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Guatemala: legacy of terror

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Guatemala: legacy of terror
by Nick Drearden    21 February 2012

The announcement at the end of January that former Guatemalan dictator Rios Montt will face trial for genocide and crimes against humanity is a great victory for activists in Guatemala. Unfortunately the global institutions that stood behind Guatemala’s governments through the 1970s and ’80s seem no nearer being held to account for their role in the state’s campaign of terror against its own people.

Rios Montt led a brutal military junta in Guatemala in 1982-3, at the height of the Guatemalan state’s terror. But Montt was no go-it-alone dictator, he had backing at the highest levels. President Reagan called Montt “a man of great personal integrity and commitment” who “wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice.”

Neither was Montt’s the only genocidal regime in his country’s history. Guatemala suffered 4-years of state sponsored terror which lasted from the US-backed coup of 1954 up until the peace accords were signed in 1996, a period which saw 200,000 people killed and countless more abducted and tortured.

Guatemala remains a deeply impoverished society – with the lowest levels of human development in the Americas after Haiti – in which the large indigenous population, those who bore the brunt of the terror, are still treated as second-class citizens. Otto Perez Molina, former head of military intelligence and mid-level commander during Montt’s rule in one of the worst affected areas of Guatemala, was elected President last November.

Moreover, many of those institutions which stood behind Guatemala’s government in the past remain in the country today, as it throws open its doors to ‘investment’ from across the US and Europe.

The fruit basket of America

Guatemala’s economy exists for the benefit of the United States – which is why Guatemala’s 10-year period of progressive democratic governments was brought to end in a brutal US-backed coup in 1954 when the United Fruit Company’s interests were threatened. The story of the coup is detailed in Stephen Schlesinger’s must-read ‘Bitter Fruit’, which shows how United Fruit controlled Guatemala’s main port, railways, postal and telegraph systems in the early part of the twentieth century. When the democratic governments from 1944 tried to redistribute the company’s unused lands, the US Eisenhower Administration, intimately connected with United Fruit, plotted its downfall.

The coup ushered in decades of repressive government, swiftly undoing the progressive health and education reforms of the Arevelo (1945-51) and Arbenz (1951-54) governments. Che Guevara, living in Guatemala at the time, based much of his strategy on the inability of Arbenz’s government to stand up to US aggression. Many Guatemalan’s learned a similar lesson and a series of guerrilla groups arose in the face of state repression, and developed close links with the impoverished rural dwellers.

By the late 1970s state terror began to reach genocidal proportions. Grassroots activists were targeted in a systematic manner, with ‘death lists’ circulating. According to the Catholic Church’s ‘Guatemala: Never Again’ by late 1978, a reign of “state sponsored terror” was “focussed on destroying the grassroots movement. It therefore sought to eliminate unions, movement of urban residents, and high school and university student associations.” This included the assassinations of the leader of the trade union centre (CNT), two of the most prominent social democratic leaders and the head of the university students association – at least three of which took place in the capital city in broad daylight.

In 1980, 110 trade union leaders were murdered. However, this was just the tip of the iceberg. The government’s rural counter-insurgency in 1981 and ’82 saw massacres of thousands of small farmers. In an effort to wipe out resistance, governments increasingly came to believe that they would need to not only eliminate political activists, but to launch an all-out war on the indigenous Mayan peasantry. The ‘scorched earth’ policies of Rios Montt were part of this effort. Whole villages were tortured and massacred like the Rio Negro communities described below. Such violations continued throughout the period in what has been described as a “grisly holocaust”.

Funding the terror

Guatemalan governments were supported for almost the entire period by the US government, but during the period of the worst atrocities other international lenders also played a crucial role. New analysis by Jubilee Debt Campaign shows the shocking hike in lending to Guatemala during the late 1970s and early 80s, coinciding with the highest wave of terror.

Until 1974, Guatemala’s debt was relatively stable, reaching $120million in that year. Thereafter, debt increased rapidly, increasing by $100million a year or more in 1978, 1979 and 1980, and then over $250million a year in 1981 and 1982 at the very height of the terror. By 1985 the country’s debt had reached $2.2billion – an increase of over $2billion in 10 years.

Just as shocking is that the vast majority of this debt came from so-called ‘multilateral banks’ like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Inter-American Development Bank. The proportion of money coming from these public institutions every year was a moderate 25% at the beginning of the 1970s, rising to over 60% in 1974, then after a brief interlude 66% in 1976 and then over 70% from 1977 until 1980. By the time the peace agreement was signed in 1997, Guatemala was repaying these institutions nearly $130million a year, rising to nearly $400million today.

The Chixoy Dam

Many of these public banks were supporting specific projects in Guatemala during this period – projects aimed at ‘developing’ the country. One in particular stands out above others – the Chixoy Dam – supported by the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank from 1978.

The Chixoy Dam
The Chixoy Dam

The Chixoy Dam was built close to an area called Rio Negro in the region of Rabinal in the Guatemalan highlands, an area which was particularly targeted as part of the government’s terror campaign at this time. Rio Negro was a town of just over 200 Mayan families. The creation of the dam entailed the flooding of lands to build a reservoir which in turn meant many communities would have to be evicted. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the dam therefore engendered a great deal of opposition from the Rio Negro communities.

Campaign groups such as International Rivers have detailed the way that this opposition was met with ever fiercer repression from the armed forces. Then, on 12 February 1982, around 70 community members were murdered, the first of four massacres. On 13 March 1982, 70 women and 107 children were massacred, many after being repeatedly raped or tortured, by the forces of the military government and their paramilitary allies. Later still, the soldiers returned to Rio Negro, burning all homes and possessions, killing animals and destroying crops.

With the elimination of the Rio Negro people and town, it was easy for the government to advance with its plans to build the Chixoy dam. According to International Rivers, the project “forcibly displaced more than 3,500 Maya indigenous community members. More than 6,000 families living in the area also suffered loss of land and livelihoods.” 33 communities were effected by the dam.

In all, more than 400 of their women and children were massacred because of their opposition to the dam. For the survivors the ordeal didn’tend there. Barbara Rose Johnston of the Center for Political Ecology says:

“Survivors were hunted in the surrounding hills, and forcibly resettled at gunpoint…While resettlement villages were eventually built, the original development plans were discarded and a militarized guarded compound was built in its place. Compensatory efforts at the time, and in later years, were grossly inadequate to meet the basic needs of displaced communities, let alone provide redress for the full extent of lost land, property, communal resources, livelihoods and lives.”

The survivors of Chixoy live in extreme poverty and have continued to press for reparations for their ongoing experience.

The complicity of the World Bank

It is highly unlikely that the Chixoy Dam would have been able to go ahead without the backing of the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank. They bear a significant responsibility for the project and all that it entailed. Was the World Bank aware of what it was funding?

As one report puts it: “not to have known at the time about the violence and repression at Rio Negro would have required an extraordinary and sustained dedication to ignorance on the part of World Bank officials.” A Probe International report in 2001 reported that “[w]hile the World Bank argues that it had no knowledge of the massacres occurring at the time of dam construction, other evidence suggests that World Bank officials either knew or had reason to know about the violence.”

Moreover, they did nothing to stop the project once the atrocities started. The terror only increased in the years after the project received the Bank’s support. During this time, World Bank supervision continued, and therefore the project could have been halted or at least questions raised.

The World Bank not only failed to stop support for Chixoy, but they supported a second project in 1986. During this period, internal reports from the World Bank and its sister bank the Inter-American Development Bank, referred to problems with resettlement, but as the Centre on Housing and Rights and Evictions makes clear they “make no mention whatsoever of the appalling fact that… hundreds of people who were supposed to be resettled were actually murdered.”

All organisations working on the Chixoy Dam have consistently called for reparations for affected communities. Throughout the very long struggle for justice, the communities have been repeatedly harassed and criminalised, even after the peace process concluded. To date, despite several processes and sets of negotiations, which have included the World Bank, the communities affected by the dam have still not been properly compensated for the terrible experience they suffered. International Rivers continues to campaign for the Bank to accept its responsibility for the atrocities which took place in the Rio Negro and continue to need support.

The new quest for profits in Guatemala

Guatemala remains deeply affected by its recent history. The country remains beset by violence. Assassinations of political activists, journalists and labour leaders continue to this day. Poverty is highly concentrated among indigenous communities and in households headed by women. Perhaps all of this is necessary to ensure that Guatemala’s role in the global economy, as an exporter of raw materials, is maintained as smoothly as possible.

Few lessons appear to have been learnt. A new project – the Xalala Dam – is being constructed on the Chixoy River, downstream from the existing Chixoy Dam. The project is intended to supply electricity to Guatemala and Mexico. Local activists are convinced that the dam will benefit the increasing number of mining projects and large commercial investors in the country, while local communities will suffer the consequences. International Rivers claims that the Xalala Dam would displace more than 2,000 people and impact the livelihoods of 14,000 indigenous people who would lose land, crops, fisheries and other resources to the reservoir and associated construction works.

Local communities are fighting back. In what has become a popular source of resistance, a 2007 referendum organised by local communities saw 90% of people reject the dam. Despite not receiving any private bids to invest in the dam during the first tender, however, the government has refused to recognize the referendum and is believed to be seeking funding from the Inter-American Development Bank and World Bank.

These dams are of vital importance to companies exploiting the country’s resources. A staggering amount of extraction is planned in Guatemala in coming years. In 2007, the government reported the approval of around 370 mining licences in Guatemala, with 300 more waiting to be approved. A recent report citing the Ministry of Energy and Mines says mining revenues are soaring from 9 million dollars a year in 2004 to 522 million dollars in 2010. This is likely to accelerate under Otto Perez.

In 2004, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a branch of the World Bank, gave $45 million support to Goldcorp for work on the Marlin Gold Mine. After activists protested against the mining operations, one person was killed by security forces and many more people were injured. Two years ago the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a branch of the Organisation of American States called on the Guatemalan Government to suspend operations at the mine on the basis of complaints about serious pollution. In December 2011, however, the IACHR rescinded this call, replacing it with a ‘precautionary measure’ to ensure that the 18 local communities would have adequate supplies of safe drinking water.

Guatemalans are organising against mining exploitation. Across the north of the country it is impossible to avoid local anti-mining protests. One tactic regularly used is the community referendum – a way of re-engaging local communities in struggles. Of the 58 held since 2005, not one has come out in favour of mining. But there is much work to do in connecting up struggles and offering them solidarity.

Guatemala has not recovered from the state of terror it lived through. In this light, Rios Montt’s trial for genocide is a positive step forward which could promote confidence amongst Guatemalan activists. But the campaign must go beyond Rios Montt. It is vital to continue to confront institutions like the World Bank and demand that they make recompense for their role in the country’s troubled history to the communities which suffered the consequences. This is important not only for the victims of state terror, but to ensure the rights of Guatemala’s people do not continue to be trampled upon in the difficult years ahead.

This article is a preview of a briefing which Jubilee Debt Campaign will publish in Spring 2012.

Jubilee Debt Campaign

International Rivers – Chixoy Campaign