Reconciliation in Guatemala

by padraigcolman

Malign Presidents

Ike and Tricky Dick

The only US president I ever saw live and in the flesh was Dwight D Eisenhower. This was in 1962 after he had been replaced by JFK. Ike and Mamie were disembarking from a transatlantic liner at Cobh, County Cork. Eisenhower was the epitome of all that was dull about the 50s. After Eisenhower left office, his reputation declined. Historians have been revising opinions since then. Eisenhower made a good impression with his warning in his farewell address in 1961  about the threat posed by the “military-industrial complex”.

As early as 1953 he had said: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children”.

I have described in previous articles the malign influence in Latin America of US presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Saint Jimmy Carter. Does that mean Ike is off the hook? No it does not! Just like other US presidents Eisenhower was willing to do the bidding of Big Banana.

In recent surveys of historians, Eisenhower often is ranked in the top 10 among all U.S. Presidents. Guatemalans might not agree.

Colonial Legacy
As in many of the conflicts I have examined in these articles, the seeds of Guatemalan suffering were sown by imperialism. Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarada (1485-1541) subjugated  the Mayan city-states in the 1500s. Land ownership, mineral production, and agriculture were organized to benefit the imperial power. Even after  independence and  the  lands of the indigenous people  continued to be confiscated.

Deadly Inequality
A grossly unequal distribution of wealth led to continuing conflict with civil rights groups as well as guerrilla groups being labelled “communist” by the US. Guatemala became a Cold War pawn, local campaigners were called communist even if they were fighting for social justice. During the long civil, over 150,000 Guatemalans were  killed or disappeared, and millions were made homeless.

Beatriz Manz, in her  book, Paradise in Ashes, wrote: “The best land is dominated by export-oriented plantations. Three % of landholdings control 65 % of the agricultural surface, while close to 90 % of the landholdings are too small for peasant subsistence…the vast majority of people [are] excluded from basic constitutional guarantees… 60%  of the population lives on less than one dollar per day. More than 95 % of the poor in Guatemala have not attended a single grade of secondary education, and 44 percent have never attended school at all.”

US Involvement
In the 1920s, after a century of involvement in agriculture in Guatemala and the export of its food crops, the US established military missions and  Guatemala’s military was tied to the US through training, aid, and a commitment to protect US economic interests. The Army dominated all aspects of life. Under dictator Jorge Ubico (1931-1944), the  United Fruit Company  gained control of 42% of Guatemala’s land, and was exempted from taxes and import duties. 77% of all exports went to the US and 65% of imports came from the US.

United Fruit, Guatemala’s largest landowner, with 85% of its holdings uncultivated, had long been lobbying the CIA to oust reform governments in Guatemala. In 1954, when the Eisenhower administration was still flush with victory after toppling the Mossadegh government in Iran, United Fruit got its wish. Substantial evidence points to the role of the United Fruit Company, which had several direct ties to the CIA, in the 1954  coup.
Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ law firm had prepared United Fruit’s contracts with Guatemala; his brother, CIA Director Allen Dulles, belonged to United Fruit’s law firm; John Moors Cabot, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, was the brother of a former United Fruit president; President Eisenhower’s personal secretary was married to the head of United Fruit’s Public Relations Department.

Allen Dulles head of CIA

The US Abolishes Spring

Guatemala has suffered much oppression,  but between 1945 and 1954, there was an experiment with democracy called the “Ten Years of Springtime”. This started with the election of Juan Jose Arevalo to the presidency. Arevalo established the nation’s social security and health systems and a government bureau to look after Mayan interests.

In 1954, the freely elected successor to Arevalo, Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, was overthrown in a coup orchestrated by the CIA. Land reform had been the main plank of Arbenz’s election platform. An elite 2% of the population owned 70% of the land. Arbenz’s programme was in effect for 18 months, during which 1,500,000 acres were distributed to about 100,000 families. Árbenz himself gave up 1,700 acres  of his own land.


With  US help, Colonel Castillo Armas became the new president. The US Ambassador furnished Armas with lists of radical opponents to be eliminated. Thousands were arrested and many were tortured and killed. United Fruit got all its land back.
Greg Grandin wrote: “ In neither El Salvador nor Guatemala was there even a whiff of serious rural insurrection when the Green Berets, the CIA and the U.S. Agency for International Development began organizing the first security units that would metastasize into a dense, Central America-wide network of death-squad paramilitaries.” Grandin  remarks that “Washington, of course, publicly denied its support for paramilitarism, but the practice of political disappearances took a great leap forward in Guatemala in 1966 with the birth of a death squad created, and directly supervised, by U.S. security advisors.” Between March 3 and March 5 of 1966, more  than 30 leftists were captured, interrogated, tortured and executed. Their bodies were then placed in sacks and dropped into the Pacific Ocean from U.S.-supplied helicopters.

More Malign Presidents
US support for barbarity continued under several administrations (to be fair to Jimmy Carter, in 1979 he ordered a ban on all military aid to the Guatemalan Army). The Reagan Administration signalled to the Guatemalan Army its approval for winning the war by whatever methods and lobbied Congress for more aid. Anyone attempting to improve the lot of the peasants was subject to torture, mutilation, and death. Men were found decapitated or castrated. Some had their eyes gouged-out, their testicles cut off and put in their mouths, their hands or tongues cut off; women had their breasts cut off.

General Efrain Rios Montt, a graduate of the School of the Americas (SOA), came to power in a 1982 coup. He stated that he had “declared a state of siege so that we could kill legally”. Rios Montt moved the war from urban centres to the countryside where “the spirit of the lord” guided him against “communist subversives’, mostly indigenous Indians. During the 17 months of Rios Montt’s “Christian” campaign, 400 villages were destroyed, 10 – 20,000 Indians were killed, and over 100,000 fled to Mexico. Early in 1983, President Reagan resumed military shipments to Guatemala, claiming that Montt’s program against the guerrilla insurgency was working.

Reagan’s war on drugs had no significant impact on drug production and trafficking but the  spraying of lethal herbicides by anti-drug helicopters and planes caused widespread damage, poisoning large numbers of people, animals, fish, and plants.

In 1989, the Bush pére administration, under the guise of humanitarian aid, sent National Guard units to Guatemala to provide medical services. They served in areas where the guerrilla movement was the strongest. As villagers were getting “humanitarian” help, they were questioned about the type of organizations they had, who their leaders were, and what type of people visited their community.


Ros Montt

US-Sponsored Genocide

The Guatemalan atrocities are  sometimes called ‘The Silent Holocaust’. In one of the earliest counter-insurgency operations in 1966, the military killed an estimated 10,000 people to eliminate a band of just 100 rebels. Children were often beaten against walls, or thrown alive into pits where the bodies of adults were later thrown; they were also tortured and raped. Victims of all ages often had their limbs amputated, or were impaled and left to die slowly. Others were doused in petrol and set alight, or disembowelled while still alive. Yet others were shot repeatedly, or tortured and shut up alone to die in pain. The wombs of pregnant women were cut open. Women were routinely raped while being tortured. Women – now widows – who lived could scarcely survive the trauma: ‘the presence of sexual violence in the social memory of the communities has become a source of collective shame’.”
Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Reconciliation was  hard when so many civilians had taken part in atrocities and were now shielded by an amnesty law bitterly resented by victims. There were also many guerrillas and ex-soldiers to demobilise and resettle. All the same, a policy of reconciliation was introduced and, with difficulty, maintained.
According to the U.N.-sponsored Commission for Historical Clarification,  which began work in July 1997,  government forces and state-sponsored paramilitaries were responsible for over 93% of the human rights violations during the war. The report recommended: the memory of the victims should be preserved, there should be compensation, and the democratic process should be strengthened.

In April 1998, another report, the Catholic Church’s “Recuperation of Historical Memory” (also called “Never Again”), was published. The report was publicly presented by Bishop Juan Gerardi; two days later he was murdered. In June 2001 a former head of military intelligence (a graduate of the School of the Americas) and two other officers were sentenced to 30 years in prison for the murder.

Bishop Gerardi

Millions of documents related to crimes committed during the civil war were found abandoned by the former Guatemalan police and could form the basis for future prosecutions. The current democratically-elected president, Otto Pérez Molina, could be a barrier to further legal action as he, a retired general, was the head of intelligence in Guatemala during the civil war. American journalist Francisco Goldman has presented  evidence that Pérez may have participated in the 1998 conspiracy to murder Bishop Gerardi. American lawyer Jennifer Harbury has suggested  that Pérez probably issued the orders to detain and torture her husband the guerrilla leader Efraín Bámaca Velásquez In 1992.
Guatemala Today
The conflict officially ended in 1996. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported in 1999.  Is Guatemala in 2012 a nation at peace with itself?
Vigilante justice is  widespread in Guatemala . There was a recent press report of  a  mob burning a police station after police  intervened to stop the lynching of five accused killers. There were 35 attempted lynchings in the first three months of 2012. Lynchings of suspected criminals increased from 25 in 2004 to 147 in the first ten months of 2011.The 651 instances of “people’s justice” during those seven years resulted in 216 deaths and left another 911 victims seriously injured.
On the night of 12 June 2012, José Tavico Tzunun was murdered in Santa Cruz del Qiché. He helped to organise the town’s referendum on establishing a moratorium on mining and dams. The following day anti-mining activist Yolanda Oquelí was shot while driving home from a barricade against a proposed gold mine in her community of San Jose del Golfo.
Although the conquistadors ended their pillage centuries ago, Mayans are still prey to extractive multi-national companies.