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Hope in Guatemala

There have been many well-known examples of political engineering carried out by the United States through sponsored coups or assassination. Syria in 1949 and Iran in 1953 are oft-cited examples. And as even the most ardent interventionists must now admit, these interventions haven’t worked out to American advantage in the long run.

“Blowback” is the trade term. It’s interesting that political engineering aimed at securing the “commanding heights” of state power for friendly elements often doesn’t work over time. This is equally true of engineering from the right and from the left. Society and culture matter: they cannot be casually swept aside. Or if they are in the long run they will reassert themselves. In the short term however there can be endless pain for those in society identified as hostile to the newly manufactured political order.

Guatemala offers a harrowing example of pain suffered but may also be showing that over time society can eventually wear down tyranny. In that troubled country the scales are currently shifting away from the traditional centres of power, the military, business and the Catholic Church.

In the current issue of the New York Review Stephen Kinzer publishes an essay on Guatemala which provides details of a police state at war with large elements of the population over several decades:

President Jacobo Árbenz, a former army officer who was elected in 1950, was ousted in 1954 in a coup organised by the CIA, and replaced by a military junta. His name has been taboo in Guatemala for most of the time since then. Many in the ruling elite still consider the causes he championed ‑ land reform above all ‑ repugnant and mortally dangerous.

A civil war followed, and from the 1950s the apparatus and mechanics of state violence were developed, reaching their zenith in the 1980s. The initial impetus derived from American cold war fears. As Kinzer explains:

The overthrow of Árbenz in 1954 was among the most ill-conceived CIA operations. In the hypercharged atmosphere of the early cold war, President Dwight Eisenhower, secretary of state John Foster Dulles, and his brother, CIA director Allen Dulles, decided that Guatemala threatened the United States. The United States had an army 140 times the size of Guatemala’s, a territory ninety times larger, and a population fifty times greater. Nonetheless the land reform program Árbenz advocated, his friendship with Guatemalan communists, and opposition to him in Washington on the part of the powerful United Fruit Company convinced the Dulles brothers ‑ who had represented United Fruit as private lawyers at Sullivan and Cromwell ‑ that he was too dangerous to be tolerated.

The overthrow of Árbenz led to protests, repression, rebellion, and civil war. Several guerrilla groups emerged. Many of their leaders were inspired by Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba, and Castro gave them various forms of help over the war’s long course. Some groups drew support from indigenous people, including the Ixil Maya, who have been known for rebelliousness since the days of the Spanish conquest.

Some 200,000 people were killed and according to a UN investigation 93 per cent died at the hands of government troops. In the early eighties, the Ixil Mayan indigenous population was particularly targeted and was subject to systematic rape and displacement. However, over time, the era of slaughters passed; politics has been gradually changing in Guatemala since the mid-1990s. Kinzer explains:

Yet as the civil war fades into history—peace accords were signed in 1996—Guatemala’s old power structure is losing its grip. All three of the institutions that have run the country as a virtual triumvirate for most of its existence—the army, the wealthy elite, and the Catholic Church—are weaker than at any time in the last half-century. Revelations about the army’s crimes have cost it much of its political prestige. The traditional ruling class, dominated by old coffee-farming families, is being challenged by new groups that have become rich through drug trafficking or by winning Internet and cell phone contracts. Catholicism is weakening as evangelical sects grow in size and influence.

The military general Efraín Ríos Montt, who was head of state in the early 1980s has been brought before the courts and found guilty of genocide. The presiding judge declared: “The Ixils were considered public enemies of the state and were also victims of racism, considered an inferior race.”

The reassertion of society’s deep cultural values is a much slower business than a coup. It takes a long time and there can be setbacks. In Guatemala it looks very like two steps forward and one step back:

Leaders of Guatemala’s notoriously reactionary business elite did not seem troubled when prosecutors indicted Ríos Montt for directing a genocidal campaign against the Ixil Maya. He was never part of their inner circle, and they felt no urge to rescue him. As the verdict approached, however, Zury Ríos, the daughter of Ríos Montt and a member of Congress, and several other children of retired military officers met with powerful business leaders. They warned: if you allow Ríos Montt to be convicted, you may be next … Ten days after the verdict was pronounced, the constitutional Court, citing an error in legal procedure, annulled it. That pleased business leaders who had been members of Ríos Montt’s Council of State. It also calmed the fears of dozens of well-to-do Guatemalans who, during the 1980s, flew combat support missions and carried out bombing raids for the army in their own planes and helicopters.

If the political atmosphere is changing Kinzer is under no illusion that all is now well for the Guatemalan people:

Guatemala is no longer at war, but its democracy is one of the weakest in the hemisphere. Its politics is corrupt. The range of choices at election time is narrow, and Congress is splintered and frozen into immobility. Drug gangs have penetrated government. Violence is endemic. Entire populations of indigenous people are still suffering from the effects of political violence. Millions subsist in acute poverty.

Those on the ground, however, are encouraged by recent events:

One public discussion about Árbenz during the September commemoration was held in Guatemala City at the Sophos bookstore, which has become a center of intellectual life. As the audience gathered, the owner, Philippe Hunziker, told me that this is an “interesting moment” for his country. “The power of the traditional elite is no longer absolute,” he said. “It’s still strong enough to prevent any left-oriented political force from competing for power in elections, but we are seeing possibilities that have not existed in Guatemala for a long time.”

Read Glimmers of Hope in Guatemala: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/dec/05/glimmers-hope-guatemala/



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