The struggle for peace in Guatemala

August 10, 1994

There are many Guatemalan refugees living in Mexico, most illegally. Many are activists who live in fear of the Guatemalan army and secret police and the Mexican authorities. "Manuel" spoke to Green Left Weekly's ROBYN MARSHALL in March, and explained that while they live precariously in Mexico, Guatemalan activists still devote much of their energy to the struggle for peace in their war-ravaged country.

The mass movements of the early 1970s grew from agricultural worker's struggles for higher wages. When the Central American market was formed between Honduras, Guatemala and San Salvador, textile, plastic and glass factories were set up in Guatemala City. This spurred the then small but growing labour movement to start organising.

At the same time, the coffee and sugar workers began to organise on the big plantations or fincas. In 1972, peasants' daily wage was 90 centavos, almost one quetzal, the then equivalent to US$1. The peasants, mostly indigenous people, worked seasonally, during harvest time, and spent the other nine months on their own small plots in the mountains.

It was around this time that the Unity Committee of Campesinos (CUC) was founded by Rigoberta Menchu's father, Vincente. As the government bureaucracy grew, state employees began to organise in the Association of State Employees (CETA). A confederation of workers and their unions, CEMES, was also formed in the private sector. In 1977-78, there were large mobilisations of peasants and militant strikes in the cities, which were successful in achieving substantial wage increases.

Government repression

When peasants, students and the industrial working class started a very active and militant wages campaign at the beginning of the 1980s, the government retaliated with massive repression.

For instance in Panzos, a small town in the country's north, where a strong peasants' movement had developed, the Guatemalan army shot every single man, woman and child. This is where Mama Quin, in whose name a women's organisation was later formed, met her death.

The early 1980s marked the beginning of the counterinsurgency. Under General Romeo Lucas Garcia, the army began a campaign to terrorise workers; many of union leaders were captured, tortured and assassinated, and often their tortured bodies would be left in the streets as a warning to would-be protesters.

In June 1980, the leaders of the popular movement met to work out how to deal with the situation. The government discovered their meeting place and all were assassinated. In August, when a similar meeting was set up with union leaders and university academics, they too met with the same fate.

In the face of this terror, which was continued by General Rios Montt, many leaders of the popular movement decided to emigrate to Mexico. Those who stayed were forced underground and the movements began to fragment and become disorganised.

The counterinsurgency worsened the country's economic crisis. In the countryside, the army destroyed villages and killed thousands of people. More than 1 million people were forced to flee north to the Mexican border where today there are still huge refugee camps.

The guerrilla movement, the URNG, had been badly weakened. However by 1982, the URNG's city base began to be reactivated. Slowly, despite continuing repression, it started to reorganise the popular movement.

By the mid 1980s, under pressure from the White House, General Oscar Mejia Victores was forced to enact laws which paved the way to some form of electoral democracy. This gave the popular movements some democratic space in which to organise.

Mass movements reform

Several legal trade union federations were formed: in 1985, UNSITRAGUA began to organise industrial workers and peasants in the country's northern banana plantations; in 1987, CGTG organised trade unions influenced by the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats; and CUSP organised rural workers and private sector workers. In addition, the Guatemalan Mutual Support Group (GUAM), the base of the new popular movement, was set up.

The peasant body, CUC, was the only organisation to continue in some form during the terror years; it was reactivated in 1985. The student movement was the only other sector to survive the repression.

In 1987, all six organisations came together to form the Popular Unity of Action. UASP coordinated its member organisations to struggle for higher wages and an improved labour code. From 1987-1990, the number of strikes and demonstrations increased, enabling UASP's constituent groups to grow.

Officially, only 5% of workers are organised in unions. However, this is only a part of the picture. Many unions are not recognised by the government or the employer, and many workers, remembering the terror years, fear getting involved.

During 1990-92, the mass movement reached an impasse. However, by the army coup of May 25, 1993 when President Jorge Serrano Elias announced the dissolution of the Congress and the Supreme Court of Justice, the response of the popular movement showed it was recovering; even sections of the middle class come out into the streets to join in the huge protests.

A new national body, INC, was set up. It included the mass movements, political parties and even CACIF, the business organisation. While it did some good work, this organisation lasted only six months.

In the meantime the Popular Unity of Action (USAP) had been growing in influence. At its November 1993 congress a new leadership and a new permanent executive with representatives from each of the seven member organisations was elected.

Another multi-sectoral coordinating committee (FORO) was formed from the workers' movement, religious, indigenous and civic organisations. It sought to pressure the government to introduce political reforms such as higher wages. The CSC (Coordination of Civil Sectors) was also set up to try to force the government to commit itself to the peace process that had been initiated by the URNG.

Following the 1993 coup, the government faced a political crisis: many congress deputies working with the popular movements renounced their former political affiliations and became independents.

Now there is a strong push for the five major political movements, UASP, indigenous and religious groups, the trade union sector, the small left political parties and even a section of the Christian Democrats to come together.

In January this year the government held a national referendum over changes to the constitution. However, as it did not tackle many of the country's social and economic problems, the left called for a boycott and 84% abstained from voting.

This action has increased the risk of a new coup d'etat. The civilian organisations need to defend themselves against this. In order to further weaken and isolate the government, the popular movements are now talking about holding a popular referendum on the constitution, even though the government would try to outlaw such action.

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