Central America After Reaganism

Dianne Feeley

THE ERUPTION OF a political crisis in Guatemala came just a week after peaceful marchers were gunned down in the streets of El Salvador’s capital city. Central America may have faded to black in the newsrooms of the television networks, but confrontations between popular movements and the military-backed regimes continue.

Guatemalan President Jorge Serrano Elias attempted a “self-coup,” in the manner of Peruvian President Fujimori, without checking first with the U.S. embassy—which proved to be a fatal political mistake. Washington immediately suspended all military aid and most economic support, totaling about $50 million this year alone, and the European community (primarily Germany) froze $100 million.

Guatemala has the oldest guerrilla movement (URNG), the worst human rights record on the continent, the most unjust distribution of land (70% of the land is owned by 2% of the population), and 84% of the population lives in abject poverty. Only last January 28, the human rights attorney general of Guatemala, Ramiro de León Carpio, presented his findings to the Congress, accusing “the members of the state security forces” of the majority of the extrajudicial killings. Most all of 1992s 600 victims of killings, kidnapping, disappearances, death threats and assaults were targeted for political reasons.

For the past two years the guerrilla movement and the Serrano government have held a series of meetings, but little concrete has come of it. A negotiated agreement would be difficult to obtain given the systematic governmental human rights violations. Distinctively, the Guatemalan military is an independent actor because it is part of the ruling landowning and industrial elite, and not just the government’s servant.

Sources of the Guatemalan Resistance

Ten years after fleeing army repression, 2,500 Guatemalan refugees returned home at the end of January. (Over 50,000 Guatemalans fled to Mexico between 1980-91) Their return was the result of an agreement that refugees negotiated with the Guatemalan government’s refugee commission, and included the following: 1) the return is voluntary, 2) the right to free association and organization, 3) a three-year exemption from military recruitment, 4) accompaniment by international humanitarian groups during the return, 5) free transportation back, 6) guarantee of individual and community rights, and 7) access to land.

Although the government attempted to blunt the political impact of the refugees’ return by rejecting the route the refugees proposed, the government was forced to back down. After a political battle, the refugees made it back to Ixcán, their home territory. Their cooperative lands have been occupied by displaced peasants, however, as part of the army’s counterinsurgency campaign.

The land agreed on for settlement had not been adequately prepared. The only facilities available for the first 600 families were two open-walled shelters and two latrines. The land allocated is fertile, studies show, but can only sustain 250 families. The site is in one of the country’s most militarized areas. In fact, the day the refugees arrived, the army killed four guerrillas.

The refugees are demanding that the army take responsibility for finding alternative lands for the peasant settlers of their lands, but many doubt that the government has the political will to do so. In fact, the government disclaimed further responsibilities as the initial group of refugees returned. As one refugee said, “We know the conditions for a return do not exist. We came to create them, to build them, to win them.”

Additionally, there are approximately 25,000 Guatemalans in the northern regions of Quiché as “internal refugees.” Forced to flee their villages after the army massacres of cooperative members in 1980-82 they have organized themselves as Communities of Resistance. Although the government considers them part of the guerrilla movement, they are demanding legal recognition and the right to live free from army attacks. They have managed to survive and develop their own legal, social, economic and educational structures.

The Politics of Human Rights

The governmental campaign to prevent Rigoberta Menchú from winning the Nobel Peace Prize was ultimately unsuccessful. At the diplomatic reception hosted by the foreign embassies to honor Menchú, the only government representative in attendance was then Vice President Gustavo Espina. The fact is that the ruling elite, and particularly the military, finds it galling that Menchú has an international standing as a human rights activist and as an indigenous leader. After all, the military are directly responsible for the deaths of her father, mother and brother. This milieu attempts to deal with her by continuously discrediting her, saying she didn’t “deserve” the Nobel Peace Prize and calling her a supporter of the guerrillas.

Serrano, and the military who stood behind him, were further insulted by having the “alternative Nobel—the Right Livelihood prize—awarded to Helen Mack, whose sister, the well-known anthropologist Myna Mack, was assassinated on the street in 1990.

In bestowing their prize, the Swedish jury said that Helen Mack received the prize for her persistence in the search for justice and against impunity.” At extreme risk to her own life, Mack has insisted on bringing her sister’s murderers to trial. Now that Noel Jesús Beteta, former specialist of the presidential high command, has been convicted of the murder and sentenced to thirty years in prison, Mack is determined to bring charges against General Edgar Godoy Gaitán, the intellectual author of the crime.

Ramiro de León Carpio has gone so far as to accuse the Guatemalan state, and concretely former president Vinicio Cerezo of the responsibility too. De León Carpio explained that security forces viewed Mack’s studies as “destabilizing,” and that only those in charge of national security had the ability to set up a vigilance operation. For his part, Cerezo has insisted that the issue is merely one of a common crime,” and failed to respond to the last summons.

This is the first time in Guatemalan history that a citizen has taken measures against a military officer. Upon receiving her prize, Helen Mack an accountant who had been apolitical until her sister’s murder, stated:

“Rigoberta and I won these prizes because we are victims of the army’s repression, if we have a human rights industry here, it is because the military has created a market.”

A new wave of repression has been growing since last summer, with demonstrators being attacked, clubbed and hospitalized (July 1992) and bombs exploding (October 1992) in the offices of organizations who dare to fight for their rights. Two women who work with CONAVIGUA (an organization made up of the widows of the disappeared) were kidnapped, beaten, striped nude, and warned (October 1992); Byron Morales, President of the Union of Popular and Trade Union Action, barely escaped an assault against his car by two men with automatic weapons. Death threats against personnel working in international nongovernmental development organizations have also multiplied.

President Serrano and the military were terribly displeased that Menchú and Mack have been awarded prizes for their human rights activity. They have also been displeased at international observers who have come to Guatemala to aid people like Menchú and Amilcar Méndez, leader of the Runujel Junam Ethnic Communities. When Méndez returned from testifying in Washington last November he was accompanied by Kerry Kennedy, daughter of Robert Kennedy, and Congressman, Kostmayer. The following day Foreign Minister Gonzalo Ménendez Park denounced “tourists who have no authority to question Guatemala’s judicial system.”

De León Carpio to Power

Perhaps Serrano and the military believed that with the May 25 coup they could put a stop to all the discussion about human rights by dismissing Congress and the Supreme Court, closing down the newspapers and suspending civil liberties. But more than 2,000 gathered for mass in the park opposite the National Palace following the coup. The gathering was quickly dispersed by the military police, but Serrano’s position deteriorated rapidly. He was dumped by the military when it became clear that the business elite opposed him; then the army command asserted its role as “protectors of the Constitution7 and literally sent Serrano packing.

For the first time in modern Guatemalan history, the business community did not back the coup. Instead, they panicked at the threat Washington made to withdraw their trade benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences. After all, 36% of the country’s exports are to the United States. Additionally, the tourist industry has been growing over the past several years. Immediately following the coup, officials received a significant number of vacation cancellations. As Mario Granal y Fernández, President of the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations, said “If measures are not taken very quickly to resolved this crisis, the cost to Guatemala would simply be too high” (N.Y. Times, 6/1/93).

Although Defense Minister, General Jose Domingo Garcia Samayoa, attempted to whitewash the role the military played in initially supporting the presidential coup, the record is clear. He did cite two reasons why the military reversed itself: international pressure and the need to keep the situation “from converting itself into a social explosion the consequences of which we can have no idea” (N Y. Times, 6/3/93).

The military (and no doubt the Clinton administration) undoubtedly feared that popular anger against Serrano’s maneuver might lead to massive independent mobilizations. To forestall this threat and to cheat the popular movement of its victory, the military moved quickly to install Vice President Espina, who had supported Serrano’s actions one week earlier.

When that didn’t work, two candidates to fill the presidency were “selected” by the military and Congress voted in human rights attorney general de León Carpio on June 5. Only a few days earlier, he’d been in hiding. In exchange the right is demanding amnesty for all involved in the “self-coup,” but the mass organizations, are pressing for investigation and prosecution.

In seeking to suppress the mass movements demanding economic and social justice in Guatemala, Serrano inadvertently opened a political space for the mass movements. Over the next few months the military and the business elites will do everything in their power to insure that space is decreased, even while they will attempt to adjust to as few cosmetic changes as possible.

For example, Rigoberta Menchú was invited to the National Palace on June 1 to play a ceremonial role in announcing the new government. But she left after sizing up the situation, stating: “The social sectors have been excluded.” Given the tenacity of the popular movements, the situation is more-promising than it has been since the early months of the Cerezo government in the mid-1980s.

Truth Comes Out in El Salvador

When the Truth Commission (established under the 1991 Peace Accords to examine the long history of killings and massacres) issued its 800-page report in March, it published some of the names of those responsible for the most serious violations of human rights during the 198091 period. These included army officials, paramilitary groups, security forces, and guerrilla leaders. General René Emilio Ponce, Minister of Defense, was accused along with members of the elite Atlacatl battalion.

The report, entitled “From Madness to Hope,” recommended the resignation of the Supreme Court judges for “concealment” and “unprofessional behavior,” calling special attention to Supreme Court President Mauricio Gutiérrez Castro. (Of particular irony is the fact that the U.S. government, after funding the military operation, provided the million-dollar financing of the commission.)

The Republican National Alliance (Arena), as the governing party, reacted by approving a controversial amnesty to protect high-ranking officials who had been implicated. These included six soldiers who killed the Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in 1989. At the same time, rebels who have been convicted for murder were excluded.

But the businessmen and public officials who financed and encouraged the death squads were not named in the report—although the report calls for specific investigation into the death squads.” President Aifredo Cristiani has stated that he will comply with no more than the Truth Commission’s “constitutional” recommendations. But while the government may refuse to move on the basis of the commission’s mere recommendations, and while it passed the amnesty by a wide majority, it may be forced to pay a political cost for such maneuvers.

The Central American Human Rights Commission (Codehuca) pointed out that there is evidence the death squads continue to exist. Approximately thirty-five people were killed in January. These murders were carried out by armed men in civilian clothing the recovered bodies often showed signs of torture.

Intense discussions within the revolutionary organizations at this stage are said to be focused on tactics for next year’s scheduled elections. These range from how to deal with the problem of the government’s failure to register new voters or whether, for example, to focus on local (e.g. mayoral) races more likely to be winnable for the left than the presidential election. Underlying these discussions is the difficult task of transforming the Frente.

The situation in El Salvador remains unstable. On May 20, the riot police opened fire on a demonstration of war-wounded veterans (both army forces and the FMLN) as they headed for the presidential palace to demand compliance with recently passed legislation. Initial reports stated that at least three were killed, fifteen wounded and thirty taken prisoner. Although later information lowered the death toll to one FMLN ex-combatant, this shooting is an open violation of the peace accords.

Clearly the government was alarmed by the sight of ex-soldiers from both sides demonstrating for common demands. Four days later, heavily armed riot police confronted a march of elderly, retired government workers for decent pensions, though on this occasion no shots were fired.

That the May 20th demonstration of blind people, amputees and people in wheelchairs is attacked when it demanded medical care and legally guaranteed pensions illustrates the depth of the problem. At the same time it highlights the capacity of popular sectors combined with revolutionary forces to have some impact in shaping possible outcomes.

Clinton and the New World Order

Even though the United States had already invested over $6 billion in military assistance to the Salvadoran government, the FMLN’s November 1989 offensive in San Salvador demonstrated to Washington the difficulty of counting on outright military victory. Increasingly, too, the Bush administration came to regard the contra war in Nicaragua as a liability—especially after the Iran-contra scandal surfaced.

With the Cold War drawing to a close and facing an increasingly global competition, Washington—even under a right-wing Republican president—was forced to adopt new tactics.

By the end of the 1980s the Bush administration had begun to alter its policies in Central America in two ways. First, it promoted negotiated solutions to the region’s revolutionary conflicts; second, it placed greater priority on developing trade and markets. This emphasis on economics, dictated by the “invisible hand” of free trade and institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, is argued to be more efficient than military terror for controlling Third World economies in the New World Order—and necessary for Washington in the face of growing competition with Japan and Germany.

The Clinton administration inherited a set of policies that it sees no reason to alter. Clinton’s foreign policy will be driven by an already globalized economy where Central America obviously “belongs” in Washington’s orbit.

Caught in the vise of neoliberal austerity, the privatization of state enterprises, massive unemployment and rising inflation, the people in Central America will be further impoverished. Already a full 45% of the population now lives in “extreme poverty,” according to the United Nation’s Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean.

For the popular movement in Central America, the challenge is to forge a movement in which they are not just invited to play a ceremonial role at the installation of the new government, but strong enough to become pivotal actors on the stage.

Note on Sources

I would like to acknowledge the very fine publications that analyze events in Central America: Barricada International (P0. Box 410150, San Francisco, CA 94141, monthly, $35 a year  envío (CAHI, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. 20057, monthly, $30 a year) and Report on Guatemala (GNIB, P.O. Box 2094, Oakland, CA 94604, quarterly, $12 a year).

July-August 1993, ATC 45