By Jonathan Power
September 8th 2015.
Guatemala on Sunday held a reasonably honest presidential election.
But it is probably not the end of the brutal saga of the country- 36 years of continuous murder, mayhem, abductions, disappearances, rapes and genocide that have kept on rolling, chapter after chapter. Labour leaders, villagers and peasants, students and churchmen, journalists and human rights activists have been killed by death squads. This is a Harry Potter saga with bullets.
Few countries have suffered as much as Guatemala. More people were killed in the 36 years of civil war than in all of the rest Latin America put together, more than in the civil wars in Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Peru and the bloody coup d’etats in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil.
A UN investigation in Guatemala reported that far more guerrillas had died than government forces, by a factor of 9. The Commission estimated that the number of persons killed or disappeared “as a result of fratricidal confrontation” reached a total of 200,000. The State, it concluded, “deliberately magnified the military threat of the insurgency. The vast majority of the victims were not combatants, but civilians. A quarter of all victims were women”.
Most of the weaponry and political support for the government came from the US. When Congress cut off military aid in the 1980s President Ronald Reagan asked Israel to take over. During the most intense period of the civil war, Guatemalan soldiers dropped into Indian villages on Israeli-made Arava Transports and did their killing with Uzi rifles.
As Stephen Kinzer, a former New York Times journalist and author of a seminal book on the United Fruit Company, wrote last week, “Guatemala was horrifically brutalized by Spanish conquerors. It became a nation dominated by rich landowners who continued oppressing the Indian majority. Early in the 20th century the Boston-based United Fruit Company became the country’s most powerful force.
After democracy emerged in 1944, Guatemala’s Congress passed a land reform law that required the United Fruit to sell its unused land for distribution to landless peasants. The company appealed to Washington, and in 1954 President Dwight Eisenhower authorized a coup in which the elected government was deposed.” A few years later a guerrilla movement began an uprising over the land question.
In 1996 UN negotiators pushed through a settlement ending the civil war. Still, as I found on one of my regular visits to Guatemala the country remained in thrall to vicious large-scale landowners, drug traffickers, street criminals and big-time government corruption. Justice dragged its feet and few subsequent presidents seemed have much success in turning the tide of evil. The murder rate is, by world standards, astronomical. Human rights activists walk in fear of death.
Today large numbers still live in deep poverty. The land-holding elite that long ago dispossessed the Indian peasantry fiercely resists change.
The country took a big step forward in 2013 when the former president, General Efrain Rios Montt, became the first former head of state to be tried for genocide in his home country. Prosecutors said he had presided over the war’s bloodiest phase. They said he turned a blind eye as soldiers used rape, torture and arson against those suspected of supporting leftist rebels. He was convicted. However, on appeal, he won the right to a new trial which is now underway.
An international team of prosecutors – the UN-supported International Commission Against Immunity in Guatemala (financed in good part by the US) – invited in by the feisty attorney-general, Claudia Paz y Paz, documented high level corruption going right up to and including President Perez Molina. He has been accused of a massive customs fraud network in which corrupt businesses paid bribes in exchange for lower import duties. Paz y Paz was named by Forbes magazine as “one of the five most powerful women changing the world”.
Last week Congress stripped the president of his prosecutorial immunity. Three days later he stepped down. Later that evening he was detained in prison, as a judge decided whether to bring corruption charges against him. (Since April a total of 14 cabinet ministers have resigned, saying they had been “let down” by the mounting evidence against the president.)
Sunday’s election brought to the fore Jimmy Morales, a well-known actor in Guatemalan films. His party is centre-right. He won 25% of the vote in the first round. (The second round will be held next month.) His chief opponent is Manuel Baldizon, a right wing populist, allegedly linked to serious corruption, who won 22%. There will doubtless be in the second round, as there was in the first round, a large number of abstentions.
Unfortunately the opposition to the two – some 53% – were unable to rally around a common candidate, despite the sharp rise in political consciousness, especially among the indigenous majority.
The saga of a country steeped in evil continues.
© Jonathan Power 2015