The War Goes On

September 25, 2007

"We simply cannot understand why a
people must suffer so much to achieve
their freedom."
Rigoberta Menchu. Quiche woman whose
father was killed in the Spanish Embassy
March 23, 1983. Amid pomp and ceremony,
Rfos Montt celebrates a year in power. The
Guatemalan Right has bought time, but it is
emerging from its scorched-earth euphoria to
realize that its problems are not solved; the war is
not over. Guatemala has the most skewed
distribution of wealth in Central America, and
reform is not on the agenda. The economic crisis
deepens, hitting the mass of Guatemalans harder
than ever. The objective basis of revolt remains
Worst of all for the bourgeoisie, the Left,
rooted in 29 years of history, has survived one of
the most coherent, sustained and sanguinary
counterinsurgency campaigns ever unleashed in
Latin America. The most pressing goal of the
Rfos Montt coup was to win the war; without
this, the regime cannot begin to seriously address
its deep crisis of power.
What did Plan Victoria 82 accomplish? It mas-
sacred anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 unarmed
campesinos, and uprooted more than a million
from their homes. One hundred thousand more
languish in Mexican refuge, and all available tes-
timony shows they blame the Army for their
trauma. Large stretches of the highlands are
devastated; the local economy is in turmoil.
The Army could argue that it has begun to
control the population by creating civil defense
patrols designed to kill peasant morale and divide
the communities. It could also claim to have con-
fused segments of the Guatemalan middle class
and the international community. But these are
pyrrhic victories: the international situation will
deteriorate as it becomes clear the war is far from
Furthermore, they were made through a cam-
paign breathtaking in its savagery. In some com-
munities, the guerrilla infrastructure was inade-
quate to withstand the onslaught; in others, pol-
itical work had far outstripped military prepared-
ness. The Left now traces these weaknesses back
to the over-optimism which set in after the San-
dinista victory in Nicaragua-the same "trium-
phalism" which led El Salvador's FMLN to
over-estimate its strength in January 1981. The
Guatemalan conjuncture had seemed so
favorable: with Lucas in the saddle, victory
seemed only a matter of time. This triumphalism
was spurred by-and in turn fueled-massive
support from the mainly Indian peasantry. Some
parts of the country had come close to spontan-
eous insurrection, with peasants chafing to
besiege garrisons with their homemade weapons.
The net effect had been to spread the
movement's strength too thin-even enthusiastic
peasant supporters do not make a regular army
overnight. It had been a boon under Lucas to
disperse their resources, shredding Army
morale; under Rfos Montt, it became a liability,
as the Army concentrated its forces under new
political camouflage and directed them at
unarmed civilians the Left could not protect.
Yet the Rios Montt offensive failed to deal the
Left a strategic defeat-using the best-trained
counterinsurgency army in Central America
operating at full stretch. The brutality of Plan
Victoria 82 was explicitly aimed at breaking the
EGP, strongest of the four guerrilla groups, but
it has failed to do so. In the new year, aerial bom-
bing, village raids and kidnappings expanded to
San Marcos in the west, with ORPA the new
target.' In El Pet6n in the north, FAR areas too
have been hit by Army sweeps, though with less
The Left has devised new modes of operation,
revamped its logistics, rethought military tactics
and regrouped forces in its strongholds. After the
premature fervor of 1981, the movement has
returned soberly to its original strategy of pro-
longed war with its principal assets intact.
34Mar/Apr 1983
Popular support, too, briefly cowed, is being
reasserted. Since last September, there is again
sustained guerrilla activity in the heart of mili-
tary-occupied areas of the highlands-actions
which would be inconceivable without civilian
backing. 2 At the same time, the country
as a whole now, not just isolated areas, is in a
state of war. The Army offensive sucked into the
conflict entire regions which the Left had never
The young and fragile unity of the Left was
severely tested by the travails of 1982, but the ori-
ginal agreements are still in force and the unity
process has begun to move again after last year's
post-coup stagnation. Finally, international sym-
pathy for the Guatemalan people is simmering,
even though it has not yet been translated into
solid diplomatic terms. Rios Montt, though
undeniably boosted by Reagan's support, is
otherwise in little better shape than Lucas was
Where does the military regime turn next? It
has exhausted much of its margin for maneuver
in the search for a rapid victory. The crisis of
1982 forced the ruling sectors to destroy the last
ludicrous layer of legitimacy-elections. In do-
ing so, they exposed deep fissures within the
military itself, within the private sector and bet-
ween the two. The national economy has been
disrupted by the war effort, exacerbating the
economic crisis and causing further rifts within
the bourgeoisie. The country is militarized as
never before, with class conflict polarized beyond
repair. All these political and economic setbacks,
coupled with heavy Army casualties in combat,
made 1982 an arduous year for the regime,
despite its veneer of self-confidence.
For the Left, a new period of harassment of the
Army is underway, designed to wear down troop
morale. It will likely be followed by an escalation
of the military level of the war once the Left has
regrouped sufficiently. Columns may grow
larger, combat more fierce, with vital stocks of
weapons fed by successful encounters with
government forces. Such military escalation
could force the regime back to the defensive,
raise the profile of the Guatemalan war in the in-
ternational arena and restore the confidence of a
battered population in "its army." If the effort
works, it will probably be accompanied by in-
creasing rank-and-file pressure to press ahead
with the creation of a unified political front for
the mass movement. 3
On March 23, Rfos Montt will announce his
timetable for constituent assembly elections, the
vaunted "return to constitutionality." The law is
expected to demand the dissolution and re-
inscription of existing parties, forbidding them
to make electoral alliances. The Army will con-
tinue to run the country. If this is the case, a
private sector already seething at broader state
control over its arbitrary prerogatives, will be
further demoralized.
As things stand today, the Army is run ragged
trying to control the population, supervise the
untrustworthy civil defense patrols and guard the
strategic hamlets. Having exceeded all restraints
in even getting this far, where does it go from
here? Needing to swell its manpower and its
arsenal, it is more dependent on infusions of
U.S. aid than ever. But can it boost its strength
and win the war without the monstrous scale of
human rights violations which make Congress so
mulish and would again tie Reagan's hands?
The $50 million in U.S. military assistance for
FY 1984 is a token that the Administration is
prepared to stay the course. As the Left advances
in El Salvador, Reagan will likely want to plunge
even deeper into the Guatemalan mire.
But will Reagan dare to sell the "new" Gua-
temala as a democracy that must be defended?
We have been dragged up this road before in El
Salvador, only this time the options are even nar-
rower. As in El Salvador, the U.S. commitment
is to form rather than substance. International
consumption demands democracy; Guatemala's
internal logic suggests its -negation. The very
political party leaders who hailed Rfos Montt's
coup as an opening-men who might have prov-
ed Washington's most serviceable allies-now
head north to tell the State Department that there
will be no democracy under Rios Montt. 4 Speak-
ing before the General Assembly of the Organi-
zation of American States, Secretary of State
Schultz lauded the hemispheric trend toward
democracy. El Salvador, of course, was the star
turn. Even the dictatorships of Argentina and
Uruguay, Schultz enthused, were examples of
"democratic transformation' But Guatemala,
perforce, was not on his list.5
Ultimately, it is the unswerving commitment
to democracy, rooted in three decades of frus-
trated history, which is the strongest card of the
Guatemalan revolutionaries; it is the improba-
bility of Rios Montt's which is Reagan's greatest
1. Washington Office on Latin America, "Press
Release," January 1983.
2. Inforpress, January 27, 1983.
3. NACLA interviews with opposition leaders in Mexico
City, Fall 1982.
4. Washington Post, October 12, 1982.
5. George Schultz, "Reflections Among Neighbors,"
speech delivered to the General Assembly of the Organiza-
tion of American States, Washington, D.C., November 17,

Tags: Guatemala, Efrain Rios Montt, plan victoria, democracy

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