The Enduring Tragedy: Guatemala’s Bloody Farce

Should it be considered a supreme irony that Guatemala’s just elected president, Jimmy Morales, is an evangelical right-wing comedian with no political experience and ties to a political party made up of military veterans dedicated to opposing investigations into the behavior of the military during the decades longs civil war – all the more striking in that it was only a few months back that a Guatemalan court ruled that Rios Montt, another evangelical, would be allowed to be retried for such crimes despite Montt suffering from dementia. Montt was already convicted in 2013 for genocide and crimes against humanity, specifically relating to a series of massacres against the Ixil population of the Quiche region during his rule between March 1982 and August 1983 that resulted in 1,771 deaths and the forced displacement of 29,000 people (the first head of state to be convicted of genocide by a court in his own country), though that ruling was suspiciously overturned by the Constitutional Court of Guatemala on procedural grounds.

Morales ran a standard outsider campaign with the requisite slogan, ‘neither corrupt, nor a thief’, that found its footing on the heels of a major corruption scandal brought huge protests and saw the resignation and arrest of the last elected president Otto Perez Molina for his alleged role in a wide ranging scandal involving the lowering of duties in exchange for kickbacks. The scandal also took down the Vice President, the Vice President’s private secretary, as well as two Chiefs of the Tax Authority.

Perez Molina himself is a former military man, one who represented the military in the negotiations that officially ended the civil war in 1996. His name has also turned up in some shadowy places: Francisco Goldman’s The Art of Political Murder, suggests that Perez Molina, was at least complicit, if not more so, in the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi in April 1998. Bishop Geradi’s murder occurred two days after he oversaw the publication of a report, Guatemala: Never Again (produced by the Recovery of Historical Memory Project), that established, echoing a UN sponsored truth commission, that the Guatemalan military was responsible for a great majority of the deaths and disappearances of 200,000 civilians during the Civil War. Perez Molina’s name also turned up in Montt’s first trial where a witness, a former Army mechanic who was stationed in the Ixil areas during Montt’s dictatorship, testified Perez Molina was the commander in charge of the local military garrison that had burned down villages and ordered the executions.

Morales ran under the banner of the National Convergence Front, a party founded by retired generals. Despite these eerie ties Morales has vowed to limit the power of the military, a promise made by some a few of his predecessors. Meanwhile as the mechanics of elite corruption and plunder carry on 60 percent of the population is impoverished and almost half of Guatemalan children suffer chronic malnutrition.

For all the ravages neoliberalism has wrought in our current epoch, much of Guatemala’s lowly state can be traced to the original Liberal Era, specifically the land reforms of Liberal regime of Justo Rufino Barrios. As coffee growing became the rage across the region growers, hungry for land and labor, were up against the fact that much of the best land was communal and village properties held by the indigenous majority. These lands were largely protected during the long reign of Conservative Rafael Correra (1841-1865) (conservatives back then were reactionary as far as their radical Catholicism but were more protective of indigenous lands; Liberals were secular but saw indigenous lands, even the indigenous themselves, as a hindrance to modernity), but with the emergence of the Liberals came a series of harsh reforms culminating in an 1877 law requiring all village communal land to be sold at public auction- with most of the funds going to the government.  Peasants using village land were given six months to pay for their plot or have it forfeited. An estimated 23,000 lots were registered and sold. Ten of thousands lost their lands and most peasants found themselves in debt.

If Guatemala became a sort of export dynamo that Liberals envisioned, between the years 1870-1900 the volume of Guatemala’s international trade increased 20 times, a vastly unequal social structure was in place with a small minority holding nearly all the land with a large exploited indigenous population as laborers. According to an 1890 coffee census more than half of the coffee trees registered in the country were on large plantations with one hundred thousand or more trees, the highest such concentration of any country in Central America.

The status quo moseyed along for just about the entire first half of the twentieth century. Bananas would join coffee as Guatemala’s cash crop and the United Fruit Company began its viral spread- by 1934 the company owned 3.5 million acres of land and controlled 40 percent of the Guatemalan economy.

Through the 1930-40s Guatemala was ruled by General Jorge Ubico. Quite the eccentric, Ubico, a loyal American client and believer in numerology and obsessed with his alleged likeness to Napoleon, went so far as to literally ban the use of the words ‘trade union’, ‘strike’, and ‘petition’. Landless workers were conscripted under vagrancy laws to contribute months of labor a year to plantations or the state. Those who were deemed insubordinate risked being legally murdered.

Yet suddenly in the weeks after VE day opposition rose against Ubico. A coalition of teachers, students, and shopkeepers led the way in a series of nonviolent demonstrations. On July 1 1945, after an initial violent response Ubico resigned in the face of growing opposition. December 1945 saw the election (with a resounding 85 percent of votes) of Juan José Arévalo and with it the emergence of the first genuine period of democracy in Guatemala’s history.

Arévalo permitted and encouraged the formation of political parties, and along with the first Congress passed a number of New Deal type laws including a Social Security law guaranteeing workers’ rights to safe conditions, compensation for injury, and healthcare, a Labor Code, and a National Production Institute to distribute credit and supplies to small farmers. In the educational realm, more books were printed and imported and more libraries built than in the entire previous half century. Perhaps most prominently in December 1949 Congress passed a Law of Forced Rental allowing any peasant who owned less than one hectare to petition for the right to rent unused land from nearby plantation owners.

Indeed by the time Arévalo’s successor, Jacobo Arbenz was elected in 1951, it was clear that the land question would have to be addressed. Though the reforms advanced by the Arevalo government uplifted the small urban working class (wages were up 80 percent from the Ubico years) the great bulk of the population was the rural poor. At the time of Arevalo’s election two percent of landowners held 72 percent of the land. Indigenous peasants were still bound to provide a certain amount of days to plantations. It was also obvious that any serious land reform would necessitate a confrontation with the United Fruit Company.

Arbenz worked to deepen the reforms and on June 27, 1952 Congress passed Decree 900 empowering the government to expropriate uncultivated portions of large plantations. Lands were to be compensated with 25 year government bonds with three percent interest based on values of its declared taxable value, something United Fruit obviously under-reported to reduce its tax liability.

The subsequent CIA led coup against Arbenz that concluded on June 27, 1954, given the loss of democracy, the reversal of land reform leading up to decades of war and oppression that peaked with the scorched earth of the Montt regime, the 200,000 dead, was perhaps the worst such intervention of the 20th century- an intervention that continued for decades through both direct and then indirect American support for the Guatemalan military’s unspeakable crimes.

By the time the war officially came to an end in 1996 the resistance, on display not only with brave guerilla movements but also during the waves of strikes in 1977 and the occupation of the Spanish Embassy in 1980 by a group of Maya K’iche’ farmers protesting repression in the countryside, was largely broken. Guatemala City filled with newly formed slums full of traumatized war refugees and their children soon to be joined by young refugees deported from Los Angeles who brought the gangs (Maras) with them. Meanwhile Central American would be the preferred transit route for narcotics from South America. Added together with a corrupt, violent, incompetent state, and it is easy to see why Guatemala remains one of the world’s most violent countries.

The tattooed youth of the Maras draw the bulk of the limited media coverage the region receives. Indeed they’re seen by elites both domestic and international in a sense as the poor despised stepchildren of globalization: poor, dirty, wild, a bloodthirsty menace. Still for all the hysteria about the Maras there are reasons to believe their impact is exaggerated. Outside of Guatemala City homicide rates are higher in regions not known for gang activity, particularly high in the eastern part of the country traditionally characterized by drug trafficking and organized crime. A report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime refers to a police study that attributed just 14 percent of all homicides taking place in January 2006 to gang activity. In other words there is a very large body count that can be attributed to drug traffickers, paramilitary types, private security forces, and the police and other state actors all of whom probably exploit the Maras for their own purposes as another form of cheap labor.

There is hope that the wide ranging civil society that forced out Perez Molina can continue now that the election is over. Only the reigniting of such collective action can reform the structural inequality that has been built into Guatemala for over a century. However with the election of Morales that appears to be a tall order.

Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer in New York City. He is the author of Emerald City: How Capital Transformed New York (Zer0 Books).