Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 105 | Mayo 1990



Challenges to the Military Model

Envío team

Three visions of the development of society are competing in Guatemala, as we examined in envío’s 1989 Central America issue: the “state stability” model, a neoliberal option and a revolutionary alternative. In the past year the future of each has been more clearly defined. The state stability model—the military’s choice—is bogged down by the Cerezo government’s inability to get the private sector to accept it and the growing challenge of the revolutionary movement. The modernizing faction of the bourgeoisie could try to push for its preferred neoliberal option in this year's elections, perhaps through a presidential candidate backed by a center-right consensus. Finally, the growth of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) makes it less possible than ever to ignore its alternative. At the end of March, the army and government negotiators were forced to recognize the URNG in Oslo, Norway. The participation of the popular sectors in these models is still fairly uncertain, though the economy's deepening crisis weighs most heavily on the people.

The revolutionary movement

Guatemala's first armed revolutionary movement arose in response to the suppression of democratic options following the CIA-sponsored overthrow of President Arbenz in 1954. This movement reached its peak in 1966, when the United States began to advise the Guatemalan army on a counterinsurgency campaign that succeeded in blocking the revolutionary wave after four years. (The US, before publicly premiering napalm in Vietnam, tested its use in Guatemala in that campaign. It was not the first or last time the Pentagon used Central America as a testing ground. In 1927, US Marines fighting Sandino in Nicaragua aerial-bombed a civilian population for the first time; in 1989, they tried out sophisticated new weapons while invading Panama.)

The revolutionary movement was reborn around 1972. It was not a mere repetition of the first, since this time it initiated the first revolutionary alliance between poor ladinos and Mayans. Having miscalculated its strength, the revolutionary upsurge was turned back by 1984 in one of the most savage repressions in the country's history. But the strategic crackdown on its popular base in the capital and the scorched earth policy in the countryside—440 villages destroyed and 2030,000 citizens massacred—did not wipe out the movement. A third wave, led by the same armed organizations now under the unified command of the URNG, has arisen in new circumstances: the army handed over the reins of government to an elected civilian party for the first time since 1954. The movement's objective does not seem to be to take power by military means, but to force political negotiations that will guarantee Guatemala's democratization in the fullest sense.

Poles of support—A population divided

This long confrontation, whose principal expression has been armed struggle, has profoundly divided the Guatemalan people. At the revolutionary pole, the URNG has attracted sectors of support well beyond its committed combatants and militants. They include the little-known “population in resistance,” living in the highlands far north of the capital, and a sizeable percentage of refugees and displaced persons. There is also sympathy for a revolutionary model, though not explicit political alliances with the URNG, among human rights activists, urban middle-class bureaucrats and youth, and the organized urban and rural proletariat and peasants.

The government and army have also won over certain sectors. At this pole are some of the controlled population in model villages (in the style of Vietnam's wartime “strategic hamlets”) and the rural indigenous population organized by the army in “civil self-defense patrols.” This pole includes some repatriated refugees and relocated people, co-opted peasant and union movements, high-level professionals and bureaucrats and, naturally, the bourgeois and oligarchic minority and most of the army.

To understand the expansion of the armed revolutionary movement, it is helpful to think of the country's geographical divisions. First there is the developed, populous capital, with a quarter of the country's 7-8 million population. Running southwest of it are the Pacific Ocean's South and Boca Coasts, with their vast agroexport plantations of cotton, sugar and coffee. The highlands to the northwest of the capital, running to the Mexican border, are inhabited by a semiproletarian indigenous population oriented toward settling new territory and supplementing its precarious subsistence agriculture with arts and crafts, commerce and work on the coastal plantations. In the highlands to the southeast, bordering Honduras, significant numbers of ladinos are being driven off their land and up into the capital. The Alta Vera Paz area is similar in its potential to that of the Pacific coast. Finally, there is the banana-growing region of the north, with its port to the Caribbean and its extensive Petén jungle, recently penetrated for oil exploration.

URNG. Up to 13 of Guatemala's 22 departments are affected to some degree by the URNG's organizations and activities. The revolutionary movement infiltrates in and out of Mexico through the indigenous highlands, reactivating the small nuclei of people who survived the repeated waves of massive repression. One corridor of activity extends from the Mexican border, down through San Marcos toward the Boca Coast, and down through the indigenous highlands from the departments of Huehuetenango and Quiché toward Chimaltenango. Another comes in through El Petén.

All this movement represents an attempt to penetrate toward the capital. The URNG increased its military operations from 570 in 1986 to 1,865 in 1989. It says it caused 663 army casualties in 1986 and 2,506 in 1989. Independent observations of the number of wounded arriving at Guatemala City’s military hospital, and the plans to build another, give credibility to these figures.

Comparing the URNG’s 1989 figure for army casualties with the average 7,000 the Salvadoran FMLN claimed annually between 1987 and 1989 gives an idea of the challenge the URNG currently poses to the Guatemalan government and military. In the last year, armed actions on the Panamerican Highway, which crosses the indigenous highlands in Chimaltenango (less than 50 kilometers from Guatemala City) and on the South Coast (in places 30 kilometers from the capital) have made it impossible for the army to maintain the image of a guerrilla movement in its death throes.

Population in Resistance. The fundamental concern of those still in Guatemala is defense of their land, and thus they need an explicit agreement with the revolutionary movement. This population holds very profound convictions; to maintain their resistance, even as a civilian population, they have had to overcome the tremendous trauma of the scorched-earth policy of 1981 to 1984. For these people, the expansion of armed revolutionary actions to points close to the capital city offers new hope: the war could move away from their territory and prospects for peace are becoming more viable.

The Refugees. Interviews among the 50,000 refugees in Mexico indicate that many of them earlier formed part of the “population in resistance.” They remain close to a revolutionary position, though a small percentage oppose the URNG. The majority are indigenous people, but they define themselves less by their ethnic identity than by their Guatemalan nationality. Their fundamental concern is defense of this national identity, threatened among the youth by their new Mexican roots. They are organized in representative committees elected in each camp. Their demand is repatriation with international guarantees to protect them both from submission to the army's control through such mechanisms as the “model villages” and, above all, from being used to displace the “population in resistance” from their land. The refugees’ effort to repatriate without coming under army control has failed so far. Guatemalan political space closed after last year’s coup attempts and there is less international solidarity than for the Salvadoran refugees in Honduras. The Guatemalan camps are further from their border than the Salvadoran ones are from home and the jungle barrier impedes access to border crossings. Finally, there are no URNG-controlled liberated zones.

Repatriated and Relocated People. The 4,000 refugees repatriated between 1986 and 1989 and the 8-10,000 internally displaced who have been relocated are under army control, but in areas where the URNG also operates. Some of these people are former members of the “population in resistance” who have sold out because of hunger. The army distrusts them and is trying to win them over ideologically. In line with the state stability model, the army is integrating them into development poles and civil-defense patrols, to try to gain stability and guarantee defense of the territory—and, eventually, development. The life of this population is made difficult by the stock-in-trade of military control: check points, radio surveillance, landing fields for helicopters and small planes, heavy artillery, army supply flights and the like. URNG presence has prevented the construction of the highways that the state says would bring security, stability and development.

Repatriated and relocated people do not want war; it just brings the army, which uses the population as a shield against the URNG. But given army presence, they see the guerrilla movement as protection against excessive repression and semi-forced work in infrastructure and agriculture projects. Their fundamental hope is to recover the land and socioeconomic level they had before the scorched-earth military practices. In a certain sense this population is caught in the crossfire, independent of their ideological convictions; they aspire to “peasant neutrality.” In September 1989, the National Coordinating Office for the Displaced within Guatemala was formed; its fundamental struggle centers around abolishing the civil patrols.

Radio is these people's only link with the rest of Guatemala and, consequently, with the popular movement and such events as the teachers' strike, the Committee for Campesino Unity's strike attempt and the National Dialogue. This dialogue, called by the National Reconciliation Commission (CNR) and with the participation of the popular organizations' representation to international bodies (RUOG), had expanded the political space during the months of March and April 1989. After an attempted military coup against President Cerezo in May, the RUOG representatives were forced to leave the country under threat, and the maneuvering room that had been won shrank. Nonetheless, the participation of the refugees, the Committee for Campesino Unity (CUC) and other organizations, however brief, gave them previously forbidden legitimacy. (By December, even the CNR was no longer participating in the National Dialogue; some interpret this as the Dialogue's coming of age, others as a CNR maneuver to extricate itself from an effort headed for failure.)

Workers' Movement. On the South Coast and in Guatemala City, where capitalist relations are more developed, the popular movement has diverse expressions. At the beginning of 1989 on the South Coast, the CUC attempted a strike of the dimensions of one in 1980, which paralyzed the whole coast for several weeks. Despite long preparation, it was clear by the first afternoon that response was minimal; the effort was rapidly controlled. The teachers' strike in the first half of 1989, on the other hand, lasted two months. It was militant, with hunger strikes, barricadas in the streets and the access roads to the city, a march to the capital from Vera Paz and other actions. The government's response was equally tough. It tried to turn the rest of the workers against the teachers by accusing the latter of working less and earning more. In indigenous zones, support for the union entered into conflict with the strikers' loyalty to their families. After the second month of hunger and no salaries, the striking teachers had to give up, but, given its political cost, the victory was pyrrihic for the ruling Christian Democrats.

The Urban Popular Sectors. Urban workers' unions are still not equal to the strong employer solidarity; the informal sector, calculated at almost a third of the Guatemalan population, is searching for survival in the midst of great economic dynamism. In the markets “mobile banks” arrive in the morning to lend to venders at 10% interest per day. The dollars sent home by emigrants are important; even in villages, there are construction booms based on these remittances. In this sector, people also live off work in small workshops or assembly plants. Indigenous populations close to the capital plant flowers or strawberries to earn cash and use it to buy corn, a dramatic cultural change.

The war has an ambivalent echo in the city. Since the 1981 terror, the army’s brutal capacity to massacre has permeated people's consciousness. They thus constantly weigh the risks in determining their support for the revolutionary movement. While they may back revolutionary resistance, their approval sometimes translates into: “Yes, as long as it happens far away from here.”

The Religious Sector. The Guatemalan Catholic Church plays an increasingly important role in civil society as political space becomes more restricted. The Bishops' Conference is the only one in Central America that has recognized the religious victims of repression (priests, nuns and lay workers) as martyrs. The Guatemalan Bishops' Conference does not suffer the strong divisions that characterize the Conference of El Salvador, the relative inactivity of the Honduran Conference, or the pro-capitalist ideological bias of the Nicaraguan Conference. Its joint documents are by far the most progressive in Central America—above all “The Cry for the Earth,” followed by the “Declaration of Cobán,” both critical of the government, and the even more critical Declaration of January 1990, this time aimed at the army.

A synod underway in the Archdiocese of Guatemala is open to the participation of religious and lay people. The energy of Bishop Rodolfo Quesada Toruño, president of both the Conference and the CNR, has been exemplary. While there are very conservative movements in the Guatemalan Church (including the strongest Opus Dei in Central America), there are also serious efforts by numerous groups to make the Catholic Church a “Church of the Poor.”

Though this progressive position prevails in the Guatemalan Church, there are notable reservations about the revolutionary movement, which the bishops accused of “acts of terrorism” in their Declaration or January 1990. The URNG high command responded to the Declaration with a respectful letter the following month, clarifying its scrupulous respect for the Geneva conventions and treaties on human rights in war, its “respect for the human dignity even of our adversaries” and the fact that its “military work” did not seek to “produce terror in society.”

After the frightening years of the early 1980s, the popular movement's situation upon entering the new decade is moderately hopeful. So much repression would have led one to expect a social paralysis. Far from paralyzed by historical traumas, the “population in resistance” and many of the refugees, internally displaced people and controlled populations have a rich experience and a profound well of emotions. From these waters they draw tremendous creativity and a desire to express themselves, to be heard. But though trauma has not occurred, neither has a resurgence of the mass movement as was seen in the late seventies.

The economy: Failed political management

At the end of 1989, economic indicators showed continued signs of the moderate growth observed since 1987. At constant prices, the Gross Domestic Product increased by 3.8%, with more than 10% increase in private consumption and the same private and public investment rate as in 1988. Exports grew 8.8%, from just over $1.07 billion in 1988 to nearly $1.18 billion in 1989. Nontraditional exports grew 22% (from $195 to $250 million), a sign of success for the neoliberal tendency. In spite of a 21% drop in coffee prices, increased export volume maintained that sector's income. Imports, however, grew more than exports, though the overall balance showed a $40 million surplus thanks to income from short-term private capital and long-term official and banking capital.

The economy's fragility is evident in the area of public finances. Income dropped from a projected 9.8% of GDP to 9.1% and taxes from 8.5% to 7.8%, while expenses rose from the 12.5% budgeted to 13.1%. As a consequence, the projected deficit of 2.6% of the GDP rose to 4%. The government applied a neoliberal solution to the fiscal problem in November, transferring the management of foreign exchange to the 22 banks in the private financial system. They did not respond as they should have, however; they did not raise the interest rate until January, when they doubled it from 13% to 26%, and then only for delinquent customers. Business owners declared a virtual tax strike during the second half of 1989, at the same time as taxes from the export of coffee fell. The International Monetary Fund, which backs the neoliberal approach, suspended its program over disagreement with the Bank of Guatemala's decision to redeem stabilization bonds in advance. Salary adjustments for bureaucrats meant a state payroll increase of 120 million quetzals. By November 30, the government was registering a deficit of 945 million quetzals and a floating debt of 500 million quetzals. Various multilateral agencies, including the IMF, closed their credit windows to the country.

Speculation following a November decision to allow the currency to float provoked an inflationary wave—a 20% increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) in that month alone. The government improvises reactions. It freed up imports of meat, eggs, milk, sugar and school materials without first creating channels for domestic sales. It eliminated subsidies for water and transportation, leading to 100% price increases, while maintaining guaranteed fuel prices at a favorable exchange rate, for a loss of $6.7 million in the first three weeks of January. When the government tried to charge petroleum importers for the difference, they suspended their purchases, causing a serious shortage of gasoline and diesel for more than two weeks with serious consequences for the national economy.

The floating quetzal slipped 0.9 points per day in November and December. In January, as a result of the fuel shortage and a limited supply of hard currency in the market, the rate jumped 20 points in a week, followed by progressive increases through March. Inflation rose 21% in 1989 (compared with 12% in 1988), but food products—almost half the family budget—and medicines increased 37% and 30% respectively over the CPI.

State stability A shaky model

This experience leads to a series of hypotheses about the four years the Christian Democratic Party (DCG), with Vinicio Cerezo at its head, has been in power.

a) The government seems to have lost its hope of administering what it called the “critical transition” from dictatorship to civilian government. It has been unable to reconcile the need for an expanded state with demands for austerity made by the multilateral lenders. Big capital has refused to compromise. The DCG’s “natural” social base—the middle classes created at the peak of the Central American Common Market—has been “proletarianized,” while a new middle class linked to speculative, commercial and technocratic capital has arisen. The government has been unable to form alliances with this new middle class since its royalty is to the capitalists, particularly the modernizing sector. The DCG’s effort to make the shift from a cadre party, necessary during the military dictatorships, into a governing mass party has created opportunities for corruption and patronage and centralized power in the presidency. Its union movement has been manipulated so many times it is now cowed by both the entrepreneurial and military Right, reaching a point of paralysis during the May 1988 and 1989 coup attempts. Finally, the party has split ideologically, losing identity and embarking on suicidal internal struggles over the next presidential candidacy. It has ended up in the paradoxical situation of being a party with a neoliberal program but without the support of the most important neoliberal business sector.

b) The structural adjustment measures carried out since August 1989 yielded financial management to the banking faction of large private capital. This strategy to attract hard currency moved beyond rationalizing the economy into money speculation. By floating the currency, the state's ability to intervene in the market was reduced, which shifted the internal and foreign debt burden onto the public treasury. Lacking a minimum necessary cushion of $300 million in international funds, the government did not compensate the devalued quetzal with a tax reform to assure continued state investment or pass legislation to encourage private investment. On the contrary, freed interest rates increased the cost of production credits. Finally, a package that would have committed business to the country's overall development was not negotiated; instead, speculative capital was allowed to take off. All these actions and inactions triggered the inflationary consequences described here.

c) With less than a year left for the Cerezo government, the strategic state stability model seems both compromised and stagnant. The DCG lost its ability to mediate between the business class and the unions early; by 1989, it had lost credibility. Patronage and graft had made bureaucratic costs exorbitant. The business class' victory against tax reform increased the financial insolvency begun by the decline in coffee prices. Finally, the administrative regionalization programs so emphasized by the army and Ministry of Economic Development in 1986 failed; over 70% of the state's human, material and financial resources are still concentrated in the capital. Not even the army high command's direct intervention in an August 1989 National Forum called “27 Years of Struggle for Liberty" convinced large capital to enter agreements with the government and support this model.

The neoliberal model takes its first steps

A neoliberal model in Guatemala will mean shrinking the state, assigning it only national security and infrastructure maintenance. The state would be freed from involvement in the social area (subsidies, health, education and the like). In other aspects, it would differ little from the description given in the introduction to this issue.

Steps are already being taken to carry out the model. Alliances are being discussed with the Federation of Guatemalan Union Unity and even, at one point, the Unity of Union and Popular Action, as well as through the multiplicity of support associations. The capacity of neoliberal research centers is being extended. Publicity for the model is intensifying. The development model is being refined; it stresses investment to improve potential workers through educational literacy programs, to train technicians and commercialize small-scale production. The new and dominant financial sector, made up of importers and exporters, merchants, farmers and industrialists, directs the financial market and can subject the small and medium producers to its will. All these efforts still have a limited capacity to expand the country's productive export base (the purchasing power of Guatemalan exports dropped 26.5% in the 1980s). Above all, the effort is threatened by the possible rise to power of speculative capital.

Too many roosters

In the army, the state stability model is pushed by those who have tried to win the war by political more than military means. They accepted that it would be managed by whatever -party won in 1985; the responsibility fell to the Christian Democrats. The bogging down of the model makes it likely that, either in the 1990 elections or in 1995, the modernizers in the business class will make their bid for what Guatemala's traditional big capitalists always considered "their" state. There is some reason to wait. Given the URNG's strength, it is risky to displace the army, and the capitalist alliance that would assume leadership of the new model is not yet resolved. But ever since the Arana presidency (1970-74), Guatemala's big capitalists have opposed having the state in the hands of an army that tries to use state power to turn itself into a dominant faction of the bourgeoisie.

In these conditions, it is a tense electoral year. According to public opinion polls at the end of January, a third of the voters are still undecided. Some 21% lean toward Jorge Carpio of the center-right Union of the National Center (UCN); 12% for the evangelical ex-General Efraín Ríos Montt: 9% for ex-mayor of Guatemala City Alvaro Arzú (counterpart of El Salvador's Cristiani and Honduras' Callejas) and only 6% for Christian Democrat Alfonso Cabrera, tarred with accusations of corruption and drug trafficking. Fernando Andrade Díaz Durán, foreign minister under the old military governments, resigned his lackluster candidacy after his Revolutionary Party—a traditional component of unscrupulous political alliances—demanded so much campaign money from him that it practically amounted to buying his candidacy. Andrade was substituted by another ex-mayor of the capital, José Angel Lee.

There are too many roosters in the rightwing barnyard, none likely to win a majority in October's first round of balloting. Could one get a nod from the promoters of the neoliberal model? The army is not likely to organize support for a candidate. General Gramajo, who represents the more politically sophisticated wing of the military that supports the state stability model, is about to retire. General Gramajo's likely candidate choice, Ramiro Castillo Love, a member of the most prominent Guatemalan family in the capitalist class and supporter of Gramajo's National Stability Studies Center, was assassinated last August. The army may prefer to wait for the election results and try to enter into an alliance with the winners.

In any case, there will probably be a fight: between monopoly and non-monopoly capital with a reappearance of regional contradictions; between symbolic (speculative) and real (productive) capital; and between the emerging middle sectors co-opted by the neoliberal model and the "proletarianized" middle classes left over from the 1960s. The United States will also probably try to influence Guatemalan policy, perhaps even with “drug enforcement" tactics to destroy the growing production of poppies and marijuana in Guatemala, an issue stressed with suspicious insistence in The New York Times.

Guatemala’s future: Reality or more facade?

With the government unable to hold up even the Central American Parliament’s creation as an Esquipulas achievement (it is still blocked in Costa Rica's legislative body), President Cerezo is pushing the summit meetings in the only direction that offers his own party any electoral benefits. In the Montelimar summit in April, Cerezo, who will be the last of Esquipulas’ founding presidents to leave office, focused the agenda of the next meeting, scheduled for Guatemala, on reconstruction of the Central American Common Market and foreign aid for the region.

The governing party’s last efforts are aimed not only at new economic perspectives but also at shifting the URNG's military advance toward political struggle (the ideal for Cerezo would be to convince the guerrillas to participate in the upcoming elections, though time and political conditions do not favor it). These are truly ambitious goals, difficult to achieve for a government and a president characterized more by demagogy and images than by their capacity to change reality.

The November FMLN offensive and the Salvadoran government's inability to avoid negotiations after the slaughter of the Jesuits seem to have also convinced the Guatemalan army to begin negotiating with the URNG now, before it gets any stronger. An accord signed on March 30 in Oslo by the URNG and the CNR—to which the government and the army gave real negotiating powers—calls for URNG talks with Guatemala's political parties in May, with other civilian forces in June and with the government and army at a time still to be decided. Bishop Rodolfo Quesada Toruño, the CNR president, was chosen to mediate and UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar was asked to be an observer and guarantor of all accords and commitments.

Yet there seems to be a resurgence of the murderous violence carried out by Guatemala's fanatic Right, both civilian and military. Danilo Barillas (the last leftist in the DCG), Ramiro Castillo Love and the University Students Association leadership were assassinated in August 1989; the Nicaraguan Embassy’s First Secretary in December; and Héctor Oquelí, Secretary of El Salvador's Revolutionary National Movement (MNR) and prominent member of the Socialist International, along with his Guatemalan companion, Dr. Gilda Flores, in early 1990. Within the army, a minority faction symbolized by the officers “in the mountains” are demandomg a new military effort against the revolutionary movement of the dimensions carried out in the first half of the 1980s.

These recent crimes are only the more visible ones. While they have not created the international impact of the Jesuits' deaths in El Salvador, they have once again made Guatemala the target of criticism by human rights organizations. Even the United States was forced to recall its ambassador, despite Cerezo's apparent indignation. Only Latin America's self-interested, ostrich politics have impeded greater condemnation of Guatemala in Geneva.

At the Montelimar summit, Cerezo helped detour the Esquipulas plan to verify progress in guaranteeing human rights and authentic democratization. But many of the rules of the "national security" game will have to change if the talks in Oslo are to progress toward peace with justice and resume the democratization process frustrated in 1954. Cerezo has been image and facade. Guatemala desperately needs reality.

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On the Verge of Peace, or Civil War?

Whither Central America? Coopted Negotiation or Participatory Democracy?

The Monroe Doctrine and the End of Torrijismo

Costa Rica
Showcase for Democracy and Economic Reformism?

Low Intensity War and Revolutionary Maneuvering

El Salvador
Forcing Negotiation

Neoliberalism Unopposed

Challenges to the Military Model

Final Reflections
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