Truths of the Guatemalan Civil War
Since the times of the Spanish Conquest of these lands once ruled by the Maya, there has been a huge disparity between the quality of life of the indigenous and the fairer skinned Spanish and mixed people (ladinos). The ladinos continued a tradition of discrimination and repression of the indigenous that led to great poverty among the indigenous, and often great wealth among the ladinos.
In 1954 the democratically-elected President of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz, was overthrown by the military in an effort designed by the United States. (We will be exploring the US role in Guatemala in the coming weeks.) President Castillo Armas was the first in a succession of military presidents. Violence quickly became the trademark of these military governments and opponents began turning up dead all over the country. Soon, only literate people were allowed to vote and this rule automatically took the vote away from about 75% of the Guatemalan population. The poor, mostly indigenous majority had no way to voice their concerns within the governmental system and in 1960, guerrilla groups began to form and war officially broke out. The mission of the guerrilla groups was to counter the intense government repression in rural and urban areas.
During the 1960s and 1970s, there was a total division of Guatemalan society. The primary conflict was between the poorer classes in the countryside and the power elite in the cities. In the mid-1960s, "death squads", comprised of off-duty police officers and soldiers, emerged as unofficial killing ambassadors for the right wing political factions.
Despite the risks, many people took actions that put them at risk from the government. About half a million citizens supported the guerrilla movement, which saw four different guerilla groups join forces in 1982 to form the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). Another response was that taken by the Mutual Support Group (GAM), which emerged as one of Guatemala's most visible human rights organizations in the 1980s. GAM, the group that Monica is working with in Concepción, grew in membership as repression continued. Another response was that of Rigoberta Menchú Tum, who in 1992 won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to help organize Guatemala's indigenous communities to defend themselves and protest. (You can see and hear her live from Guatemala and send her questions during the February 18th Odyssey webcast!). When she won the Nobel Prize, it helped draw worldwide attention to the atrocities in Guatemala.
In 1991, peace talks were initiated by President Serrano as he re-opened dialogue with the URNG and hoped to end the war. But the talks collapsed and no real progress emerged until President Irigoyen was elected to office in January, 1996. Negotiations continued between the government and the URNG. On December 29, 1996 the peace accords were finally signed at the National Palace in Guatemala City and this death-ridden civil war came to an official end, though the killing never completely stopped. Will this peace last? This depends, most importantly, on whether or not the government and people of Guatemala are able to equalize the enormous imbalances of social and economic power that still exist. Check our future dispatches about the Peace Process and the Constitutional Reforms now underway, as we share Guatemala's struggles in this post-civil war era.
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