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GUATEMALA; uncertainty, terror for the poor and defenseless

There are three Guatemalas: The Guatemala of the tourist, which can be delightful. The Guatemala of the ladinos,m the Spanish-speaking people largely of mixed European and Indian descent, for whom life can be good and comfortable. Good particularly for those who stay out of politics, refrain from criticizing the government, and learn to ignore the third Guatemala.

The third Guatemala is that of the poor and defenseless, most of whom are descendants of the ancient Mayan Indians. They make up more than half the population of Guatemala. For many of them, life can mean at best uncertainty, at worst terror.

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It is in the Indians' world of volcanoes, cornfields, lakes, and ravines that much of the country's turmoil exists. It is here that the fate of Guatemala's 7 million people could be decided.

Being in many ways the strongest nation among the Central American republics, Guatemala may have the greatest potential for intervening in the affairs of its neighbors and dragging them into a "regionalization" of the El Salvador conflict.

In some ways the country is much better off than its neighbors to the south.It is the most populous, wealthy, and industrialized of the six Central American nations. It has sizable foreign-exchange reserves. It also has oil of its own and could become, within several years, a small to medium exporter of petroleum.

But one of the causes of Guatemala's problems can be found in simple economics: low prices for coffee, the country's main export crop. Like many developing nations, Guatemala suffers from lower prices for its exports and rising prices for its imports. As a result, owners of large plantations, or incas,m try to cut their costs. There are fewer jobs for Indian laborers who migrate each year to work, at low wages, on plantations on the southern coast.

At the same time, population growth has placed enormous pressure on the land, particularly in the western highlands where many of the Indians live. The cost of fertilizer keeps rising.

In the view of US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., the Soviets and Cubans are responsible for much of the trouble that afflicts Guatemala and its neighbor to the southeast, El Salvador. But if you go to some of the worst trouble spots in Guatemala, you will find that people don't know much about Soviets or Cubans. They still seem locked in an ancient culture that predates the Spanish Conquest.

Is Guatemala truly important?

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The United States thought it was important enough in 1954 for the Central Intelligence Agency to help engineer a successful coup against the elected left-wing government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman.

Although Secretary Haig didn't say so, it is clear that in Washington's view today, much of Guatemala's importance derives from its location next to Mexico, the biggest prize of the region. Only 120 miles stretch between the Guatemalan border and the nearest of Mexico's major oil fields. The Mexicans are now drilling even closer to that border. Mexico's southernmost state, Chiapas, is struggling with some of the same problems that confront Guatemala. Chiapas's large Indian population suffers from malnutrition, social and economic injustices, unemployment, and underemployment.

Guatemala's guerrilla groups have drawn increasingly on the normally standoffish Indian population.This is one of the things that had begun to alarm US officials in the Carter administration. It is likely to alarm the Reagan administration even more, once it gets its Latin America policy in order and turns its attention to Guatemala.

Relations between the Carter administration and the government headed by President Romeo Lucas Garcia were strained.The Carter administration's emphasis on human rights alienated General Lucas, and, at one point in a public speech, he called Jimmy Carter "Fidel Carter." President Lucas refused further American military aid.

One prevailing theory has it that under the Reagan administration a resumption of military aid is inevitable. Guatemala is said to be short of helicopters. Out of a fleet of about 10, only 3 to 6 are reported to be operational at any given time.

But a sizable number of US congressmen are preparing to fight any proposal for military aid to Guatemala, on the grounds that this nation's continuing human rights violations would prohibit it. A slight increase in a relatively modest economic aid program is all that the new administration has called for so far.

What seems clear is that the Reagan administration wants first to gain the confidence of General Lucas and his government. But to give Guatemala more arms might just encourage the country's generals to intensify the repression in which they are engaged. Some US government experts say they are aware of such a danger and are, therefore, advocating a "balanced" policy that would combine confidence-building support for Guatemalla with incentives to curb abuses. That may be easier said than done.

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