The Dictator in His Labyrinth
After all that was done and said, former General Ríos Montt took the witness chair before the First Court of High Risk on May 9, 2013 and mounted a defense based on genocidal military reason unprecedented in the history of Guatemala. “The plaintiffs have cornered me” he said, to start, thus indicating that his historical role was and should be unmistakable with the simple and common positions of lower ranking officers and bureaucrats of death. He was not, after all, a simple Álvarez Ruiz, one Chupina, a Víctores Mejia or a “Mayor Tito”: “I was not a company commander, I was not a battalion chief, I was not an area commander. I was a head of state”. As he went on to emphasize in his statement: “The state had a staff called the Ministers of State. And I was the chief of ministers of state.” He was Guatemala as a whole and not just one of its parts and, much less, one of the worst parts, the indigenous, the Ixil. Viewed from the Ixil perspective, of course, the optics of history and the meaning of this army general change, his historical perspective, and the social class he represents appear as the return of Cortes/Quetzalcoatl in its Maya version, as Kukulcan, as a snake draped in military fagigue, a snake of Creole heritage, Ladino, and conceitedly superior.
And, exactly as he used to do on the Sundays of his dictatorship and the festive days during his presidency of the Guatemalan Congress, once again he proclaimed a message focused on his role as redeemer of a State in financial and moral bankruptcy: “We could not respect the Constitution because all was a rot and falling by itself. So we had to issue the Fundamental Statue of Government.” And this Fundamental Law represented nothing less than the will of the general embodied in the particular will of the armed forces understood as the body of the Lord General who had been put in power by the will of history itself.
It is a discourse in which the being of the dictator and the very being of Guatemala are one and the same. In his presidential campaigns during the 1990s he used to say: “I am Guatemala.” And now in his closing speech in the trial against him for the genocide of the Ixil nation once again he reiterated the morality, the restorative and worthy mission that the position of head of state bestowed on him, a position that he and his lawyer insisted had also been offered to other officers but that only Ríos Montt had the “courage” to assume. And the essence of the defense case, the discourse of Rios Montt, is that at the high level of his position as Head of State the air is indeed rare, the dictator finds himself really alone, pondering the destiny of his nation, a place where there is only the dictator and his great mission of restoring and renewing the broken and threatened nation to an organic whole, and from there the high altitude of his nearly divinely-appointed power the dictator has absolutely nothing to do with what happens in the parrochial foothills of the state, on the bare plains of the multitudes and, much less, in the deep ravines and rocky chasms of the Wretched of the Earth where his orders are implemented by lower ranking appointees that come to their jobs with their own selfish agendas, divisions and inertia. But the dictator is above all of this, just like all dictoators in history that scan the horizon with an eagle’s eye and stand tall above the human comedy. The dictator’s essential self is thus not responsible for the everyday existential fate, the mundane implementation of his will. The decisions of this Supreme Leader have nothing to do with the practical consequences of state policy for that implementation and those consequences are left to others. The Maximum Leader is responsible only for the Idea of a “nation of nations” that he wants to construct in a world that only others, social inertia and the “enemy” Communists disguised throughout indigenous lands as women, girls and grandmothers want to distort. In his own words: “The commanding general of the Army only does three important things: make the call to recruit people, give awards and grant pensions.” The judicial and extrajudicial execution of his order is, well, in the hands of others while the dictator stands alone in his labyrinth.
Genocide, from the perspective of power, is now a multicultural and multiethnic affair. In the words of Ríos Montt: “They call me a racist when I say that we are a country made up of many nations.” The level of ideological distortion by dictatorial reason reaches here, at this point in the speech of the dictator, unprecedented levels. In the name of multiculturalism there arises a need to remove precisely the multicultural threat. Once the orders have been given, once they have laid out the plans for “victory” and “strength” and once they invoked the old figure of wisdom (“Sofia”) as guide for what ought to be required no matter how painful, then it is possible to say “The chief of National Defence or the Minister of Defense did not give me reports of any kind.” Because once you have sketched out the course of destiny for the people below, for the “other”, what happens to the ancestral inhabitants of the mountains and valleys of the multicultural Mayan people becomes less than irrelevant. Their memory itself becomes a Communist plot to distort official history, the great benevolence and courage of the Leader, the “common” destiny of the nation. Even more so if in these places, as Ríos Montt argued in his speech, there is a “Communist movement” that those ungrateful people, deeply indoctrinated, can not resist by themselves without the army’s salvific and cleansing assistance. So the moralizing campaign of his dictatorship consisted not only in making “public employees behave better so that they would not steal, would not lie and would not cheat”. It consisted, more fundamentally, in a policy of changing the very being of the multinational and ethnic diversity of the Creole fatherland: one nation for all nations; the Creole nation. It was about reminding the nation of its own history as Ríos Montt sees it: “From 1944 to 2013, all movements that in one way or another have made a contribution to progress in Guatemala have been led by the Army.” The Communist threat was thus not only a threat to real multiculturalism (the peaceful, obedient coexistence of colonially-constructed, delimited and controlled ethnic groups) but also to the fundamental sense of the modern history of Guatemala and the well being of the country’s ethnic diversity overseen by the State. There can be nothing more at stake than that.
Ríos Montt is not an ignorant man. If someone takes the dictator to be a fool they are committing a mistake. Ríos Montt’s lawyer Garcia Gudiel granted himself the right to disqualify expert testimony of people like García Granados on the grounds that it was the testimony of a “simple sociologist”. But he did not question or stop his own client when before, during and after his speech he declared, with a tint of sociological theory and even parrochial Marxism, the following: “Subversion is not a matter of gunshots, but a question of underdevelopment, disease, poverty and extreme poverty and hunger”. Although this logic of National Security Ideology was fully reflected in the National Security and Development Plan, it is also a developmentalist idea that in Guatemala, despite its constant repetition by small petty intellectuals and former officials of governments of the so-called “peace” time (after the Peace Accords) such as a Rosada Granados or Castejón Porras, this idea has never produced consistent and effective state policies to alleviate poverty. That is really not the goal of developmentalism. When the dictator offers this recognition of the political economy of underdevelopment and dependency – as it is still taught in that “Communist” and inveterate house of studies named University of San Carlos – he does not recognize the lineage of Creole racism and colonialism, the story of a failed independence and the uncompromising conservatism of a Carrera, the primitive capital accumulation promoted by another national military hero in the figure of Justo Rufino Barrios or the proto-fascism of Ubico that led directly to the Guatemalan Spring, which with the support of the CIA and his beloved army was eventually truncated only to leave precisely the structural conditions that would lead to the rebellion of the impoverished indigenous highland peoples and their genocide. By no means. For Rios Montt to goal of a plate of “beans and tortillas” is nothing more and nothing less than obedience and conformity. “Underdevelopment, disease, poverty and hunger” lead not only to “subversion” but also, even worse threatenly, to ethnic disobedience and insolence, lack of historical memory as Rios Montt articulates that historical memory: “From 1944 to 2013, all movements that in one way or another have made a contribution to progress in Guatemala have been led by the Army.”
This is the kind of national consciousness that a Head of State claims for himself. Trivializing the meaning and grotesque policies of genocide, Ríos Montt nonetheless expresses what it means, from the point of view of the Supreme Leader, to work for the rescue of the State: “When they capture rogue policemen illegally collecting taxes they are not going to put the Minister of the Interior on trial for that.” By extension, if officers and commanders with their own agenda kill a few “Indians” here or there, you can not lose sight of the grand national project embodied only by the Head of State, represented only by the military’s historical contribution to the country’s progress and that only a thorough moralizing campaign of the whole State can ensure. What may result from all this in the indigenous towns of Chajul, Nebaj and Cotzal may well be a misfortune, “a confrontation between brothers, between families”, but it is neither due to the history of racism, colonialism, underdevelopment and dependence or the orders of the Head of State, but rather it is due to the “Communism” of the “honorable Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity” (URNG). It is precisely this anti-Communist logic of the dictator that helped germinate the seeds of genocide already planted during Spanish colonial times but whose bloom had been postponed until the coming to power of this serpent of war.
Now at the end of the trial, the dictator says that he was not involved in the daily execution of the genocide. He now says that it was “others” who executed his vision of a “nation of nations” and that these others may have committed “excesses” in their actions as indicated by the many reports of elimination of “chocolates” (army operational code for children during the scortched earth opeartions throughout indigenous towns) around here and there, but this is no reason to blame the dictator. From the totalizing perspective of the dictator: “I never had the intention nor the purpose of destroying any national ethnicity.” Actually, there is no need to have such an intention or purpose from the pinnacle of power when his whole body, the whole machinery of domination, all the bureaucracy of death is already executing the “wise” operation of destruction without having to bother the Dictator in His Labyrinth with the details.
Marco Fonseca was born and raised in Guatemala City. He received his Ph.D. in Social and Political Thought specializing in political philosophy and Latin American Studies at York University.