I recently stumbled over the news of Álvaro Colom taking office as the sixth civilian president of Guatemala since 1986, which marked the end of 30 years of military rule. After winning the November elections with 52% of the votes, he has been branded by some of the media as Guatemala’s first left-wing or center-leftist president in the last decades, which is as vague as it may be overly enthusiastic, as we have yet to see how the president arranges himself with the right-leaning latifundist upperclass. But the reference to Jacobo Arbenz’s election in 1951 does bring back memories of events past (see further down). So far, we only have words to judge President Colom by:
He said he felt on his shoulders the 50 years of aiming for a change, including leaving behind a perverted war whose wounds are still bleeding. Intolerance, inequality, discrimination and the absence of solidarity is what we set out to correct, he affirmed.
God knows the country could need someone who gets shit done for the wretched of this piece of earth. But in a country where both the guerrilla factions and the army (mostly the latter) have committed some of the most atrocious crimes one could (not) imagine and where even today, it’s nearly impossible to bring the truth to light and justice to the victims, it takes more than a few speeches and budget allocations to drain this puddle of nepotism, violence and poverty. To give you an idea, between 2000 and 2005, more than 23,000 people were killed. To think that the guerrilla movement laid down its arms in 1996, the progress expected from the “peace” era is somewhat disappointing. Aside from the usual poverty and lack of future prospects for the majority of the population, it’s the impunity that is silently granted to members of the army and the police that encourages these organisations to use gratuitous violence to maintain “order”.
The last time Guatemala had a president who actually was inspired by socialist ideology was in the 1950s. Jacobo Arbenz was democratically elected in 1951 and got to work on giving the poor peasant population land to grow food on. He made the mistake of laying hands on property that belonged to the United Fruit Company (UFCO, now Chiquita), among others. Being Guatemala’s largest land owner with 85% of its property uncultivated, it was only natural they would be subject to Arbenz’s land reform. But even though only uncultivated plots of land were seized, and despite the fact that the owners were indemnified for the land, United Fruit, which practically owned and ran Guatemala, cried help by hiring a PR agency to manipulate the American media against Arbenz, and the US government smelled communism in their backyard. On top of that, the fact that the CIA had strong ties to UFCO probably helped, too (CIA director had been president of UFCO!). What followed was a series of operations aimed ultimately to destabilize and overthrow Arbenz as well as to portray him as an ally of Sovjet communists. The operations were orchestrated by the CIA as well as by local CIA-trained and financed paramilitary groups. When Arbenz and his family did eventually flee the destabilized country, his successor was quick to undo all the legislation in the latifundists’ interests.
Now, what’s rather interesting is the new internet platform where the CIA, under the Freedom of Information Act, publishes those previously secret documents that haven’t mysteriously been dumped into a concrete foundation or got recycled into toilet paper… And to read how meticulously and cold-heartedly the Central Intelligence Agency planned the ousting of the Arbenz government to regain control of the country, it just makes you wonder what other kind of stuff they’ve come up with in the meantime…
Since I can’t link to the docs directly, I put them right here, but you can look them up at CIA FOIA by searching for…
CIA’s role in the overthrow of Arbenz:
Also very insightful is this long article about the US intervention in Guatemala on helium.com.
Then, there’s a history of US Interventions (incomplete, naturally).
And another timeline of the history of the CIA from its foundation till the early 1990s.
So, to come back to Álvaro Colom, we have yet to see how he manages to democratize the country without stepping on the puppeteers’ toes, both of those within and north of the country. My personal prediction is either he won’t get much more done than apply some cosmetics on the festering face of poor people’s daily lives, or he attempts to make some real reforms, such as drag army officials and police to court, to start with, which will most likely make him the victim of an unforeseeable traffic accident…
So let’s not hold our breaths.
But should this blog survive the four years of Colom’s term, we’ll talk again.