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The New Game in Guatemala


Anyone wondering what happened to the 1960s might visit Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. Surrounded by majestic volcanoes and emerald hills, with a calm surface forever changing color, the lake is one of Latin America’s most spectacular sights, and it has become a mecca for foreign travelers. From Berkeley and Boulder, Paris and Milan, the sandaled tourists come, most of them crowding into the small picturesque town of Panajachel on the lake’s northern shore.

No stay at Panajachel is complete without a boat ride across the lake. Passengers are dropped off in Santiago Atitlán, a small pueblo on the lake’s southern rim. The contrast with Panajachel could not be more striking. Poor and densely populated, with narrow rutted streets and crumbling houses, Santiago is a typical Mayan village. Most of its residents wear traditional Indian clothes—the women, intricately woven scarlet dresses; the men, striped embroidered pants extending to mid-calf. Santiago’s woven textiles are popular with tourists, and by day the town is filled with American and European bargain-hunters.

At night, however, Santiago Atitlán becomes a far more menacing place. Guerrilla activity has grown lately along the lake’s southern shore, and the sound of armed clashes can be heard from the surrounding hills. More frightening are the bands of masked men who prey on the town. “There are attacks here all the time,” says Juan (not his real name), a seventeen-year-old seminary student. One night earlier this year, Juan’s father, a campesino working part-time as a public health aide for the Catholic Church, was walking with a friend on the outskirts of town when they were set upon by a group of men wielding machetes. The friend was killed, and Juan’s father was badly wounded. No one knows who carried out the attack or why, but the connection with the Church probably played a part. “Many of those who are attacked here are working with the Church,” Juan said. He has had to interrupt his studies to help support his family. “Anyone who works with the Church is seen as working with the people.” And that, he said, was enough to make one suspect.

Guatemala seems to be simultaneously moving forward into a new era of tolerance and sliding backward into the Dark Ages. President Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo—“Vinicio” to both friend and foe—is about to complete five years in the National Palace. Barring some last minute upheaval, he will be only the third civilian president this century to finish his term—a step forward for Guatemala’s democratic system, which was installed only with the election of Cerezo in 1985. Guatemalans vote on November 11 for a new president, who will take office on January 15.

On the other hand, Cerezo’s performance has given democracy a bad name. In Guatemala I heard many stories about his wild parties, his affairs with women, his sudden, extraordinary wealth. On weekends, which can last as long as four days, Cerezo retreats to the luxurious presidential country house not far from Guatemala City, where he swims and plays tennis. Meanwhile crime is soaring, corruption is spreading, and the inflation rate is rising at a record 40 percent a year. Thanks largely to Vinicio, only one third of those surveyed in a recent poll cited democracy as the best system for their country; about the same number chose military rule.

It’s no surprise, then, that the most popular candidate to succeed Cerezo is a former dictator. General Efraín Ríos Montt has shaken the Guatemalan political establishment with his apocalyptic pronouncements and overheated campaign style. A fundamentalist preacher affiliated with a California-based religious group called The Word, Ríos Montt has promised a moral crusade to rescue the country, and many Guatemalans, fed up with crime and corruption, are supporting him. It is true that, as the country’s strongman in 1982 and 1983, he sent criminals before firing squads, torched villages, and forced peasants into Guatemalan-style strategic hamlets. But after Cerezo, many voters long for a man of “firmness.” They might not get the chance to vote for him, however. According to the 1985 constitution, anyone who previously took power by force cannot become president, and in August a court disqualified Ríos Montt from running. The general has since appealed the decision, and some observers predict there will be street protests if he is denied.

In the countryside, meanwhile, Guatemala’s guerrillas are becoming more active. As recently as a year ago, the insurgency—the oldest in Latin America—seemed defeated. The number of guerrillas under arms—between seven thousand and eight thousand in the early 1980s—had dwindled to no more than perhaps eight hundred. But the rebels have painstakingly rebuilt their rural organization, especially in the western highlands, where most of Guatemala’s Indians live. These Indians typically earn only a few hundred dollars a year. As the price of food and other necessities has risen, so has Indian dissatisfaction, and the guerrillas have proved adept at exploiting it.

About half of Guatemala’s nine million people are Mayan in origin. (The rest, called ladinos, are of mixed blood.) The Indians speak native dialects, wear traditional dress, and work tiny plots of land, called milpas. Until now, they have rarely mixed in national politics. Now, however, indigenous Guatemalans, taking advantage of opportunities afforded by civilian rule, are beginning to form their own autonomous institutions. The largest of these is the Council of Ethnic Communities Runujuel Junam, or CERJ. (Runujuel Junam means “Everybody is Equal” in Quiché, one of the country’s four main language groups.) CERJ was set up two years ago to see to it that the new constitution—an impressive document thick with promises of political and human rights—was enforced in Indian communities. Today, the organization has six thousand members, most of them semiliterate peasants living in remote villages. CERJ’s leader, an elementary school teacher named Amilcar Méndez, is himself a Quiché Indian.

I met Méndez one August evening in a room on the top floor of the Ritz-Continental, a bustling, garish hotel in downtown Guatemala City. The occasion was the first National Forum on Human Rights to be held in Guatemala, and more than one hundred people showed up for the event. Elsewhere, such a meeting might seem common-place, but in Guatemala, which has one of the worst human rights records in Latin America, it was momentous. For two days the delegates met without incident, pledging at the end to redouble their efforts to protect human rights. “Here, the political parties assume that democracy means only voting,” Méndez, an intense and forceful man, told me. “But democracy goes far beyond that. The Mayan people have become marginal. Their human rights are constantly being violated.”

Méndez’s group is the first human rights organization to be set up in the countryside. When Vinicio Cerezo took office five years ago, Guatemala had only one human rights organization; today, it has half a dozen. Earlier this year, the Catholic Church, after several false starts, opened its own human rights office. In political circles, Americas Watch and Amnesty International are now well-known, and presidential candidates and army colonels can cite their reports.

In reality, however, respect for human rights is as tenuous as ever. After declining during the first two years of Cerezo’s term, political violence has since soared. Teachers, students, labor leaders, and peasant activists have been abducted, murdered, disappeared. Human rights monitors have been attacked, and CERJ alone has lost nine of its members. Bodies bearing signs of severe torture—severed hands, gougedout eyes, smashed skulls—are turning up on roadsides and river banks, much as they did during the early 1980s, when Guatemala was shunned for its brutality and violence.

Between 1970 and 1986, Guatemala suffered an estimated 100,000 political killings and 40,000 disappearances.1 It was in Guatemala in the 1960s that the word desaparecido—disappeared one—was first used as a noun. During the regime of Major General Fernando Romeo Lucas García (1978–1982), hundreds of people were killed every month, most of them by officially sanctioned death squads. Today in Guatemala, it’s hard to find anyone in his thirties or forties who can talk incisively about politics; most are dead, disappeared, or in exile.

Growing fears that Guatemala may be reverting to its grisly past have prompted protests from a number of foreign governments, the United States among them. In February, Ambassador Thomas Stroock, addressing a Rotary Club meeting in Guatemala City, declared:

It appears exceeding strange to us that in none of these [human rights] cases have the authorities been able to capture the vile and cowardly criminals. It is impossible for the United States to maintain strong, stable, and firm relations with governments that violate or fail to effectively protect human rights.

President Cerezo responded by criticizing Stroock for his remarks, and the State Department, in a show of support for its envoy, recalled him to Washington for consultations.

The US turned up the pressure in September regarding the case of Michael Devine, an American who for many years ran a tourist ranch in northern Guatemala. In June, Devine’s body was discovered, his head partially severed and his hands tied behind his back. The motive for the killing remains uncertain, but all signs point to involvement by the Guatemalan military. On September 20, President Cerezo announced that he had ordered the arrest of three suspects, including members of the security forces, but as of late September it was not clear if the arrests had been made or whether prosecution would take place. The Bush administration has threatened to cut off all military aid to Guatemala—$3.3 million in 1990—if the Cerezo government fails fully to pursue the case.

Such firmness represents a dramatic change in US policy. The Reagan administration viewed Guatemala as an emergent democracy requiring constant support, and so it remained mute on human rights. Not so the Bush administration, which Americas Watch, long accustomed to criticizing US policy toward Guatemala, has even begun to praise. “Stroock’s outspokenness and willingness to go on record criticizing the government and military institutions is a welcome change from the past,” says Anne Manuel of Americas Watch. “It has given the issue of human rights a higher profile in official and military circles than it otherwise would have.”

Stroock seems an unlikely candidate for such a mission. A political appointee, he has known George Bush since college. (Both graduated from Yale in 1948.) A former Marine and a Wyoming oil man, Stroock has the hearty confidence of a sunbelt Republican. In his comments on human rights, though, he sounds like a liberal Democrat. To understand this, one must take into account the changing political land-scape in Central America. As a high US official described it,

Not long ago, it looked as if a Soviet Union satellite/client was going to control Nicaragua through an election. It looked as if the FMLN, another Soviet client, might very well overthrow the government of El Salvador. A drug trafficker was actively running things in Panama. All of this has changed…. The Soviet Union is dramatically no longer involved—in fact, it is dramatically uninvolved—in trying to foment trouble and devote energy and time and money to create unpleasant diversions for the United States in Central America, which was clearly its policy…. That opens up a whole new range of opportunities to the United States for its diplomacy in the region. Whereas before, there were an awful lot of things going on that we had to overlook because our main emphasis was trying to contain the influence of the Soviet Union, now we don’t have to take that stuff anymore.

  1. 1

    Americas Watch, Guatemala News in Brief, No.3 (May, 1986), p. 5.

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