Jackboots in Guatemala

September 29 1980

Jackboots in Guatemala

September 29 1980

Jackboots in Guatemala


Francisco Villagran Kramer

Francisco Villagrán Kramer, the last of the moderate civilians in Guatemala's murderous military dictatorship, resigned as the nation's vice-president earlier this month while visiting Washington, D.C. Human rights authorities readily agree that for him to go back now would mean torture and death. A law professor, he joined a coalition government headed by Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia in July, 1978, hoping to bring about reforms and a transition to civilian rule. But even as the highest elected civilian and supposedly second-in-command he was able to do little to change the horror story that is Guatemala today. Five per cent of the population still owns three-quarters of the land. Eighty per cent of the children under 5 suffer from malnutrition. Opposition to the government or to the wealthy is automatically branded as communist-inspired, and crushed with brutality. Amnesty International estimates that 20,000 Guatemalans have been murdered—often tortured to death—for political offences since 1966. And it's getting worse. Some experts say the death toll from political violence now is running to about 30 a day. Villagrän Kramer talked in Washington with Maclean’s contributing editor William Lowther. Maclean’s: Guatemala has suffered under fierce authoritarian regimes for at least 26 years. Why did you ever agree to join the government in the first place?

Kramer: The government that I joined in 1978 was a coalition of centre-left and centre-right groups. We had just emerged from a decade of strong political difficulties when the military had

controlled the affairs of the executive and the affairs of state. We wanted to set up a period of transition, to give the military the chance to withdraw from power with honor—not having been defeated in the polls. We also hoped that the young people would regain a faith in politics and would participate in the various parties and turn their eyes away from the very romantic approach of the guerrillas and a life spent fighting from the hills. The centre right proposed that the president should be a military man and they proposed Gen.

‘Nearly all the leaders ... were assassinated’

Romeo Lucas Garcia. We knew him to be hard-line but it was a take-it-orleave-it situation. My name was put forward and I joined the government as a sort of balance to the general. Maclean’s: Did you achieve anything? Kramer: Yes. For the first time in more than 20 years the left-wing parties were given a role in our public life. Labor leaders were allowed to organize and several very important collective agreements were reached. We also began a program of bilingual education, using Spanish and the various Indian languages, in the rural areas. It was the first time that had ever been done on a

meaningful scale. But after six months everything changed. Meaningful power was taken away from me. Nearly all of the leaders of the left-wing parties and of the labor unions were assassinated. Indian education is being abandoned. Maclean’s: What went wrong?

Kramer: In late 1978 and early 1979, when Gen. Anastasio Somoza was being defeated by the Sandinista forces in Nicaragua, he made continued efforts to obtain the backing and political support of other governments in the region. Our military decided to back Somoza 110 per cent. Somoza sold the idea to Gen. Lucas thgt if Guatemala allowed the liberal sectors of its society to grow and to participate in government, then sooner or later he would find himself in the same position as Somoza—a general on the run. So the terrible repressions began. The first ones to be murdered were those who had openly criticized Somoza. For example, early in ’79 Alberto Fuentes Mohr, a former foreign minister, and Manuel Colom Argueta, a former mayor of Guatemala City, were both shot down in the streets of the capital. No investigation was made into their deaths. And after the fall of Somoza the very conservative groups within our country, together with the military, decided to take over all forms of control over the population and abandon our programs.

Maclean’s: What has been the effect of pressure from other countries?

Kramer: The relationship with Europe, with the United States and with Canada has become very strained. The Canadian government has expressed its concern many times. But all critics have been labelled Communists and Marxists.

Maclean’s: Guatemala's government says that it doesn't know who is committing all of the assassinations. But national police statistics attribute 3,252 deaths last year to right-wing “death squads" with names like “The White Hand" and “The Secret Anti-Communist Army. " Why have none of these murders been investigated and who really orders them?

Kramer: From January to June this year I know that at least 750 people were killed for political reasons. A substantial number of the bodies that were discovered showed signs of heavy torture. When I protested about this to the military I was called a traitor. They said that I was only publicizing events that would be used by organizations like Amnesty International to give Guatemala a bad name. All underdeveloped governments have repressive bodies to do their dirty work. In that sense, one can say that the director of secret police

probably orders the deaths. However, the fact that the crimes are never investigated and that no order is ever given to stop them would indicate that the military government is behind them. Maclean’s: Authorities in the United States estimate that there are only a few hundred guerrillas operating in Guatemala. Are they controlled by the Cubans and is their movement growing?

Kramer: The Guatemalan guerrillas seem to take pride in a nationalistic attitude. During the 1960s there was a guerrilla movement with very strong links to Cuba. But the present guerrilla movement, while I believe that it discusses strategy with the Cubans, has few foreign elements in its ranks and certainly does not take orders from Castro. Particularly among the Indian groups, they are growing.

Maclean’s: Does the Catholic Church have a role to play in politics?

Kramer: In some cases the church has identified itself with the expectations and the aspirations of the Indians. This has convinced the military that some factions within the church are siding with the guerrillas and many priests have been assassinated.

Maclean’s: What do you see for the future of Guate mala ?

Kramer: Partly as a result of the repression, the economy is in a bad way. At the end of 1979 national reserves amounted to about $1 billion. Now, fearing a revolution, some businessmen are keeping their profits from coffee exports in foreign banks. The money is not coming back to Guatemala. Reserves now stand at about $498 million. The right-wing conservatives might eventually realize that if the repression continues the country will go broke and that might convince them to change their policies. Or, there might eventually be a revolution as there was in Nicaragua.

Maclean’s: Won’t the recent oil finds in Guatemala save the economy ?

Kramer: Well, the oil just happens to be on land acquired by military and civilian leaders some time ago, before the finds were made public. Certainly some of the profits from the exploitation of the oil will go back into the economy, to build roads and bridges that will just happen to run right through military and other estates, making them worth even more money. I doubt if the more modest sectors of the population will receive any benefits from the oil finds. Maclean’s: Will you ever return to Guatemala?

Kramer: Oh yes, I hope that I will be able to do so one day. The Bible warns us to expect seven lean years. For me, they have started. I feel that I did the best job that I was able. If I can be of use to a future generation, then I will be available.