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Guatemala Democracy Is an Army in Disguise

May 29, 1988|Ken Anderson and Jean-Marie Simon | Ken Anderson worked in human rights during 1987 in Guatemala; Jean-Marie Simon is the author of "Guatemala: Eternal Spring--Eternal Tyranny" (Norton, 1988). Their article is adapted from an essay in Telos, a journal of social theory

NEW YORK — Junior army officers attempted a coup against the government in Guatemala earlier this month; it was quickly put down without bloodshed by senior officers. Chief of Staff Brig. Gen. Hector Gramajo Morales, described the incident as "acts of indiscipline," adding that the rebelling officers had "immediately changed their attitudes."

The long-term legacy of the attempted coup will most likely be to reinforce the received wisdom among U.S. policy-makers that the senior military in Guatemala is loyal to civilian President Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo, that after many years of bloody army rule, Guatemala is the "most recent democratic success story in Central America," in the words of Robert S. Pastorino, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for inter-American affairs.

Pastorino's happy assessment unfortunately bears little relation to the actual state of affairs. Civilian government in Guatemala is no more than a veil for military rule, operating as a shadow government from inside the civilian shell, and democracy an illusion dispensed for international consumption.

The genesis of the current arrangement in Guatemala lies not in the election of Cerezo in 1985, but in the 1982 transition from the ferocious military dictatorship of Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia to the equally ferocious military dictatorship of Gen. Jose Efrain Rios Montt. The two regimes, together with the subsequent regime of Gen. Oscar Mejia Victores, appropriately earned Guatemala a reputation as the country most abusive of human rights in the Western Hemisphere.

By the end of direct military rule in Guatemala in 1985, the Guatemalan army had razed about 400 villages, killed or "disappeared" more than 100,000 people and driven hundreds of thousands more into exile or a political netherworld at home.

Having flattened the peasantry, the Guatemalan army found itself with a superb opportunity to consolidate its rule. The cost of open counterinsurgency war had been the loss of all international legitimacy; even the sympathetic Reagan Administration found it difficult to deliver military assistance because of the magnitude of Guatemala's human-rights abuses. The army also had to consider its relationship with the private-sector oligarchy which, in its short-sighted struggle for profits, had helped precipitate the initial crisis and then had depended on the military for rescue, at considerable cost to the army in blood and resources.

Despite dependence on the army in time of crisis, once the emergency had passed the oligarchy resented the encroachment of the military into its traditional turf of economic power and policy. Members hoped that once the insurgent threat was over, the army would consider the battle won and allow the oligarchy to return to free reign.

The army, by contrast, had concluded that its own agenda was best served by the creation of a strong, authoritarian state; the military would dominate the popular sectors and peasantry through repression. It wanted power at least equal to the oligarchy--not just in security matters, but in economic policy as well.

This domination required that there be no relaxation of the national security state, plus the creation of permanent counterinsurgency mechanisms--principally, Vietnam-style model villages and the now-infamous "civil patrol" system whereby each village reports on its own activities and population directly to the army.

For the state to regain international legitimacy and thereby foreign assistance, however, the military rule had to be concealed beneath a veneer of civilian government. Thus the military, according to now-senior officers, planned for elections on its terms and in the context of its permanent counterinsurgency apparatus back at the time of transition from Lucas Garcia to Rios Montt.

Cerezo has pliantly served the military's purposes. He has not opposed any of its operations to establish the country's rural highland regions as a permanent military reservation. He has done nothing to stem an increasing tide of killings and disappearances in Guatemala City; he told a senior Catholic Church official, when confronted with a list of recently disappeared persons, that he would give the list to the army, because the list was "not within my jurisdiction."

Although concrete figures are difficult to establish, human-rights observers believe the rate of selective human rights violations and abuse has steadily increased during 1987 and 1988, until it is now higher than levels reached in 1985 by the last military government prior to Cerezo. Political killings and disappearances have not abated in Guatemala under civilian government, although it is inconvenient under Cerezo to let the violence be as visible as it once was.

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