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Guatemala Essay, Research Paper

Guatemala, A Country Formed, Molded And Ruled By The Military

Guatemala is a relatively large Central American country located directly south of Mexico, and north of Honduras and El Salvador. It’s capital, Guatemala City, is the largest city in all of Central America. Guatemala has a population of 10,919,000 people, living on 42,042 square meters of land. The country’s government is technically democratic, although currently, the people do not really have much say at all . Guatemala, like so many other unfortunate Latin American countries has been plagued by the continuous reign of one tyrannous dictator after another. This tyrannical government was brought about by a military dominance and history that no other country has ever seen. During the Spanish Conquest of 1524, explorer Pedro de Alvarada began pillaging the tranquil Mayan city?states. This soon brought the country under Spanish control. The Indians were denied any rights, and forced to slave for their land. Ever since then, Guatemala has come to be known as “the land of eternal tyranny.”

This country has had a turbulent post?independence history as well. Guatemala gained independence from Spain on September 15, 1821; it briefly became part of the Mexican Empire and then for a period belonged to a federation called the United Provinces of Central America. From the mid?19th century until the mid?1980s, the country passed through a series of military dictatorships, insurgencies (particularly beginning in the 1960s), coups, and stretches of military rule with only occasional periods of representative government.

From 1944 to 1986

In 1944, Gen. Jorge Ubico’s dictatorship was overthrown by the “October Revolutionaries” ??a group of dissident military officers, students, and liberal professionals. A civilian president, Juan Jose Arevalo, was elected in 1945; he held the presidency until 1951. Social reforms which were begun under him were continued by his successor, Col. Jacobo Arbenz. Colonel Arbenz permitted the communist Guatemalan Labor Party to gain legal status in 1952. By the mid?point of Arbenz’s term, communists controlled key peasant organizations, labor unions, and the governing political party, holding some key government positions.

Despite most Guatemalans’ attachment to the original ideals of the 1944 uprising, key segments of society and the military viewed Arbenz’s policies as a menace. The army refused to defend the government when a group led by Col. Carlos Castillo Armas invaded the country from Honduras in 1954 and eventually took over the government. The assassination of President Castillo in 1957 precipitated a period of confusion from which Gen. Miguel Ydigoras Fuentes emerged as President in 1958.

A 1960 revolt by junior military officers failed, and some of the participants went into hiding, creating the nucleus of a guerrilla movement which established close ties with Cuba. In early 1963, a new military group, headed by Col. Enrique Peralta Azurdia, restored order. But the unconstitutional nature of the regime created disaffection, played upon by the guerrillas, especially among students. A constituent assembly drafted a new constitution, promulgated in September 1965. The presidential candidate of the moderate Revolutionary Party won by a plurality in the 1966 elections, thus briefly returning the country to a civilian presidency. Shortly after President Julio Cesar Mendez Montenegro took office, the army launched a major counterinsurgency campaign that largely broke up the guerrilla movement in the countryside . The guerrillas then concentrated their attacks in Guatemala City, where they assassinated many leading figures, including U.S. Ambassador John Gordon Mein, in 1968.

The country again came under military rule in 1970. The new President, Gen. Carlos Arana (1970?74), declared a state of siege, and an intense anti?terrorist campaign forced terrorist groups to reduce their activity markedly. He was followed by Gen. Kjell Laugerud Garcia, who was declared the winner in disputed 1974 presidential elections. His successor, Gen. Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia, was inaugurated on July 1, 1978; he promised to attack vigorously Guatemala’s socioeconomic problems, but violence increased.

Three principal left?wing guerrilla groups??the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP), the Revolutionary Organization of Armed People (ORPA), and the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR) conducted economic sabotage and targeted government installations and members of government security forces in armed attacks. These three organizations have since combined with a fourth guerrilla organization the outlawed communist party, known as the (PGT) to form the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). At the same time, extreme right?wing groups of self?appointed vigilantes, such as the Secret Anti?Communist Army (ESA) and the White Hand, tortured and murdered students, professionals, and peasants suspected of involvement in leftist activities. As the March 1982 elections approached, political violence steadily grew as guerrillas sought to disrupt the electoral process.

The winner by plurality of the March 7, 1982, elections was former Defense Minister Gen. Anibal Guevara. Opposition centrist parties, though, claimed electoral fraud. On the morning of March 23, 1982, the National Palace in Guatemala City was surrounded by army troops commanded by junior officers who were opposed to General Guevara’s attempted takeover of power by fraud. The coup leaders asked Brig. Gen. Efrain Jose Rios Montt to negotiate the departure of presidential incumbent General Lucas. Rios Montt had been the candidate of the Christian Democratic Party in the 1974 presidential elections and was widely believed to have lost by fraud.

Rios Montt formed a three?member junta that canceled the 1965 constitution, dissolved the Congress, suspended political parties, and canceled the election law. On June 9, Rios Montt accepted the resignations of the two other junta members and assumed the title of President of the Republic. Responding to a wave of violence, the Rios Montt government imposed a state of siege on July 1, 1982 severely restricting civil liberties and created a system of special courts, which were independent of the regular judiciary . Politically, Rios Montt formed an advisory Council of State to assist him in returning the nation to democracy. In 1983, electoral laws were promulgated, the state of siege was lifted, and political activity was once again allowed. The Rios Montt government scheduled constituent assembly elections for July 1, 1984.

Guerrilla forces and their leftist allies denounced the new government and stepped up their attacks. Rios Montt sought to combat them through military actions and economic reforms??or, in his words, through “rifles and beans.” The government formed civilian defense forces and achieved success in containing the insurgency. However, the economy suffered a severe setback, with per capita GDP dropping more than 10% in real terms during Rios Montt’s presidency. Infighting within the military led to the imposition of a state of siege on June 29, 1983, a shake?up of Rios Montt’s advisers, and continuing coup rumors.

On August 8, 1983, Rios Montt was deposed by the Guatemalan army. His ouster capped years of political violence in Guatemala from both right and left and continuing economic turmoil. The Minister of Defense, Gen. Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores, was proclaimed head of state the same day. General Mejia claimed that certain “religious fanatics” were abusing their positions in the government and that corruption had to be weeded out. The Mejia government quickly abolished the controversial courts of special jurisdiction. Constituent assembly elections were held on July 1, 1984.

On May 30, 1985, after nine months of debate, the constituent assembly finished drafting a new constitution, which took immediate effect. Chief of State Mejia called general elections for president, congress, mayor, and city councils for November 3, 1985. A runoff election was held on December 8. The Christian Democratic Party of Guatemala (DCG) candidate, Vinicio Cerezo, won the presidency with almost 70% of the vote and took office in January 1986. The DCG also won 51 of the 100 seats in the national congress.

From 1986 to 1994

Upon its inauguration in January 1986, President Cerezo’s new civilian government announced that its top priorities would be to end the political violence of insurgency and counterinsurgency actions and to establish the rule of law. The army divested itself of its governing role and rededicated itself to the professionalization of its forces and combat against the insurgents. Guatemala’s police forces were reorganized, including the dissolution of the

Department of Technical Investigations (DIT), the plainclothes arm of the national police widely considered to have engaged in extortion, robbery, and political kidnapings and assassinations.

The Supreme Court embarked on a series of reforms designed to fight corruption and improve the efficiency of the legal system. Other reforms included new laws of habeas corpus and amparo, or court?ordered protection; the creation of a legislative human rights committee; and the establishment in 1987 of the office of Human Rights Ombudsman.

The first two years of Cerezo’s administration were characterized by a stable economy and a marked decrease in the level of politically motivated violence. But two attempted coups in May 1988 and May 1989 marked the onset of renewed political and general violence. The Cerezo administration was heavily criticized for its unwillingness to investigate or prosecute cases of human rights violations. The final two years of Cerezo’s government also were marked by a failing economy, strikes, protest marches, and allegations of widespread corruption. The government’s inability to deal with many of the nation’s problems??such as infant mortality, illiteracy, deficient health and social services, and rising levels of violence??contributed to the population’s discontent.

Presidential and congressional elections were held on November 11, 1990. Jorge Serrano was inaugurated on January 14, 1991, after a runoff ballot, thereby completing the transition from one democratically elected civilian government to another. From the beginning, however, Serrano was plagued by his weak political base. Because his ruling Movement of Solidarity Action (MAS) party had only 18 of 116 seats in Congress, Serrano had to enter into a sometimes tenuous alliance with the Christian Democrats and the Union of the National Center (UCN).

Overall, the Serrano administration’s record was mixed. Serrano had some success in consolidating civilian control over the army high command. He replaced two defense ministers (required by the 1985 constitution to be active?duty army officers), two military chiefs of staff, and one chief of the air force. He also persuaded the military to participate in peace talks with the leftist URNG rebels.

The Serrano government did a credible job of reversing the economic slide it inherited, reducing inflation and boosting real growth from 3% in 1990 to almost 5% in 1992. It passed a sweeping tax reform package, concluded a standby agreement with the IMF, and cleared arrears with the international financial institutions??all achievements that had eluded the Cerezo administration.

On the international front, Guatemala under the Serrano administration increased cooperation in counter narcotics matters with the U.S. to eradicate opium poppy cultivation in Guatemala and to reduce Guatemala’s growing role as a transit point for Colombian?produced cocaine destined for the U.S. market. As part of this effort, cooperation on extradition matters also increased.

Serrano strongly condemned human rights abuses, but enforcement was spotty. Initiatives to fight corruption met with some success; the Serrano administration prosecuted some corrupt government officials and arrested the former heads of the national electrical utility and the head of the national telephone company. However, as the administration wore on, many Guatemalans regarded Serrano as more interested in conducting “business as usual” than in bringing about lasting solutions to the country’s chronic political, economic, and social problems.

On May 25, 1993, Serrano illegally dissolved Congress and the Supreme Court and tried to restrict civil freedoms, allegedly in an attempt to fight corruption. But the so?called autogolpe (autocoup) failed due to strong protests by many of the Guatemalan people, international pressure, and the army’s role in enforcing the decisions of the Court of Constitutionality, which ruled against Serrano’s and his Vice President’s illegal takeover of power. Serrano fled the country. On June 5, 1993, the Congress pursuant to the 1985 constitution elected Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman, Ramiro De Leon Carpio, to complete Serrano’s presidential term. De Leon??not a member of any political party and with strong popular support??launched an ambitious anti?corruption campaign to “purify” Congress and the Supreme Court by demanding the resignations of all members of those two bodies. Despite considerable congressional resistance, presidential and popular pressure led to a November 1993 agreement brokered by the Catholic Church between the government and Congress on a package of constitutional reforms. These reforms were approved by popular referendum on January 30, 1994.

Although it will most likely take years to completely undo the devastating amount of damage that dozens of previous military dictators have done to the country, there is now a substantial hope for peace. Guatemala has faced decade upon decade of suffering. No one knows what lies ahead in the future of the once?peaceful nation. Hopefully, the worst of it is over with, and better times are soon to come. Fortunately though, after 35 years of armed conflict, the Acuerdo de Paz Firme y Duradera, Agreement for a Firm and Lasting Peace was signed in December 1996 by the Guatemalan Government and the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG) . Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity, raises hopes for the beginning of a new era for the country, an era in which the human rights of Guatemalans will be accorded their true worth and will be protected both in law and in practice.

1. Black, George, Garrison Guatemala, Monthly Review Press, 1998.

2. Beezley, William H., The Human Tradition In Latin America, Delaware: Scholarly Resources Inc, 1994.

3. Children And War-Guatemala, London : MRG, 1997.

4. Goodwin, Dr. Paul B., Latin America, Connecticut: McGraw-Hill, 1998.

5. Handy, Jim, Revolution in the countryside, Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, 1994

6. Loveman, Brian, For La Patria, Delaware: Scholarly Resources Inc, 1999.

7. Rodriquez, Linda, Rank And Privilege The Military In Latin America, Delaware: Jaguar Books, 1994.

8. Schirmer, Jennifer G., The Guatemalan Military Project: A Violence Called Democracy, Pennslyvannia: University of Pennsylvania Press,1998.

9. Simon, Jean?Marie, Guatemala: Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny, Norton.Ww,1999.

10. United States. Congress. House. Committee on International Relations. Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human rights in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador, Washington : U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1976

11. Washington Office On Latin America Staff, Administration of Injustice: Military Accountability in Guatemala, Washington Office on Latin America, 1989.

12. Wearne, Phillip, The Maya of Guatemala, London : Minority Rights Group, 1989.

13. Winter, Nevin O., Guatemala and her people of to?day, Boston : L. C. Page and company, 1994.


1. Black, George, Garrison Guatemala, Monthly Review Press, 1998.

2. Children And War-Guatemala, London : MRG, 1997.

3. Goodwin, Dr. Paul B., Latin America, Connecticut: McGraw-Hill, 1998

4. Loveman, Brian, For La Patria, Delaware: Scholarly Resources Inc, 1999.

5. Schirmer, Jennifer G., The Guatemalan Military Project: A Violence Called Democracy, Pennslyvannia: University of Pennsylvania Press,1998.

6. Simon, Jean?Marie, Guatemala: Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny, Norton.Ww, 1999.

7. Winter, Nevin O., Guatemala and her people of to?day, Boston : L. C. Page and company, 1994.

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