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 Guatemala. 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." SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 1988 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 inside. 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 it. 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 squads.) "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- testors. 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- ments. 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- low. 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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