unity of Labor and Popular
Action (UASP), a coalition of labor
and popular organizations, staged a
series of demonstrations and strikes
that grew larger weekly, surviving
both intimidation and general expec-
tations of failure. The buildup during
August was dramatic, as the strike
movement extended its work stop-
pages by one hour each day and
threatened to affect essential public
services. In late August, a general
strike call was adhered to by 50% of
government employees, including the
crucial electrical workers, who are
well-organized in every province of
the country. Although it was not
strong enough to paralyze the econ-
omy, the strike's turnout was greater
than anyone expected, a surprising
show of force from this as yet un-
tested movement.
Outside the capital, similar mobi-
lizations were mounted in the towns,
while peasants in several provinces
organized to denounce abuses by the
government's "civil defense patrols,"
as well as compulsory service in the
supposedly voluntary patrols. The
government's response has been to
propose establishing patrols in the
cities as well, under a new army-con-
trolled "security system."
The popular movement has been
brutally smashed and its leadership
physically eliminated several times
over in recent decades. How is it pos-
sible, I asked one participant after
another, that it is now experiencing a
resurgence unmatched since the late
1970s? "None of our problems have
been resolved," answered one labor
leader. "They've only gotten worse in
the last ten years. The fact that there
was no protest during those ten years
doesn't mean that people went along
with the conditions imposed on them;
they had to be silent because of the
repression. But as soon as there is any
opening, you'll always see this kind
of explosion." As of October, UASP
was again staging demonstrations--
this time including the Committee of
Campesino Unity (CUC), branded
"subversive" by the government--
and resisting pressures to be drawn
into government-manipulated agree-
The government has no real an-
swers for the deepening economic
crisis. In fact, its efforts in August to
"alleviate" the galloping rise in the
cost of living were so lame that they
only fueled the fires of protest
(hence, of course, the Right's coup
threats to "restore order"). But up to
what point will popular protest be tol-
erated by the army? Beyond eco-
nomic issues, labor's struggle has
broader significance for Guatemala's
political future, as several astute un-
ion leaders acknowledge. It is testing
the limits of Guatemalan "democ-
racy" and challenging right-wing
pressures to "close the spaces"
opened by the experiment with civil-
ian government.
The Left
At the same time, the guerrillas of
the Guatemalan National Revolution-
ary Unity (URNG), although by no
means as strong as in the early 1980s,
have shown a surprising capacity to
act. Even after two major army offen-
sives in the last year, insurgent opera-
tions have increased in several parts
of the country. Certainly the army's
boast of having reduced the guerrillas
to a mere "annoyance," and Cerezo's
announcement to the press that there
are only 700 of them left, ring hol-
The revolutionary Left has en-
joyed a new presence in Guatemalan
political life since the Central Ameri-
can peace process raised the issue of
government negotiations with the
URNG. Virtually all political parties
support such talks, but the army re-
mains intransigent. In fact, since the
day the peace accords were signed in
August, 1987, the army has insisted
that they "don't apply" to Guatemala,
and Cerezo has followed suit.
To ease tensions, politicians are
hoping to begin the 1990 presidential
election season as early as this year.
Others place their hopes in the "na-
tional dialogue" engendered by the
Central American peace plan. But
anything can happen in this fast-
changing country.
Even after 30 years of counterin-
surgency and 200,000 civilian casual-
ties, Washington's long-cherished
goal of "stability" is receding farther
into the distance. The lesson for Latin
America is clear: In a country where
80% of the population lives below the
poverty line, social revolution-
whatever forms it may take-will
remain on the agenda.

Tags: Guatemala, Vinicio Cerezo, Military, repression, opposition

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