Guat’s Up

4 Aug

With my Mom being in Guatemala, as I am sitting at work wishing I could be there as well, and the trial against soldiers from the civil war just ending, I felt it was only appropriate to write the blog this week about Guatemala. Guatemala holds special significance for me. First of all, it was only a couple of summers ago I was in Guatemala with my Mom and her nursing students, working at a rural clinic. Also while I was there I had the opportunity to interview human rights leaders for my senior thesis on how the Guatemalan Peace Process has affected citizen’s rights. Guatemala has a very brutal, sad past and now in the present Guatemala is still trying progress forward.

In 1952, democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz enacted the agrarian land reform law which redistributed unused lands of more than 223 acres to landless peasants. The land owners would be compensated based on the worth of the land they claimed in that year’s taxes. This law was very controversial, and in my opinion desperately needed, for several reasons. One was that the majority of Guatemala’s land was owned by United States owned companies, most of whom did not use a great portion of the land. Also, the fact that the land owners would be compensated based on what they claimed on their taxes is almost humorous due to the fact that land owners greatly understated the worth of their land on taxes.

Now, what should have come from Arbenz’s land reform law is a Robin Hood type of justice in a very unjust Guatemala, unfortunately, there was a slight glitch. The United Fruit Company, an American owned company, (which has since renamed itself Chiquita Banana as an effort to separate itself from this controversy) owned 42% of Guatemala’s arable land, only 15% of it which it used. The United Fruit Company called in a favor to former Board member Allen Dulles, who was the head of the CIA, and his brother John Foster Dulles, the Secretary of State. President Eisenhower was quickly convinced by the Dulles brothers that Arbenz was a Communist threat and needed to be ousted. By 1954, 100,000 families had received land as well as aid for sowing due to Arbenz’s land reform. Unfortunately, that same year PBSUCCESS, a coup d’état backed by the US forced Arbenz to resign and marked the beginning of Guatemala’s long civil war.

The coup d’état was led by the Liberation Army and after Arbenz’s resignation the conservative military took over the government and the country. The military government received military and economic support from the United States. Anyone who opposed the military government was quickly murdered or disappeared. In 1962, the Rebel Armed Forces, FAR, was formed to fight the military government. FAR consisted of middle class Ladinos, students and left-wing political activists. They drew their principles from Che and received support from Cuba. From 1966-68 the FAR were largely wiped out and retreated.

By the 1970s FAR had regrouped, now led by Ladinos but consisting mostly of indigenous, they were based in the indigenous highlands. In the late 1970s Guatemala’s military government started the Scorched Earth campaign, a campaign aimed to depopulate the Mayan areas where the guerrillas were operating. Not only did Scorched Earth consist of tragic deforestation but it is estimated that 100,000-150,000 people were murdered from 1981-1983 due to the campaign. The Scorched Earth campaign is now considered genocide by most historians and activists. By 1984, the Scorched Earth campaign and the large-scale massacres were over, and the guerrilla groups severely weakened.

By 1983, the massacres in Guatemala were receiving international attention and the Guatemala regime was urged to return to civilian rule. In 1985, presidential elections were held and Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo won. The new government wrote a new constitution, established a Constitutional Court and a Supreme Electoral Council, and a new post of Human Rights Ombudsman was created. Many social movements began to form but with it there were death threats, disappearances and murders of activists. By the late 1980s the guerrilla groups proposed negotiations for settlement but the army refused. In 1989, the National Reconciliation Commission sponsored a national dialogue which was boycotted by the government, army, and private sector.

In 1991, the negotiations of the Peace Accords started. With the creation of the Civil Society Assembly allowed previously excluded groups, like indigenous and women, to participate in the negotiations. In late December 1996, the final Peace Accord was signed marking the formal end to Guatemala’s long civil war. Rough estimates of the outcome of the war are: 180,000 dead, 40,000 disappeared, 400 villages destroyed, 100,000 refugees in Mexico, and 1 million displaced. With the last accord signed all the accords were activated for implementation. While the Peace Accords did end the war in Guatemala they also gave a lot of hope for human rights. One significant accord was one concerning indigenous rights, the accord promised new rights and recognition for the indigenous. This was significant due to the fact that the majority of the Guatemala’s population is indigenous and the fact that the indigenous were the main victims in the civil war and the genocide. Sadly, most of the accords concerning human rights were poorly implemented.

Until this week most of the crimes and human rights abuses during Guatemala’s 36 year civil war have never been accounted for. There has never been true justice for the thousands of victims. In 2004, there was a verdict against an officer and 13 soldiers for a massacre but the verdict was eventually overturned. Finally yesterday, four former soldiers were sentenced to 6,060 years for a massacre in Dos Erres where in 1982 250 people were brutally murdered. This is a huge step forward in the fight against the impunity in Guatemala. Human Rights activists across the world are hoping that this is the beginning of justice for the victims of the civil war. In June, Guatemalan authorities arrested a former general for ordering genocide and other crimes against humanity committed against indigenous communities in 1982 and 1983. There is also another trial happening against former Guatemalan President Efraín Ríos Montt for ordering the grave Scorched Earth campaign.

I am happy to finally see some justice coming from Guatemala’s very dark and brutal past; however this is just the beginning. There are thousands of people who still need to stand trial for the crimes that they committed against humanity. Even if that does happen, injustice still lingers in the streets in Guatemala. The Peace Accords which offered so many hopeful promises to its citizens have not been strongly implemented. There are rights which citizens have been given legally, but which are still not recognized. Guatemala’s indigenous are still marginalized, treated poorly and their rights are not recognized by the government. The good news is that it seems that Guatemala has taken the first step down the very long path to justice.


3 Responses to “Guat’s Up”

  1. Kate Timbers August 5, 2011 at 12:21 am #

    The term of Colom is ending and 12 candidates are running for office. The wife of Colom divorced him so that she could run. One of the candidates, from the orange party (“Mano duro” is associated with the former secret police and the genocide.

  2. Kate Timbers Coggin August 16, 2011 at 6:24 am #

    Flying Doctors Completes Successful Medical Mission to Guatemala
    The Flying Doctors (Los Medicos Voladores), completed a one week medical mission, or “journada” in the village of San Francisco El Alto during the first week in August. The annual clinic is done in collaboration with faculty and medical students from the University of San Carlos Medical School in Xela. (Quetzaltenango.) This year they were joined by faculty and interns from a medical school in El Salvador. Participants from the Flying Doctors included physicians, a dentist, a physician’s assistant and a family nurse practitioner, as well as translators and general volunteers. A group of Nursing students and Dental hygiene students and faculty from the University of Northern Arizona participated for the third year.
    Although the group has been doing this for many years, it was described by Dr Adriana Cifuentes, who coordinates the program for the University of San Carlos, as “the most successful mission yet.” This time the group treated 1578 people, providing 2146 separate services, including general medical, dental, pediatrics, women’s health , pharmacy and eyeglasses. Each year, the group conducts a process evaluation of the clinic, determining what worked well and what needs modification. This process of continual fine tuning has led to many improvements.
    Los Medicos Voladores (LMV) is a secular nonprofit organization based in California. It was started in 1975 by Milt Camp, a pilot, who continues to take an active role. Although many of its missions are short term visits with private pilots to provide services in isolated visits in Mexico, LMV also has an international chapter which, in addition to Guatemala, has sent volunteers to provide health care in Peru, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. A Peru trip is planned for this Spring. For more information, go to

  3. Kate Timbers Coggin August 16, 2011 at 6:26 am #

    Check out my report on the LMV trip at the Guat’s up Blog,

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