"Guatemala: Extremists Squeeze Out the Moderates"
By: Latin American Newsletters
Date: January 26, 1968
Source: "Guatemala: Extremists Squeeze Out the Moderates," as published by Intelligence Research.
About the Author: This news report was originally published as part of the Latin American News series from Lettres, UK (now Intelligence Research, Ltd.), a London-based news agency. Established in 1967, the Latin American Newsletters were written by Latin American specialists in London, writing about political and social events throughout Latin America as they unfolded. Printed in both English and Spanish, the Latin American Newsletters were a compilation from a variety of sources, without author attribution.
The United States-owned United Fruit Company had a long history in Guatemala as a fruit grower and exporter. When voters elected Jacobo Guzman Arbenz to the presidency in 1951, his appointment of communists to key positions in his administration was cause for concern for United Fruit Company. Fearing government seizure of privately held crop lands, the United Fruit Company appealed to the United States government for help. In 1954, rebels overthrew Arbenz with help from the United States military and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Carlos Castillo Armas assumed the presidency, with approval of United Fruit Company and other conservative interests. Castillo prohibited activity on the part of political parties, labor unions, and other groups as he conducted an exhaustive search for remaining communists. Although most leftist leaders had fled to Mexico after the 1954 change in power, Castillo continued to search for any remains of communist activity. In 1957, Castillo was assassinated.
Anti-communist concerns from Washington D.C. reached fever pitch by 1959, following Fidel Castro's overthrow of Fulgencio Batista and the establishment of communist rule in Cuba. In Guatemala, remaining leftists continued a campaign of political violence, while right-wing reactionary groups fought back, many with the support of the Guatemalan government, the United States government, and the United Fruit Company.
In 1960, a civil war began in Guatemala. The conflict lasted for thirty-six years, leaving more than 200,000 citizens dead by the end of the war. Throughout the early 1960s, Guatemala was used as a base for training anti-communist forces, while at the same time, leftist-leaning military officers joined with students to form a guerilla movement. In 1963, Enrique Peralta Azurdia, the defense minister, was put into power by a military coup. Yet more instability wracked Guatemala as leftists fought against the president, in turn provoking right-wing opposition. By 1968, when the United States ambassador to Guatemala was assassinated, chaos in the region seemed entrenched.
Guatemalan guerrilla sources are claiming that the assassination of two senior US military advisers last week was not merely a reprisal, but the start of a new campaign, in response to heightened right-wing terrorism, following the unification of the two left-wing guerrilla groups. Both the pro-Moscow communists, and President Mendez Montenegro himself, are being left behind as helpless spectators of the carnage.
The gunning down of two senior US military advisers in a street of Guatemala City last week was at first attributed to an act of vengeance on the part of the Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes (FAR), who claimed responsibility. Certainly there was every reason to expect reprisals for the wave of right-wing terrorism, culminating in the brutal killing the week before of a former Guatemalan beauty queen with left-wing connections, Rogelia Cruz Martinez.
But sources close to the Guatemalan guerrillas claim that there was a great deal more than that to the assassination of the Americans. They admit that the guerrillas have suffered serious setbacks in recent months at the hands of extremist right-wing organizations with close connections in the army and police, particularly the Mano Blanca and the Nueva Organizacion Anticomunista (NOA). Successful attacks on their groups in the countryside and their friends in the cities had 'practically liquidated' their hopes of armed revolutionary warfare, these sources recognize.
But, they claim, this situation was radically altered by the recent unification of the two guerrilla groups: the FAR, led by Cesar Montes, and the Movimiento Revolucionario 13 de Noviembre (MR–13), headed by Yon Sosa. This union opened the way to a decisive counter-attack on the Right, which was in any case the only alternative to total defeat. The attack on the American officers, it is suggested, represents only the first move in the new operation.
Whether the guerrillas can so easily recover their waning fortunes must be a matter of doubt; virtually the whole weight of the armed forces is behind the Right. And in any case the Left itself is still not wholly united. Left-wing sources have been predicting an early split between the pro-Moscow communists of the Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo (PGT) and the guerrillas, who accuse PGT leaders of irrelevant activities such as promoting the sale of more coffee to socialist countries, instead of helping the weakened guerrilla movement.
In fact this is not the first serious difference among Guatemalan revolutionaries. When Fidel Castro, at the Tricontinental Conference in Havana two years ago, acclaimed the late Turcios Lima as leader of the Guatemalan revolution, PGT leaders complained of his interference in Guatemala's internal affairs. But some of the younger Party members sided with Fidel, and many of the senior leaders felt obliged to make a clandestine return from their exile in Mexico for a full scale meeting to sort matters out. As a result, more than 20 PGT leaders, including the chief ideologist, Victor Manuel Gutierrez, were caught by the police, tortured and liquidated, and there were dark whispers of betrayal. This time, the FAR are understood to have prepared a document condemning the 'lame' activities of PGT leaders, despite the fact that Montes is a member of the central committee. It may be, however, that the guerrillas will once again win the sympathy of some younger PGT members who favour armed warfare.
But if the pro-Moscow communists are being left behind in the struggle, President Julio Cesar Mendez Montenegro is in an even more unenviable position. The army only allowed him to come to power in 1965 under strong US pressure, and after he had accepted a number of stringent conditions. One of these was that the fight against the guerrillas should go on; another, much more important, was that not he, but the army, should select the minister of defense. This ensured that the ultimate source of power in the country, the armed forces, would not be under his control except in a purely formal sense.
Now the President has had to declare a state of siege again, transferring responsibility for national security from the ministry of the interior and the police to the ministry of defense and the army. This blatant evidence of his impotence indicates, in the opinion of most observers, that Mendez Montenegro's middle-of-the-road regime has lost all hope of effective action by the squeeze exerted upon it from the extremes of Left and Right.
The union between FAR and MR-13 provoked right-wing fears of increased leftist power in Guatemala. Successful assassinations from both sides rocked the country and its government, and instability threatened the United Fruit Company's holdings as well. Although the left was not a united front, the appearance of leftist rebel consolidation was enough to provoke the military and right-wing supporters to work to break up leftist insurgent power. The increased violence and terrorism in Guatemala provoked a military crack down.
As this article notes, "But if the pro-Moscow communists are being left behind in the struggle, President Julio Cesar Mendez Montenegro is in an even more unenviable position. The army only allowed him to come to power in 1965 under strong US pressure, and after he had accepted a number of stringent conditions. One of these was that the fight against the guerrillas should go on; another, much more important, was that not he, but the army, should select the minister of defense. This ensured that the ultimate source of power in the country, the armed forces, would not be under his control except in a purely formal sense." With leftists viewing Mendez as a United States "puppet" president, and military forces maintaining true control while considering him a figurehead, his administration was shaky at best.
In 1970, the military went from behind the scenes control to being front and center: General Carlos Arana Osorio assumed the presidency and now completed armed forces control over Guatemala. Arana's rule put Guatemala into a state of siege, suspending civil liberties while reducing political violence between opposing revolutionary groups. As one of the Central American "Banana Republics," countries controlled by generally right-wing rulers propped up by U.S. and European governments and corporate interests, Guatemala's bloody history in the latter half of the twentieth century presents a case study in tensions between corporate interests, communism, and sovereign rule.
Grandin, Greg. The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin American in the Cold War . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
George Washington University National Security Archive. "U.S. Policy in Guatemala, 1966–1996." <http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB11/docs/> (accessed June 24, 2005).