Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Guatemala: trembling between order and breakdown

"The violent headlines don't represent us. We are a happy and peaceful people. The beauty of the countryside embraces us." Luis motioned my gaze outward toward the scenic view as he spoke of his native Guatemala, the largest of the Central American nations. Green mountain crests and jutting volcanoes encircled the villages of the valley stretched out before us.

Luis's exuberance was hard to accept, however. Just on the other side of those mountains, El Salvador was torn by open warfare.

About these ads

After El Salvador, Guatemala is considered the next most volatile country in Central America. Amnesty International, the London- based human-rights group, calls Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia's regime "one of the most repressive governments in Latin America today." The organization reports that 3,000 people were killed between last January and November. Another 364 disappeared during that time.

Many blame the government and right-wing vigilantes, who some claim operate with impunity, for the violence. But leftist guerrillas mount ambushes against government, Army, and police personnel, too -- and even against some missionaries. Both groups are increasingly better organized and better armed. As a result, Guatemala is rapidly becoming yet another Central American country under siege.

Many key political leaders have been assassinated or have fled. Manuel Colom Argueta, for instance former Guatemala City mayor, was killed in 1979 a couple of days after finally managing to register his moderate political party, the Social Democrat United Revolutionary Front. Another popular moderate, former Foreign Minister Alberto Fuentes Mohr, was assassinated within seven weeks of Mr. Colom Argueta. Several prominent union organizers -- especially for the miners, textile workers, and soda bottlers -- have been shot down in the streets by the Secret Anticommunist Army (ESA). Numerous popular university professors have also been killed.

Here in this nation the size of Ohio, recycled school buses, crammed with riders and a multitude of market baskets atop, link a population more diverse than that of any other Central American state.

The Ladinos (mixed Indian and Spanish blood) are the middle class of entreprenuers and professionals. The creoles (Spanish pure blood), less than 5 percent of the total population, own most of the plantations along the fertile Pacific coast. The remaining 55 percent of the people are of Indian descent.The Indiands are highland farmers, squatters on the city perimeters, or migrant plantation laborers.

Most Guatemalans dismiss the violence in their country as the work of "extremists."

"We can't brood over the skirmishes of trouble- makers," Luis, a lawyer, says when asked about 39 Indian demonstrators who were killed while occupying the Spanish Embassy in January 1980.

About these ads

"The country lives on rumors. . . . No one really knows exactly what is going on," a rubber-plantation owner says.

Says another observer: "The government has to be supporting the death squads. Why else are there no prosecutions, off-duty policemen involved, and military weaponry available to groups like ESA? The killings are just too convenient for those in power not to have a part."

It is not certain, however, how much control President Lucas Garcia has over the "death lists" and "hit squads" allegedly supervised by some of his ministers. The pressure of his wealthy constituency supplies at least some of the impetus. One of these wealthy Guatemalans says, "The only fault of Somoza [ the late Gen. Anastacio Somoza Debayle, longtime Nicaraguan dictator] is that he became soft on the dissidents!"

Some students of Latin America see the current political strife as merely another cycle in the grueling course of the region's politics.

"Indian, Spanish, and [Roman] Catholic influences amalgamated to form a culture prone to hierarchical authority," says a former US State Department official. "The military, so frequently cast as the villainous ally of vigilante groups and an exploitive elite, may in fact be deterring chaos and even supplying needed organization, logistical and technological skills."

But the nation's Army, composed largely of Indians, is getting an increasingly disparaging reputation. It is frightening the Ladinos. "Many of these youthful Indian recruits are literally kidnapped from their villages, given their first pair of boots, and then taught to 'kill, kill, kill,'" says a schoolteacher in the highland villages. "All they know how to do is pull the trigger, and they'll do so without much provocation.

Clad in the familiar olive drab uniforms, Indian soldiers are visible on the street corners of the capital, marching in platoons on backwoods roads, or in low-flying patrol copters over the second-largest city, Quezaltenango. But military ruthlessness is felt most directly in the central, rural state of Quiche, where fighting is the most intense. Land disputes between large companies and local villagers have been on the rise since the Panzos "massacre" of 1978, when 40 to 100 disgruntled Indians were gunned down by soldiers.

Reports indicate that Indians are also joining the guerrilla bands. It is not clear, however, whether the four territorial, leftist armies are coalescing into the type of united front that made the Sandinistas' drive in Nicaragua successful. One thing has become certain: The guerrilla groups are not simply "scattered bandits indulging their inflated Latin egos" or "dogmatic communists directed by the Cubans."

Stark poverty undoubtedly fuels their cause. The highland Indians hoe half-acre plots of corn and beans on deforested and eroding mountainsides. They speak nearly 100 dialects, are largely illiterate, and generally malnourished. They have a high infant mortality rate, and the adult life span is about 48 years.

Incomes are so small that many children are forced to beg; teen-agers turn to prostitution. Fathers unable to provide for their families turn to alcohol.

Many Indians are deserting mountain huts for cities, especially after a taste of the Army or government-sponsored training schools. Frequently they join relatives in the rings of ramshackle tin and cardboard shacks around Guatemala City. The best known of these around Guatemala City. The best named for the date of a devastating earthquake. In the downpours of the rainy season, sections of the area are washed away regularly.

Though Indians are flocking to the cities, non- Indians persistently see them as a different kind of people. "We just have different cultures!" a Ladino businessman explains. "I mean, look at the dirt floors and chickens in their houses. Even the rich Indians would rather sleep in a hammock. They simply prefer their isolation and own life style to the intrusions of progress."

Sympathies for the guerrillas are rising, especially among younger Ladinos and politicized Indians. Improvements in the country's public works have not lived up to images in the government's TV commercials, which show power plants, hospitals, major highways, and public schools. With 70 percent of the land still owned by 2 percent of the population, the benefits of rich coffee crops, cattle, cotton, and fruit go to too few.

Still, the Guatemalan economy has been growing steadily, averaging 5.7 percent a year over the past 20 years. The controversial contruction of a major highway system traversing the north-central region and a new port south of Guatemala City has raised the country's bid to enter the world economy.

Ironically, the second-largest industry in Guatemala is tourism. Even after the earthquake, about 500,000 people a year have visited Antigua, volcano-ringed Atitlan Lake, and Tikal's majestic jungle ruins.

Since the 1976 quake, which killed some 30,000 and left much of the population homeless, over 200 international relief organizations have been quietly working on reconstruction. They have brought water pipes, rabbit raising, organic farming, terracing, crop rotation, and health education to the countryside.

The US-born director of one development organization takes a hard look at the projects under his supervision: "Guatemalans feel development has already swept through the country and, in many cases, exhausted, rather than revived, it. The substantial changes are slow. For them to occur, we must consider the whole fabric of life here, especially its spiritual dimensions, and redefine development as the life decisions made by those involved in the midst of it."

As the level of violence increases, it is clear that something has to give.

To many, the revolution is already here. The frequent funeral processions and closings of schools, the armed holdups whose proceeds are funneled into the guerrilla war, and the weapons searches deepen the despair and fear. After the funeral of the sixth assassinated Roman Catholic priest, a spokesman for the church pointed out, "There seems now to be no peaceful resolution in sight."

However self-contained this small country may be, the flare-up has not occurred outside spheres of US influence. The Central Intelligence Agency is allegedly not as active as it once was. Guatemalans, nonetheless, remember and talk about the 1954 CIA- assisted revolution that helped depose the left-leaning but reformist regime of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. A violent military sweep of the countryside in the late 1960s, which US military advisers helped to plan, is also still in many minds. (The 1966-74 death toll is numbered at 20,000.)

Many still feel very much at the mercy of the US. "Reagan will arm us and help us to do away with the communists once and for all," said one Guatemalan over Sunday dinner. It is a sentiment shared by many of the middle and upper classes.

But the course of events may now be beyond the control of the US.

"Chile, Russia, Cuba, the US, are all different societies. Guatemala must establish its own form of government," says Guatemalan with a sense of nationalism. "Aid must be accepted but without conditions or stipulations."

Guatemalans of varying perspectives talk of a genuine "democracy," free of the election fraud that it is often alleged in to occur in balloting here.

Some Guatemalans feel a political cycle is about to be eased by an "inevitable" revolution. Others skeptically resign themselves to be imposed "stability" of the curron government.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.