The many preludes to the 2015 mobilizations
Some described the August 27 demonstration
demanding President Pérez Molina’s resignation
as «the largest demonstration in the country’s history.»
Up to 120,000 protested in Guatemala City’s Central Square:
Big numbers, big words, resonating with memory,
reflection and historic comparisons.
Let’s recall some of this mobilization’s many preludes...
some say the August 27, 2015, mobilization was the largest mass demonstration in modern Guatemalan history and the one withthe greatest consensus. Are they not old enough to recall the March and April 1962 uprisings in Guatemala City, the huge strike of sugar workers that spread to include factories on the southern coast in February 1980 or the 100,000 people marching into the capital in 1977?
It’s not the first time
It’s not the first time our people disrupted normal business rhythms to propose new possibilities. We have struggled. And to every one of our collective rebellions and dreams, the generals, landowners, swindlers and exploiters responded with elections, coups, new Constitutions… We’re talking about Castillo Armas in 1955, Peralta Azurdia in 1963-1965, Mejía Víctores in 1983-1985…
Let’s pause a moment, take a breath and remember. Refusing to march to the oppressors’ drum, we’ll find those from the past who understand the world we want to revolutionize precisely because they threw themselves into the fight to do the same in the Guatemala of 1962, 1973, 1977, 1980… The 2015 demonstrations are but a seed and a prefiguring of the path if we can learn from the past.
1962: Operation Toothpick
The city was paralyzed. Students had unleashed a powerful movement demanding the resignation of military President Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes. His police chief, a man named Córdoba, nicknamed “Crazy Egg,” fired on young people on 9th Street and 9th Avenue in Zone 1.
In his last press conference before his assassination in 1979, Manuel Colom Argueta, mayor of Guatemala City during General Arana Osorio’s government, recalled those dark days: “For two months the government was unable to control the rebellion and Guatemala City belonged to no one.” For some days the inflamed masses declared Zone 5 as “free territory of the Americas.” Trading stopped and workers refused to pick up the garbage on the city’s corners.
Colom Argueta analyzed the enormous creativity of the 1962 urban struggle. The students “put toothpicks in all the shops’ padlocks in Zone 1 which, added to the fact that the merchants themselves didn’t want to open, paralyzed trade.” Meanwhile, municipal workers “deposited garbage at certain points in the city and set fire to it.” It was an unorthodox strike lasting over two months, in which institutes became trenches and barricades were raised on the asphalted streets.
The resignation didn’t happen,
but a military coup did
On March 8 of that year, the Ydígoras government warned that it would use its police and armed forces against any protest. The Ministry of Government told parents it would be dangerous for their children to attend demonstrations. Paramilitary squadrons of the National Liberation Movement (MLN), founded in 1954 by then-Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas as a political party of the military and the party to which current President Maldonado Aguirre belongs—put bombs in schools, cinemas and public places. The goal was to paralyze and terrorize the movement.
Nonetheless, on March 15, 1962, about 500 people attended the funeral of Marco Gutiérrez, a martyr of those struggles. The insurrection in the city was just getting started and increased activities by revolutionary groups were being planned. An attempt was made to take over a barracks in Concuá, but it failed. Ydígoras refused to resign and attempted to show his virility by televising himself doing exercises. Along with officers loyal to the counter¬revolution, Colonel Enrique Peralta Azurdia, Ydígoras’ minister of defense and future leader of the coup against him, designed plans to annihilate the urban rebellion and then a coup d’état in 1963, without which Arevalo loyalists and their democratic aspirations could have returned.
Results of the coup: Peralta, who became the de facto head of State between March 1963 and July 1966 as well as minister of defense, now as a general, suspended and later replaced the Constitution; dissolved the Congress; prohibited political association; and blocked all left-wing activity. The first razing of villages in Zacapa and Izabal occurred between 1965 and 1966 and 1968 saw a mass kidnapping of social leaders. the Jesuit’s conservative wing founded the Rafael Landívar University between 1961 and 1965, fearing the influence of a critical-thinking Jesuit generation in Guatemala, as later happened with the founding of the Jesuit Central American University (UCA) in El Salvador. Education was privatized in Guatemala as a contingency measure to separate the youth from the revolt.
1973: Thousands on strike
General Carlos Arana Osorio, Guatemala’s President, was furious. Just four years earlier he had crushed the guerilla-peasant rebellion in eastern Guatemala. Now, a national strike was being called in the “pacified” capital city by some 8,000 primary and secondary teachers demanding a salary hike.
The government had granted credit to growers of coffee endangered by rust fungus, but ignored human education and health. A National Teachers’ Front that had formed in public schools gradually incorporated poor families and students starting from the salary demand. Despite his “pacification” campaign, the General feared another 1962. The police were sent to repress the teachers’ demonstrations.
Many students from the 1962 generation believed Guatemala needed a revolution. Selling plastic artifacts in the mornings and organizing the struggle at night, these now young adults began secretly meeting with the the teachers’ and residents’ leaders. The general’s fears were real: the urban rebellion wasn’t dead; it was again on the move. The strike succeeded, but at the cost of persecution of its leaders.
In the countryside in late May of that year, the military police killed 17 Xinca peasants in Sansirisay, Jalapa. Efraín Ríos Montt, by then a brigadier general and chief of staff of the Guatemalan Army, was involved in the operation. The conflict was a land dispute between communities and large farmers. A year later, in 1974, groups of military hardliners would commit fraud against the Christian Democrats, putting General Kjell Laugerud in power. They declared a state of siege in several towns in the country. Democracy under a state of siege is a good phrase for summarizing the Guatemalan system of guarantees.
1977: 100,000 demonstrators
They came from San Ildefonso Ixtahuacán, Huehueteco, bearing a banner that read “Peaceful March.” This demonstration didn’t get started via Internet, as happened in April 2015. It began with Mam-speaking indigenous mine workers demanding their severance pay and other benefits because the mine in their municipality had closed.
The Mam miners began their long march on November 11, 1977. Walking along with them and giving them legal advice was lawyer Mario Mujía Córdoba, killed the following year by squads connected to the army that were punishing the organization. On their march they were received in the indigenous highlands by members of Water and Housing Committees, cooperatives and Catholic Action. They caused a stir in Sololá and Chimaltenango. Kjell Laugerud’s government got more and more nervous as the march advanced.
Meanwhile social organizations had been increasing since the crisis caused by the 1976 earthquake. They prepared to receive the Mam marchers in the city. It was an amazing experience: more than 100,000 people, a mixture of university students, media and parishioners, came out in support of the two dozen miners, instilling fear in the government. As one witness of the experience expressed: “We’ve seen the power people have when they’re organized and on the move; it’s something that carries them along and makes their oppressors and repressors retreat.”
They walked into the city on the western roads and entered Zone 1. In the Acoustic Shell facing Central Park, the miners made a speech. Less than a year later, Oliverio Castañeda, an American School graduate and at that time a student at San Carlos University, gave a speech in that same place. Police officers, commanded by Colonel Chupina, marked his photo with an X and killed him in the early stages of the war’s second phase.
1980: The strike of the destitute
Early 1980: grassroots organization was continuing to get stronger. And so was the repression, no longer just against the leaders of unions, cooperatives and peasant leagues. Massacres and mass abductions began with the burning of the Spanish Embassy, peacefully occupied at the time by indigenous peasants and their allies, leaving 36 dead, and continued with the kidnapping of 43 urban trade unionists in two separate operations.
In February 1980, just a week after the embassy incident, called by some “the defining event” of the Guatemalan Civil War a group of peasant organizers belonging to Catholic groups in Santa Lucía Cotzumalguapa decided the moment was ripe for major action. That month a strike broke out on the southern coast involving an estimated 80,000 workers and farm or ranch hands from Escuintla and Suchitepéquez. The workers took trucks and went to tell neighboring farms about the strike. Ixil workers guarded the Pantaléon sugar refinery’s storehouses, controlling the food.
With the strike jeopardizing farm production that year, the Lucas government, whose Government Ministry posts were monopolized by big landowners, was undecided between repression and tactical concession. Opting for concession to the annoyance of local landowners, it increased day laborer’s wages from 1 to 3.20 Guatemalan quetzals (In 1980: 1 quetzal = US $0.99).
In 1980, and especially in 1981, death squads began devastating the organized peasants, but no large massacres took place where they were needed to take out production. The peasants—indigenous or mestizo, farmers or farm laborers—had discovered something: “If we stop working, the landowners’ wealth stops.”
Guatemala City’s progressive former mayor, Colom Argueta, was assassinated and Christian Democrat supporters were persecuted. The foreseeable future was that the new President would be from the line of Defense Secretary Fernando Romeo Lucas García, but it didn’t happen. Once again there was a military coup, this time in March 1982. Ríos Montt would present himself as an anti-Communist Christian warrior and a young lieutenant, Otto Pérez Molina, known as “Tito Arias,” would lead the second phase of the repression against the Ixil people.
The events of 2015
Fast forward to this year, with Otto Perez Molina, now a retired general, in the presidential office. Between August 25 and 27, both indigenous and non-indigenous peasant organizations blockaded more than 40 points on different Guatemalan roads. In the capital, student groups, opposition trade unions and collectives newly emerged from recent demonstrations occupied public institutions and stretches of roads and gathered in front of government agencies.
In the rural area, trade to Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras was detained. The stoppage of economic activity was gradually increasing in expectation of President Otto Pérez Molina’s resignation. Contrary to what had happened in the previous five years, there was a feeling of empathy in the capital toward the blockades, demonstrations and strikes, usually discredited as contrary to progress, trade and employment.
Pérez Molina didn’t resign, despite the charges of corruption by the UN-sponsored International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Denying the charges, he threatened the national business sector, insinuating that if he and his officials were corrupt for receiving bribes then so were those who paid them. The general had been insubordinate to capital. Rumors of a self-coup abounded. A warship from the US base in Honduras anchored off Guatemala’s Atlantic coast.
How did we get to this point this time? This government’s crisis has to be seen as part of a more profound regional one, from Mexico to Central America’s northern triangle (Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras).
and accumulating conflicts
It’s very likely that the 2008-9 world capitalist crisis affected Central American businessmen and bankers, causing them alarm and uncertainty. And in addition to the conflicts that had been building up was the fear—a revisiting of Central America’s age-old hatred of communists— that the region would become like, or worse yet under the sway of, Venezuela.
In 2008, when Álvaro Colom, a self-declared social democrat, was elected President of Guatemala, I remember students at an elite school saying that “communism had arrived” with him. And in El Salvador, the FMLN succeeded in getting Mauricio Funes elected President of the Republic in 2009. Then there was Honduras, where Manuel Zelaya had been president since 2006. Gradually drawing closer to Chávez’s trade and oil policy, he was entering into conflict with the local oligarchy and disturbing the economic establishment, based on drug-trafficking, extractive mining and migrants’ remittances.
With respect to the accumulating conflicts, at least two events in recent years mark the period prior to Pérez Molina. The first was the armed imposition of the mining-industrial complex’s new cement factory in the Kaqchikel municipality of San Juan Sacatepéquez, close to the capital. A state of siege was declared in the municipality on September 19-20, 2008, but the company’s private security squads and police mobilizations had already been in the area. The second event was violent evictions in the Polochic valley to seize land for the cultivation of African palm.
2009: Conservative reaction
in Guatemala and Honduras
Harking back to the atavistic fears about Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution, the region’s oligarchy was sensitive to the Hugo Chávez phenomenon. In fact, all of South America’s nationalistic/progressive projects, whether linked to Chávez’s Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA) or not, worried a regional elite that only a little over a decade earlier had just got out of a 20-year-long total war against their own countries’ nationalist and revolutionary guerrilla movements born in the 1960s.
In early May 2009, Rodrigo Rosenberg, a lawyer for bankers and big businessmen, filmed a video of himself blaming President Colom and a large part of his Cabinet for what he predicted would be his own future assassination. Rosenberg was in fact shot to death four days later on May 10, and the video was given to mourners at his funeral the following day. His death unified the discontent of the propertied class, which saw Colom’s timid social policies as the construction of “a new Venezuela.” The media called for a demonstration against him. The demonstrators dressed in white, emulating the anti-Chávez demonstrations of 2001-2002.
Frightened, Colom called for counter-demonstrations and mobilized the poor. The white-clad denonstrators, accompanied by bodyguards, waved 50-quetzal bills at those mobilized by Colom, shouting that they were being bought… One of those most strongly demanding the President’s resignation was General Otto Pérez Molina, who had recently lost the elections to him. President Colom avoided the crisis with the help of other sectors, including the army, which he won over with a juicy increase in its annual budget.
In Honduras, the elite were desperate about President Zelaya’s call for a referendum to consult about his idea for a new National Constituent Assembly. The date of the consultation was set for June 28, 2009, but the morning of that day, instead of a referendum, the army organized a coup d’état against Zelaya. He was abducted and thrown out of the country. Condemnation was unanimous throughout the hemisphere; the first Central American country returned to militarism, turning its back on democratic procedures.
Meanwhile, El Salvador’s far-right party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), took a dim view of the arrival of an FMLN government. And in Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, one of the leaders of the Sandinista Revolution and now reelected to the presidency, was involving himself deeply in his country’s capitalist expansion and developing trade association, energy and social control policies with Venezuelan, Chinese and Russian capital. His anti-imperialist discourse, devoid of its 1980s’ revolutionary content, was part of his strategy to retain power at all costs, including fraudulent elections.
While all this was happening, Central America continued ejecting its population as migrants heading north and becoming a way station for drug trafficking. The capitalist drive, be it “legal” or “laundered,” began increasingly investing in mining, electricity and agro-industry.
The return of militarism
In Honduras, both its Congress and its army had led the campaign destabilizing Zelaya. Roberto Micheletti, the leader of Congress, had assumed the Presidency of the Republic after Zelaya’s ouster despite the refusal of many Latin American countries to legitimate his position. He thus insisted on calling elections in January 2010. Two people critical of Zelaya have since assumed power: Porfirio Lobo, Zelaya’s rival in 2005 who never accepted his defeat at the polls (2010-2014); and Juan Orlando Hernández, elected in January 2010 as president of the Congress, who followed Lobo in 2014. As usual in many Latin American countries, Congress became the center of commodity trading and defender of the privileges benefiting companies (telephone, mining, energy), passing free trade agreements or simply enjoying immunity.
Across the border in Guatemala, much of the large capital mobilized in the 2009 coup attempts against Colom was launched in support of the candidacy of Otto Pérez Molina and his running mate Roxana Baldetti: among others, the Multiinversiones group and prominent members of the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations (CACIF), which wanted to maintain the historical relationship between “Guatemalan” capital and the military establishment. Many votes for Pérez Molina came from urban areas, fueled by his hardline discourse against common crime and, paradoxically, corruption.
Pérez Molina sets up
the Patriot Party
General Pérez Molina had implemented counterinsurgency plans against the uprising Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP) rebel villages in the indigenous Ixil area in 1982. He then held Intelligence posts in the Army’s High Command, overseeing urban and rural rebel groups. In 1996, at the end of the armed conflict, along with the Spanish-blooded aristocratic businessman President Álvaro Arzú, he signed the Peace Accords with the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG).
In the early years of the new millennium, Pérez Molina began to organize the Patriot Party (PP) with conservative businessmen and military officers he had graduated with. His running mate, Roxana Baldetti, was a communicator who learned her trade working under Mario David García Velasquéz, a civilian coup member in 1988 who was also involved in filming the controversial Rosenberg video. He was going to be the Patriot Party candidate in 2015.
The main PP members were officers directly concerned with counterinsurgency campaigns in the field. Among them, Minister of Government Mauricio López Bonilla and Social Security Institute President Juan de Dios Rodríguez, both later accused of corruption.
2012-2015: Aftermath of the war
After agro-industrial capital ordered the police to evict the people from the fertile lands of Polochic, Alta Verapaz, different peasant organizations decided to march to Guatemala City, nearly 125 miles away. On March 27, 2012, just two-and-a-half months after Pérez Molina’s investiture as President, 15,000 people arrived in the capital city in what its organizers called an Indigenous and Peasant March.
They demanded the evictions be stopped, land and financing be given to displaced communities, and the Rural Development Law be actuated, which the Agricultural Chamber had prevented from being passed.
Pérez Molina consented to the march and even received it. A little over a month later, on May 1, 2012, residents of Barillas in the northern department of Huehuetenango rose up against the killing of two social leaders by the company’s private security agents and took over the military barracks. Pérez Molina declared a state of siege in the region. Public pressure and that of the international community forced him to suspend it. The consequences of war began to reappear…
The steps of Pérez Molina
Between May and August 2012 Pérez Molina’s government tried to amend the Constitution, but various business organizations, including CACIF, rejected the amendments. The government kept an open arrangement with the organized business sector about education and electricity. In July 2012 teacher training studies were eliminated and replaced with a degree in education in the Teacher Training Schools, using as an excuse the poor quality of the studies, but the result was that thousands of young students in poor urban and rural areas could no longer professionalize themselves as teachers. The teacher training students took over various schools and blockaded roads in the city and countryside. They were violently evicted by the riot police.
Pérez Molina moved his people into key positions in the Social Security Institute, tax collection in the Tax Superintendence, customs and even ports such as the entry port from the Pacific. He gave the Puerto Quetzal concession to a Spanish company despite the veto of some of the business sector, denouncements by the port unions and several newspapers. We now see that his objective was to appropriate the trade channels and their resources, basically taxes.
Resistance throughout the country
Meanwhile, struggles were increasing throughout the country. In Totonicapán, one of the country’s better organized indigenous governments, 48 cantons decided to demonstrate in October 2012. They demanded a reduction in the electricity rates paid to DEOCSA, a company with Spanish capital privatized during the Arzú administration.
After rounding up over 15,000 people in eight blocks of their K’iche’ territory, the army tried to evict them, first with tear gas, then firing on them with Galil rifles, the same they used during the war. Six K’iche’s died and more than 34 were wounded. For some this was the first governmental massacre since the 1996 Peace Accords.
In May 2013 Xinca indigenous peoples from the department of Jalapa and Santa Rosa opposed the construction of one of the largest silver mines in Latin America. Once again the government declared a state of siege and joint police and army forces entered the territory.
On May 23, 2014, a huge contingent of riot police finally dislodged the community resistance in the municipality of San José del Golfo, at the entrance to Guatemala City. The character of this resistance—peaceful, communal, rotational and with women taking a lead role in an ethnically mestizo area —was totally symbolic. But when the mine they were opposing began to operate in La Puya, the resistance reorganized.
On August 15, 2014, a joint police operation with military back-up took place in a part of the department of Alta Verapaz rich in water resources. The operation, commanded by Government Minister López Bonilla,attacked the Q’eqchi’ communities of Monte Olivo and Semococh, which were opposing the construction of a hydroelectric plant, killing three Q’eqchi peasants.
They also sent police convoys to Santa Eulalia and San Mateo Ixtatán in northern Huehuetenango to enforce the construction of hydroelectric plants in the lowlands on the way to Chiapas. The Q’anjobal and Chuj communities organized themselves territorially to prevent the mass influx of government forces…
These occasional clashes, using a strategy of continuous persecution and jailing of indigenous leaders haven’t stopped.
A regional capital plan
All this had and has to do with a regional capital plan imposing new ways to appropriate land. What’s in dispute is control over river flows, the production of electricity and the constant distribution and investment of capital in electric transmission towers. The government is making concessions to the Central American Energy Transportation Company (TRECSA), Guatemala’s branch of the huge Energy Group of Bogatá, but their passage is blocked in different territories. The African Palm and sugar business in Petén, Alta Verapaz, Izabal and Escuintla only keeps going with constant armed vigilance in the areas worked, areas that are also drug trafficking routes. Pérez Molina’s government had also planned the construction of a Dry Inter-Oceanic Corridor, with a highway crossing the country and the creation of a free trade zone where wages would be below the legal minimum, but he didn’t get the necessary consensus.
The financial, industrial, commercial and landowners’ capital—following Marx’s well-known Trinity formula—is seeking to militarily impose regional appropriation of surplus value. However, multiple and persistent resistance in different places prevented “Tito Arias” from totally completing his plans.
2015: The end of “Tito Arias”
Finally, an institutional window was opened to the social unrest in 2015. On April 16, CICIG called a press conference in which it charged Juan Carlos Monzón, Vice President Roxana Baldetti’s private secretary, with heading up a customs fraud structure called La Línea (The Line), organized by military personnel close to Pérez Molina’s Cabinet.
From that moment on several things went into motion in Guatemala. Public indignation gradually increased in the hitherto indifferent capital city. It was in those days that a group of young people posted on Facebook the call to a peaceful demonstration in the Central Square. Without knowing it, the Patriot Party had reached a point of no return.
Sergio Palencia is a Guatemalan sociologist and professor of sociology and history at Guatemala’s Universidad del Valle. Edited and augmented by the English-language edition.