Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 81 | Marzo 1988


Central America

Modernization and Militarism

Envío team

The centerpiece of the Guatemalan situation two years ago was the new civilian government's attempt to rebuild the state, in which the social forces would be realigned through an “arrangement” between President Vinicio Cerezo's Christian Democratic government and the private sector. The army had set down the conditions for this realignment and, while running the war, kept a close watch on its progress from the sidelines.

In 1987, with the economic collapse somewhat staved off, the focus shifted toward a modernization project to which the government and the army, vying with each other for leadership, have tried to attract the private sector. In April the government began speaking of “National Reorganization.” Four months later the army reappeared on the public scene, speaking of a “National Strategy,” thus appearing as the institution to stabilize this transition. The military express the transition as consisting of a move from “war as a continuation of politics” to a peace that reconciles and settles the “social debt” (of the privileged to the majority of the people) through “politics as a continuation of the war.”

Based on that view, the army is asking the private sector to participate with it and the government in a common effort toward both efficiency and a minimal social transfer of goods to the majority sectors. With dramatic flair, it is presenting this project as “the third chance” to bring about a democratic peace in Guatemala, listing as the first two the first government of the “October Revolution” (1945-51) and the government of Méndez Montenegro (1966-70), both of which were lost. “The third strike is the ball game,” the army warned.

Though grassroots discontent, still poorly organized, is growing, the private sector is avoiding the “sacrifices” (mainly in taxation) that the reformist project asks of them, thus coming into conflict with it.

Finally, the armed revolutionary forces united in the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) are making their political presence felt more strongly. They are stepping up their military actions, confronting (so far successfully) the largest army offensive since 1982, denouncing the modernization project as another phase of the same old counterinsurgency, and repeatedly calling for a National Dialogue (also supported by the Catholic Church). As 1988 begins, the “arrangement” is frustrated and dialogue has not happened.

The framework:
The arrangement falters

To understand the focus of the current period summed up above, as well as the analysis of the various levels of Guatemalan society during 1987, it is important to have a broad picture of how events have developed. The key to this is in the ups and downs of Cerezo's government program, defined by the “arrangement” that sought and still seeks to be a reconciliation pact among Guatemala’s social forces, with his civilian government as arbiter.

The first agreement was made with the army before the new President could assume office. According to it, the army would have a free hand to continue the war against the revolutionary guerrilla forces, and its slate of criminal activity would be wiped clean. In return, it would take a back seat in administering the development projects and, in general, the state.

Then came the arrangement with private enterprise: the Plan of Economic Reordering to try to clean up and streamline state administration and restore the bourgeoisie's confidence in the Christian Democratic Party (PCD). Finally, moving outside Guatemala, Cerezo sought agreements with his potential foreign allies, mainly in Spain, Italy and Germany, to get an injection of funds to stimulate the economy and stop its dangerous deterioration.

There was no agreement with the majority sectors of the population, however, much less with the armed revolutionary forces, although during Cerezo's journey to get foreign support he did make the first timid proposal for dialogue with the URNG.

During 1986, the gravity of the economic situation and the expectations raised by Cerezo's vague campaign promises had given rise to a largely spontaneous and little organized movement of growing unrest and popular demands, mainly around the land question. The costs of the arrangement had fallen on the poor classes, turning them into a time bomb ticking away against the democratization project. In 1987 Cerezo tried to deactivate this bomb by kicking off a political and social program whose cornerstone was the ideology of agreement. This was seen as the only possible way to bring about national unity given the challenge of armed struggle offered by the revolutionary guerrilla groups.

Taking advantage of the relative weakness of the grassroots movement, which was moving cautiously after its past experiences of wholesale army repression against which it had no recourse, Cerezo turned his political efforts to creating new leaders to shore up the PCD's weak departmental and municipal organization. His plan was to move from representative legitimacy to participatory legitimacy, in the belief that he would thus be able to draw the people's movements into the logic of agreement.

At the same time he channeled some of the foreign economic support to small, municipal development projects, since he perceives that the people will not wait any longer. This social-political initiative is not unrelated to the 1988 municipal elections, in which the Christian Democrats are looking for a win, not another reverse as in 1985. But since the resources are still insignificant, as is the capacity and will for structural changes, a leading role in these projects has been played by the logic of “the minimum”—in housing, infrastructure, land, etc.

On March 19, 1987, in a “Memorandum to All Guatemalans,” President Cerezo clearly laid out the year's priorities to launch a new phase of the project the military inaugurated with the 1982 coup. This project included handing over governmental administration to civilian politicians through elections as defined in a new political Constitution. (The latter is a reincarnation of the various conservative Constitutions Guatemala has had since the only truly progressive one, that of 1945, was abrogated.) The priorities for this new phase came from three areas: international, fiscal and the matter of the close connection between government and army.

In the international arena, the goal was to bring Guatemala further out of the isolation and scorn it had been driven into by the brutal and/or fraudulent regimes between 1966 and 1984. In the fiscal realm, the intent was to get the oligarchy and the bourgeoisie to accept the principle of tax reform and thus join with the government and army in giving the needed support to their social spending policies. With regard to the relationship between the government and army, the civilian political leaders, with the President at their lead, abandoned the effort to wrest more power from the army little by little. Following the old saw, if you can't beat ’em join ’em, they turned to the easier way of deriving power from the one who really has it: they bound themselves closely to the army.

In April, the priorities took on concrete form as the National Reorganization Plan, the political and social components of which were already explained in summary fashion in the memorandum. The international component was expressed in the reaffirmation of the “active neutrality” policy, that is, of opposing interventionist military solutions to the Central American conflict and adhering to the Western camp (thought to be the only truly democratic one).

Guatemalan political scientist Gabriel Aguilera has offered a good analysis of active neutrality, pointing out that it does not have the rank of a “fundamental principle of state” or even a consistent “government orientation”; rather, it expresses a “reason of state” based on the need to avoid diverting military forces away from the main objective—containing and defeating the URNG challenge.* This policy also suits the combined interests of the leading political players in the present government. By playing this card, the government wants to make itself indispensable to the main institutional forces intervening in the Central American conflict (the United States, the other Central American governments, Contadora and the Support Group, Canada, the European governments and the international organizations interested in various ways of helping to solve the conflict).
*Gabriel Aguilera, "La neutralidad guatemalteca ante el conflicto centroamericano," in Polémica, San José, Costa Rica, 1987, No. 2, 2a., mayo-agosto, pp. 41-50.

Finally, the economic component rounds out the Plan. It sets out to use the foreign resources that come as credits or donations to promote investment geared mainly to the creation of small and micro enterprises. There is a twofold objective here: to promote the entrepreneurial mentality of small business owners and to help contain unemployment and even reduce it. On a deeper level, it is a question of depriving the independent mass organizations of their reason to exist.

In August, just a few days after the Esquipulas II peace accords were signed, the Council of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations (CACIF) organized a national forum called "27 Years of Struggle for Freedom."* The defense minister, the chief of staff and his second-in-command, and the army staff's operations and civil affairs directors—three generals and two colonels—were invited to explain the military's vision of the national and international situation. There they uttered the phrases we put in quotation marks in the introductory paragraphs of this analysis. These terms locate the Guatemalan situation in the framework of the East-West conflict, Esquipulas II and the effort to make an efficient and effective modernization project possible in Guatemala. Such a project would include technocratic solutions and involve some sacrifice for private enterprise in the form of taxes, contributing to military efforts against the URNG by depriving it of its rallying-cry of social discontent.
*The reference to "27 years of struggle" between the army and the revolutionary forces refers to a barracks revolt on November 30, 1960, from which the decision by some officers to begin a guerrilla struggle was born.

The forum was very important in that it signaled the army's return to center stage in the political theater. The ruling civilian politicians ushered in this return when they settled for a role recognizing the army's real power in the current constellation of Guatemalan institutions. Equally important is that the theses put forth by the army in the forum under the trappings of adhering to democracy ("the democratic system of life chosen by our people") and of comprehensive modernization (society and the army), were unmistakably those of the National Security Doctrine. The revolutionary guerrilla forces ("terrorist criminals," "subversive delinquency") are part of the Soviet strategy to promote "wars of national liberation," "to make war in their opponent’s backyard." Naturally, within this optic of the East-West conflict, the absolute enemy is both outside and within the country. And the country's problems are seen in military terms, requiring a national strategy to survive in the great global conflict.

Thus politics (the return to "political orthodoxy" as Defense Minister General Gramajo called the elected civilian government) is nothing more than a "continuation of the war." Although the economic, social, political and military spheres of power are each formally defined as constituting only one fourth of "national power," they are in reality seen as a hierarchy, with the first three serving the last. Defense Chief of Staff General Callejas therefore made clear that in order to defeat “the terrorist criminals totally” (that is the goal!) there is a need for “accomplishments in the political, economic and social areas.”

That’s why the private sector is being called to a growing and generalized “participation,” i.e., to modernize, make itself more efficient and help the military effort by turning over some of its profits to a minimal kind of social well-being for the majority sectors who live "in miserable conditions." (While the army admits this reality of Guatemalan society, its solution is technocratic modernization linked to total war against the guerrillas. As was the case previously with its colleagues in Brazil and Argentina, the recipe only includes social control and economic crumbs for the masses.)

In the national forum the military claimed to favor an “exchange of words instead of an exchange of bullets” and said that a possible dialogue with the guerrillas would not be any of the army's business. Yet at the end of September, on the eve of the URNG-government meeting in Madrid, the army dispatched four officers from its Staff Center of Operations to Madrid as “observers”; in other words, twice as many representatives as the civilian government sent, and higher level as well, since the latter were members of the Assembly and not ministers of state. At the same time, breaking the truce agreed upon by the government and the URNG, the army initiated the most extensive and longest offensive since 1982 against the URNG combatants and the population in resistance. It has still not let up.

The long-term modernization program thus takes on its true coloring as counterinsurgency structurally tied to economic developmentalism, a little social welfare and a democratic facade which, if it wants to avoid being discredited internationally and once again condemned to ostracism, has no recourse except to open up political and ideological space. This is the framework in which the arrangement must find breathing space.

With the business sector moving against the fiscal reform, especially in its tax aspect, neither the government nor the army had persuaded the oligarchy and the bourgeoisie to embrace reformism as an instrument of struggle against "subversion" by the end of the year. Thus we see a continuation of Guatemalan capitalists’ irresponsibility, which we analyzed in 1986 as part of the Central American phenomenon. This no-holds-barred ultraconservativism—the ideological base and disposition of both the backward oligarchs and the modernizing bourgeoisie in Guatemala—limits the arrangement pushed in 1987 not only by President Cerezo but also by the military.

The economy:
Confrontational terrain

During 1986 the seemingly unstoppable economic crisis was moving steadily toward collapse. In 1987, however, the downslide showed signs of stopping, avoiding for the moment the tendency evident since 1980 of ultimately having structural consequences for the economic model underlying Guatemalan society.

It is difficult, however, to analyze the Guatemalan economy’s behavior with any degree of certainty because there’s no longer only one economy or even two complementary ones, i.e., the "national" economy based on agroexports and the "peasant" one based on consumption of what is produced. The "informal" or underground economy has grown enormously; an urban sampling shows that it "employs" 45% of the economically active population in the capital. This means that the macroeconomic indicators found in official statistics (Bank of Guatemala, Economic Commission on Latin America, etc.) can no longer be relied upon to give a picture of the economy as a whole.

As a consequence, it is possible only to speak of impressions and not firm conclusions. The Guatemalan economy gives the impression of being the least affected by the recessive cycle in which Central America is caught; it is the economy with the greatest foreign-exchange reserves, even though it has been set back 15 or 20 years in terms of per-capita buying power. This strength, however, appears much more relative when the informal sector is taken into account as it requires 60 hours to produce what the formal sector produces in 40. The informal sector gets virtually no credit from the banking system and what it gets from other sources must be paid back much sooner and at far higher interest rates (32% compared with the bank rate of 8-9%).

Taking all this into account, we can look at the data supporting the apparent halt in the economy’s deterioration. In 1987 the gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 2%, due to increased public spending as well as private investment—the latter mainly in construction and in replacement of inventories of manufactured goods. Imports grew by 22%, especially in capital goods for industry. It is estimated that inflation was held below 10% annually. (In 1986 the consumer price index had shown an average annual growth of 25%.) Monetary policy was tightly disciplined, with the money in circulation reduced by raising the reserve rates and restricting public credit.

The negative effects of these measures were neutralized thanks to US credits. The unprecedented amount of $200 million (half of which was an AID donation) allowed the government to take care of some programmed investments and give the municipalities 45 million quetzals in July, thus fulfilling the constitutional requirement that 8% of the national budget go to the municipalities. Exports did not register the same bonanza: they increased by 6%, due only to increases in the export of meat (50%) and nontraditional products (200%).*

*This involves 60 products, mostly agricultural, marketed in the United States. They constitute 15% of the export total and amount to between $120 million and $130 million.

Tourism advanced to fourth place among the foreign-exchange producing activities, almost the same level as cotton. The drop in coffee prices and the failure of cotton and bananas to recover prevented reaching higher export goals. Cardamom, which some years ago came in third as a foreign-exchange earner, seems to have peaked in an ever more competitive and oversaturated market. Petroleum export figures for 1987 are not available, but in 1985 this category brought in $5 million; and in 1986, $10 million.

The foreign debt reached nearly $2.5 billion by December, showing a $130 million reduction from the previous year, but service on the debt amounted to 38% of exports ($400 million). This figure will not show much variation until 1990, when it will go down to 16% of exports. Since the government can see this light about half-way down the tunnel, it is making its debt-service payments without a murmur, preferring not to get into negotiations with the IMF.

The most significant economic development of the year had to do with public finance, which became the arena of confrontation with the private sector. The government tried to modernize its collection system on six kinds of taxes (income, property, etc.). While this did not involve any fundamental restructuring of the tax system, the private sector rejected the proposal, even though it had been contacted about it several times previously.

The reason for the virulent rejection does not seem to lie in the amount of taxes involved in the measure: 280 million quetzals would be collected, whereas more than 300 million had been collected through a special export tax between July 1986 and June 1987. Rather it probably stemmed from fear that this would be the first link in a chain of state interventions in the economy, which could even lead to a proposal to reform or restructure agriculture—the greatest taboo for the diehard oligarchy and bourgeoisie. Even after Cerezo made a commitment not to launch any other reforms during his term, the private sector called for mobilizations against the government, capitalizing on people's resentment of some of the indirect taxes newly imposed by the government. In spite of Archbishop Penados' efforts to mediate between CACIF and the government, the confrontation remains unabated through early 1988.

The conflict took on special political significance in that the private sector did not use the opposition political parties to exert its pressure on the government; rather it did it directly through its own business organizations in CACIF, negotiating behind the scenes and even toying with the possibility of a coup.

This latter idea led to a series of breaks in the army high command. More than 30% of the high-level officers were involved in these destabilizing efforts, meaning that they were ready to throw overboard all that had gone before to give institutional form to the country's national life. The military leaders most closely identified with the democratic element of the modernization/counterinsurgency project managed to resolve the crisis and keep up the democratic facade. But their invitation to private enterprise, mentioned above in our analysis of the national forum, was rejected, at least for now, as business people contemplated profit losses and the danger that the state would get used to intervening in the economy.

As a result, the centerpiece of the army- government strategy—an agreement with the oligarchy and the bourgeoisie on a modernization/counterinsurgency project—has broken down. Since the private sector did not recognize the military’s leadership and much less Cerezo’s, these two sectors failed to increase public funding for the minimal social development required—as they saw it—to support direct military efforts against the revolutionary guerrilla organizations.

For the rest, the economic recovery sketched out in this analysis is still very fragile. There seem to be three ways to consolidate what has been the first year of stability within the modernization project framework. One would be to increase nontraditional exports to the east coast of the United States—a notably volatile and easily saturated market—within the parameters of the Caribbean Basin Initiative. Another would involve expanding the domestic market through agrarian reform, but there’s no more room to settle people in an agricultural frontier on the point of exhaustion—as reflected in growing migration to the cities due to the extremely serious collapse of the peasant economy. A third approach would involve an increase in public spending and a confrontation with the private sector to get the necessary funds.

Since the second approach is not viable given the oligarchy's hostility toward agrarian reform, those presently in power will probably try to consolidate an economic upturn through a combination of the first and third, although it will be hard to achieve anything more than a palliative. In the national forum, the military were most obviously worried about the miserable conditions of the majority sectors becoming a "breeding ground" for guerrilla subversion. In the dialogue, business people showed great interest in this point, so General Gramajo explained the army's worries more fully:

“A breeding ground is a way of referring to Guatemala’s political and social conditions of... which go back to our ancestors' times and have to do with social and economic organization.... We have certain skillfully exploited conditions (so that some foreign power may bring in its strategy of national liberation wars).”

Note that human misery (the "breeding ground") must be reduced in the military view because, if it is not, revolution may ensue. In other words, it is out of fear of the poor rather than identification with the majority sectors that something more than palliatives must be employed. In that sense, President Cerezo's “arrangement” resembles the measures taken by Louis XV decades before the French Revolution, which obliged him, in a lucid moment, to say to his cabinet: “After me, the deluge.”

In a public document the revolutionary guerrilla organizations state that “it is impossible to reach an accord between opposite and unequal economic interests in Guatemala by means of governmental maneuvers and decrees because the country's semi-capitalist and dependent structure determines what can happen. Another reason is that all levels of Guatemalan society are infected by the political polarization resulting from the mutilation of the democratic-bourgeois revolution, the bloody counterrevolution and the 27 years of people's struggle, including armed struggle.*

*Greeting from the Commander-in-Chief of the Guatemalan Army of the Poor (EGP), member of the URNG, on the 16th anniversary of the EGP in Guatemala, January 19, 1988.

The army's analysis of social conditions is not very different from that of the revolutionary guerrilla organizations. The reasons for those conditions and the means for changing them are so different, however, that there’s no confusion about their very distinct image of a future Guatemala. The military think that the time they’ve bought with the 1981-83 massacres (“tough battles” won, in their view) has allowed the
“dramatic situation” reached by “geographically close and relatively recent experiences” (an obvious allusion to revolutionary Nicaragua) to dispel that country's inspirational character. This opinion was expressed in the national forum by Colonel Mario R. Enríquez M., director of civil affairs (formerly “civic-military action”) of the army staff.

Popular movement and URNG:
Out of sync with each other

Last year saw the URNG's greatest military activity since 1981. At the same time, it was a year in which the URNG tried to strengthen its political presence in the country, an effort initiated in 1986. In the national forum the army recognized a top figure of 2,000 combatants in the URNG, referring to them as “terrorist criminals” and nothing more than an “internal front, now reduced to a mere disturbance” (General Callejas). Rodrigo Asturias (alias Gaspar Ilom) of the URNG's General Command told the international press in Madrid that the URNG speaks in the name of 3,000 to 3,500 combatants whose military strength and support from the people are growing apace.

General Callejas went on to say in the forum, however, that the revolutionary organizations “are promoting ideological struggle and armed struggle. In their greedy eagerness to take power [they are causing] death, desolation, destruction and pain in the Guatemalan family.” Propaganda aside, it is clear that regarding the situation of the revolutionary guerrilla forces, the army's analysis is again not very different from the latter's own.

The URNG has shown its military strength by standing up under two heavy army offensives, one in June and another that began at the end of September and still continues. The intention was that the most recent offensive would be decisive. On the guerrilla fronts where the EGP is fighting (El Quiché and parts of Ixcan), 8,000 soldiers and heavy aircraft (A-37 and Pilatus planes and Huey helicopters) have been activated. Another 5,000 troops were later sent out against the position of the Organization of the People in Arms (ORPA) in Sololá, San Marcos, Quetzaltenango and Suchitepéquez.

Given such disproportionate troops and armaments, the guerrilla resistance is particularly noteworthy. Even more important, if URNG figures are correct, is the number of army casualties inflicted by the URNG in 1987: between 1,200 and 1,400, including a considerable number of officers. In contrast (still according to URNG sources), the guerrilla forces suffered minimal casualties, as did the civil population in resistance. In a paid notice in Prensa Libre and El Gráfico on December 1, 1987, the URNG stated that it had inflicted 476 casualties on the army in October and November while sustaining 12 itself.

In the Ixil triangle north of the department of El Quiché (municipalities of Nebaj, Chajul and Cotzal), where one of the EGP fronts operates, the civilian population in resistance seems to have suffered more; it is said that the army obliged the people to come down from their mountain safe areas and captured about 800 of them. Bombings have been indiscriminate, and there are serious charges of the use of toxic fumigants and the poisoning of rivers; in addition, crop harvests have been burned—i.e., the scorched earth policy once again.

In its many communiqués, the URNG has expressed its perception that both the June offensive and the present one are really army “counteroffensives” in response to the URNG's more intensified military action during the first half of the year. Independent sources—people living near the military hospital in the capital and others traveling through the war zones—confirm the statements about the general extent of damage suffered by the army. The guerrilla has again occupied municipal capitals as distant from one another as El Quetzal (San Marcos department), Purulá (Baja Vera Paz) and Concepción Chiquirichapa (Quetzaltenango).

Perhaps even more important is that the URNG's military activity, with its greater sophistication, broader theater of action and higher number of casualties inflicted on the army, is in keeping with an announced strategy. In 1986 the URNG decided to give the Cerezo government a chance, putting a lower priority on its military activity and trying to raise its political profile. In spite of the fact that after his trip to Europe Cerezo appears to have offered to dialogue with the guerrilla, he rejected the URNG's immediate favorable reaction; at that point the URNG's strategic decision was described as stepping up the military action for 1987 without abandoning the effort to increase its political presence in the country.

The URNG has gotten publicity through paid notices in the newspapers and on radio, the opening of the “Voice of the People” radio station and the sporadic appearance of urban revolutionary graffiti. The army has also involuntarily served the interests of the URNG by inviting reporters to cover the army offensive; as a result journalists have seen and duly reported in the press and on TV that the guerrilla response cannot be written off.

In this arena, the most important event of the year was the dialogue in Madrid between the government and the URNG. Though the army considered the dialogue unconstitutional, it sent its own observers in the end. The mere fact that it took place suggests the end of international ostracism for the revolutionary forces.

Leaving aside the more than semantic disputes about the nature of the encounter (the government called it “approximations to consolidate democracy,” while the URNG presented it with “proposals to construct democracy”), it is important that a) the URNG stressed that the central point is not whether the contending forces have gained or lost more strategically or tactically, but how the serious national problems are approached and solved; b) the army, and later President Cerezo, have been reluctant to continue the “approximations” and have reinforced the effort to defeat the guerrillas militarily; and c) the URNG, while trying to counteract the military offensive and protect the civilian population in resistance, is insisting on a National Dialogue, which the Church, with its own approach, has also recently supported. The bishops of El Quiché and Guatemala City (Archbishop Penados) also called for a humanization of the war in November.

Nonetheless, the shadow of unscrupulous terror exercised by the military regimes between 1978 and 1984 still hangs over Guatemala, and in this climate the level of popular organization has not notably advanced in 1987. The Mutual Assistance Group (GAM), which embodies the open wound of past repression (at least 40,000 disappeared), has not been able to turn itself into a mass movement. The efforts of UNSITRAGUA, CUSG and CGTG to unite in a union federation have not had significant results. The demands arising out of the ever higher cost of living are co-optable by private enterprise at this time of confrontation with the state about taxes. The continued drop in the wage component of grassroots income also heavily conditions efforts to advance union work.

For the first time in many years, however, the Guatemalan countryside again shows a good deal of activity. The combative Committee of Campesino Unity (CUC) has reemerged; the force of the movement around the land question, headed by Father Girón, has been maintained; and in December the National Campesino Confederation (CNC) was founded in a congress said to represent half a million rural workers and peasants. Trade union conflicts have been more numerous and harder (one, in Amatitlán, lasted for three months) and threaten to extend to state workers.

A number of Guatemala's bishops had been hit with pessimistic immobility after the 1981-83 massacres. Now Bishops Quezada and Gerardi in the National Reconciliation Commission* and other bishops in various dioceses of the country have found new energy for actions as a result of the Esquipulas peace process and the concrete pastoral reality they’ve been confronted with. They have continued resisting the siren songs from the Christian Democrats (particularly that they help give the party prestige through cooperating in administering the PCD’s small local programs to try to gain popular support).

The pastoral agents and the Catholic base-level communities have continued advancing despite occasional attacks by the fundamentalist sects.

*The commission as a whole did not respond with the same energy. Both Catholic and Protestant charismatics from interior regions of the country have even shown that they are not closed to a preaching that emphasizes the demand for social justice contained in the gospel of Jesus and given living witness by the poorest peasants, beaten down by the extremely difficult conditions of the countryside. These conditions are not only economic, but include discrimination against the peasantry's indigenous majority.

Only around 5% of the Guatemalan refugees in Mexico have returned to Guatemala (actually less, since some returned from Honduras). The following are figures of repatriated from among a total of approximately 50,000:

1984 - 797
1985 - 205
1986 - 355
1987 - 1,100

The refugees in Mexico, also indigenous for the most part, have elected representatives to form a committee in their camps, in whose name various letters have been sent to the Central American Presidents, the International Verification Commission and the UN High Commissioner on Refugees demanding guarantees and a strong presence in the next conference on the refugee problem.

There thus exists a grassroots movement. What still seems far away is a closing of the gulf between the armed movement and the unarmed one. The country's conditions, the terror implanted in peoples' consciousness and the distance of the war from the most populated centers, as well as the emphasis of revolutionary cadre on military tasks, have converged in a weak articulation of the popular movement as a whole.

The international pillar:
Many tasks at hand

Cerezo's emphasis on neutrality is not new. The military, on its own and advised by ex-Foreign Minister Fernando Andrade, came to the same idea for “reasons of state” during the Mejía Víctores period. Nor is the “active” clause added by Cerezo one of content. Inasmuch as it means ideological alignment to the Western democracies, no one has been more aligned than the Guatemalan military, ardently affiliated to the National Security Doctrine.

Some originality can been found in Cerezo's diplomacy (host to Esquipulas I, brake to an Arias Plan without Nicaragua, catalyst of a rapid and final date for Esquipulas II with Nicaragua). Nonetheless, the change is only in the level of protagonism; Foreign Minister Andrade is playing the same role he played in the Contadora negotiation phase—simply doing what a head of state stained by repression could not do. The bottom line is the same: on the one hand isolate the URNG without incurring Sandinista wrath for a policy that supports US military objectives, and on the other leave the military enough space and time to fight internally without having distracting diversions. For now, it’s enough for the military to have secured the borders with El Salvador and the northwestern ones with Mexico (in 1985 the last military government made a pact with the Miguel De La Madrid government about the refugee question).

Nonetheless, foreign policy has not been reduced to “active neutrality” in Central America. It has already overcome its obsessive interest in legitimating the new state with its civilian facade, militarist underpinnings and modernizing objectives. Now it is trying to carry out its modernization project, which includes minimum social redistribution without touching the fundamental economic structure. In 1987 the international pillar of Cerezo's policy was thus fundamentally economic: to open the credit doors of the world system's different blocs—the United States, the European Economic Community, Latin America and even the nonaligned countries.

It is also trying to open the trade doors of these blocs for its traditional and nontraditional products. “We’re willing to export our democracy,” Vice President Carpio has said. This sophistication puts the governing Christian Democrats a few steps ahead of the counterinsurgent glances of the army, obsessively concerned about a possible regionalizing of the Central American conflict. “An armed confrontation at a Central American level would also force a reimposing of the military strategy concept,” General Bolaños Chávez, Assistant Chief of Staff, had told the national forum. “And in an extreme case, which is not envisioned in either the short or medium term, the pressures exercised by the subversive criminality could force the government to take measures aimed at confronting an internal conflict.” This realistic note was part of General Bolaños' explanation of the “strategic focus,” in which he indicated what the limits of the “active neutrality” policy would be for the army and, given the context, also suggested the limits of army support to the “democratic process.”

The combined vision of the army and the Christian Democrats leads them to understand US interests in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and the region as a whole, but not to support these interests militarily. Guatemala is clearly aligned with the US effort to neutralize the Nicaraguan revolution through demands for democratization and political demands aimed at forcing concessions in the deepening Nicaraguan process. But at least within Central America the new Guatemalan state does not want to trap itself in the straight jacket that Honduras has accepted. It rather prefers Nicaragua's margins of autonomy.

In the UN and the OAS, on the other hand, Guatemala, together with Costa Rica, supported US positions on El Salvador, backing a declaration—opposed by the Contadora and Support Group countries—that would have delegitimized the FMLN. More recently, it joined El Salvador, Costa Rica, Honduras and the United States in requesting an extraordinary OAS meeting regarding the ousting of Panamanian President Del Valle, which again achieved nothing due to the passive posture of Contadora and the Support Group countries—which was in reality their way to oppose other countries’ interference in Panama. Thus at an international level the Central American breakdown of four against one (Nicaragua) is reproduced, rather than the three against two (El Salvador and Honduras) that prevailed in the regional meetings aimed at seeking peace.

The powers competing for leadership of the Guatemalan state—the army, the governing PCD and CACIF (the oligarchy-bourgeoisie business organization)—have achieved neither an economic nor a foreign policy, much less a full-blown “arrangement.” The army appears to be trying to eradicate its military problems once and for all with its gigantic offensive, contrary to what it said in the national forum.

In fact, there are two major lines within the army. One is represented by those who have worked closely with the Israelis and are strongly influenced by their notion of repression through greater social control—model villages, development poles, civil patrols (i.e., a distortion of kibbutzim) and radical transformations of social organization rather than military victories, which are impossible in the long run. The others have been more influenced by the Taiwanese, who have a conception of the army without barracks, fluid troop mobilization, more serious training in military techniques and administration—i.e., one that emphasizes complete military victory.

What the army referred to in the national forum as “the social debt” is one in which the grassroots majorities are the creditors. The debt has been contracted not only by the oligarchs and the bourgeoisie, but even more, as the army tried to say, the military who have governed Guatemala directly or indirectly ever since they helped overthrow the only truly democratic experiment—the "revolutionary" decade of 1944-54. The debt does not consist only of the innumerable victims of repression but of the idea that repression is necessary to sustain a system that moves to the logic of minorities entrenched in their privileges.

Guatemala's economic, political and ethnic problems have no other solution than an effort at profound change that will break out in a truly national confrontation, excluding no one. Otherwise the war will have to continue and militarization will triumph over a modernization that, void of any transformations that are not merely technocratic, will end by being even more militarized. In this case the “third chance” that the military leaders spoke of will be tragically frustrated once again.

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Modernization and Militarism

Military Solution in Crisis

Dependence and the Military

Steps on the Road to Peace

Between Dignity and Submission

Conclusions: Whither Central America
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