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Glimmers of Hope in Guatemala

From Silence to Memory: Revelations of the Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional

with a foreword by Carlos Aguirre and a preface by Kate Doyle
University of Oregon Libraries, 476 pp., available at scholarsbank.uoregon.edu
Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
The Kaibiles, a special counterinsurgency force of the Guatemalan army that has been accused of human rights violations, Guatemala City, 1988

A few weeks ago in Guatemala, I participated in a long-overdue commemoration. September 14 was the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of President Jacobo Árbenz, a former army officer who was elected in 1950, then ousted in 1954 in a coup organized 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. September’s commemoration included speeches, conferences, and a vote by the city council in Quetzaltenango, where Árbenz was born in 1913, to name the local airport in his honor.

This commemoration unfolded at the end of a year during which Guatemalans’ attention was focused on a very different period of their history, the horrifically violent 1980s. In May a Guatemalan court convicted General Efraín Ríos Montt, who was head of state from 1982 to 1983, of genocide. A higher court quickly annulled the verdict, but nonetheless it was a spectacular triumph for victims of the thirty-six-year civil war that broke out soon after Árbenz was overthrown.

While I was in Guatemala, I visited a chilling police archive that reflects yet another aspect of this country’s attempt to confront its past. It came to light after investigators entered a Guatemala City police compound in 2005 and found, piled in moldy and vermin-infested heaps, nearly 80 million documents comprising a minute history of the National Police from 1882 to 1997. I was led past teams of archivists who, wearing gloves and hairnets, are meticulously digitizing this collection. They have scanned about 15 million documents so far. A single-volume collection of highlights was published in Guatemala two years ago, and an English translation, From Silence to Memory, has just appeared. It is a cold but intimate self-portrait of the terror state.

This is an almost unimaginable chain of events for Guatemala: discovery of the police archive and publication of its contents; a genocide verdict against General Ríos Montt; and the reemergence of Árbenz from historical oblivion. It cannot be taken to mean that Guatemala has matured as a nation. 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.

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.

In this fluid environment, new social forces are emerging. Members of the postwar generation seem eager to learn about Guatemala’s past and help guide its future. The middle class is growing. Movements advocating for the rights of indigenous peoples are active and growing. New forms of communication and social media have made it impossible for the repressive apparatus to function with the impunity it has enjoyed for generations.

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.”

The overthrow of Jacobo 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, Director of Central Intelligence 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 from 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.

Árbenz had been drawn to Marxism before and during his presidency. The head of Guatemala’s Communist Party, José Manuel Fortuny, was among his closest advisers. He ordered weapons from Czechoslovakia after the United States cut off supplies to his army. Though he may have wished to stay out of the cold war, he seemed to have no understanding of the intense fear of Communist expansionism that gripped the United States in the 1950s. He never realized how his actions would look from Washington’s cold war perspective.

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. At the rebellion’s peak in the 1970s and 1980s, Guatemalan guerrillas considered themselves allies of the Sandinistas of Nicaragua and leftist rebels in El Salvador.

This conflict produced a series of dictators, of whom Ríos Montt is now the most notorious. His trial marked the first time a former head of state has been convicted of genocide in his own country. Hundreds of Guatemalans, many in the clothes of indigenous people, attended the trial. Dozens wrote blogs or sent tweets from the courtroom. Ninety-four witnesses testified, often in gruesome detail. Damning documents were projected onto a large screen in the courtroom. Ríos Montt watched it all. Many others, nearby and far away, followed the trial on a live video feed. The conviction was met by an outpouring of jubilation—but also a quick backlash.

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.

Prominent businessmen had been members of the Council of State, a body Ríos Montt created to help him run the country in the early 1980s. After talking with Zury Ríos and her associates, several of them commissioned a study to determine if they might be held responsible for collaborating with genocide. The analyst they employed told them it was possible. “If you follow the chain of command to the president, the Council of State could also be put on trial,” he told a Guatemalan journalist. “Anyone who collaborated with the army in any way could be forced to answer in court.”

In view of this threat, twelve business leaders, including six former cabinet ministers and two former vice-presidents, issued a declaration asserting, “The charge of genocide is a legal fabrication that has nothing to do with the wish of victims to dignify their lost loved ones.” They followed this with a sustained publicity campaign using the slogan “Guatemala Is Not Genocidal.” President Otto Pérez Molina, a retired general, said former guerrilla leaders should be on trial instead of Ríos Montt because “it was the guerrillas who brought war to the Ixil triangle,” referring to a region where guerrillas hid and many thousands of Indians were killed. But he did not stop the trial from proceeding.

The guilty verdict, which came on May 10, with an eighty-year prison sentence, was a judicial affirmation of Ríos Montt’s role in one of the most murderous military campaigns in Latin American history. An estimated 200,000 people were killed, and a limited United Nations–sponsored commission later concluded that 93 percent of them died at the hands of government forces. 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.

Yet the annulment barely dampened the sense of victory that activists felt at the conviction. They had secured a legal judgment of genocide, underpinned by a 718-page verdict citing an overwhelming array of evidence. Their legal victory was canceled, but their moral triumph remains clear.

Much of the best news coverage of the Ríos Montt trial, including the first published account of how and why the business elite became involved, was produced by a remarkable new online journal called Plaza Pública. Founded in 2011 and now employing ten full-time reporters, it does not rely on advertising; most of its expenses are paid by the Rafael Landívar University in Guatemala City, where it is based, with contributions from George Soros’s Open Society Foundations and a Dutch foundation, Hivos. Its director, Martín Rodriguez Pellecer, who is thirty years old, has emerged as one of the country’s leading reporters. He and his colleagues reject the codes of silence that paralyzed Guatemalan journalism for decades. In September, Rodriguez Pellecer participated in the Árbenz commemoration. Afterward I asked him how he saw his country at this moment. He told me it still suffers from “deep problems that are the result of inequality and the absence of the state,” but is also changing—thanks in part to the emergence of peasant cooperatives organized by groups ranging from weavers to coffee growers. “There is a growing middle class,” he said,

both in Guatemala City and in the interior, much of it organized in prosperous and democratic cooperatives. These cooperatives are producing 10 percent of our gross national product, and have political influence. The other area where there has been improvement is the justice system…. We now have important people in prison, including drug traffickers, corrupt government officials, major business figures who committed tax fraud, and soldiers responsible for massacres.
A good part of our society is ready to confront our history, but the circles of power are not. That’s why the verdict against Ríos Montt was annulled. It was a judgment about a crime that permeates our society, since genocide is the ultimate expression of racism. In the end it was a positive step. Guatemala is still plagued by racism and machismo, but much less than in the past.
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