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GUATEMALA (2 of 2)

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Guatemala, to 2004

Following the assassination of Castillo Armas in July 1958 and a rigged election, General Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes took power. It was Ydigoras who provided the US a base for the anti-Castro Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. Ydigoras' government was overthrown in 1963 by Guatemala's Air Force. In 1963 a coup backed by the Kennedy Administration was followed by a new regime under Colonel Alfredo Enrique Peralta Azurdia, and he intensified the campaign against the guerrillas who had been opposed to the government since the CIA overthrow in 1954. His center-right Institutional Democratic Party allowed elections in 1966. He ran and was defeated by Julio César Méndez Montenegro, the candidate of a center-left party, Mendez Montenegro. The party had "democratic opening" as a slogan, but with its success rightwing paramilitary organizations, such as the "White Hand" and the anti-communist Secret Army, were formed.

Elections in 1970 established Colonel Carlos Manuel Arana Osorio as president. By 1972, members of the guerrilla movement entered from Mexico and settled Guatemala's Western Highlands. In a disputed election of 1974, General Kjell Laugerud García defeated General Efraín Ríos Montt, a candidate of the Christian Democratic Party, who claimed that he had been cheated out of a victory through fraud.

On February 1976, a major earthquake destroyed several cities, caused more than 25,000 deaths, and perceptions of a poor government response contributed to more unrest, especially among the poor. Guerrilla warfare in the 1970s was urban and well as rural. The army and the paramilitary forces responded with a brutal counter-insurgency campaign that resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter, who had been supporting government forces switched and ordered a ban on all military aid to Guatemala's military because of a systematic abuse of human rights. However, documents have since come to light that suggest that American aid continued throughout the Carter years, through clandestine channels. note79

On January 31, 1980, a group of Mayan Indians took over the Spanish Embassy to protest army massacres. An assault killed almost everyone inside the embassy. Spain's ambassador disputed the claim that the Indians had set the fire. He described Guatemalan police as setting the fire to erase traces of their slaughter, and the government of Spain broke diplomatic relations with Guatemala.

In January 1981 the US had a new president, Ronald Reagan, and in 1982 and new regime took power in another military coup, an act that the United States has been described as not having been complicit in or having foreseen. note80 With the coup the constitution was immediately suspended, and the legislature was shut down. General Rios Montt, age 56, emerged as the the de facto title of president. He was also a lay pastor in the evangelical "Church of the Word. Drawing on his Pentecostal beliefs, he spoked of the evils described in the Book of Revelation, which he described as hunger, misery, ignorance and subversion. He was also for fighting corruption and what he described as the depredations of the rich. He said that the true Christian had the Bible in one hand and a machine gun in the other. On April 10, he launched the National Growth and Security Plan whose stated goals were to end the exterminations of Indians and to teach the populace about nationalism. He wanted to integrate indigenous peoples into the state and complained that they had been particularly vulnerable to the seductions of "international communism."

Montt sought economic reforms as well as an end to a "communist" insurgency. Montt's program has been summarized as "rifles and beans." He was quoted in the New York Times on July 18, 1982 as announcing to the people of Guatemala, "If you are with us, we'll feed you; if not, we'll kill you." Montt began a "scorched-earth" counterinsurgency campaign in Guatemala's highlands against the guerrillas and their supporters. President Reagan described Montt as "a man of great personal integrity and commitment" who is "totally dedicated to democracy." The military aid to Guatemala that had been suspended since 1977 was resumed. Montt recaptured what had been considered guerrilla territory but with massacres of civilians – largely Mayans.

In August, 1983, Montt was deposed by his Minister of Defense, General Mejia (Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores) who complained that "religious fanatics" had been abusing their positions in the government. Under General Mejia, elections for an assembly to draft a democratic constitution took place. A new constitution took effect on May 30, 1985. With around 70 percent of the vote, a candidate of the Christian Democracy Party, Vinicio Cerezo, won a presidential election and took office in January, 1986. He promised all Guatemalans a rule of law and reforms to fight corruption. Respect for military rule was declining in Guatemala as it was is Argentina, and soon in Chile and El Salvador. Guatemala's military was seen as stepping away from politics to a legitimate role in protecting internal security – including the continuing war against the guerrillas. Some alleged that real power still lay with the military, and opponents of the government and the military attributed 56 murders to security forces and death squads.

The organization representing the armed opposition to the government, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), recognized that armed struggle was not going to win them power and they sought negotiations with what they hoped would be people willing to give people some rights and justice. The government and military took the position that they had defeated the URNG and were unwilling to talk with them unless they laid down their weapons first.

An unhappy segment in the military attempted another coup in May 1988 and again in May 1989, but in both instances the established armed forces supported the new constitutional order and President Cerezo. Cerezo was refusing to support an investigation or persecution of human rights violations. His government faced economic difficulties, strikes, protest demonstrations and allegations of corruption. Elections brought to power in January 1990 a new president, Jorge Serrano, who had a doctorate in education and science from Stanford University. It was the second time in many decades that there was a peaceful transfer of power to an elected opposition.

Serrano replaced a number of senior officers and persuaded the military to participate in peace talks with the URNG. His government reversed the economic slide it inherited, reducing inflation and boosting economic growth. In May, he suspended the constitution, dissolved Congress and the Supreme Court, imposed censorship and tired to restrict civil freedoms in the name of fighting corruption. Protests from wide segments of the Guatemalan society combined with international pressure and the army's enforcement of the decisions of the judiciary forced Serrano to resign, and he fled to Panama. Elections in June, 1993, produced Ramiro de León as president. Álvaro Arzú was elected in 1996. He was a a former major of Guatemala City. On 29 December 1996 his government and the URNG signed a peace agreement in the presence of UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, officially ending the 36-year civil war.

On 26 April 1997, two days after publishing a report on the suspected involvement of the military in past atrocities, the assistant Archbishop to Guatemala City, Juan José Gerardi Conedera, was murdered,  With suspicions that the President's own guard had been behind the murder, and amidst mounting national and international pressure, President Arzú formed a commission with his most trusted collaborators and members of the church to fully investigate the crime.

In 1999, President Clinton stated that the United States had been wrong to have provided support to Guatemalan military forces that took part in the brutal killing of civilians. Also that year, Guatemalan Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú presented charges for torture, genocide, illegal detention and state-sponsored terrorism against Ríos Montt and four other retired Guatemalan generals, two of them ex-presidents.

Elections in the year 2000 brought Alfonso Portillo to the presidency. He declared against the human rights abuses of governments of the previous two decades. He tried to improve the country's distribution of wealth and to end corruption. Members of his staff were accused of theft, money laundering, and transferring money to bank accounts in Panama, Mexico and the United States. His presidency was not a success.

On 26 January 2012, Ríos Montt appeared in court in Guatemala and was formally indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity. He was the first former head of state to face genocide charges in his own country. On 10 May 2013 he was convicted. On May 20 the Constitutional Court of Guatemala overturned the conviction.

A PBS timeline onlline describes more than 200,000 people having been killed over the course of the 36-year-long civil war (1960-96). It adds that "according to a UN backed commission, about 83 percent of those killed were Mayan." Guatemala had a population close to 7 million. Its 200,000 deaths would be equivalent to the US with a population of 227 million around that time having 6.4 million killed, one in every 35 persons.

Sources

Eisenhower and Latin America: The Foreign Policy of Anti-Communism, by Stephen G. Rabe, 1988.

Overthrow, Chapter 6, "Get Rid of the Stinker," by Stephen Kinzer, 2006.

Americas: The Changing Face of Latin America and the Caribbean, by Peter Winn, 1999.

Latin America: the Development of its Civilization, Third Edition, by Helen Miller Bailey and Abraham P Nasatir, 1973.

Guatemalan Caudillo: The Regime of Jorge Ubico, by Kenneth J Grieb, 1979.

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice, "Ousting a Guatemala Dictator, 1944."

Encyclopedias Britannica and Wikipedia.

Copyright © 2002-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.

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