In the United States we often look to European and African countries for examples of dictatorship, civil war, inequality and genocide. In the 1990s, several countries experienced mass exodus, civil war, race war, religious war, and genocide. Yugoslavia’s Serbian population attempted to cleanse itself of Muslims and Croats, in Rwanda the Hutu population exterminated almost the entire Tutsi population, while in East Timor and several other countries refugees fled from the tyranny of “their” government. Less often however do we look, or even realize that our neighbors to the south are experiencing remarkably similar acts of violence, hate, and misuse of power. Bordered mostly by Mexico, Belize, and Honduras Guatemala is known for its volcanoes, exquisite beaches, gorgeous landscapes, ancient Mayan ruins, and a unique culture. However, it is also a country tainted by oppression, injustice, servitude, racial inequality, and genocide.
Andrew Miller, a Penn State University student describes Guatemala: “Guatemala, it has been said, is a country of extremes. Within can be witnessed the riches of breathtaking scenery, natural resources and cultural diversity. Simultaneously, however, one sees extreme poverty and exploitation of indigenous peoples which characterize the country’s history. ” Another view, by Jean-Marie Simon, describes the Guatemalan dark side, the reality of all Guatemalans. “Guatemala is a place where the political, economic, and social panorama is unfairly skewed in every possible way.
. . . In Guatemala, life gets better for a minority, at the expense of millions of others. ” After centuries of race and class wars, Guatemala teetered between peace and war during the “ten years of spring,” or ten years of democracy.
Unfortunately, Guatemala finally plunged into complete darkness and genocide followed. Guatemala’s genocide now serves humanity, along with all other occurrences of genocide, as a reminder that we are all capable of committing acts of horror. History is the only reference that humanity has to use to answer the “unanswerable questions” that surround any genocide. The questions include why and how could this have ever happened, and what makes humans capable of terror? Through understanding and studying the causation and actual genocide in Guatemala, it may be possible to shed some light on the questions that humanity faces. What, one may ask, causes a country with such obvious beauty and potential to recess into a shadow of hate, racism, and classism that can only lead to one result, genocide? Guatemala was not always teetering between genocide and no genocide.
Rather the genocide that occurred in Guatemala happened as a result of a sort of evolution from a dictatorship to “a largely peaceful revolution” to conditions embracing hate, violence, and finally genocide. Several factors influenced this transition from relative peace to extreme violence. Economic issues regarding land and labor fueled the fire, as did political issues. In fact, the United States of America greatly contributed to the violence by training Guatemalan police in torture tactics in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
“Between 1956 and 1963 annual U. S. military assistance to Guatemala multiplied by tens times. ” Conflicts between races and classes also contributed to the evolution. However, what remains amazing about Guatemala’s genocide is that it followed ten years of a relatively peaceful revolution from 1944 when Ubico was overthrown to 1954 when President Arbenz resigned (due to a coup led by the United States). In his history of Guatemala, Gift of the Devil Jim Handy, a Central America historian describes those ten years as “Ten Years of Spring.
” Nevertheless, and while generally peaceful, the national revolution between 1944 and 1954 provided Guatemala with a foundation for decades of racial injustice, economic and political inequality, and “the worst genocide in the Americas since the first arrival of the Europeans. “General Jorge Ubico, who Handy describes as “the archetype of Guatemalan dictators,” led the dictatorship that existed before the ten years of spring. “To many Guatemalans, the rule of Jorge Ubico too closely resembled the European and Japanese fascist dictatorships they were now joined in struggle against. ” During the last years of Ubico’s reign, from the late 1930s to the early 1940s, Guatemala experienced a growth of workers, small businessmen, professionals, and students. While the indigenous and poor workers of Guatemala were the most involved in the opposition to Ubico, all of these groups of Guatemalans proved critical to the revolution as they led the desire for reform. They sought a new leader as well as economic and social reforms.
Finally in 1944, students, workers, professionals, intellectuals, and young military officers overthrew Ubico. A year later, in 1945, a teacher was appropriately named president, Juan Jos? Ar?valo. Juan Jos? Ar?valo wanted to create a capitalist economy while leading a democratic and nationalistic revolution that was sympathetic to the working man and woman. In his inaugural speech he proclaimed, “Now we are going to begin a period of sympathy for the man who works in the fields, in the shops, on the military bases, [and] in small business. ” This is a monumental proclamation. In Guatemala it was and remains rare for any political figure with power to openly support the indigenous majority.
For decades, the white minority had ruled with an iron fist creating barely bearable living conditions for the working man, woman, and child. Ar?valo sought to change all this, and began by signing into law the 1945 Constitution. The 1945 Constitution reflected Ar?valo’s first four political reforms. First, the constitution created new voting regulations. This is a substantial reform because it allowed illiterate men and literate women the right to vote.
As well, the new voting regulations allowed Guatemala to catch up in voting rights with fully developed democratic nations. In the United States the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote in 1920, the 15th Amendment granted black men the right to vote in the US in 1870. The second major provision of the 1945 Constitution attacked Guatemala’s history of dictatorships. It prevented the re-election of any president. This, in theory, ensured that Guatemala would no longer be subjugated to dictatorial rule and ensured democracy for the future.
Thirdly, the new Constitution required the military to be apolitical and uphold the 1945 Constitutional decrees. Making the military apolitical is another device that Ar?valo used to prevent future dictatorships. An apolitical military is only a tool for the government, and cannot act as the government in any way, thus preventing a man like General Jorge Ubico from taking power. Finally, the 1945 Constitution paid tribute to the students who had fueled Ubico’s overthrow. The Constitution allocated money to the University of San Carlos and granted it autonomy and the right of association. This of course ensured that there would always be students and intellectuals to counter aspirations of dictatorial rule.
Ar?valo did not stop his reformation of Guatemala with the 1945 Constitution; in fact, he almost immediately embarked on creating health and social reforms for Guatemala. Truly revolutionary, the health and social reforms instituted under Ar?valo targeted the poor and working class individual. The first four reforms focused on health and safety issues, while the fifth and sixth reforms were social in nature. Ar?valo first instituted rural health clinics, and then projects to provide potable water in isolated villages. White Cross-clinics were also set up and the infrastructure improved in the poor neighborhoods of the cities. To ensure a healthier lifestyle Ar?valo set up sewage systems in poor neighborhoods as well.
The social reforms included a higher income (wage reform) and freedom for unions to organize and operate, which Ubico did not allow during his dictatorship. In 1946, Ar?valo also instituted the Social Security Law and began his school reform that would last until 1950. The Social Security Law did several things for Guatemala to ensure good health and prosperity. It “establish[ed] the Guatemalan Social Security Institute (IGSS) and provid[ed] injury compensation, maternity benefits and health care. ” The school reforms Ar?valo created from 1946 to 1950 also did several things to ensure future prosperity for Guatemala and all its citizens. Ar?valo allocated more money to schools for the expansion and improvement of the schools, and instituted literacy campaigns.
“By 1950 the Ar?valo government was spending over $7 million on educational projects. ” Never before had the Guatemalan government cared for or spent so much on the education of not just the white minority but also the indigenous and peasant majority. The ten years of spring also saw major attempts at labor and wage reform under Ar?valo. In 1947, the Ar?valo government passed into law the Labour Code. The Labour Code took steps towards providing economic equality and dignity for all Guatemalans. This is significant because it attempted to bridge the gap between the elite minority and poor majority.
The Labor Code first provided workers with the right to strike. Before the Ar?valo’s Labor Code workers who went on strike faced serious punishments including torture, imprisonment, and even death. While the Labour Code did not completely abolish such acts of employer violence, it at least made them illegal and punishable under the law. The Labour Code also gave workers the right to collective bargaining, which is a tool for unions.
In addition, the code set minimum wages, restricted child and female labor, and legislated working hours. Finally, the Labour Code created labor courts. Designed to deal with “labor-management” problems the labor courts often “reimbursed [workers] for lost wages if a strike was found to be the fault of [the] management. ” In addition, in 1947, the Ar?valo government created the Agrarian Studies Commission. The government designed the commission to evaluate the use and ownership of Guatemala’s lands and to study agrarian reform in other countries, with the intent of producing a report with recommendations for agrarian reform in Guatemala.
Ar?valo also in 1947 abolished the Vagrancy Law and adopted Law(s) of Forced Rental. Positive outcomes from Ar?valo’s reforms included wage increases, creation of unions and relative peace in a normally, internally hostile country. “Urban wages increased 80 percent during Ar?valo’s term in office. ” The National Institute to Encourage Production (INFOP) was created as a result of Ar?valo’s desire to create a society with equality for all. As well, INFOP promoted indigenous enterprises and acted as the director of development.
INFOP sought to accomplish its tasks in a “socially productive manner. ” As well, the right to strike proved to be an effective reform. In 1950 “a series of strikes on government-owned fincas. . .
soon spread to large private estates, with the result that at least on many large fincas wages went from 5 to 20 cents a day to 80 cents. ” Thus, the poor indigenous working class reaped social and economic benefits during Ar?valo’s presidency. Unfortunately, six years was not enough time for the revolution to reach or change much of Guatemala. “The pattern of minifundia-latifundia remained intact and the bulk of the population in the highland left with.
. . little land. ” Neither did the balance of power in Guatemala change.
The white landowners maintained their dominance over the economy while also retaining political influence. Ar?valo addressed the problem of the landowners upon leaving office. “To achieve [reform] in Guatemala we had to combat the peculiar economic and social system . .
. of a country in which the culture, politics and economy were in the hands of 300 families. ” The church, which opposed the revolution openly, also maintained influence over society and the people of Guatemala. The church is one of three forces that opposed Ar?valo’s reforms and revolution. The landowners of Guatemala also opposed Ar?valo, as did the military. While the church and landowners were not easily reckoned with, the military posed the most serious threat to Ar?valo.
The most serious challenge Ar?valo and his government overcame was an attempted coup by Arana supporters in the military. The attempted coup occurred following Colonel Francisco Arana’s death in 1949. While the Ar?valo government successfully resisted the coup attempt, it left 150 dead and 300 wounded. Following the attempted coup Ar?valo replaced a forth of the military’s officers. This was not the only coup attempted on the Ar?valo administration.
In fact, the Ar?valo administration withstood 30 attempted coups. Ar?valo and his administration were also was subjugated to propaganda created by the press and military. The military and press both worked together to create a communist image for Ar?valo. To Guatemalans, “communism had long been used. . .
to defame any movement towards social reform. ” Thus, the military and press essentially told the public that Ar?valo did not seek social reform, but wanted to maintain the social and racial injustices from the past. While Ar?valo was not actually a communist, the propaganda remained a serious threat to his presidency and thus revolution. In 1950, the people of Guatemala elected Arbenz to be the next President of Guatemala. The following year on March 15, 1951 Ar?valo left office.
Unfortunately, Ar?valo did not leave optimistically. Indeed, Ar?valo was worried and quite pessimistic about the future of the revolution. “Prophetically, Ar?valo’s greatest concern was not for the forces of conservatism from within, but for how ?perishable, frail and slippery the brilliant international doctrines of democracy and freedom were. ‘” He realized that much of the fuel for the revolution had met powerful resistance from conservative forces, and while he made possible future reforms, the revolution was far from being a success. When Arbenz took office in 1951, he, like Ar?valo, announced what types of reforms he would work towards.
However, while Ar?valo had had a more broad focus, Arbenz focused in on the economy. In his inaugural speech, he set forth the three objectives of his administration. First, “to convert our country from a dependent nation with a semi-colonial economy to an economically independent county. ” Secondly, he announced plans to “convert Guatemala from a backward country with a predominantly feudal economy into a modern capitalist state.
” Finally, Arbenz declared that he planned to “make this transformation in a way that will raise the standard of living of the great mass of our people to the highest level. ” Arbenz’s desire to reform the Guatemalan economy found its foundation in the reports done by the Agrarian Studies Commission and the International Bank of Reconstruction and Development (IBRD). The reports indicated the need for an increased yield in agriculture. The IBRD report not only stressed the need for increased output of crops, but crop diversification as well.
The report also focused in on the need for agrarian reform in the highlands of Guatemala. “The basic poverty of Indian highland agriculture permanently hampers not only any agricultural progress but the whole economic growth of Guatemala; for the Indian population constitutes the bulk of the potential internal market, without which industry cannot develop adequately. ” Thus, Arbenz encouraged both agricultural diversity and increase in output. Arbenz also continued and expanded Ar?valo’s reform measures.
For example, Arbenz increased the education budget to $11 million by 1953. However even here Arbenz focused in on agrarian reform. Under Arbenz the village schools narrowed in on agricultural education, teaching how to harvest crops for the greatest yields for example. Unfortunately, Arbenz immediately faced problems. The United Fruit Company (UFCO) monopolized Guatemala’s economy carrying exclusive rights to the railroad and telegraph system, as well as monopolizing Guatemala’s ports.
However Arbenz did not give up, instead he attacked the UFCO by funding “the construction of the Atlantic highway and a new port at Santo T?mas. ” His most significant reform came in 1952, his agrarian reform law. It “called for expropriation of all idle lands exceeding 223 acres in size. ” While this reform would ultimately cost him his presidency, Arbenz’s agrarian reform law benefited five hundred thousand Guatemalans. In 1954, the ten years of spring came to an end. The United Fruit Company, Arbenz’s greatest enemy, called upon its political friends in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States for assistance in countering Arbenz’s reforms.
U. S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CIA director Allen Dulles began to campaign against Arbenz using communist propaganda to promote the belief that Arbenz was a Soviet sympathizer. While neither Arbenz nor Ar?valo before him were communists some of their reforms did unfortunately aid the propaganda. For example, under the Labour Code the workers of Guatemala were able to organize unions.
Some of the unions organized were communist in nature. The Guatemalan Worker’s Party (PGT) was, for example, a communist-based union. Unions like the PGT only aided the propaganda as evidence for its message. In June of 1954, the CIA led a coup on the Arbenz administration.
On June 27th Arbenz resigned announcing that the UFCO and United States were responsible for the destruction of Guatemala’s democracy. The United States appointed Guatemala’s next president, Col. Carlos Castillo Armas. “Castillo Armas was flown into Guatemala in the U.
S. Ambassador’s plane and the coup marked the beginning of systematic repression in Guatemala. ” However the killings did not begin, and would not until the early to mid 1960s. Instead, the Guatemalan government, with the help of the CIA and the Committee Against Communism, began to “[draw] up a black list of 70,000 political suspects taken from rosters of Arbenz sympathizers, political parties, and urban and rural organizations. ” Consequently, an exodus of Guatemalans occurred.
Thousands fled to neighboring countries such as Mexico. A mere three years after the Arbenz coup in 1957, Armas was assassinated; his successor was Miguel Ydigoras Fuentes. During his presidency Fuentes allowed anti-Castro Cubans to secretly perform military training in Guatemala which led to a Guatemalan military revolt on November 13, 1960. The officer’s rebellion of 1960 gave way to the Guatemalan guerrilla movement.
And “while the Guatemalan guerrillas never numbered more than 500 in the 1960s, they provided [the military with] the rational for killing thousands of unarmed civilians. Thus began the first phase of the Guatemalan Civil War, which would last into the late 1970s. In 1962, the first Guatemalan guerrilla group, known as Rebel Armed Forces (FAR), was created. As well during 1962, the United States began its counterinsurgency by helping the Guatemalan military training.
During the elections of 1966, over 50% of registered voters voted. Julio C. M?ndez Montenegro won the elections with 44. 4% of the votes. During the Mendez Montenegro presidency the peak of the counter insurgency occurred, in which FAR was wiped out. “The elections of 1966 marked the beginning of the end for the guerrilla forces of that era.
Taking advantage of the guerrillas’ unofficial truce, the army unleashed a brutal counter-insurgency under the command of Colonel Carlos Arana Osor?o. ” As well, 1966 and the Mendez presidency saw the formation of “death squads. ” The first death squad to appear was Mano Blanca, or white hand. The government and Mario Sandoval Alarc?n, a right-wing political leader of the National Liberation Movement (MLN) organized Mano Blanca.
By 1967, a year after it’s formation, Mano Blanca was accompanied by over 20 other death squads that targeted over 500 individuals whose names appeared on “the lists. ” The death squads that came into being during this time consisted mainly of off duty police officers and soldiers who acted as a sort of vigilante. During this time, the United States became even more involved with Guatemalan politics. The counterinsurgency was “a campaign that included the use of U. S. advisers and American pilots flying napalm attacks on suspected guerrilla strongholds from the U.
S. base in Panama. “In the four years of the Mendez presidency, over 30,000 Guatemalans lost their lives. The indigenous peoples, during this time, were murdered, disappeared, tortured, raped, and beaten. A decade earlier the people of Guatemala lived in relative peace, now they lived in state of terror.
“Between 1966 and 1970, on the pretext of eliminating communism, some 10,000 non-combatants were killed in order to assassinate an estimated 300 to 500 guerrillas who retreated to the northern Pet?n jungle to recover and regroup. ” While the guerrilla movement had virtually stopped by 1970 when Carlos Arana Osorio took office “disappearances,” which most often led to death not only continued but also according to Amnesty International peaked during the 1970s. “Between 1970 and 1974, 15,325 Guatemalans ?disappeared. ‘” Nevertheless, peasant organizations began to form during the mid-1970s. Much of the organization of peasant groups and unions was due to the Christian Democrat arty and the Catholic Church. Two prominent unions emerged at this time, the National Workers Confederation (CNT) and the Autonomous Trade Union Federation of Guatemala (FASGUA).
As well by 1974 when Laugerud Garc?a was inaugurated the guerrilla movement had regrouped and grown. In addition to the previous guerrilla groups a new one emerged, the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP). The Guatemalan government and military responded forcefully to the growing guerrilla groups. “Under the Laugerud Garc?a government, army penetration of the rural countryside began, establishing in many areas the groundwork for later occupation. ” In 1976, Guatemala received another blow; this one however came from Mother Nature.
On February 4, 1976 an earthquake, that registered 7. 5 on the Richter Scale, hit Guatemala. It “killed 22,000 people, injured 77,000, and left one million peasants homeless. ” Nevertheless opposition groups and recouped continued to grow, and on May 1, 1978 the Committee for Peasant Unity, or CUC, publicly announced its existence.
Rigoberta Mench?, an indigenous peasant woman from Guatemala turned human rights activist, explains how her father, a “political prisoner” and other peasants started the CUC. “So my father came back very proudly and said, ?We must fight the rich because they have become rich with our land, our crops. ‘ That was when my father started to join up with other peasants [in 1977] and discussed the creation of the CUC with them. A lot of peasants had been discussing the Committee but nothing concrete had been done, so my father joined the CUC and helped them understand things more clearly. . .
. That’s how the CUC began to form as such. It organized the peasants both in the Altiplano and on the coast. It wasn’t a formal organization with a name and all that [at first]: more like groups of communities, at the grass roots, that sort of thing,” (emphasis added). Nevertheless, while peasant and student organizations grew along with guerrilla groups the repression continued.
“Massive violence began during the last year of the Laugerud Garc?a government, with mounting selective assassinations in Guatemala City and large-scale army repression in the countryside. “Such violence continued into the Lucas Garc?a government. An example of this repression and violence is apparent in the Panz?s massacre of 1978. The government’s “scorched earth” campaign against isolated peasant villages believed to support the opposition carried a deadly toll, with a massacre at Panz?s in May 1978 being perhaps the best known military operation of this type. On May 29, 1978, 500 to 700 Kekch?, an indigenous Mayan group from Guatemala’s highlands, gathered in Panz?s to protest their expulsions from their land to the Mayor and an official of INTA.
Once in the central square the military ringed the square and opened fire killing over 100 protestors. The dead were put into mass graves, supposedly dug beforehand. The government later asserted that the Indians had started the violence, and only admitted to killing 38 people. The violence and repression did not end unfortunately with the Lucas Garc?a government either. While Rios Montt declared in 1982 after a coup that he led, “that there would be no more assassinations” and fair trials from those who violated the law, “rural repression soared immediately after the coup,” and continues, though in lesser amounts, today.
“Since 1982 Guatemala has lived through two presidential elections, two military coups, two states of alert, two Constitutions, an eleven-month state of siege, a three month state of emergency, at least four amnesty periods, and four heads of state ? three of them army generals. ” Could all of this and the genocide of Guatemala been prevented during the ten years of spring? Possibly if Arbenz and Ar?valo had restricted union organization to non-communist unions, which would have, in theory prevented U. S. involvement. However it remains unlikely that this would have been enough. The UFCO and United State could have found, or created other reasons for the coup, which ultimately destroyed the democracy and peace in Guatemala.
Now Guatemala is left with the remnants of genocide, oppression, and political instability. Terror remains a driving force in Guatemalan society, and to think it all could have been avoided if the United States had not led the coup on the Arbenz administration. BibliographyAndrew Miller: http://www. west.
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