Sunday, August 20, 2023

Guatemala before the election

By Allan Nairn

As Guatemalans go to the polls there is an ad running on TV encouraging parents to give DNA samples to the National Institute of Forensic Sciences (INACIF) to help with the identification of human remains found near the US border. 

In the ad an anxious mother plays and replays a voice message from her son who says that he will contact her "as soon as I cross the frontier."

The presumption is that the call never comes. The loved one has "disappeared."

It is, as the print version of the ad says, the fulfillment of "your greatest fear."

When the CIA invaded in 1954 and ended Guatemalan democracy it also put an end -- for a time, at least -- to the hope of basic human equality.

Today an estimated 47% of Guatemalans under the age of five are malnourished. And the country's rich are very rich and determined to keep it that way.

The military dictators who ran the country, with US backing, until the mid 1980s pursued that end by killing anyone perceived to stand in their way.

Their mission culminated in one of the most intensive slaughters since the Spanish Conquest as the army, by one of its own counts, wiped out 662 indigenous highland villages. 

As one of the field commanders, Sergeant Miguel Raimundo, explained it to me at the time "the problem is that almost all the village people are guerrillas." (Allan Nairn, "The Guns of Guatemala, the merciless mission of Rios Montt's army," The New Republic [US], April 11, 1983).

He didn't literally mean armed guerrillas, for, as the then-dictator General Rios Montt told me: "For each one who is shooting there are ten who are working behind him."

Expanding on this, Rios Montt's chief aide, Francisco Bianchi, continued:"[T]he Indians ['Indios,' he called them] were subversives, right? And how do you fight subversion? Clearly you had to kill Indians because they were collaborating with subversion. And they would say, 'You're massacring innocent people.' But they weren't innocent. They had sold out to subversion." (Allan Nairn, "Guatemala Can't Take 2 Roads," The New York Times, op ed, July 20, 1982).

These mountain sweeps, which were developed as a tactic with the US military attache -- as he told me, were a followup to the urban assassinations which decapitated civil society.

Among the victims was Manuel Colom Argueta, the former Mayor of Guatemala City who was shot 45 times as a helicopter hovered overhead.

And in one of those bitter jokes that the gods of history sometimes like to play, it is Colom Argueta's niece-in-law, Sandra Torres, who in today's election is standing as the presidential candidate of that US-invasion-installed old order.

Opposing her, having recently come out of nowhere to take a presumed lead, is Bernardo Arévalo, the son of the first of the two democratic-era presidents who began the land and other reforms that Eisenhower, and United Fruit, found so intolerable.

Arévalo, born abroad while his father was in exile, now faces a depleted Guatemala where economic exile has largely replaced the massacre-era political variety and where the massacre regime has morphed into one known as the Pacto de Corruptos (perhaps best translated as the Covenant of the Corrupt) and where sons and daughters are willing to risk becoming bones to cross the border.

By conventional measures, Arévalo and his reformist party, Semilla ('seed'), are facing an uphill electoral climb since Torres has the money, a big political machine, government agencies that are all-but-openly buying votes for her, and a public prosecutor's office (Ministerio Publico, MP) that is attempting to dissolve Semilla -- moving against it as recently as three days ago.

And on top of that the MP is talking about starting mass arrests -- perhaps tomorrow -- aimed not just at Semilla but also at the national elections board (Tribunal Supremo Electoral, TSE), which in addition to doing shady contracts characteristic of the current Pacto has shocked many by committing the real crime of refusing to knock out Arévalo.

Semilla is one of the many mainly middle-class movements around the world which have shaken and sometimes toppled governments by protesting corruption.

It was born out of the protest movement that brought down President General Otto
Pérez Molina in 2015 not on the grounds of his '80s massacres but on the grounds that he was a thief. (It was Pérez Molina's own troops who described their massacres to me in the field, see references above and also "Titular de Hoy" our documentary with Jean-Marie Simon and Mikael Wahlforss [director], as well as Allan Nairn,"CIA Death Squad," The Nation [US], April 17, 1995 which reports that as army intel chief he was a CIA asset).

In this campaign, Arévalo is running as the "anti-system" candidate but focuses mainly on those parts of the system that involve its obscene, jaw-dropping corruption, while speaking very little of those centered on the distribution of wealth (this while proposing massive increases in health and education spending).

But, apparently, for most Guatemalans -- and for the Pacto rulers -- that is more than enough.

The most credible polls have him leading by roughly twenty points and, especially in the cities, there is something crackling in the air.

Both the people and the Pacto are in agreement that this election is big.

It is shaping up as something like a referendum on the old regime, the first chance for a national turn since the US high crime of '54.

Until days ago there was some doubt if this election would happen at all but now that the voting is underway the battle moves to its next phase.

If Arévalo wins he won't be due to be sworn in until January 14, 2024, and Pacto members have made it clear that they will do what's needed to prevent that.

Merely winning the vote will not be enough; to take office he must first win big, and then many thousands will have to be ready to take to the streets if circumstances demand.

Guatemala has many little-known heroes. A generation of them fell in the hills.

Others, leaving home for the sake of their families, risk disappearing at today's frontier.

By tomorrow, the shape of their struggle -- and possibilities -- should become more clear.

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