Coffee Prices Up in the "Country of the Few"
The U.N. has arrived and the government prepares to limit its ambit. The army fine tunes its strategy for the future peace, while camouflaging its crimes with the youth gangs. Meanwhile, the price of cardamom is down and that of coffee is up in this land “of so few”.
Trish O' Kane
September was marked by the long awaited arrival of a preliminary delegation of the United Nations Mission for Guatemala (MINUGUA). It received the welcome Guatemala offers special events: on September 22, two day's after the delegation's arrival, two bombs exploded in the capital. One was wrapped in a package of food the terrorist gave to a boy who earned his living taking care of cars. The 12 year old street child innocently entered the Pollo Campero restaurant to eat what he had been given. His life ended instantly, bits of his body scattered around the restaurant.
No organization took responsibility for the action. The army blamed the URNG, which emphatically denied any participation. Analysts interpreted it as a macabre message from groups opposed to the peace process and the UN presence, to show they are willing to do anything.
Government UN Battles BeginAccording to the accords, the mission's task is to receive, classify and follow up on human rights violations throughout the country. It is also empowered to verify whether or not the national organizations are carrying out the necessary investigations, and can pass judgment on the fulfillment of any agreement by either party in the conflict. During its stay, MINUGUA will make recommendations to both sides, and can also strengthen the judicial body, the Public Ministry, the Human Rights Prosecutor, and other national institutions.
MINUGUA will have its headquarters in the capital, with seven regional and five sub-regional offices in rural areas. It will set up shop as quickly as possible, probably by November.
Preparations in September and early October for the arrival of the full mission have already upset the government. Jorge Cabrera, who heads the Presidential Human Rights Commission, called the number of verifiers "excessive." "Our fear is that the same thing will happen in Guatemala that did in El Salvador," he declared to the press, "in which the UN mission took on tasks that did not correspond to it." He said he explained to the UN delegates that they will have to respect internal judicial processes, implying that they will not have investigative powers.
Ilya Adler, spokesperson for the preliminary UN delegation, contradicted Cabrera by assuring that the mission will indeed carry out investigations in the case of human rights violations. Thus began the government's first battle to limit the mission's functions.
The Army StrategyThe army has been preparing for the UN mission's arrival since March by occupying civil positions. According to an analyst, the army will later withdraw from these positions, making it look as though doing so is a negotiation concession. An example of this strategy was the naming of Colonel Mérida previously director of intelligence as Vice Minister of Government.
Then in September, President De León Carpio named feared former intelligence officer Gustavo Díaz López as director of GUATEL, the national telecommunications institute. Ex Major Díaz López has less than presentable history. He is famous in Guatemala for his participation in the 1989 coup attempt against then President Vinicio Cerezo, and is also an expert in psychological operations, communications and counterintelligence.
Phone tapping is an open secret in Guatemala. When De León was Human Rights Prosecutor, he investigated and denounced that his own telephone was being tapped. It is thus notable that he named Díaz to this post just as the UN mission is arriving in the country and guerrillas are gradually returning. "This appointment is absolutely contrary to demilitarization and democratization," said an analyst close to the government. "The army is prepared to receive the signing of a peace accord in the most advantageous position possible. It is making all its moves before the UN arrives."
Invited to HaitiAnother point in the army's favor was the UN's invitation to it to participate in the multinational intervention force in Haiti, together with armies from New Zealand, Belgium, France, Brazil, Ireland and other countries. On September 23, De León announced that Guatemala would send 132 members of the military to participate in this mission; they are now in Haitian territory.
"Guatemala expresses deep satisfaction with its connotation as a state in the international arena," said the President of the Republic. "This is the first time in history that the professional and humanitarian services of the Guatemalan army have been needed in an historical action that contributes to peace, justice, respect for human rights and democracy in the sister nation of Haiti." He added that the invitation was a recognition by the international community of the army's professionalism and the role it is currently playing in the country.
Americas Watch SpeaksIn September, Americas Watch published a report on the human rights situation in Guatemala under the current government. Conclusions: Guatemala is still a country in which serious human rights violations occur.
"It is disagreeable that foreign entities are trying to make Guatemala look ridiculous in human rights terms, without first looking at what is happening inside their own countries," was General Secretary of the Presidency Hector Luna Tróccoli's response to the national press.
The Americas Watch report criticizes the delay in demilitarizing civil society and gives as an example the relocation of military members in the police. "The turn of events was notorious with the return of military advisers to police posts and the naming of Colonel Mario Mérida, from the Military Intelligence Office, as Vice Minister of Government," Americas Watch representative José Miguel Vivanco told the Guatemalan press.
13 Killings a DayAccording to Mario René Guerra, director of the judiciary's Medical Forensic Institute, 1,993 killings with firearms have been registered so far this year just in the capital, an average of 13 a day. "It is alarming," Guerra told the newspaper Siglo Veintiuno, "because there has not been such a high mortality rate due to firearms since the 1980s."
According to analyst Danilo Rodríguez, a URNG member who returned to Guatemala in 1992 under an amnesty offered by ex President Serrano, the increase in violence, especially common crime, this year corresponds to a clear army strategy. By increasing common crime it can camouflage the selective assassinations it is committing now and plans to commit in the coming year.
"It is doing all this with the negotiations in mind. The URNG members will return, and there will be assassinations like there were in El Salvador. It will look like the state apparatus is not participating, but we know the death squads are inside the army," said Rodríguez.
The Army or Just Gangs?One way the army is implementing this strategy is through the numerous gangs in the capital. Rodríguez publicly accused the new vice minister of government, Colonel Mérida, of coordinating this macabre effort. Rodríguez explained that the gangs, made up of young people from poor neighborhoods, serve the army as informers in an urban control system similar to that used by the AAA in Argentina in the 1970s.
The gang members, who have access to higher quality arms than the national police, kill by contract and are paid for their crimes. They have also been used on various occasions to infiltrate or attack grassroots demonstrations, and to harass journalists. Noel de Jesús Beteta, sentenced for the murder of anthropologist Myrna Mack in 1990, is a well known case of the army gang link. Beteta was a gang leader in the capital before being recruited first by the police and later by the Presidential Chiefs of Staff.
"The narcs, the big brass and some political honchos seek us out in exchange for a real chunk of money," revealed one gang member to Prensa Libre. "Every member has to be willing to be part of some squad," commented another, "because they get you if you don't want to."
Rodríguez believes that both of the two clearest factions in the army share this strategy of increasing violence and also of violently repressing the grassroots movement. Both understand that any popular movement advance at this time could strengthen the URNG at the negotiation table. The strategy is being applied especially with the peasant movement, which has become more active given recent conflicts on various farms.
For Sentimental ReasonsOn September 8, De León made a surprise announcement that the Guatemalan Embassy in Israel would be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The decision is a recognition of this city in the dispute over Israel's capital, and violates two UN resolutions (#242 and #338). Which country the Holy City belongs to is an unresolved issue in the ongoing Middle East peace negotiations.
Guatemala's foreign minister was not even consulted about the presidential decision; he found out about it through the press. De León made light of the decision. Reminding journalists of "the historic ties" that join Israel and Guatemala, he said that "we shouldn't focus too much on the issue because it has to do with something sentimental."
Guatemala has had a special relationship with Israel since the 1940s. In 1947, Guatemala cast the decisive vote in the UN that decided the establishment of Israel. Israel paid back this favor later in the 1970s and 80s with military aid when Washington cut its own military aid to the Guatemalan government because of human rights violations. Israel's aid was crucial to the counterinsurgency strategy and technology. At the beginning of the 1980s, the Israelis helped Guatemala's army destroy the urban guerrillas.
Sources close to the government consider that the transfer of the Guatemalan Embassy has more to do with an offer of military aid by the Israelis than with "sentiment." Given the "historic ties" between the two nations to which the President himself referred, such an offer would surprise no one.
A Blow to "Green Gold"Guatemala is the third Central American country, after Costa Rica and El Salvador, to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Any country that makes this decision faces a trade blockade from the Arab League, made up of 14 countries. The Arab League reiterated this position on September 15.
De León did not consult with the Ministry of Economy about the possible impact that transferring the embassy to Jerusalem could have on national exports to the Arab world. According to Central Bank sources, trade between Guatemala and that region has reached US$150 million. Guatemala's main exports to it are: car damom, coffee, bananas, spices, sesame, dried lemons and honey.
Cardamom is Guatemala's fourth most important export, and Guatemala is the largest cardamom producer in the world. The Arab market buys 80% of this production which is famous as an aphrodisiac to mix in coffee. Income from the crop went up four times from 1993 to 1994, from US$15 to US$65 million.
Most of the thousands of Guatemalan cardamom producers are small growers who switched from beans and corn to plant the "green gold." After the President's announcement, the price of cardamom plummeted from $50 to $18 in Guatemala in just one week, sparking demonstrations and other protests by the producers.
Coffee: Good News?After several years of crisis due to low international coffee prices, Guatemalan coffee producers are celebrating prices not seen since the 1970s. The recent increases that mean an unexpected bonanza for Guatemala and other coffee exporting countries are thanks to two frosts and a drought that affected Brazil's harvest. The Bank of Guatemala reported US$314.9 million in coffee export income, a 62.2% increase over 1993 earnings.
Despite the diversification of Guatemala's economy in recent decades with the massive introduction of the piecework industry and the cultivation of nontraditional products, Guatemala is still the fifth largest coffee producer in the world. Coffee is the most important source of Guatemala's foreign currency and the motor force of its economy. William Stixrud, president of the National Coffee Producers' Association, which represents 44,000 large, small and medium producers, says that 40% of the country's massive work force is directly or indirectly involved in cultivating, harvesting or marketing the bean.
Coffee production is also known for horrendous, slavery like working conditions, and Guatemala's coffee growers are famed for being the most recalcitrant in fulfilling laws and labor benefits. But Stixrud insists that this is changing, that most coffee growers are now paying the stipulated daily minimum wage of 11.60 quetzals (US$2.05).
"Two economic worlds have always existed in Guatemala," Stixrud says, "a massive rural work force, and an elite with access to education and power in government. It was not easy in the past, but now this educated elite world understands the need for social investment. It agrees with improving living conditions for the workers."
Country for a Few"The owners want us to always be working with a machete, always planting. They get rich that way, as if they were pigs and we just sufferers," commented a Kekchí worker at a meeting of 200 coffee workers from various plantations. "The rich have their organizations, they have money. Now we have to organize ourselves. "They get scared when we try to organize and demand the minimum. They beat us and accuse us, and when we go to the courts they've paid off the judges so they won't listen to us. But we can't go on this way."
This meeting took place at the beginning of September in the Tucurú municipality of Verapaz, in the beautiful northeastern mountains. Because of the altitude of the farms, Tucurú produces the highest quality coffee, known as "strictly hard." The municipality has a population of 21,500 people; 94% Kekchí, 1.3% Pocomchí, and the rest ladino. The people say that Tucurú is a "country for a few," because 73% of the land belongs to private farms.
According to Mayor Jorge Balsells, a 33 year old Kekchí, 90% of the farms do not offer their workers the minimum necessities for survival. They do not have potable water, electricity, access roads or health centers. These conditions are shared by 64% of Tucurú's residents.
"Why don't the farmers give the people a little tract of land and let me offer them services immediately? But no, they prefer to keep the workers as cheap labor. It's a form of neo feudalism. Because they are the owners of production, they decide about the peasants' lives," complained Balsells.
Only Tortillas and SaltAlthough there are schools on the farms, Balsells says that "they are a pantomime. They offer education when they want to and they control the curriculum. They'll never teach the truth about history or human rights. It is a pseudo education."
In addition to producing high quality coffee, Tucurú is noted for having the highest levels of illiteracy, malnutrition and tuberculosis in all of Alta Verapaz. Many workers on the farms have never tasted meat or milk. If they are lucky they eat twice a day, they recount with sadness. They eat beans with tortillas, if there are beans. If not, they eat the tortilla with a little bit of chile, or simply with salt.
According to Balsells, perhaps 20% of the 30 farms pay the minimum wage. This does not include the bonus thirteenth month or other benefits stipulated by law, with which many workers are not familiar. One farm in Tucurú only pays 5 quetzals a day (88 cents).
"When peasants demand their labor rights, the owners call them subversives, instigators, a destabilizing influence and kick them off the farm to avoid paying severance," explains Balsells." Then they accuse them of abandoning their job and say they have no right to compensation. Since the peasants are illiterate, they don't know how to defend themselves and are lost. This happens frequently in my municipality. At times I lose energy, given the situation."
Minimum WageIn February 1980, workers on cotton farms and sugar refineries of the southern coast carried out the most significant strike in the history of Guatemala's labor movement, forcing then President Lucas García to decree a minimum wage of 3.20 quetzals. At that time the quetzal was on a par with the dollar, so workers earned $3.20 a day. Today, 14 years later, with galloping inflation, rural workers are fighting for a minimum wage of 11.60 quetzales ($2.05).
"We're beginning to demand our rights now, even though we are old," explains Don Santiago, a 54 year old Kekchí, "so our children and grandchildren will have a future. We elders are like blind people, because the owner never let us go to school, so we didn't learn how to read or write. But the young people are teaching us that we have rights and a Constitution to protect us." Don Santiago began working on a farm in Tucurú when he was 10. He was fired last year, together with 62 others, for demanding the minimum wage.
Two Shots to the HeadAlthough labor conditions in Tucurú are dramatic, they are not as extreme as on the Exacta Cattle Farm in Coatepeque, Quetzaltenango. Four workers have been killed there in two months, all demanding a minimum wage.
On September 15, three armed men entered a house where farmers from Exacta live and kidnapped their fourth victim, 20 year old Juan José García González, one of the most active workers in the union. The next day, Juan José was found dead, with two shots to the head.