Guatemala in Midpassage

Against the Current No. 17, November/December 1988

Jane Slaughter

Refugees of a Hidden War:
the Aftermath of Counterinsurgency in Guatemala
By Beatriz Manz
Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1987. $46.50 hardback, $16.95 paperback

False Hope, False Freedom
By James Painter
London: Catholic Institute for International Relations and Latin America Bureau, 1987.
Distributed by Monthly Review Press, $7.95 paperback

Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny
By Jean-Marie Simon
W.W. Norton and Co., 1988. $19.95 paperback Order from Americas Watch, 36 W. 44th St, New York, NY 10036.

THOSE WHO WORK in solidarity with Guatemala are used to Guatemala’s taking third place, behind Nicaragua and El Salvador. Many Central America activists in the United States have a general notion of the violence Guatemala has suffered; they are aware of the country’s Indian majority from the stunning textiles displayed at literature tables. But because Guatemala has had neither a victorious revolution nor an insurgency within hailing distance of victory, it suffers from lack of North American activists’ attention

Given the urgency of conditions in El Salvador and Nicaragua, the situation is likely to remain thus. If activists want to at least acquaint themselves with Guatemala, however, three books published recently combine to paint a striking picture of Guatemala and why it is the way it is.

Beatriz Manz’s Refugees of a Hidden War draws on fourteen “person/months” of field work in Guatemala and in refugee camps in Mexico, conducted by a team of five women including anthropologist Manz.

The book’s preface begins as if it were going to be a dry piece of academic writing; hence such masterpieces of understatement as “safety [was not) assured either for the researchers or the informants.” The reader can only guess what adventures and near calamities lie behind the laconic, ”Because the research team had no guidelines as to what could or could not be done, different methods were tried.”

As it was, Manz was once detained by security forces in the countryside. The men who held her were so exactly on target with her notion of death-squad members, Manz has told me, that she actually felt relief when a uniformed officer arrived on the scene.

A Million Displaced

Manz’s first chapter provides the background for the army violence of the early 1980s that displaced one million people, largely Indians, including 200,000 who fled the country.(1) Both popular organizations such as the Committee for Peasant Unity (CUC) and the armed opposition, which later became the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), arose in response to crushing poverty, inequality and military corruption in ruling the country.

To defeat this opposition the army resorted first to what Amnesty International called a “government policy of political murder” and then to a strategy of mass terror in which entire villages were wiped out. Civilians were specifically targeted: they provided the armed organizations’ mass base, and they were easier to find than the elusive guerrilla units. When one village was burned, the entire population of the next would flee. There were no prisoners of war.

Upon the election in late 1985 of Vinicio Cerezo, Guatemala’s first civilian president since 1970, there was much talk of repatriation of the refugees who had made it to Mexico. Only a few have trickled back Manz examines their situation and, necessarily, that of the rural Indians who remained in Guatemala as well. She gives us a detailed and vivid picture of what it means to give yourself up to a resettlement center, to live in a “model village,” to belong to the “civil patrols.”

Refugees is thorough and rich in detail. Manz assesses the violations of human rights, for example, from the right not to be killed to the right to travel with or without an army pass. She describes the unavailability of land, the unrestricted power of local commanders (including the ordering of forced labor), and the situation of war orphans. She tells how the army forced local people in the Ixil triangle to bum the trees along the roadsides to impede guerrilla ambushes. Now they must walk several kilometers a day to gather firewood.

The army is by far the dominant institution in the rural areas. All men between 18 and 55 must join the civil patrols, supposedly to help the army protect their communities from “the subversives.” Although the patrols have little value against the guerrillas militarily, they are an excellent means of population control. When patrol duty falls every five days, as it does in some villages in Huehuetenango, the army can know where everyone is.

One of the uglier aftermaths of the mass terror is the fragmenting of communities and the universal suspicion. Villagers say that orejas (literally, “ears”- informers) are omnipresent And the army’s readiness to kill or “disappear” Indians makes it all too easy for one villager to settle a private vendetta or to get control of another’s land by denouncing him as a subversive.

When the refugees fled, their land was often taken over by others, sometimes with the aid of the army. Manz writes:

“Such activities help improve the army’s relationship with those who benefit and discourage the former owners from returning. It is a highly divisive mechanism, encouraging poor peasants to identify their own interests with those of the army, instead of with those who have fled … A civil patrol commander said: ‘When the old owners return they are going to want their land back, and of course people will fight for their land. But, after being there for four years, the new people have usufruct. It is a big problem now that people are armed (through the civil patrol).”

Refugees must also confront the fact that the army still views them as subversives, at the same time that it encourages them to return Fellow villagers are often afraid to have refugees in their communities, fearing a return of the violence. The civil patrol commander in one town said of three returned refugees, “They are always watched and carefully controlled. We let them patrol with everyone else but they are carefully controlled.”

The situation of the refugees can be read as the situation of all Guatemalans, writ only slightly larger. Manz’s description of “model villages” makes frighteningly tangible those living conditions which for many readers were merely an abstraction left over from Vietnam.

False Hopes

Guatemala: False Hope, False Freedom, published by the Catholic Institute for International Relations, describes Guatemala’s wretched poverty in detail. More interesting, it assigns the responsibility for that poverty to the ruling class and to the Christian Democratic Party, which has assigned itself the role of maintaining the status quo.

Author James Painter uses the satellite dishes found on the lawns in Guatemala City’s Zone 14 as the symbol of the separate world of the wealthy. Such a dish, he says, costs the equivalent of the income of fifteen families in the neighboring shantytown, conveniently shielded from view by a twenty-foot wall.

He describes three elements of the wealthy elite: Guatemalans become rich from agro-exports (coffee, cotton, sugar, and cattle); the army, which, not content with simply serving the oligarchy, has gone into business for itself in a big way; and U.S. transnationals and banks.

Traditionally, members of the oligarchy have not held public office, although they have been active in political parties such as the National Liberation Movement (self-described as “the party of organized violence”). Painter characterizes such families and explains how they got so rich: in cotton, for example, wages represented only 10.3% of costs in 1979-80, compared to one-third in Mexico and El Salvador. He describes their interlocking holdings and their fierce right-wing ideology.

One sugar baron, Roberto Alejos, for example, who in the 1960s provided the CIA with a plantation as a training site for the Bay of Pigs invasion,(2) succeeded in having the last union at his sugar mill disbanded after the death of twelve of its leaders in 1980. The employer of 5,000 temporary workers at harvest time, Alejos told a reporter, “I don’t think there’s a freer element in Guatemalan society than the Indians. They come down to the coast for a time, to make some extra wages, then they go back to their own land where they have their own rights and their own freedoms.”

Painter documents elsewhere that many of these “free” Indians “are not going to earn enough to pay off the contratista [labor contractor] … so they are still going to end up in debt.”

Painter details the Guatemalan officer class’s “entrepreneurial zeal. Most senior officers have an extensive stake in the country’s economy and some argue that they are fighting to defend their own privileges as well as those of the ladino elite.”

In 1985, according to Painter, the military had effective economic and managerial control over the national airline, the telephone company, the electric company, a television station, two factories manufacturing rifles and armored vehicles, the ports, the Bank of the Army, and various parastatal agencies such as the disaster relief organization, the National Housing Bank, and the development agency for the vast jungles of the Peten department. This was in addition to the holdings of individual generals. An AID-financed study claimed that 60% of the highland department of Alta Verapaz was owned by the army.

Painter conveys a more graphic portrait of the Guatemalan ruling class than I have read elsewhere; for that alone his short book is worth reading. It is exceptionally valuable, however, for its description of the Christian Democrats and their deal with the military. It will shatter any faint hopes that Guatemala is one former dictatorship where democracy is on the way. Making an analogy with the better known party of Napoleon Duarte in El Salvador, Painter writes:

“Like the Salvadoran Christian Democrat Party, whose electoral victory … had been blocked by the army in 1972, the DCG had been vetoed by the Guatemalan military in 1974 [despite winning the popular vote]. Both parties had suffered internal splits, losing some of their base to the left, while their leadership had dung to electoral legality and moved to the right. Both were accepted by their respective armies as possible partners in a counter-insurgency strategy for the 1980s.”

“For convenience sake a civilian government is preferable, such as the one we have now; if anything goes wrong, only the Christian Democrats will get the blame. It’s better to remain outside: the real power will not be lost.”

In 1977 the Secretary General of the DCG wrote a pamphlet called The Army: An Alternative. In it he argued that the Christian Democrats should ally with the army, rather than viewing it as anti-democratic. Only the DCG and the army united could develop the country.

The plea fell on deaf ears at the time, but eight years later the pamphlet’s author, Vinicio Cerezo, was elected president of the republic with the army’s tacit support. Cerezo had realized early on that the only way for the Christian Democrats to achieve even formal power was to assure the army — and the oligarchy — that they were not a threat. The DCG promised the oligarchy publicly that the Christian Democrats in power “would not embark on banking or agrarian reforms, nor the nationalization of companies or properties of the private sector.”

It is relatively easy for the Central America activist to find information about the continuing “disappearances” and other state violence in Guatemala under Cerezo (though not in the mainstream press). Painter explains why the Christian Democrats are structurally and politically incapable of stopping the violence, reining in the army or introducing reforms.

At first glance, Jean-Marie Simon’s Guatemala: Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny is a coffee table book. It’s big and glossy and you can buy it at Waldenbooks. It contains 130 color photographs by the author, many of them stunning in their beauty, some of them stunning in their gruesomeness.

Sirnon spent half of her time between 1981 and 1987 in Guatemala. Her book covers the bloodletting of that period, arranged chronologically, with the chapters named after the appropriate heads of state.

The book adds greatly to Painter’s and Manz’s accounts, both through the brilliant pictures and through the many small stories which put the meat on the bones. These incidents — a discussion with an army commander, a politician jogging with his bodyguard a few paces behind, a fireman describing the retrieval of dumped and tortured bodies as part of his job — were clearly witnessed by Simon herself, although told in such a way that the author does not intrude. This, for example, is an excerpt from an interview with Cerezo:

“Q. If the army had to choose between eliminating guerrillas or continuing the civil patrol system, which would they opt for?

“A. I think that the civil patrol is more important to them every time the guerillas carry out some small act of sabotage or something, it just reinforces the theory for the need for civil patrols and the Inter-Institutional Coordinators. The way I see it, at this point the guerillas are a thorn in the army’s side, but not the biggest thorn. Instead, they provide the justification for the control the army exercises over the civilian population. The guerillas are like a vaccine: they provoke a reaction that strengthens the body instead of weakening it.

“Q. What do you think of President Reagan’s human rights policy in Guatemala?

“A. Does President Reagan have any policy on human rights in Guatemala?”

Simon includes the daily schedule at the Tzacol refugee camp:

“Wake-up at 5.a.m.–civic talk–continuation of talk–breakfast–ideological talk-civil defense- recreation- health lecture—prepare food–ideological talk–lunch–ideological talk—agriculture—recreation–group dynamics–recreation–patriotic symbols lecture–flag lowering–dinner—film”

Sergeant Julio Corsantes, the camp director of re-education, explains:

“These are people who have been so brainwashed in the mountains ….We teach them through movies — how people work in the U.S., with freedom, without pressure, and then a movie from Russia, where you see soldiers…. ‘Look at the difference,’ I say to them. It’s like rewinding a cassette, because this is a tape recording and you have to keep taping it over and over again.”

My favorite quote is from Major Roberto Letona, who spoke in 1983 to the chairman of Americas Watch, for which Simon works: “We [the army] are going to survive only if the people are with us. We have to win — I don’t want to end up in Miami washing dishes.”

The photographs in the book begin conventionally enough. The first few show Indians in traditional garb, landscapes, a rural church. There follow pictures of Indians picking coffee, street scenes, an urban slum topped with a Wranglers billboard — nothing that would be out of place in National Geographic.

And then on page 63, a nine-month old boy on a scale; his thighs are no more than two inches around. On page 65, the Guatemala City garbage dump, with its human pickers and its vultures. On page 66, a cattle breeder’s mansion. On page 67, a Guatemala City debutante with her father, tuxedoed. On page 70, the army occupation of a plantation. Even without the captions, the point begins to be made. Some of the more remarkable pictures include: members of the Guerrilla Army of the Poor in maneuvers with sticks — there are not, apparently, enough rifles to go around; a religious statue on the church altar in the town of Chajtil, Quiche, dressed in camouflage; long lines of civil patrollers marching to an obligatory rally in the highlands (taken by Simon from an army helicopter); the army occupation of downtown Guatemala City during the September 1985 riots over a bus-fare increase; the handless corpse of Eugenia Beatriz Barrios Marroquin, a schoolteacher abducted and hacked to death two days after Cerezo’s election

One of the political points that Simon documents carefully is the U.S. State Department’s history of lies about the violence in Guatemala. The pattern has been to claim that all is well — or at least improving — until the next coup, when it is belatedly admitted that there were in fact abuses under former regimes.

In July 1982, Simon writes, four months after General Efrain Rios Montt had taken power from General Romero Lucas Garcia in a coup, a State Department official told Congress:

“… he could not ‘emphasize strongly enough the favorable contrast between the current human rights situation in Guatemala and the situation last December’ (when security forces were ‘making significant progress” in human rights), adding that ‘National Police are now ordered to show badges and give names and numbers when stopping citizens for questioning.”

In February 1984, after Rios Montt had been ousted by General Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores, the official Department report on human rights stated:

“There was a dramatic decline in reports of violence and political deaths in the countryside, in sharp contrast to 1982….’ (One year before, killings had been ‘really down,’ according to State Department officer Dale Shaffer.)”

By most accounts political killings in Guatemala are occurring at a greater rate now than in 1985. But according to the State Department, the important fact is “that Guatemala is a democracy, now that it has a civilian administration. In its Country Report on human rights for 1986 — that is, for Cerezo’s first year in office:

“The State Department acknowledged only 131 killings with possible po1itical implications,’ attributing 72 to…the guerillas’,’ 3 to ‘right-wing groups,’ and 56 to ‘unknown assailants’ — in short, not a single killing attributed to security forces …”

If the busy but conscience-stricken Central America activist has time to read only one book on Guatemala, Simon’s is the best choice because, unlike Refugees, it covers both the urban and the rural scenes and because, even in analyzing the ideology of the Christian Democrats, a picture is worth a thousand words.

All three books give the reader a much more vivid picture of oppression and repression than of the movements of resistance they inspire. Simon finds it “not surprising that there have been few efforts at organizing on a popular level,” since Cerezo took office, as potential organizers doubt the longevity of the current “democratic opening.”

In fact, however, there is now a surprising amount of activity, by unions, by peasants demanding land, by students. The Labor and Popular Unity coalition (UASP) has held demonstrations of up to 50,000 against government policies and called a general strike in August 1988. It was perhaps not obvious, when Simon was writing in 1986 and 1987, that those who have suffered such savage repression would rebound so quickly. But the “eternal tyranny” in her title should not be read as a prediction of Guatemala’s eternal fate.


  1. Manz notes in an appendix that the United States has denied refugee status to the vast majority of Central American applicants. In 1983, 1.5% of the Guatemalans who applied were allowed in; in 1984, .4%, and in 1985, 1.2%.
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  2. History was repeated in the 1980s when Guatemala was used as a contra training site.
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November-December 1988, ATC 17

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