Guatemala at the Crossroads?

Against the Current, No. 32, May/June 1991

Deborah J. Yashar

RECENT ELECTIONS HAVE ushered in a new civilian government headed by Jorge Serrano Elias of the MAS (Movement for Solidarity Action). The presidential elections that took place in two rounds (November 1990 and January 1991), were historically significant they marked the first time in Guatemala’s history that a civilian president, Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo, handed over the executive position to another civilian candidate, Jorge Serrano Elias. It is also only the third time in Guatemala’s history that a civilian president has been elected and allowed to take office. The elections, however, have only served to provide a civilian veneer to a counterinsurgency state.

Serrano assumed office in January 1991, having won 68.08% of the vote against Jorge Carpio Nicolle (UCN-Union of the National Center) according to the Supreme National Tribunal. Although Serrano clearly won the overwhelming majority of the votes cast, 54.78% of the registered voters stayed at home on election day. (Out of a total population of ten million, only 3.2 million are registered voters.) Abstention was so prevalent that out of fifteen polling places in Uspantán, Quiche, not one person cast a ballot.

Serrano’s victory came as a surprise. In the months prior to the first round of the elections, he consistently placed fifth in the polls. But in the first round of elections in November 1990, Serrano came in second. His subsequent victory is widely assumed to be the result of last-minute coalition building with other political parties and with business and financial elites. Moreover, his role in organizing and participating in the dialogue with the armed insurgency led many to hope that he would push the dialogue forward, bringing the country closer to a resolution of the thirty-year-old civil war.

Serrano is a neo-liberal businessman and conservative politician. In his youth he belonged to a Social Christian youth group after which he joined the extreme right-wing MIN (Movement for National Liberation), commonly referred to by its own members as the party of organized violence. He received degrees in civil engineering (B.A. the University of San Carlos in Guatemala) and education (MA. Stanford). He was forced into exile after his presentation on Guatemala’s social problems at the Center for Military Studies angered the military government of Lucas Garcia.

Serrano returned from exile in 1982 to serve as a member of the Council of State under General Rios Montt’s de facto government, one of the most repressive in Guatemala’s history. Serrano is also an evangelical protestant of the fundamentalist sect, Elim. His affiliation with the Rios Montt government has led many in the popular movement to question seriously the methods and motivations of his government.

Serrano’s cabinet reflects the coalition promises made during the campaign. It is composed of industrial businessmen, bankers, landowners, members from three political parties, and two researchers associated with ASIES, a think tank This is the first time that the ruling class has so clearly assumed direct control over state functions, especially in economic areas. However, the Social Democratic Party (PSD) secured the Labor Ministry. Many argue that the PSD, which is a left of center party, is charged with convincing labor of the need to adopt free-market austerity measures.

But Serrano’s victory did not translate into one for his party, which remains feeble. Out of 116 legislative seats, MAS obtained only eighteen. Therefore Serrano will be compelled to engage in alliances with other parties in order to pass legislation. However, the real power of the legislature is defined by the military.

Serrano’s new ministers of Defense and Interior both have past connections with the G-2, Guatemala’s intelligence forces responsible for brutal and widespread human rights abuses. Defense Minister General Luis Enrique Mendoza Garcia and the new Interior Minister, Colonel Mendez Ruiz, were both chiefs of staff under two different military governments. It is important to stress that while these appointments are made by Serrano, it is the military that nominates. Many fear that Mendoza and Mendez will adopt even more repressive measures against the popular sectors. While during most of Cerezo’s administration the defense minister adopted the strategy of low intensity conflict, in fact the military’s extreme right wing feels that this should yield to a full-scale war against the “subversive” population.

Social Pact or Social Straight-Jacket?

Serrano has inherited a country beset with a deepening economic crisis. President Cerezo’s last year in office witnessed a serious downturn in the economy. The 1990 inflation index rose drastically, reaching the highest levels since the end of World War IL Estimates vary from 60% (National Institute of Statistics: INE) to 83% (Bank of Guatemala). INE reported that inflation in 1990 experienced a 49% increase over 1989. This price rise has affected basic of products and services, including food, clothing, education, and medical care.

Inflation, a rising price index, and devaluation (all related processes) have had a drastic impact on real wages. From 1986 to 1989 those living below the poverty line went from 63% to 85%, and those living in extreme poverty went from 32% to 72%. Unemployment stands at 41%. By December 1990 a family of five required a monthly salary of Q1124.88—but only 2% of Guatemala’s families actually make this much. This dramatic decrease in standard of living for the majority coincided with a 3.7% growth rate in GNP, demonstrating the particularly cruel face of capitalism in Guatemala.

The Cerezo administration left office in the midst of a serious fiscal crisis. With one of the lowest tax rates in the world, Guatemala has a high rate of capital flight to the United States. Its total foreign debt is U.S. $2,490 million, currently consuming over 36% of the foreign exchange revenue But the foreign debt payments are Q725 million in arrears, and due to fiscal fraud and mismanagement, the national treasury is nearly bankrupt By the end of 1990 international lending agencies closed their credit lines to Guatemala because it failed to comply with contractual agreements.

Confronted with a plunging economy and an empty treasury, Serrano has called for a “social pact”—presumably to achieve capital-labor “consensus” about national economic policy. During the first months of his administration he arranged meetings with representatives from the private sector and the labor movement All these calls for social harmony recalls Cerezo’s failed policy of “concertaclon” in 1986.

The social pact meetings officially convened on March 1 and included representatives from CACIF (the umbrella coalition for major business organizations including agriculture, commerce, industry and finance), five union organizations, and cooperatives. CACIF has stated its confidence in the new president and its commitment to work with the new government this is not surprising given that some of its members hold posts in the cabinet Those unions which are participating in the social pact indicated reservations, and a number of the largest unions conditioned their participation on an end to government layoffs and political violence.

The UASP (Unity of Labor and Popular Action), the largest coalition of labor and grassroots organizations, however, refused to participate in the social pact, indicating that the government along with CACIF were simply trying to “straitjacket Guatemala’s working poor” They argue that the neo-liberal policies articulated by the government will ultimately benefit the private business sectors, while simultaneously undermining the economic, social, and political demands of the popular sectors. On February 20, the UASP marched towards the National Palace to protest the “social pact.”

The severe austerity measures associated with the social pact seem acutely akin to International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment programs; Serrano has lifted all price subsidies and is talking about privatizing state-owned enterprises. Within the first month, the government fired more than 3,000 state workers, reported that public spending will be cut by 10% and the money supply restricted.

These measures—combined with a consumer inflation rate hovering at 80%—will be devastating to the Guatemalan population, 86% already living in poverty. Serrano hopes to shift the burden of responsibility for social services and relief to non-governmental organizations and the business sector Upon lifting price controls, Serrano said that it will be up to the “goodwill” of the business sector to keep prices down.

The Violence Continues

It is clear that Serrano’s government will not be a kinder and gentler one. The arena for organizing around basic social and economic rights is being tightly controlled. Within the first six weeks of Serrano’s administration, the national press has reported more than 120 political murders; this is a conservative estimate.

At the end of February, anti-riot police evacuated 1,110 families from their humble homes that were perched on steep ravines in the northern part of the city. 88% of those evicted had been living there for over three years. The anti-riot police then destroyed their homes. Similarly, anti-riot squads broke up a month-long strike/sit-in at the state social security building and arrested over fifty workers. This move was ordered by Serrano who declared that “he would not allow disorder to be caused by a small group of nonconformists.”

International human rights organizations have unanimously denounced the atrocious human rights violations. Americas Watch listed Guatemala as the country in 1990 with the most assassinations of human rights activists in the world. The Council of Hemispheric Affairs of the United States named Guatemala as the “worst human rights violator” in the Americas. Amnesty International listed it among the top six countries in which disappearances occurred at a chronic rate. And according to a report issued by the United Nation Work Group on Forced Disappearances, Guatemala has the third highest number of forced disappearances in the world.

Since 1954, Guatemala has been brutally ruled by the military. The military is commonly agreed to be the most abusive in the hemisphere. By 1985, military and paramilitary forces had murdered 70,000 peasants, Indigenous people, students, workers, priests, and disappeared over 40,000 persons. This displaced up to one million peasants, destroying over 400 villages.

In 1985, however the military engineered the transition towards civilian rule, leading to the election of Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo. Although human rights violations initially subsided—providin6 a political opening for popular movement organizing—by 1989 political violence increased, and once again Guatemala was at the top of human rights violation lists.

According to Nineth de Garcia, president of the Mutual Support Group for Relatives of the Disappeared (GAM), there were at least 4,000 political murders during Cerezo’s five-year presidency (1986-1990). The Central American Association of families of Detained-Disappeared reported that 4,332 Guatemalan were assassinated and 4,495 were kidnapped or disappeared during Cerezo’s presidency. This violence has been directed against the popular movement, politicians, social scientists, and human rights organizers.

In short, the militarization of Guatemalan society continues despite, or perhaps because of, elections. It is the military that calls the final shots in key decision making. Civilian politicians must maneuver within parameters set by the armed forces. The military maintains a presence at the model villages and development poles created in the early 1980s. Moreover, military garrisons exist in almost all of the departments with barracks and outposts in many of the villages.

The military forces indigenous males into the military structure through two means. First, the military continues to forcibly recruit Oftentimes the military descends upon a village and sweeps up the young boys without any prior notice to the recruits or to their families; they are sent to a different region to serve in the army. As a result, the families often do not know where these boys are. Although these practices are usually conducted in the countryside, the military has begun recruiting again from the barrios on the outskirts of Guatemala City.

Second, the military created Civil Defense Patrols (PACs). Indigenous men in rural communities are compelled to serve in military guards ostensibly to protect their communities from outside subversion. Men of all ages have to serve once every two weeks or so, without compensation for their services. The military publicly claims that the PACs are voluntary, but if the males do not serve, they are labelled subversives. Thus the PACs serve as a form of military control.

In the early 1980s, thousands of indigenous people fled from this military repression and control. They formed communities of resistance (CPRs) in the mountains. Recently, the CPRs publicly denounced the continuing military attacks, officially requested recognition, and articulated their desire to reinsert themselves into civil society. But the army sees them as the armed insurgency’s political arm, and continues to bomb them.

The cruelty of the armed forces has manifested itself on the streets of Guatemala City. Guatemalan street children are threatened, beaten, burned, and killed by the police. At least twenty-three charges have been filed against police officers, but not a single officer has been arrested. Congressman Mario Taracena claims that an average of two street children are tortured and killed each week by national police and mobile military forces.

The military operates with apparent impunity. On December 2, 1990, the military opened fire on the villagers of Santiago Atitlán, who had marched to the garrison to protest military harassment. The military killed fifteen, wounding more than twenty. Subsequently, 15,000 villagers drew up a petition to demand the removal of the garrison, an unprecedented move.

International condemnation and national protests ensued and the army was ordered to leave the immediate area. The decision to remove the army was a historic victory for the Atitecos and for those in the popular movement It represented a clear condemnation of the military institutions and the power and courage of the people to protest Despite the fact that the military left, reports of continuing military harassment continue.

The Dialogue

The dialogue offers a small degree of optimism to an otherwise pessimistic picture of Guatemala’s future. For the first time in Guatemala’s civil war, tentative steps have been taken to find a negotiated solution to the armed conflict. In March of 1990, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (UNRG), an alliance of four guerilla organizations, and the Guatemalan Commission for National Reconciliation (CNR) met in Oslo. There they signed the “Basic Agreement on the Search for Peace by Political Means.”

The Oslo agreements outlined the parameters and timetable for future talks between the URNG and various sectors of Guatemalan society. Since March of 1990, the URNG has met with the political parties (May), CACIF (August), the religious sectors (September), the popular movements (October), and small business and the professional sector (October). All meetings except for the one with CACIF concluded in the signing of joint statements in which the parties pledged to work toward resolution of the problems confronting Guatemala and toward an end of the armed conflict The meeting with the political parties concluded with the agreement to call for a 1991 Constituent Assembly, in which the URNG would have a voice.

The URNG has articulated its willingness to renounce armed struggle and to incorporate itself into the political life of the country if and when reforms are carried out that guarantee democratic and human rights. In particular, the URNG has demanded the disbanding of the Civil Defense Patrol and model villages, the subordination of the armed forces and the police to civilian control, annulling amnesty for those responsible for human rights abuses, and a commitment to address the socioeconomic inequities experienced by the majority.

The Oslo accords represented the first time, except for the failed October 1987 Madrid meeting that military and government officials had conceded to holding a dialogue. In March, the government and military accepted the dialogue with the implicit reasoning that perhaps neither the armed forces nor the insurgency were capable of militarily winning. The military and government hoped that the meetings would serve to isolate and to defeat the guerrillas. However, the dialogue has politically strengthened the URNG as a central actor.

The meetings have also served as the first public forum in which the URNG and key social sectors have been able to discuss Guatemala’s socioeconomic and political reality. The dialogue has demonstrated that the insurgency and popular, religious, and popular sectors share a common concern for achieving peace and justice in Guatemala. The dialogue seems to have further isolated extreme right sectors within an already divided business sector and within a faction-ridden military.

The Oslo accords declared that the dialogue would culminate in a meeting between the URNG and government-military representatives. This has not taken place.

The new administration holds a unique position. Serrano attended the Oslo meetings as one of three members representing the CNR, which set this process in motion. He was also present at the dialogue between the URNG and the political parties at El Escorial. At his inauguration Serrano said that peace would not be achieved simply by putting an end to the armed conflict as long as the causes that gave rise to the conflict remain.

But whether or not Serrano will be able to keep his promises remains a largely unanswered question. In January Serrano confirmed that he would not ask the rebels to put down their arms as a condition for continuing the dialogue process; the army has also said that they will follow Serrano’s lead in deciding whether or not they will meet with the URNG. However, a February 19 report in the daily press indicated that Serrano had reversed this position and had declared that the dialogue must occur “without weapons.” Later, he said “we guarantee their rights, but only after they disarm.”

In February Serrano committed himself to meeting with the URNG sometime within the next six months of 1991. The question remains, how much power does Serrano have to push the dialogue forward in a country dominated by a military divided on this issue In many ways, the future of the dialogue rests on the military s internal decision about the benefits and costs of engaging in dialogue. The dialogue process led to an increase in recalcitrant statements by the army, who would rather pursue a military strategy.

A New Position?

During the course of 1990, Washington adopted a more critical position of the Guatemalan government and military, condemning the apparent impunity with which the paramilitary forces freely operate The U.S. State Department’s 1990 report on human rights abuses condemned the government security forces and civil defense patrols as responsible for the majority of human rights abuses. On February 7 the U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus of the House of Representatives sent a letter to Serrano, denouncing the high level of abuses. It was signed by over a hundred congressional representatives. In addition, Harvard University Law School, which had been involved in providing training and consultation to the Guatemalan judicial system, finally retracted their commitment given judicial corruption and the continuing impunity with which the perpetrators of human rights abuses operate.

On December 21, 1990, Washington suspended military aid to Guatemala. The State Department condemned Guatemala’s failure to act decisively in the face of several cases, including the torture and killing of U.S. citizen Michael Devine by special army forces, the massacre in Santiago Atitlán, and the assassinations of well-known anthropologist Mirna Mack and Salvadoran Revolutionary Democratic Front official, Hector Oqueli.

While this clear denunciation should be applauded, it is important to highlight its limits. The suspended aid amounts to only $2.8 million dollars and does not in-dude economic aid proposed for 1991. Of this $120 million, the Guatemalan government receives in cash $57 million in economic support funds which can be channeled as the government pleases, including for military expenses. Washington will renew aid if the Serrano’s government demonstrates progress on these cases.

Military and agricultural elite pressure to stall the dialogue continues in the face of U.S. pressures for talks. Although Washington is now urging Third World countries to end civil wars and decrease their reliance on military force, the U.S. actions in the Persian Gulf have demonstrated the U.S. resolve to act by force The military may choose to follow that model.

Sources ate from recent articles in the following publications: Acen-Sing, Cerigua, Cerigua Monthly Reports, Enfoprensa, Inforpress, Inter-church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America: 1990 Report on the Human Rights Situation in Guatemala, International Viewpoint, Nisgua Election Fact Sheet, Nisgua Monthly Updates, Noticias de Guatemala and Report on Guatemala.

May-June 1991, ATC 32