The Book of the Week is “Guatemala, A Cry From the Heart” by V. David Schwantes, published in 1990.
In November 1988, the author, a businessman, traveled to Guatemala with others from the Center for Global Education. The author described a little of the political history that led to Guatemala’s sorry state of affairs in the 1980’s. For the reason of brevity, the author obviously could not cover all aspects of the historical backdrop that came together to create that decade’s spate of violence and oppression. However, he did know Geopolitics 101.
The reason Guatemala (and so many other countries in the world) have been unable to escape their vicious dictatorship cycle is that [drumroll, please!]:
Foreign interventionists and the nation’s leadership made investments in:
the tools of WARFARE (military weapons and divide-and-conquer political, cultural and social infiltrators that caused instability)
tools of modernity (education, infrastructure, healthcare and communications)!
It was like a George Carlin joke. Two previous Guatemalan presidents (Arevalo and Arbenz) had successful land-reform programs that spurred JFK to develop the Alliance for Progress. But prior to the Kennedy administration, those programs devolved into ugly political goings-on, thanks to two previous American presidents.
Beginning with the Nixon administration (on the recommendations of Nelson Rockefeller): “Stability was to be our first priority in foreign relations… Thus in 1972, when the average Guatemalan peasant earned just over $80 per year, the U.S. sent almost $7 million in weapons to that country… The U.S. had sent a billion dollars to Guatemala so far this decade, but I saw few signs that the money was making much difference.” Plus, in the late 1980’s, it sold the Guatemalans M-16 rifles. Then again, the Reagan administration cut back on providing financial aid when Guatemala was found to have one of the worst human-rights-abuse records in the world.
To push the above point about stability (or accidentally-on-purpose elimination of), the State Department encouraged fundamentalist Christian and Catholic missionaries to evangelize to the peasants to make them more accepting of their fate (starving). The peasants were led to believe their fate was in the hands of a supreme being. Other ideas pushed on them were: “turn the other cheek” and “money-changing is evil” and “sharing is a virtue” to get them to collectivize (and be smeared as Communists– more on this in a little while).
The author visited the government district of Guatemala City. “In front of the palace were dozens of heavily armed, crisp, polished soldiers. In front of the cathedral were beggars.”
The author spoke with a Catholic minister, various of whose politically active family members had been murdered in previous years. He was an activist pushing for redistribution of land. Roughly 70% of Guatemala’s land was owned by 1% of the people. The peasants had a religious, cultural, emotional attachment to the land, especially with regard to corn, their staple food. However, they were unskilled, uneducated, and scattered.
In 1986, the minister managed to help peasants (who had previously worked individually) to acquire a little land and work collectively, but in 1987, an arsonist burned it. The one percenters launched a smear campaign against the minister, calling him a Communist. In reality, he was pushing the economic system of socialism, as the peasants owned the means of production (the land). If the government had owned the land, that would have been the political system of Communism.
By the early 1980’s, the elites were acquiring farms in volume. And corn could be imported less expensively than it could be grown. Peasants had to borrow money to purchase fertilizer and pesticides, which made them indebted forever. They were less likely to starve if they grew sugar, coffee, sorghum or soybeans.
The author interviewed a worker at a healthcare clinic funded by UNICEF and humanitarian groups in the Netherlands and Canada. A U.S. embassy representative told the author that 40% of Guatemalan children died before the age of 5. The author had heard higher figures from other sources.
The clinic worker– as had the others who had risked their lives to talk with the author– played music during their conversation, just in case spies were present. His residence consisted of eleven family members in two huts, with no plumbing or electricity. They had a wood-burning stove whose smoke gave the women tuberculosis. He was proud that his mother was still alive at 54 years old (a ripe old age in Guatemala). Further, he considered himself wealthy compared to other peasants, as he had access to coffee trees, chickens, ducks, avocados and bananas.
The government began to crack down on males who expressed displeasure with the government. The males were abducted, conscripted, or recruited for hard manual labor, burned, arrested, tortured, or killed if they had Marxist / Leninist books in their homes, or said or wrote anything unpatriotic. Snitches were paid a small sum to spy on peasants and report back to the hierarchy of military leaders of which the government was comprised, up to the federal level.
In 1984, victims of Guatemala’s “dirty little war” formed a political group to help others similarly situated. The group gave bus fare and medical care to women searching for their missing male relatives. They risked their own lives by participating in demonstrations, and searching for their husbands, brothers and sons at detention centers, morgues, and cemeteries. Guatemalan culture dictated that males were the sole breadwinners for their families. But starving women were forced to make and sell tortillas in order to feed their families.
Read the book to learn the wealth of additional details on Guatemalan history and culture that the author learned from personal experience, interviews and documents.