The Guatemalan Uprising: An End to Corruption and Fear

Protest in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. August 2015.
Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. August 2015.
Guatemala is in upheaval today. In the past few days, prosecutors for the country’s Public Ministry charged President Otto Pérez Molina with “being part of a criminal organization, with the purpose of defrauding the state.” He joins his once vice-president Roxana Baldetti in jail, with Baldetti and dozens more officials implicated in the corruption scheme known as La Línea, a conspiracy that funneled state money into private hands.

The story that cannot be lost in the proliferation of spectacular images, such as that of Molina listening to the charges against him this morning, is what led to the events of the past week: people organizing to oust a corrupt regime and rebuild a sense of collective agency in a country decimated by a civil war that raged for thirty years. The war left an estimated 200,000 dead or disappeared, the latter being the term used to refer to the people who vanished without a trace, never to be heard from again, and it is the impact of these horrors, too, that current organizers are struggling against.

Speaking with people in the country in the month leading up to Molina’s resignation, the constant reference point of conversation was the period at which the civil war reached a fever pitch: 1979-1983, with a year or two of variation depending on where in the country the speaker was living during that time. “The fear cannot be described,” one man told me about that era. We were on a bus, and as often happened, after striking up a conversation and navigating ‘safe’ subjects for the better part of an hour, I began picking up on his subtle references to political developments in the country, and the back and forth hinting at direct political conversation escalated into his weighing with me the ambivalence he continued to struggle with about having escaped the country rather than taken up arms during the war. The guerrilla struggle, while ultimately unsuccessful in the face of a U.S.-backed Guatemalan military utilizing a genocidal scorched earth policy, enjoyed broad-based support from the rural population of the country, a demographic that continues to constitute the majority of the country’s people.

While my friend on the bus left the capital to flee to the United States rather than to the mountains during the conflict, this was a fluke, an opportunity to which the overwhelming majority of the Guatemalan population lacked access. The fear born in this period, with friends and family disappeared without a trace, or buses regularly searched by Kaibiles, special military ‘death squads’ tasked by then-President Efrain Rios Montt with “exterminating” guerrilla support in the countryside and communists in the cities, continues to weigh heavily in contemporary Guatemala.

Many of the ex-guerrillas I spoke with felt that the current anti-corruption movement’s base among youth was an important strength. “They do not know what it was like, they can only have heard stories about the war,” said one ex-URNG (Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca) fighter in Quetzaltenango, a Mayan-majority city in the southwest of the country. Fighters from this portion of the country were largely affiliated with the URNG, which after the violence formally ‘ended’ in 1996, became the broader umbrella for the united front of guerrilla groups during the peace accords negotiation process. Today, the URNG has transformed itself into a political party, albeit, a small one that in this coming election cycle has teamed up with WINAQ, a left indigenous party, to put forth a presidential candidate.

That those on the front lines of this summer’s protests didn’t live through the violence undertaken by the Guatemalan state in the name of anticommunism has likely facilitated their bold denunciations of those in power. I witnessed university students in Quetzaltenango dump dozens of stolen election campaign signs from the leading political parties in front of the entrance to the city’s municipal building, blockading anyone from entering or exiting the building, and finally setting off firecrackers on the pile and all around it, brazen political theater that once would have been more than enough reason for those students to be kidnapped by the state. However, these students punctuated their actions with laughter and singing, posing for photos, albeit with masks covering their faces, before jumping in a truck to leave the scene.

While the overwhelming demand of the current protests is an end to corruption, one that pressured the (corrupt in their own right) Guatemalan judicial institutions to charge Molina along with many of his colleagues, what remains to be seen is whether this demand broadens into a call for justice. Rather than centered on La Línea, this is a historically-informed justice that begins with the rural and indigenous populations who continue to suffer the consequences of (genocidal, in the case of the Ixil triangle) massacres as well as land dispossession in the interests of export-production, from coffee to more recent investments in African palm and hydro-power. While Cacif, an organization representing the interests of a number of big business sectors, has supported the anti-corruption protests in the past week or so, this broader demand would likely break this cross-class coalition, with Guatemala’s oligarchic handful of wealthy families forced to account for their role in the dispossession of the wider, deeply-impoverished, population.

As Allan Nairn explained on Democracy Now, this shift in the uprising’s demands is one that makes intuitive sense, as the history of Guatemala’s civil war and land reforms can’t be considered distinctly from the present: President Molina, under the alias ‘Commander Tito’ during the war, commanded operations that resulted in scorched earth massacres of the rural population. Caught on remarkable and horrifying film standing near civilian bodies during the conflict, Molina is a military man through-and-through, trained at the infamous United States School of the Americas along with a number of his ex-military colleagues in Congress today.

This push for justice against the wrongs of a corrupt regime in the 21st century, but also against the corruption of it’s 20th century roots as a military dictatorship, is no abstract concept. Nothing could be more concrete than the need for reparations for the victims of police and military torture and murder, the displacement of millions from their land during the conflict and again with the flood of new extractive industries that have been courted by the Molina regime. We can only wait to see whether such a demand can gain ground in what appears today to be a urban-centric uprising, which while including participation from rural and indigenous Guatemalans, reflects continued inequalities between life in the cities and countryside. The Guatemalan elections, scheduled for Sunday, September 6, may occasion the next development in this uprising’s trajectory, but whatever unfolds, this moment signifies what journalist Ryszard Kapuściński in Shah of Shahs, his account of the Iranian Revolution, poetically identified as a key point in the revolutionary process. Describing a police officer shouting at a protester to disperse in revolutionary Tehran, he writes:

“But this time everything turns out differently. The policeman shouts, but the man doesn’t run. He just stands there, looking at the policeman. It’s a cautious look, still tinged with fear, but at the same time tough and insolent. So that’s the way it is! The man on the edge of the crowd is looking insolently at uniformed authority. He doesn’t budge. He glances around and sees the same look on other faces. Like his, their faces are watchful, still a bit fearful, but already firm and unrelenting. Nobody runs though the policeman has gone on shouting; at last he stops. There is a moment of silence.

We don’t know whether the policeman and the man on the edge of the crowd already realize what has happened. The man has stopped being afraid – and this is precisely the beginning of the revolution. Here it starts.”

This is what’s now taking place in Guatemala. Whatever may come next, the effect of a fear dissipated on the future of a people cannot be underestimated, nor its outcome predicted in advance.

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