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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 27 | Septiembre 1983



The Coup In Guatemala: First Impressions

On August 8th the commanders of 22 military garrisons of Guatemala removed from office the President of the Republic, General Efraín Ríos Montt. In his place they named the former minister of defense, General Oscar Mejía Víctores.

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On August 8, the commanders of Guatemala’s twenty-two military garrisons relieved of his duties the President of the Republic and Commander-in-Chief of the Army, General Efrain Rios Montt. In his place, they named Defense Minister, General Oscar Mejia Victores.

Much speculation has arisen in these first few weeks after the coup concerning Guatemala’s immediate future. After looking briefly at some of the internal contradictions which provoked the ouster of Rios Montt, this article will examine the external contradictions with the U.S.

What significance does the coup have for the region? Will CONDECA be resurrected? Does the coup represent a tightening of the vise around Nicaragua and around the revolutionary forces in the region? Will the new regime try to torpedo the Contadora Group’s search for peace? While it is still too soon to be able to answer these questions completely, it is along these lines that Guatemala’s most recent coup should be analyzed.

At a time when the Reagan administration is seeking a gradual consolidation of its military position as a means of resolving the Central American conflict, despite its lip service to negotiations, the coup in Guatemala was not accidental. An examination of the coup will show that it responded to the Reagan administration's need for a "readjustment" in its regional policies.

Guatemala: An Overview

Guatemala is the third largest country in Central America, with an area of 109,000 square kilometers, but its population of 7.5 million is the largest in the region.

Until the early 1960's the dominant sector was made up of the owners of large coffee plantations, who were almost always backed by the military. The reformist governments of 1944 54 were an exception to the rule, but they could not survive in the face of the opposition of the traditional agro export sectors (coffee growers and American banana companies), who were supported by the CIA.

From 1963 to the present the military has clearly held the political power in the country. No other sector of the bourgeoisie has been able to attain hegemony. More than in any other Central American country (with the exception of Somoza's Nicaragua), the military leaders took advantage of this power vacuum in order to enrich themselves. They used the state apparatus unscrupulously for this end and eventually became one of the most powerful factions of the bourgeoisie itself. But these military leaders enjoyed neither a strong political organization nor widespread legitimacy, which explains to some degree their vulnerability in the face of the ambitions of some sectors of the military (e.g., "the young officers"), which were not sufficiently integrated into the process of self enrichment.

Guatemala's political military regimes have all had three important characteristics:

1- Their primary task was to "administer" the social contradictions between the rich minority and the poor who are the majority. These contradictions are evidenced by the fact that over twenty years ago, strong guerrilla movements began to appear in Guatemala, which threaten the power of the dominant class today more than ever.

2- As the bourgeoisie has no concrete political power, the military has served to homogenize the various forces and to fill the power vacuums.

3- To fulfill these two principal tasks, a strong and united apparatus of repression was required. The failure to unify this apparatus, or the failure to channel the ambitions of all sectors of the army, could create an important opening for the popular organizations. The importance placed on this element was reiterated by General Mejia Victores in one of his first statements: "The most important thing for Guatemala is the unity of the army."


For political observers of Guatemala, the coup d'etat on August 8, which replaced Brig. Gen. Rios Montt with Brig. Gen. Mejia Victores, came as no surprise. The only unknown elements were when and who, and this last element was more in the range of possible successors instead of literally being an unknown element.

A Moralizing Repression

General Rios Montt, born-again Christian and elder of the Church of the Word (an offshoot of the Eureka, California, based sect called Gospel Outreach), was a man who was easy to hate. The regime's massive propaganda effort to change Guatemala's image, which showed soldiers helping the poor against the backdrop of the blue and white colors of the national flag, had little impact among the poorer sectors. His slogan, "I do not steal, I do not lie, I do not cheat," contrasted vividly with the actions of his government.

By the end of his first year in office, the change Rios Montt had wrought was notorious. Over one hundred international human rights organizations had condemned the brutal massacres. Figures ranged from 5,000 to 15,000 assassinated. over a million displaced persons roamed the countryside and over 70,000 refugees had crossed into Mexico or Honduras.

Victory Plan '82

Victory Plan '82, which Rios Montt had initiated to combat the guerrillas, had not succeeded. Yes, the guerrillas had been hit, but this was especially in the area of their support communities. Rios Montt saw no difference between guerrillas and their supporters, so whole indigenous villages were erased from the map.

After almost seven months of the most brutal, systematic campaign of massacres, Rios Montt announced on October 17, "Military defeat (of the guerrillas) is now a fact."

But he was wrong. In April of this year, he had to open yet another period of amnesty, the second in less than a year's time.

Because of the negative impact the guerrillas have had on the Guatemalan economy, especially in the areas of tourism and foreign investment, the oligarchy, both military and civilian, held Rios Montt's failure against him.

Problems in the Military

But he faced other problems as well. On June 5, Gen. Echeverria Vielman wrote an open letter to the President which synthesized all the other most common internal complaints against Rios Montt from the military, political, economic and religious sectors of Guatemala. The letter was extremely well written, very clear and concise. But probably the most noteworthy thing about it was the fact that it was the first letter in 20 years written by a high military official publicly criticizing the military government.

Around the middle of June there was an attempted coup originating from within sectors of the Air Force, an attempt which was defeated by Rios Montt. Days later, on June 29, there was another attempt.

To pacify opponents in the military who saw a new power hungry clique forming, the six military advisors closest to Rios Montt were removed, and 50 other army officers were relieved of their ministerial positions.

Concessions but no Solutions

To appease the old political parties as well as the ten or so new ones which had sprung up at the March 23, 1983, "political opening," the date for elections for the Constituent Assembly was set for July 29, 1984, to be followed by elections for President sometime in 1985.

The third concession was only partial and temporary: the imposition of the dreaded IVA (added value tax) was postponed until August 1. The IVA, which is similar to a sales tax, was a necessary component for receiving an IMF loan of $125 million over the next two years.

An article in the New York Times on August 9 indicated that Mejia Victores was instrumental in putting off the June 29 coup and speculated that he waited until after August 1, to be absolved of the responsibility of imposing the IVA.

Human Rights and the Question of Religion

In an action which was considered an open defiance to the Pope, six persons were executed by firing squad three days before the Pope arrived in Guatemala. This brought the number of persons killed in this fashion to fifteen during the Rios Montt regime. According to the Vatican press office, the day before the executions the Holy Father had sent a handwritten note to the Guatemalan president requesting “clemency or the commutation of their sentences."

This event palpably symbolized one of the ideological contradictions which most weakened the Rios Montt regime, a contradiction arising out of the General's religious fanaticism. In a predominantly Catholic country, Rios Montt's moralistic preaching and his attempt to give his political power a theological religious foundation alienated many social sectors and came to be a decisive factor in his fall from power.

In a partial response to both national and international pressures, Rios Montt announced on July 26 that there would be no further summary executions. But he added that the Special Tribunals would continue to function until all the cases against 11 “subversives” had been cleared. The Guatemalan Human Rights Commission estimated that about 400 people were awaiting sentencing by these secret courts.

The military's internal contradictions, which expressed themselves in various power plays, the tensions within the business sector, the extreme religious fanaticism, and the erosion of Rios Montt's international reputation were all factors which led to the August 8 coup.


The declaration issued by the Army's High Command immediately after the coup mentioned the reasons for the action and articulated the objectives of the new government.

The reasons for the coup were as follows:
1) A small ambitious group planned to perpetuate itself indefinitely in power;
2) A fanatic and aggressive religious group was taking advantage of its position and using and abusing the government for its own ends.

The goals of the coup were listed as:

3) To eradicate administrative corruption on all levels;

4) To preserve and fortify the unity of the army, to maintain the hierarchy and the chain of command in order to block those who seek to divide and confuse the military institution;

5) To return to constitutional democracy;

6) To approve new formulas that will lead the Guatemalan people along democratic, nationalistic paths so that all can participate in a movement of unified reform;

7) To eradicate by all available means the Marxist Leninist subversion that threatens freedom and sovereignty.

First Statements of the New Government

When questioned about elections, at first Mejia Victores said the dates would stay put, but the next day he said they would be moved up. Consulted on the matter, the Electoral Supreme Court, recently inaugurated by Rios Montt, said it was “impossible” to move up the elections because of all “the legal and administrative obstacles.”

With respect to the IVA, Mejia Victores quieted the business sector by stating in his first press conference that he would “study it”.

On another conflictive point, that of the possibility of agrarian reform, the new president stated, “The government does not think it convenient to have an agrarian reform.”

This issue came up during July but was shrouded in a lot of mystery. It was let out of the bag by a visiting West German Social Democrat leader as he spoke in a press conference about a draft of an agrarian reform law. The Minister of Agriculture quickly recovered and said that it was not an agrarian reform bill but a bill “to dynamize” agriculture, and he hastened to add that there were no expropriation clauses in the bill.

The fear of an agrarian reform is real in Guatemala. The CIA backed a coup in 1954 to put an end to the “communist plot” to expropriate land from United Fruit. The 2% of Guatemala’s elite who own two thirds of the national territory are a powerful lobby composed of both military and private producers.

In January of this year they received a credit guarantee from the U.S. for $37.6 million. In addition, they are the only group which is visibly favored by the new tax package. The taxes on agro-exports would be cut by 50% in 1983; by 755 in 1984; and completely eliminated in 1985.

Nevertheless, other sectors of the dominant class do see the need for reforms. Agricultural Minister Leopoldo Sandoval Villeda stated on August 16 that Guatemala must undertake reforms or "face an agrarian revolution." But on August 27, after studying the draft law of the "Agrarian Management Development Law," Mejia Victores stated, "We are not going to carry out any type of agrarian reform If some sectors use pressure, I reiterate that I will not accept pressures from anyone."

The one concession Mejia Victores did make was to abolish the Special Courts. As of September 1, they will no longer function. It is still unclear, though, what will happen to the persons who were awaiting sentencing from these courts.

The U.S. and the Coup

U.S. officials in the region scarcely bothered to conceal their country’s role in the coup.

On the Saturday preceding the coup, Mejia Victores had met in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, with Honduran President Suazo Cordova, and with both El Salvador’s and Honduras’s Defense Ministers, Vides Casanova and Gustavo Alvarez, respectively. Present at that meeting was Frederick Woerner, second in command at the Panama-based U.S. Southern Command.

From Tegucigalpa, Mejia Victores made what U.S. officials call a “courtesy call” aboard the aircraft carrier Ranger, which was off the coast of Nicaragua at the time, accompanied by Frederick Woerner.

During his stay in Honduras, Mejia Victores reportedly met with Paul Gorman, Commander of the U.S. Southern Command.

In addition, on August 8, the day of the coup itself, Ambassador Chapin was to take Ríos Montt to visit the Ranger, according to Inforpress, and it was on his way to the airport that he was told of the High Command’s decision, “to relieve him of his duties.”

In the National Palace on the morning of the coup, US major W. Mercado was caught by television cameras walkie-talkie in hand. Different news media reported that he was in the National Palace for several hours without giving any details of what he was doing.

A spokesperson for the US State Department said that it was “ridiculous” to interpret Mejía’s meeting in Tegucigalpa as a coup-planning session. He also stated that Major Mercado’s presence in the Palace was “routine” and that the United States “had no previous knowledge of the coup.” But if we choose not to accept the hypothesis that all of these events are just a strange coincidence, then why did the US administration support the coup? Only time will tell what is currently happening. In other words, there is a need to continue evaluating the changes in Guatemala’s relations with the United States and other countries in the region to understand US objectives in relation to the coup d’état.

It is quite objective to state that continuing to support Ríos Montt in power was presenting obstacles to any US strategy aimed at strengthening both the Guatemalan army’s capacity to confront the guerrilla forces and Guatemala’s role in the administration’s regional plans. Bolstering the unification of the armed forces, which is a key US strategy, was hindered by the “young officers,” an effect that seems to have been diminished for the moment. In addition, General Ríos Montt was proving reluctant to accept the United States’ regional strategy. In April 1983, during one of his Sunday sermons, he stated that receiving US aid would make Guatemala increasingly involved in the regional conflict. He therefore stated that “We don’t need this aid.” Recently, at an August 5 press conference reported in the "The New York Times," Ríos Montt provided further details of his position. “The United States and USSR want geographic positions, strategic positions, battle positions” he said, “...they don’t want to help us.”


The role of Rios Montt’s regime in Central America was also not at all clear. Guatemala participated in the meetings with El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica, in which efforts were made to homogenize an anti-Nicaraguan position prior to the Contadora Group meetings. But there was never any public support from Guatemala for US policy in the area.

Trade in the Region

This was possibly because Guatemala has a lot to lose with the heightening of regional tensions. Guatemala is the Central American country with the highest percentage of total exportations destined to the regional Common Market.

Moreover, the value of these exports fell by about 30% between 1980 and 1982 as a result of the regional economic crisis and the political-military situation. Apart from the absolute value of exports to Central America, that trade is an important source of foreign exchange for Guatemala. Guatemala had a surplus of some $100 million in its 1982 trade with Central America while it ran a deficit of about $190 millions in trade with the rest of the world.

It was probably this economic factor which offset any ideological differences which the Guatemalan regime may have felt toward Nicaragua. Nicaragua's reconstruction needs, as well as its weak industrial sector, benefited by a large increase in Guatemalan exports, e.g., from 1978 to 1980 these figures doubled.

But perhaps the greatest obstacle posed by the Rios Montt regime to U.S. strategy may have been its international human rights image. Neither President Reagan's suggestion that Rios Montt received a "bum rap" on the question of human rights nor the U.S. State Department's increasingly vocal attacks upon the regime's human rights critics could silence the accusations of international organizations.

U.S. Military Aid

Official U.S. military aid to Guatemala was cut off in early 1977 after the Laugerud Garcia regime announced that it would not accept any U.S. aid tied to human rights conditions. Some U.S. military equipment continued to find its way to Guatemala either through materiel already in the pipeline or through a variety of subterfuges. For example, the Department of Commerce reclassified certain items which had always been considered military to non military, i.e., jeeps and helicopters.

The Reagan administration's determination to resume military aid to Guatemala ran into congressional resistance until January of 1983. Though the January 1983 decision of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to approve aid amounting to $6.3 million in military equipment marked a certain softening of congressional opinion, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee refused to go along. After the March 1983 murder of a Guatemalan who had been working on an AID sponsored project, the Reagan administration was unwilling to ask Congress to approve more aid.

If the new government can project an image more palatable to the U.S. Congress, a U.S. Guatemala relationship may develop which will permit Guatemala to play a central role in U.S. military strategy in the region.

This is not completely impossible. State Department spokesperson John Hughes initiated the campaign to create a new image for the new regime when he stated that Mejia Victores had pledged to continue "the process of returning the country to democratic government." Only a little over a year ago, Thomas Enders was commenting that the March 1982 coup "had installed a new leader who had improved the human rights situation and had opened the way for a more effective counterinsurgency effort."

Guatemala's Regional Military Role: The Revival of CONDEGA

In the first weeks after the coup, there have been a few signs which suggest that Guatemala will in fact accept a more active military role in the region. On August 17, just nine days after the coup, the Honduran minister of Defense and Public Security, Amilcar Castillo Suazo, stated that Honduras was "interested" in resurrecting CONDECA, the Central American Defense Council. He added that "given the political situation in Guatemala (because of the coup), CONDECA might be revived in some form, though Guatemala has not yet commented officially on the subject.”

Central American Defense Council – CONDECA

* Formed in 1964 along with to Central American Common Market.

* Began as a U.S. reaction to the Cuban revolution.

* Formed by El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, with the U.S. as a member because of its Panama-based Southern Command.

* Sought to coordinate a regional counterinsurgency strategy.

* Role weakened after war between El Salvador and Honduras in 1989. Honduras withdrew from CONDECA.

* In 1979, before Somoza left Nicaragua, he asked CONDECA to support him. As El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala had already voted against him in the OAS, they denied his request. Since the fall of Somoza CONDECA has not been mentioned.

Other signs of a more active military role include a U.S. invitation to the Guatemalan regime to send soldiers to the new training base in Puerto Castilla, Honduras (See Envio # 20), and an official Guatemalan request that U.S. arms sales be resumed. Ambassador Chapin responded to Guatemala’s request on August 26 by saying that the U.S. would be willing to resume sales if Guatemala paid in dollars.

There have also been reports, denied by both the U.S. and Guatemalan governments, that Guatemala and El Salvador have agreed on a plan for military cooperation and development. According to an August 15 article in the New York Times, Guatemala and El Salvador have agreed that in exchange for Guatemala’s training of Salvadoran soldiers on a military base in Juitapa, El Salvador would sell Guatemala arms and munitions from its U.S. stocked arsenal. According to U.S. Embassy sources in Tegucigalpa, there are almost daily flights of U.S. C-130 cargo planes from Tegucigalpa to Guatemala. These began shortly after the coup and would appear to indicate a possible transfer of military equipment.

Guatemala’s Loss of Relative Neutrality

In his first news conference, General Mejia Victores declared that the Nicaraguan government is “a threat not only to Guatemala but to the whole American continent.” He added that, “Guatemala supports the U.S. policy toward Nicaragua because it is the most appropriate one.” In reference to Contadora, Mejia said that, “it had no business in Central America.” The General’s remarks led members of the previous regime to remark to an ACAN-EFE reporter that Guattemala had lost its “relative neutrality” in the Central American conflict, and that the coup had enabled the U.S. “to tighten the vise around Nicaragua.”

It would appear that the General went about shedding Guatemala’s “relative neutrality” a little too quickly even for some members of his own government. On a whirlwind tour of Central America, the new Minister of Foreign Affairs Fernando Andrade Diaz-Duran implied that Mejia Victores had been misquoted on the subject of Nicaragua, and insisted that his government is “extremely interested in the efforts of the Contadora Group”. But he also stated that his government wants to be “a close ally of the United States.”

On the basis of these vacillating positions, it might be assumed that the new regime's diplomatic efforts will take a more active anti Nicaraguan position. But this position will probably develop slowly so as not to arouse the opposition of those economic sectors which have a stake in Nicaragua and in regional stability.


In the past month, the Reagan administration has "readjusted" its Central American policy. The Guatemalan coup is without doubt the most important institutional element of this readjustment. It can be expected that the new regime and the U.S. regional policy will be more closely aligned in both its military and political diplomatic aspects. In the military sphere, a proposal to unify the region's armies "against communism" might be seen, while in the political diplomatic sphere there will probably be a neutralization of Contadora's efforts, in order to tighten the vise around Nicaragua.

Pro-U.S. governments in Central America are faced with a growing challenge from popular movements seeking to overthrow them. In response, these governments have attempted to achieve a unified regional strategy which will allow them to seek additional military assistance from Washington while at the same time denying that the growth of opposition groups is in any way the result of their regimes’ failure to resolve fundamental domestic problems. The oft repeated charge that insurrection in Central American is fueled either from outside the region or from Nicaragua is the type of excuse which can also be used by the Reagan administration to justify its increasing intervention by raising the specter of a supposed “communist threat.” Only in this light does the move to revive CONDECA make sense.

Success Plus Compliance Equals Tenure

The personal and political idiosyncrasies of born-again General Rios Montt were tolerated in Washington because of the high hopes that he would be able to eliminate the Guatemalan revolutionary movement. But his failure to carry out this task successfully, combined with his disinterest in getting involved in regional politics, created an obstacle for U.S. plans in the region and made him expendable.

As the conflicts in Central America moved closer and closer to engulfing the whole region in a war, the Reagan administration needed to be sure of its “friends.”

With the addition of Guatemala to the circle of U.S. “friends,” the vise around Nicaragua has been tightened considerably.

But if Rios Montt fell from grace because of his failure to put down the Guatemalan insurgency, it must be remembered that it was General Mejia Victores who had the responsibility to run that campaign. Brutal as it was, it did not succeed. Unless he produces now, he will also go the way of his former Commander-in-Chief.

In the coming months, therefore, it will be increasingly important to monitor events in Guatemala as well as the actions of the Contadora groups, the probable revival of CONDECA and Guatemala’s regional military role in that alliance or in another.

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The Coup In Guatemala: First Impressions

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