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Interview: Guatemala After the Elections

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Issue: 11 Section: Accounts Geography: Latin America Guatemala Topics: elections

December 1, 2003

Interview: Guatemala After the Elections

by Simon Helweg-Larsen

A mask made by Guatamalan demonstrators demands the death of militarism. photo: Simon Helweg-Larsen

Dominion: Since 1944, the US government has been heavily involved in shaping the situation in Guatemala. Rios Mott, the CIA backed and US-trained military dictator that recently ran for president, was lauded as "dedicated to democracy" by US President Ronald Reagan, even as his forces were killing tens of thousands of civilians. Is US influence still felt in Guatemala?

Simon Helweg-Larsen: US influence is definitely still felt in Guatemala, but after its well-known role in the armed conflict the US government seems to make a conscious effort to be much less visible. The US is active in the promotion of human rights and post-war justice, but some Guatemalan authors have pointed out that this is often strongest in cases that bring attention away from the US role in atrocities and focus on former members of the Guatemalan military.

The most high-profile US influence today, however, is through counter-narcotics operations. They give most of their military aid through anti-narcotics institutions or programs, place loans and policies on the condition of anti-drug co-operation, and occasionally even have US troops present in Guatemala for training operations. Ironically, the ruling FRG political party, with their power base in the corrupt military command of the 1970s and 1980s, are the sector with the most influence in narcotics trafficking and other organized crime. The police and military are also heavily involved, and US anti-narcotics aid and training usually goes directly to those institutions and individuals involved in high-level drug activity.

You characterized the current government as having a "complete disinterest in social investment." Do poor people in Guatemala have any avenues to develop economically that don't involve organized crime?

Keeping in mind that organized crime is controlled by high-level government and military officials in Guatemala; poor Guatemalans don't even have the chance to rise far above their poverty through organized crime. As regarding people's options for economic development, however, these are very few. In the countryside, where most Guatemalans and the vast majority of poor Guatemalans live, most people are linked to commercial agriculture. While Guatemalan agriculture has never offered fair employment situations–with low salaries, exploitation of child labour, and debt cycles being the norm–current production crises, particularly that of coffee, have created a devastating situation in the rural areas. Unemployment is soaring, and no alternatives have been provided. Industry other than agriculture barely exists in rural areas, and many Guatemalans commute daily to the capital from the highlands, leaving their homes around 3 am.

Employment in the city is scarce and exploitative, with maquila positions presenting the most frequent formal opportunities. Many people survive by selling small items on the street, and others turn to petty theft and crime. Realistically, employment is scarce in Guatemala, the minimum salary is seldom paid, and most people do not have the means to provide themselves or their families with survival basics, a situation reflected in the rising rates of poverty and crime.

In the past few years, workers who have tried to organize unions while working for multinationals like Del Monte have been intimidated or threatened by armed mobs. How do you think the results of the current election will change labour relations in Guatemala?

The elections will undoubtedly bring positive change, but significant reform should not be expected. Most attacks and intimidation against human rights workers and labour organizers in the past four years can be traced back to the outgoing FRG party, headed by General Rios Montt. The private sector controlled by the economic elite has also been targeted by FRG economic and physical attacks and, as such, much media attention has been focused on publicizing and condemning human rights abuses by the FRG. Whether Oscar Berger (GANA) or Alvaro Colom (UNE) wins the presidency in the second round of voting on December 28, repairing the damaged business sector and bringing light to an improved human rights situation will be top priorities. This will mean, at least, less threats and attacks on labour activists. Beyond this, however, not much change is likely. Berger represents the traditional economic elite, and as such would not consider readjustment of the unequal labour system or consideration of badly needed land reform. Colom might personally be in favour of such changes, but faces strong historically powerful factions that would ensure defeat of significant reform.

Assuming that the intense concentration of land ownership hasn't changed during the past decade in Guatemala, what do you see as the future of this issue, given the current climate and the recent elections?

In spite of the difficult situation described above, there is a growing movement pressuring for land reform in Guatemala. Inequality of land ownership and usage has been the key factor in Guatemalan poverty and violence since the 1500s, a fact recognized even in the 1996 Peace Accords to which representatives of the economic elite were party. Even the minimal steps lined out in the accords have not been realized, but pressure within the country is increasing, backed by the constant presence of a United Nations Mission in Guatemala (Minugua).

The organized campesino sector has proposed strategies for land reform through the Plataforma Agraria, and the FRG government recently agreed to establish a commission to consider the proposal. Campesino organizations will no doubt take advantage of the improved human rights environment to pressure for the beginning of institutional land reform in Guatemala.

Simon Helweg-Larsen is a writer and human rights observer living in Guatemala.

Other articles by Simon Helweg-Larsen:

The Fall of Rios Montt

Centaurs from Dusk to Dawn: Remilitarization and the Guatemalan Elections

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