Guatemala: A Short Political History

- by Rob Segovia-Welsh

In December the ballot boxes of Guatemala showed victory to the center-right party of Berger. Although many promises were made by the several parties running in the national election few Guatemalan´s expect much from the new government.

Although it was Berger that claimed victory it was Rios Montt, the ex-military dictator, who gave the Guatemalan people much to talk about. Montt´s right wing party (FRG) won about 20% of the population´s vote in the primary election. This was not enough to carry him through but certainly enough to raise an eyebrow. Afterall, this is the man who came to power in 1982 by force and caused the death and diappearance of thousands, not to mention the destruction of whole villages.

It is widely known that Montt and his supporters have money to spend. It is therefor not surprising, however contradicting it may seem, to see FRG propaganda on rocks, houses, and walls all throughout the same villages and cities that were hit the hardest during the 1980´s. The FRG paid out thousands of dollars to the poor workers and farmers of Guatemala to campaign and vote for the very man who masacred their families only twenty years ago.

The reality in Guatemala, as in all capitalist nations, is that fraud, corruption, and violence are tools used to maintain class privelege. There is no doubt that the Guatemalan working class and their natural allies desire change, but the way forward is a meandering and rocky road, and the long path they´ve already traveled shows many defeats. To understand the possibilites of Guatemala´s future it would serve us well to look briefly at their past.

Thirty Years of War

Since 1524, the year Pedro de Alvarado of Spain conquered the Mayan inhabitants, there have been indigenous rebellions on an average of every 15 years. So it was of little surprise that after the U.S.-C.I.A. orchestrated cop ousted the first democratically elected president in Guatemala´s history, Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, the indigenous population along with angered students, military officials, and sectors of the working class began another uprising.

Guatemala was controlled almost entirely by a handful of families and their economic interests. The plantations, or fincas, were dominated by the U.S. based United Fruit Company which owned the most fertile lands and made millions by exploiting the labor of the indigenous population and poor mestizos. Wages in both the fincas and industry were low, working conditions dangerous and the hours were long. It is no wonder that organizations arose to fight for better overall conditions during these dreary times.

By the late 1970´s there were so many left organizations in Guatemala it was like alphabet soup. Students, workers, trade unionists, farmers, and indigenous people, all radicalized by their working and living conditions joined guerilla groups such as the F.A.R. (Armed Rebel Forces), E.G.P. (Guerilla Army of the Poor), or O.R.P.A (Revolutionary Organization of People in Arms.) Though these organizations had wild cat politics they were united in their struggle against the myriads of injustices that existed in Guatemala.

The capitalist class, who could no longer tolerate the killing of finca owners and at times the expropriation of land, launched a full blown war against the population. From 1960 to the signing of the peace accords in 1996 there were an estimated 55,000 victims of the war, including 30,000 murdered by the army in the 1980´s alone. Ninety percent of these victims were civilian leaders and 75% were indigenous. Amazingly, 80% of these causalities took place between 1980-83. Not mentioned among the 55,000 victims are the estimated 100,000 Guatemalans who fled their homes and villages due to state sponsored violence and formed refugee camps in the neighboring countries, namely Mexico. One should be reminded that the Guatemalan military was able to launch such a thorough campaign of violence because it not only had the permission of the U.S. but also its support. It is widely known that the School of the Americas, a combat training school run by the United States, supplied military education to many of the leaders of the Guatemalan Army, who then masacred many innocent people.

In 1996 a "firm and lasting peace" was negotiated between the government and the URNG, an umbrella organization of guerilla armies. This peace accord, however, was seen as a peace of attrition rather than a sincere intent on behalf of the government and the class they represent. Eight years later the Guatemalan governement has yet to hold up to its end of the bargain, mainly to decrease the military, increase income tax on the rich, while providing more funding for education and health care.

The Economy Staganates

Agriculture remains to be one of Guatemala´s economic foundations, but recently this has taken a huge hit. Traditionally Guatemala´s most consistent export has been coffee. However, since the mid 1990´s the price of coffee on the world market has plummeted 80%, making coffee farming a no longer profitable option.

This has meant job losses on the large coffee fincas as well as years of scraping by for the small time, subsistance farmers. The standard of living is further hampered in that new jobs are not being created to absorb these newly unemployed workers, leading to an ever increasing pool of cheap labor.

Inflation has steadily decreased the value of the national currency (Quetzal) from 5.6Q to $1 in 1993 to 8Q to $1 in 2004. Already 55% of the population is living on less than $1 per day and 90% of the indigenous population lives below the poverty line. All of this adds to the heavy burden the Guatemalan people are already carrying.

The Way Forward

The future has little light in store for the Guatemalans who are living in squander while keeping the oppulent capitlist class afloat. The way forward is difficult to discern, particularly in light of their recent tragedies.

However, it can be said with confidence that the capitalist class will not wake up tomorrow and give back the land, factories, and power to the working class. Already they have demonstrated the brutal lengths they will go to in order to maintain their wealth and stability.

At the same time, there is not a person in Guatemala who has not been affected by the traumas produced by the war. It is unlikely that the working class and its allies are willing or prepared to jump back into a bloody guerilla war.

A precarious dialectic has been arragned by the two opposing social classes and the conditions in which they find themselves. The Guatemalan capitalist class finds itself in a stagnate economy with few big investors knocking on their door. Their only source of wealth is through the further exploitation of their workers. They are in no shape to make costly concessions like those dictated by the peace accords.

The working class and its allies however, have not received much in the time of so called peace. The majority of land is still owned by a minority, wages are low, jobs are scarce, and poverty is rampant. After decades of war with so many casualties little has changed in the standard of living. One Guatemalan teacher has summed up the frustrations of the people when he explained, "The inequities that caused the war are still present today."

This contradiction between the capitalists and workers can not last forever, at some point an outcome must arise. It is only through continued organized class struggle that the workers and their allies will find a true "firm and lasting peace." But this is not a struggle that is confined to the boarders of Guatemala, it is an international struggle that we all must participate in!

Rob Segovia-Welsh lives in Ashland, Wisconsin and is a member of Youth for Socialist Action. This article first appeared on YSA's website (

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