Guatemala: A New Movement Rises from the Ashes of Genocide

Against the Current No. 4-5, September-December 1986

Jane Slaughter

AS 32 YEARS OF almost unbroken military rule ended last January, Guatemalans wanted to believe that a civilian government could make a difference. Before Christian Democrat Vinicio Cerezo’s inauguration on January 14, the average person I talked to in Guatemala City would say, “Maybe things have a chance to get better now.”

Unionists were not so ambiguous. Subjected to some of the worst repression, including mass kidnappings and individual assassinations, during the years of General Romeo Lucas Garcia, General Efrain Rios Montt, and General Oscar Mejia Victores (1978-86), they were scornful both of Cerezo’s potential and of his intentions.

As we skirted the crowd which had come to cheer Cerezo’s inauguration in front of the National Palace, a young union leader from a U.S.-owned manufacturing plant told me:

“We’ve seen this cycle before. Mendez Montenegro [president 1966-1970] allowed the unions a few liberties and then Arana smashed them. Kjell allowed a few things and Lucas Garcia smashed them. Now Vinicio will allow a few things and ….They allow the leaders to stick their heads up so they’ll know whose to cut off when the time comes.”

Both those who had hopes and those who didn’t wasted no time in taking advantage of the “democratic opening.” In fact, some public protests engendered by the deteriorating economy began even under the military government. The most dramatic was a series of riots in the capital last September over a proposed bus fare hike–which succeeded in rolling back the increase.

But the generals’ retirement, even if in name only, clearly gave many people the go-ahead. The day of Cerezo’s inauguration, homeless people in Guatemala City occupied empty lots belonging to the state, demanding a place to live and counting on him to help.

Soon the square in front of the National Palace was hosting a different demonstration every day. Municipal workers protested the firings carried out by new Christian Democratic mayors around the country. Hospital workers demanded the firing or the retention of administrators.

Students in the second largest city, Quetzaltenango, occupied their school to insist that corrupt teachers be fired. Five thousand union members marched on May Day. University workers, banana workers, textile workers and municipal workers all struck and occupied their workplaces, demanding higher pay.

Demonstrations over the high cost of living were attempted in nine towns around the country, sometimes blocked by the National Police, sometimes turning into riots. And the Mutual Support Group (CAM), the organization of relatives of the disappeared, continued its vigils of several hundred people every single Fri­ day in front of the Palace.

Campesinos and Generals

Perhaps most impressive was the campesinos’ clamor for land. On May 2, Padre Andres Giron led 16,000 campesinos, mostly from the southern coast, in a march demanding land. His Campesino Movement Association already claims 55,000 members and appears to want to organize in the highlands as well.

A political supporter of Cerezo (signs at the demonstration read “God First, Vinicio Second”), Giron and his followers have grown impatient with the new government.

For in short order Cerezo proved himself either unable to respond to the demands or hostile to them. A Guatemalan exile publication out of Mexico City headlined its April issue simply, “Hopes Fade.” Cerezo soon began to complain that the people were taking too much advantage of their new freedom.

Cerezo was elected with 38.7% of the vote in the first round of voting in November 1985 and 68.7% in the runoff in December. Slightly under half the eligible electorate voted (and 12% of the ballots cast were blank, a protest tactic).

The figures were interpreted as a man&date for Cerezo and the Christian Democrats and a resounding defeat for the welter of right-wing parties. Aside from the small Social Democratic Party (PSD) whose leaders returned from exile to run, the Christian Democrats (CD) were the most left of a right-wing bunch. The generals who turned over formal power to Cerezo were not overly concerned about his liberal reputation, however. The Christian Democrats long ago adopted a policy of cooperation with the army as their only chance to gain a piece of power; their presidential candidates throughout the 1970’s were army officers.

The generals themselves began planning for elections and a return to civilian rule shortly after their 1982 coup. They, and the rest of the Guatemalan ruling class, saw a return to civilian rule as essential if they were to receive military aid from the U.S.

Besides, the generals had tried their hand at managing the economy, and failed miserably. Their attempt to impose tax reforms in April 1985 was violently opposed by CACIF, the businessmen’s and agroexporters’ organization, and almost led to a coup.

In fact the military were quite content to let the civilians take the blame for 45% unemployment, 38% inflation, and a growing debt and fiscal deficit. Meanwhile the generals continue with a free hand in what really matters to them: maintaining strict control over the rural population, waging war against the guerrillas of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), and continued license to grow rich from stolen land and mineral investments.

Cerezo has made one bold gesture. On February 5 he dissolved the National Police’s Department of Technical Investigations (DlT), widely believed to be responsible for the murder or disappearance of many political activists. In a dramatic move, Cerezo invited the 600 DlT agents to a meeting, and then had the building surrounded by other police.

One hundred DlT agents were fired. The rest, however, were permitted to keep their jobs in other departments. No one believes that a change of uniform will keep the police from going out on death squad work as the need arises. And the Army’s intelligence apparatus, its section G-2, continues unchecked.

Death Squads and “Development”

It is common to read in the newspapers of corpses appearing with their hands cut off-a death squad custom-or of anguished parents asking for their son’s or daughter’s return. These appeals usually include a statement like the following from the parents of Maria Elena Rodas, an engineering student at the University of San Carlos: “The disappeared girl has no political connections and was dedicated only to her studies.”

According to the Guatemala Human Rights Commission (in exile), disappearances and political murders have continued at essentially the same rate as before Cerezo took power. They cite 60 disappearances or extrajudicial executions in the month ending June ll. GAM documents 120 people who disappeared following political arrests between January and June.

Cerezo himself noted that 69 corpses appeared during his first three weeks in office. He went on to blame elements who wanted to destabilize his government.

Human rights activists, on the other hand, were alarmed by the sharp rise. The evidence suggested that paramilitary groups were choosing to empty out their clandestine jails, killing their prisoners rather than face the possibility of discovery. Dumping the corpses on the streets represented a warning of things to come.

On May 28 Cerezo’s Interior Minister declared that there were no paramilitary groups functioning in the country, only common criminals. Subsequently the New York Times picked up and ran such a story. Blaming the common criminal for what can only be the work of the para-military is surely one way to take the spotlight off the problem.

While the military leaves the day-to-day governing to the civilians, Cerezo, for his part, will not interfere in the army’s sphere.

The army is free to continue its counterinsurgency projects in the rural areas, both the armed struggle and the struggle for the hearts and minds of Guatemala’s Indian majority. Cerezo indicated his approval of the army’s plans by inaugurating a new “development pole” in February

The development poles are clusters of “model villages” which the army constructed after scorching the earth of the Indian highlands in 1982-83.

The army admits to destroying 440 villages. Its philosophy is summarized in the slogan painted on its barracks in Sacapulas, in the western highlands of the department of El Quiche: “Only he who struggles has the right to win; only he who wins has the right to live.”

The army considered the massacres necessary because by the early 1980’s whole villages had gone over to the guerrillas. The new consolidated villages are well guarded both by military encampments and by the Civil Patrols, another army-created institution.

Every adult man in the affected areas must “volunteer” for patrol duty, usually 24 hours once a month, on pain of being considered sympathetic to the guerrillas. The army uses them as a buffer against the guerrillas and, more importantly, to keep tabs on the villagers’ movements.

When the idea of abolishing the Civil Patrols was bruited, president of the Congress and secretary general of the Chris&tian Democratic Party Alfonso Cabrera explained that the president did not have the power to prevent citizens from joining the patrols “of their own free will.”

While Cabrera was attempting to argue that the Civil Patrols were a purely “voluntary” body, the reality is that they receive their rifles and bullets from the army, and must tum in the weapons and account for the bullets at the end of their shift. In fact, under the new constitution, these patrols have been institutionalized. In El Quiche, the patrols are everywhere, checking identification at the entrance to villages, marching off in search of the thousands of Indians who are still hiding in the mountains, afraid to tum themselves in to the army.

A storekeeper in Cotzal, formerly a stronghold of the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP), told me, “Half the people here are for the patrols and half are against them. The ones who are for them tell the other ones what to do.”

The Security State

The model villages are ugly. In the old villages, people had room for their pigs and chickens, a little privacy. The houses were adobe with tile roofs to keep out the heat.

In the new villages the houses are of wooden planks, with corrugated zinc roofs. They are set close together on a grid pattern of streets with names like “Avenue of the Army” and “Avenue of Liberty.”

In one of the newer villages, San Felipe in the Ixil Triangle, the streets have people’s names. Trying to find out who they were from the villagers, I got blank stares. Finally one man said, “They’re not from around here. The soldiers gave them those names.”

The model villages have running water at taps on the street corners and electricity in every home. They also have huge streetlights. “Security” is the number one priority.

A key part of the army’s counterinsurgency plan is to convince the Indians that it is the guerrillas’ fault they’ve been moved off their land and that their relatives were massacred. It seems unlikely that a Big Lie of this proportion can succeed, although the army has at least done a good job of convincing the people of what it’s safe to say and think.

Men in San Felipe told me that they used to live further apart, but they had had to move close together because of the guerrillas. Some people had moved into the model village, they said matter-of-factly, and others further up into the mountains.

“Why don’t they come into the villages?” I asked.

“Because the guerrillas threaten them.” “Are they afraid of the soldiers too?” “Yes, but the soldiers don’kill anybody.”

“But they did before, didn’t they?”

“Well, yes. But they had to because the people involved themselves with the guerrillas.”

Perhaps I could have prodded the man to remember why the people had gotten involved with the guerrillas in the first place. But he looked quite uncomfortable even admitting that the soldiers had killed people.

A young civil patroller from Acul, the oldest model village, had a hard time bringing himself to say that zinc roofs were inferior to tile. A man from Nebaj cheerfully explained, “Five years ago everyone in Nebaj was supporting the subversives. But then we saw that the ideas didn’t work, and now we’re all united with the army in fighting the subversion.”

Another key part of the army’s plan is to force the Indians away from their traditional culture, which is based on the cultivation of com, and their ide1tification with their particular village.

People from different areas are mixed in the new model villages, and the army encourages the planting of vegetables for export, providing com in exchange for work on such projects as road-building. The Guatemalan fatherland is to be the new loyalty.

I wondered how far the project of Guatemalanizing the Indian population had progressed when I saw a ceremony to welcome the governor of the department of El Quiche in the town square at Nebaj. A tape of the national anthem was played; some people knew the words and some didn’t. The local people greeted the scene with their characteristic stolidity.

That night, I was accompanying an Ixil woman to her house along a pitch-dark road. When we passed a house with lights, I remarked that those people seemed to have electricity. “Oh, they’re Guatemalans,” she said dismissively.

The army is trying to rewrite recent history. The Indians’ outward compliance is not necessarily an indication of success. What analysis lies behind the words, “We saw that the ideas didn’t work”? Does the man believe the guerrillas’ Marxism has been refuted, or, more likely, that “you can’t fight city hall,” when city hall is the Guatemalan army?

And with 500 years of repression behind them, how many of the Indians see their latest defeat as only one more in a series which they have always resisted and will continue to resist in whatever ways seem possible at the moment?

The army knows it has not won the final victory in the highlands. The three political-military organizations in the URNG coalition continue to engage the army in frequent battles. Incidents have increased since 1984, after dropping off for a while.

But the military has for the time being succeeded in dismantling the former integral connection between the guerrillas and their base in the highlands. In the face of the army’s willingness to wipe out those entire villages, the guerrillas could not protect their sympathizers. It was a textbook case of drying up the sea to get rid of the fish.

A 30% Democracy

Cerezo told reporters last year that the best he could hope for in his five-year term would be to consolidate political democracy, without attacking Guatemala’s underlying problems. He estimated that he would enter office with no more than 30% of the power and would leave with no more than 70%.

Just to make sure, the generals took out an insurance policy the day before leaving office: Chief of State Mejia Victores passed a decree granting amnesty to all members of the military for either ordinary or political crimes committed under his and the previous unelected government.

Cerezo hemmed and hawed for a while about GAM’s demand to rescind this law, but he has made it plain that he won’t touch it. None of the 51 Christian Democrats in the 100-member Congress will champion repeal.

This stance has angered GAM, which demands justice for the murderers of their family members. In an emotional meeting between 300 GAM members and Cerezo in the Palace March 7, GAM President Nineth de Garcia told Cerezo, “As the president you are responsible for seeing that justice is done. If you want to achieve democracy you can’t forget the past.

There are thousands of people who’ve participated in these kidnappings. They’re still walking around and we’re here with our just and profound pain.”

Cerezo seemed more concerned with being liked than with what GAM was demanding. “I wasn’t responsible for what happened to your loved ones,” he whined. “My responsibility is in the future, what will happen, not what’s happened in the past ….There’s no real necessity for you to be here. You have the right, but I’m working on this problem anyway myself. However, we do have a democracy and you have the right to insult me.”

As many of the GAM members, most of whom are Indian women, wept, Cerezo scolded, “There’s no reason to be masochistic nor sadistic. You shouldn’t poke around in the past and stir up pain.” In April 1985 two GAM leaders were murdered. The army maintains that one of the incidents was a traffic accident, although one of the victims of that accident, a two-year-old boy, had had his fingernails torn out.

The intimidation continues. Nineth de Garcia has been followed by a Jeep full of armed men. In May members of the Guardia de Hacienda came to the house of a GAM leader’s family in a rural department. They tied up her brother and wanted to know where GAM was keeping its guns.

Both the army–in newspaper advertisements–and Cerezo have insinuated that GAM is connected with the guerrillas. Cerezo says that GAM has gone beyond its purpose of looking for family members and become a political organization. And, in Guatemala, to be “political” is to be in danger.

In May Cerezo acceded to GAM’s demands for a commission to investigate the fate of the disappeared. He quickly changed his mind, however, and as of now there is no plan to inquire into GAM’s 850 documented cases nor the thousands of others. “Don’t even mention Argentina around here,” one Christian Democratic official told journalist Paul Goepfert. ‘This is not a defeated army like Argentina’s. This is a victorious army, and you don’t dare talk of bringing a victorious army to trial.”

Don’t Touch the Wealthy

The Christian Democrats are equally firm in their resistance to other measures that might confront the established order. While four percent of the agricultural landowners own 70% of the arable land, Christian Democratic leader Cabrera opposes any talk of land reform.

At a forum sponsored by the Business Council I attended last March, he stated:

“We’re trying to construct a democratic system. We don’t want measures that con­ front the population. We don’t contemplate either in the short, nor in the medium, nor in the long term any agrari­an reform.”

Although the new government has quite a list of things it won’t do, it has been busy. After a much discussed process of “concertacion”· [consultation, harmonization] with the people, it enacted a package of International Monetary Fund-inspired economic “reforms” which will essentially shift income away from poor Guatemalans toward the agroexporters.

La Hora, Guatemala’s most liberal newspaper, wrote in May, “Cerezo’s government has decided to bet everything in favor of a program based on the hypothesis that by benefiting business and the state it will be possible to… better the living standards of the popular sectors ….The government adopted the businessman’s analysis according to which Guatemala’s principal economic problem is not the distribution of wealth but insufficient production…. The economic package is designed to create investment opportunities, guarantees of increasing the productive forces, and the confidence to save and maintain capital in the country….”

The principal aspect of the plan is a devaluation of the quetzal, which will worsen inflation but create windfall profits for the agroexporters.

One estimate indicates plantation owners will rake in an additional $65 million from the measure this year. Cerezo will tax these profits–a rare move in Guatemala, which has one of the lowest income taxes in the world–but the coffee, cotton, and sugar growers will still come out way ahead.

With the additional income to the treasury Cerezo says he will create 40,000 temporary public works jobs, but the unions see them as political patronage rather than as help to the unemployed.

Cerezo made much of consulting both with the labor movement- that is, with CUSG, the union federation funded by the AFL-CIO-and with business, represented by CACIF. The workings of “concertacion” can be illustrated by the fate of the Q50 per month wage increase for private sector workers which was originally part of the proposed economic package (the quetzal is worth about 35 cents).

Cerezo sent his ministers to a CUSG assembly to explain the package, where they were roundly denounced. There was nothing in it that the workers liked except the wage increase, and they wanted that to be implemented through collective bargaining. CACIF too had something to say about the wage increase–they couldn’t afford it, it would cause bankruptcies and thus more unemployment.

By the time concertacion was through, all that was left of the Q50 was Cerezo’s request that businesses which could afford a raise give what they could.

No matter what else Cerezo has done, his inability to deal with inflation has lost him all chance of keeping the people’s faith. It is, after all, the one thing which affects everyone.

Very soon after taking office Cerezo removed price controls from 300 products. In April Guatemala City municipal workers occupied the municipal building to press their demands for a promised Q50 per month wage increase, later granted.

Some women office workers there gave me the following figures for the basic foods that Guatemalans eat: beans had increased from 40 centavos to 65 in two months, corn from 10 to 25 or 30, rice from 25 to 60. The average city office worker made Q200 a month, they said. Laborers made Q5 a day.

The municipal workers union are among the disenchanted. At a rally at the Palace the night before the building takeover, they called on “companero Vinicio” to come out to hear their complaints. One banner read, “Mr. President, you were elected by the people and we are the people.” Many were singing a different tune the next night, when Cerezo authorized a SWAT team to clear the building.

The eviction took place without violence but the workers were bitter. “This is the kind of democracy we have in Guatemala,” they said. “Let them take us out, but let the press show that we were forced to leave,” said the strike leader. “Let the people see what their leaders are like.”

I asked Labor Minister Catalina Soberanis what she thought of the unions’ criticisms of Cerezo’s economic package. “It’s only a short term package,” she said. “We’re trying to slow down the crisis this year, but we’re not attempting any structural changes. We didn’t offer that type of change. If the majority had wanted that they could have voted for someone else, like the Social Democratic Party.”

La Hora noted, “Far from being imposed by the government, the economic package is nothing more than a faithful reflection of the current social and political structure of Guatemala. All social sectors were called upon by the President to participate in the process of consultation which, in the abstract, appears pluralistic, fair, and democratic.

“However, in reality, those who participated were government functionaries who are totally compromised with the positions of the business sector (the ministers of economy and finance and the president of the Bank of Guatemala), the powerful CACIF-the business high command, and representatives of a weak, fragmented and leaderless labor movement.

“The result, then, could not have been otherwise.”

Precarious Neutrality

Jimmy Carter cut off military aid to Guatemala in 1977 because of its human rights record (although, according to research by Allan Nairn, weapons continued to flow through the back door and through Israel). The Guatemalan army is patriotically proud of doing its job on its own, and has refused to be drawn into the U.S.-backed wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Cerezo has continued this course, calling his policy in the region “active neutrality.” Ricardo Wilson-Grau, publisher of Inforpress newsletter in Guatemala City, explains: “The industrial and mercantile sector, which have a deal of weight in the Christian Democratic Party, are concerned with reviving the Central American Common Market, which won’t work without all five countries. In addition, the URNG is picking up its activity, and they are well occupied here.

“Of course, there’s also the cynical explanation for neutrality on Nicaragua: that Cerezo is trying to build a hand to play poker with Ronald Reagan-U.S. aid in exchange for diplomatic support for an anti-Sandinista position.”

Cerezo continues to support the Contadora process and oppose U.S. intervention in Nicaragua, but he has become more prone to anti-Sandinista rhetoric. His principal diplomatic initiative has been a summit meeting of the five Central American presidents, held in Guatemala, which set in motion plans for a Central American Parliament. He is attempting to walk a fine line between his need for U.S. economic aid and his desire to be seen as a credible Central American leader.

Support in the country for an independent position is still strong. When Cerezo paid a visit to a U.S. aircraft carrier, he was criticized in the press for acting out “every schoolboy’s dream.”

The Reagan Administration is eager to give money to Guatemala. (Reagan believed that born-again Christian Rios Montt had gotten a “bum rap.”) In 1985 Congress conditionally approved $10 million worth of military aid-before the Guatemalan government even requested it. This May, Cerezo put through a request for slightly less than a million dollars’ worth of “humanitarian” military aid, such as helicopter parts.

The New Labor Movement

Among the urban sectors the most hopeful signs of a renewed resistance are in the labor movement. The unions were virtually decapitated in 1980 and 1981. In the summer of 1980 two leadership meetings were raided and 44 leaders disappeared in mass kidnappings. The militant federations which had led strikes in the late 1970’s ceased to exist.

I talked to one ex-union leader who was forced to leave his job in 1983 for fear of his life. He and fellow unionists in his town had made an analysis of where the death squads would most likely strike next and decided it would be him. He thought it was ironic: “I survived Lucas and I survived Rios Montt, and finally I had to leave under Mejia.”

He had seen the tortured body of a fellow unionist: “It was worse than I had imagined.” Today he is studying for a law degree (if there is a single job category which is less healthy in Guatemala than union officer, it is labor lawyer) and acting as advisor to a number of new unions. He and a group of leaders with more guts than experience are devoting every waking hour to building a new federation, called United Unions of Guatemalan Workers (UNSITRAGUA).

Their goal is clear: “We know that leaders will be killed again. We need to create more leaders so that the movement can survive no matter what.”

UNSITRAGUA was founded in February 1985 by representatives of 14 unions. Its first public appearance came during September of that year, when Guatemala City was rocked by riots and bus burnings over a hike in the transit fare. UNSITRAGUA put out flyers and tried to unite workers, students and “marginal people” for a demonstration.

UNSITRAGUA has a small office with a telephone and a manual typewriter, but no fulltime staff. It is holding classes on political economy and the role of unions for its industrial members, and will move on to the white-collar unions next. It has put out one issue of a newspaper, and is moving toward legal recognition as a union central.

It was the main force behind the May Day march in Guatemala City, the first since 1980. Although organizers were somewhat disappointed with the tum­ out–no more than 5,000-they viewed the fact that it took place at all as a victory.

“Our goal was to reclaim the labor movement’s right to demonstrate publicly,” explained a textile worker.
The May Day march was marred by circumstances beyond UNSITRAGUA’s control. One was the AFL-CIO-backed CUSG’s refusal to participate. After initially announcing that his members would march, CUSG’s secretary general, Juan Alfaro, backed out, citing telephon­ ed death threats. “Of course there are other organizations that aren’t as important as CUSG,” he said. “Perhaps they could demonstrate without problems.”

The other was the government’s clumsy attempt to “officialize” the demonstration. Middle class women from the First Lady’s “House of the People” marched with banners in the Christian Democrats’ green and white, and the government set up a speakers’ platform in front of the Palace.

UNSITRAGUA refused to use it, however, and by the time Cerezo appeared (in shirtsleeves) to address the demonstrators they had gone home.

When he was jeered by the few stragglers remaining, the president admonished, “A person who asks for things the government can’t do is just provoking.” Only leaders of CUSG and of the small Christian Democratic federation attended Cerezo’s luncheon.

In May UNSITRAGUA took corn, beans and other material aid to a strike of textile workers in Chimaltenango, west of the capital. The workers were occupying their factory, which seems to be the custom for strikers in Guatemala.

Besides the Guatemala City municipal workers, banana workers in lzabal and university workers in the capital have also struck for higher pay.

City workers in the southern coastal town of Retalhuleu mounted a 185-kilometer march to the capital to protest the layoff of two of their members by the new DC mayor. Cerezo intervened to keep the march from reaching the capital, and the workers were reinstated.

Although violence against unionists is down, it is not over. Jose Mercedes Sotz, a member of a militant slate in the Guatemala City municipal workers union, was kidnapped during a union election campaign in February. He was beaten and released several hours later. The union blamed the mayor and his Israeli advisors. On May 31 Sotz was shot at in the street and his three-year-old son was wounded in the back.

In June the secretary general of a brand new union UNSITRAGUA had helped to organize on a banana plantation was disappeared. In July another municipal worker activist was stabbed to death in a Guatemala City market.

To a foreign observer, the willingness of Guatemalan unionists to keep going is astounding. Many times I asked what made them do it; over and over they made their heroism sound ordinary, as if they had no choice.

One of the fired Retalhuleu workers told me, “I asked them not to put on a march just for me. They said, ‘We have to put the mayor in his place or there’ll be more firings.'”

Guatemalan unionists are not, in general, in any shape to put anyone in his place. But then neither is Cerezo. He has too little authority to end the repression and disappearances, too little power to broach even a beginning land reform. His election has, however, provided enough of an illusion of breathing space that, spurred by the foundering economy; both workers and campesinos are beginning to reorganize.

Catarino Palacios is financial secretary of the glass workers union, which more than any other has been connected with CAM. He explains, “There’s a great difference between North American people and Central American people. If your stomach is full, why protest? Here what we make doesn’t reach to feed our families. We have to protest to survive. Necessity creates the spirit of struggle.”

September-December 1986, ATC 4-5

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