The Coup All Knew Was Coming
Serrano’s coup lasted 7 days. The military counter-coup with Vice-president Espina lasted 3 days. Now the prestigious Human Rights Commissioner León Carpio is governing. What was happening in Guatemala just before these still very questionable events?
Emma G. Martínez
On Tuesday, May 25, Guatemalans woke up to unexpected marimba music transmitted by a national chain of radio stations. They immediately knew what had happened: when there was a coup in the 1980s, all the radio stations had put on military march music. and, sure enough, President Jorge Serrano Elias' voice soon came on this time, making it official.
In response to growing grassroots protests, pressure from the army and the possibility of going to trial on corruption charges, Serrano took all power into his own hands, dissolving the Congress and the Supreme Court. After seven years of barely tasting a few features of democracy, the Guatemalan people lost all rights guaranteed them in the now-abolished Constitution.
"All personal guarantees have been suspended, the right to protest, strike, everything," summarized a Guatemalan analyst. "They can arrest you or search your house at any time without a court order. That is to say, you don't have any rights."
León Carpio SpeaksThe government human rights solicitor and the presidents of the Supreme Court and the Congress found their homes surrounded by police the morning of the coup. Human rights solicitor Ramiro de León Carpio, who had been appointed by Congress because of his critical attitude towards human rights violations by the government and the army, had become the enemy of both and at the same time a popular new hero. Mocking the police cordon, he escaped over the roof of his house, went to one of the capital's daily papers, and gave an interview that was smuggled out clandestinely the following day, even though all the newspapers were censored.
"I have now received offers of political asylum from five governments and I have tanked them all," he told Prensa Libre, "but I have told them that I can't leave my country. I may be the first human rights solicitor to work clandestinely, but I am a defender of the Constitution and the democratic system. I can't do any less than struggle, together with the different social sectors, for the immediate return to constitutionality. Society has a right to resist, to unite and to ask for explanations of an absurd and illegal position. President Serrano has committed crimes against the Constitution and, to return to constitutional order, it is logical that he be brough to trail."
Anxiety and CensorshipThe first days of the coup were very dramatic for may Guatemalans, who feared a return to the terror of the 1980s. Tanks patrolled the entrances to the university and the highways leading out of the capital. Groups of soldiers swept through poor neighborhoods during the week, forcibly recruiting more than 1,000 young men. Because of the excessive military movement, there was also anxiety in the rural areas and rumors of a repetition of the massacres that characterized the early 1980s. But there was no curfew and the movement of vehicles in the capital was for all intents and purposes normal.
Some student leaders went into exile, while other grassroots leaders prepared to leave by requesting asylum in different embassies. Still other leaders of the grassroots movement and of human rights organizations dedicated the first days to emptying their offices of documents, anticipating searches and seizures. Representatives of the abolished Congress and other politicians began to meet by threes in bars and hotels, due to the prohibition of any meeting of more htan that number of people.
When police surrounded all the daily newspapers, the press put out an SOS to its international colleagues. The day after the coup, not one paper was on the streets. Some daring individuals managed to smuggle a few copies of the biggest papers out past the police ring hidden in their clothing. These were then photocopied and distributed. This was the only information not subject to censorship that Guatemalans received in the first days. For three days, all the radio stations played the same marimba, mambo and jazz music, peppered with government messages telling the population that permission must be requested for any meeting and repeating the list of all the guarantees that had been suspended.
Clamping Down on ProtestThe first sign that the coup was coming had been noted the week before, when the army hit the streets to stop the grassroots protests that had been shaking the country for the previous two weeks. The Guatemalans were protesting government corruption, the neoliberal policies and the government's deaf ear to the demands of a population that has been recovering its voice after three decades of military repression. Helicopters flew over the capital while caravans of tanks and trucks full of soldiers and policemen circled the streets sounding their sirens. The last time the military forces had taken to the streets this way was in 1985, during the government of General Oscar Humberto Mejía Víctores.
The Courage of the youngThe protests had begun in March and April, to oppose the increase in electric bills and transportation costs. High school students joined in April after they were forced to show identity cards to continue getting free transportation. The students opposed the ID cards mainly because to get one they had to buy uniforms--an additional cost--and also because it was a form of military control in a country whose security forces consider students "subversive."
"The government's overall proposal is to privatize public services," charged Jorge García, leader of the National Association of Middle School Teachers. "The student ID card is only to provoke, so as to then justify military intervention in order to later impose privatization, claiming that public education does not work. The students' problems are obvious: lack of teachers, desks, didactic material and buildings, and now the ID cards. Of a student-age population of 5 million, the system can only accept 1.4 million. That is, 3.5 million young people are without education. And they want to close institutes? They don't want the poor to go to school!"
The students also argued that the drivers of the transport trucks were not accepting the ID cards yet were taking advantage of them to increase their profits. The truck drivers receive a state subsidy of 16 million quetzales per month for student transport, but with the ID card there would no longer be proof of the student trips. According to the students, the drivers would not let them get on the trucks, but continued charging the subsidy.
The conservative education minister had refused to dialogue for over a month, so the students, with no political experience and armed only with bottles and the courage unique to the young, went to the streets, also taking up the banner of the increased energy costs.
The student movement had its first martyr some days later. On May 12, 17-year-old Abner Hernández Orellana died after being shot by the bodyguards of a congressional representative while protesting in front of the Congress building.
Even though two video cameras filmed the killing, the authorities took days to identify the guilty person, giving him time to escape. This angered the students even more and the movement spread to the Justice Department, both in the capital and in the country's interior. The university sector also joined the protest. On May 18, the entrance to San Carlos University became the scene of a four-hour pitched battle between the enraged students and the riot police, who finally had to retreat when neighborhood residents came out to reinforce the students.
The last strawAlthough Guatemala's grassroots movement is still weak and divided and has little power to call people out, Serrano's intransigence succeeded in promoting a certain amount of unity within the left, which made the situation more and more touchy.
The week before the coup, state workers in various branches expressed solidarity with the student protest and started a national strike. Twenty-four hours before the coup, a group of citizens and politicians grouped in the Civic Alliance publicly accused Serrano of corruption, alleging that the now multimillionaire President had begun his term in bankruptcy, and asked the Comptroller General to look into his finances. What had recently happened to Carlos Andrés Pérez in Venezuela was very fresh in people's minds.
There was already sufficient proof that Serrano had acquired and exaggerated level of wealth during his presidency. "It is shameful that while our President is becoming a multi-millionaire, schools and hospitals are about to be closed, affecting thousands of Guatemalans," declared a leader of the Alliance. This must have been the straw that broke the back of the army and of the right, which was already strained under the weight of the growing protests. The following day dawned with the coup.
Why Such Back Strain?Speculations about why the coup took place are many and debatable. What is clear are the facts, and they indicate that the coup was being plotted over a long period. Serrano had been receiving pressure for a number of months from the most recalcitrant forces in the army and the private sector to put and end to the changes underway in Guatemala, particularly to the genuine democratization and demilitarization of society. The democratization is a slow process, achieved through the struggle of the grassroots movement and other civilian sectors who, among other things, have endeavored to participate in the dialogue between the URNG and the government, and to gain an effective voice within society.
Various events that took place in the last months represent at threat both to the sectors on the right and to the army. One was the massive return of refugees, a politicized population willing to fight for its rights--which is uncommon among Guatemala's current peasant population. Another was the coming out of hiding of the Communities of Population in Resistance (CPR), which are demanding to be recognized as civilian. Some of the CPRs are in the country's most critical war zones--Ixcán and El Quiché--and the continual visits by international groups that have de facto recognized them as a civilian population have put certain limits one the army in a zone it considers militarily strategic.
The army has felt hemmed in by society's generalized demands for demilitarization, and experiences the ever more audacious acts demanding demilitarization as a threat. On March 26, for example, the human rights solicitor discovered a military intelligence office in the basement of the central post office, where letters coming from outside of Guatemala were opened. The post office union denounced the existence of the office, in which León Carpio found sacks with thousands of open letters--some directed to Carpio himself, and some to Serrano, the archbishop and other public figures. At the end of the investigation, Carpio accused the President's top staff of directing the office and ordered that it be closed. According to post office employees, the office had been operating almost since the 1954 military coup.
Another triumph of civil society was the publication of an article in the May issue of Crónica magazine explaining how telephone taps work. The article confirmed that taps have been an open secret and explained to users how to block the tap with certain electronic gadgets.
Rightwing OnslaughtThe threatened sectors had begun their counter-attack months before Serrano's coup, which could have been guessed at as the culmination of this onslaught. It all began after the UN Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva in February, when the Guatemalan government won its international battle to keep the commission from naming a special reporter to oversee human rights in the country.
The situation worsened on March 27, when a list of 24 people "sentenced" to death was sent anonymously by FAX to local newspapers. The list included academics, university and union leaders, journalists and various members of grassroots and development organizations that work with the refugee and displaced population and with the CPRs, and even named a UN official. The message accused the 24 of being guerrillas and gave them four days to get out of the country.
Guatemalan columnists and analysts commented that, although death threats are frequent, these "black lists" had not been seen in the country since they appeared in the early 1980s and were followed by a wave of violence. the list provoked a certain terror in various sectors, although none of those threatened left the country. In April, other officials of NGOs and human rights organizations, as well as national and foreign journalists received threats.
By May, none of the threats had yet been carried out, but violence had been increasing in the country for two months. It first touched San Carlos University when, in early April, a professor was killed by gunfire in the street in front of witnesses, and at least three students were kidnapped. Mysterious notes about bodies found by the side of the road or in some ravine continued to appear in the daily papers. The bodies were almost always of some unknown individual with no political connection. For may, the objective was simply to terrorize the population back into submission.
Hassling the Refugees And the URNGThe government also began to block the return of more refugees that was to have taken place in May. In April, their representatives in the Permanent Commissions announced that there would be five returns between May and August, with a total of 1,619 families, who would settle in four different areas of the country. The second organized return--the first had been on January 20--was planned for May 4 in the Nentón, Huehetenango area. These refugees, who were without land, had found a farm, negotiated with the owner and were ready to return. But by the end of May the government had still not agreed to deliver the credit needed to by the land. With the coup, the Permanent Commissions have temporarily suspended the returns.
Both the refugees who postponed their return due to the lack of guarantees and those who have already returned to the country have begun to fear for their lives. "We don't know if the agreement we signed with the government last year is still valid," declared Permanent Commission member Herminio Cardona Díaz. "Right now the people feel more secure in Mexico than in Guatemala." The agreement guaranteed the rights of the refugees and exempted them from military service for three years.
Yet another event was the breakdown in talks between the government and the URNG. After the revelations of the Truth Commission in El Salvador, the Guatemalan army saw itself between a rock and a hard place and in need of a way out. Thus, on May 8, the negotiations ended in Mexico with a 20-minute meeting that was a total disaster, because someone had passed a secret document to the Guatemalan newspaper Siglo Veintiuno, braking the confidentiality agreement. The government immediately accused the URNG, but, according to sources at the paper, the document came from the army. Due to the crisis, Bishop Rodolfo Quezada Toruño threatened to resign his position as conciliator.
A Thumbnail Sketch of the Coup-makerThere is another, more psychological way of looking at Serrano's short-lived and frequently predicted coup. In the first place, there is Jorge Serrano Elías' personality. He is an authoritative and politically frustrated man. When he reached power two years ago, he thought that being President would allow him to do "everything." But from the outset, given that his party was so feeble, with no social base and too few representatives in Congress, he had to negotiate and build the alliances that the democratic mechanism demands under such circumstances, but which virtually would not let him govern.
Feeling his hands tied, Serrano was inspired by Fujimori's coup in Peru. Ever since April 1992, when the "Fujicopu" took place, the Guatemala press has been predicting that the same thing could happen in Guatemala.
The there was Serrano's reaction to the tremendous corruption he found in both the Congress and the Supreme Court. He saw himself passed over by a political class for which he essentially felt contempt and which had him-as he saw it--on his knees and begging in order to carry out any decision of his own.
Isolated, Serrano instigated fights with the Catholic Church, the unions, the press, big business, in fact with everyone. If asked to caricature how he understood his own coup in one sentence, Serrano would have said something like: "God, who has inspired this coup and helped me to carry it out, will bless you if you obey me, because if you don't, you can all go to the devil!" He knew that after the coup he would have to keep negotiating and making alliances, but he wanted to do it from a position of greater strength than before.
Serrano felt that the coup would free him up to carry out the promises made to the Guatemalan people during his campaign and, in fact, he immediately announced a series of populist and demagogic measures, one of which was to shift all of Congress' budget to the hospitals. But anyone who knows Guatemala knows that, if there is corruption in Congress, it is no greater than what exists in the public hospital network. It is characteristic of Serrano's personality--maybe because of his fundamentalist evangelical training--to believe that his word "acts," that he speaks and reality changes.
On the other hand, Serrano was not afraid of possible adverse international reactions, such as condemnations, embargoes or aid cut-offs, because he saw that in both Peru and Haiti all the bilateral pressure and OAS missions have been fruitless.
The initiative for the coup came from Serrano, not from the military. The most credible analysis is that Serrano did not sell the idea to the military, but that the military bought it because it had little if anything to lose, and much to gain. If Serrano succeeded, fine. If not, the army would be the one to decide. That is why the army did not openly oppose Serrano, but offered only circumstantial support, which it quickly withdrew, forcing him to resign.
In any case, the people saw the coup as a fight between leaders. Nobody was about to shed blood or risk anything for the country's supposed "democratic institutionality" or "constitutionality." No one was going to take to the streets to defend the corrupt congressional representatives, who are seen as a den of thieves. "They are the targets and they understand each other," thought the majority of the population. Society was just emerging at the moment of the coup. Al civil sectors: unions, religious workers, Mayans, peasants, refugees, the displaced and others, were still recovering from the repression of the 1980s. As envío goes to press, Ramiro De León Carpio has just been installed as Guatemala's new President, to great jubilation around the country. The challenge now is to see what spaces this emerging society will want to have--or be able have--with the human rights solicitor as the country's new President, since the military's last "word" has yet to be heard.