Class and indigenous roots of the Guatemalan
Capitalist Guatemala's oppression of the Indian majority
population has many similarities with Peru's. The Spanish invaders conquered Mayan Indians
in Guatemala and Incas in Peru. Afterwards they introduced a feudal system whose trappings
lingered on long after the introduction of capitalist property relations in the 19th
century. Rural latifundios incorporated the worst features of feudalism and capitalism.
The Indian or meztiso peasants could only find seasonal work and the landed gentry found
all sorts of ways to cheat them out of a fair wage. The state intervened on behalf of the
big agrarian bourgeoisie to make sure that this modern version of serfdom stayed intact.
The bourgeois revolution promises free soil and free labor. In Guatemala, such a
revolution never really took place.
The introduction of coffee cultivation in 19th century Guatemala laid the foundations for the semi-feudal oppression of the Mayan Indians. In 1860, there were no coffee exports. 13 years later, the coffee bourgeoisie was exporting 15 million pounds a year. In order to free up land for coffee production, the communal lands of the Indian had to be stolen. This was done in 1877 when the Liberal regime of Juan Rufino Barrios abolished communal ownership of the land. Barrios also subdivided the Mayans into 3 groups. One were 'colonos,' who contracted to live and work on the plantations. The second were 'jornaledos habilitados,' who had to work as indentured servants to pay off debts to the plantation owner. The third became 'jornaledos no habilitados,' who promised to work for a number of years without any advance. There were white overlords in each department where Indians lived, who processed requests for forced labor, in which the Indian had to work from a week to a month each year. This system gave way to a form of debt-bondage in 1894, which the state officially recognized.
In 1934, the state abolished the debt-bondage system, but a set of "Vagrancy Laws" took its place. These laws compelled Indians to work 150 days a year if they cultivated less than one and five-sixteenth 'manzanas' of land, 100 days a year if they cultivated more. There were other ways to trick the Indian into forced labor. Anthropologist Ruth Bunzel reported that during periods of labor shortage, the cops would throw large numbers of Indians into jail for petty offenses and impose heavy fines that they could only work off by picking coffee on the plantation. She wrote, "When partway drunk, an Indian will sell his soul for more liquor: upon this the finca [plantation] system is based." Between October and January, "...every few days the bell in Chichicastenango is tolled to commemorate the passing of some citizen who has 'died in the finca.' The bodies are not brought back...So effectual are the familiar devices of colonial exploitation, alcoholism, easy credit, debt indebture, and liability for debts to the third generation, that once caught in the system, escape is difficult."
In the 1940s an emerging class of urban professionals and merchants sought to modernize Guatemala and break the dependency on coffee exports. They were a nationalist formation that had much in common with other such parties in Latin America, such as the APRA in Peru or the Peronistas in Argentina. Their goal was not socialism, but modernization and industrialization within a national framework. The working-class movement in Guatemala, including the Communist Party, identified and worked with this movement.
Jacobo Arbenz, the candidate of this movement, came to power in 1954. One of his primary goals was radical land reform. This put him on a collision course with the United Fruit Company which owned millions of acres of untilled land in Guatemala that it held in reserve for future banana plantings. The land-hungry campesino had deep hopes that they would receive titles to land, which would allow them to grow their own food and produce a surplus for the market. It was also the hope of Arbenz's reformers that such a class of petty producers would form the basis of capitalist development through internal markets and trade with other Central American nations.
The United States would permit no such development. It was not only opposed to Communism, it was opposed to radical bourgeois nationalism. The prerogatives of US corporations came first, even if this meant joining forces with a semi-feudal oligarchy in Guatemala. The CIA conspired with Guatemalan officers to overthrow Arbenz and they were successful.
The Mayan Indians were only a secondary player in the 1954 revolution. This no doubt explains the ease with which it was overthrown. Arbenz's Ladino reformers were anxious to eradicate the oppression of the Indian, but were not willing to go the full route and raise up the Indian as equal partners in the national revolutionary process. The weakness of Arbenz's social base therefore led to his isolation and eventual defeat.
The overthrow of Arbenz led to a deepening of the agro-export economic model, including further expropriation of Indian land. One of the consequences of this was that "de-ruralization" took place without any sort of parallel urbanization and proletarian process. The dispossessed Indian was never absorbed into a capitalist economy, because manufacturing jobs were not being produced. Instead, the big plantations were becoming more and more mechanized and fewer and fewer jobs became available. The Indian could only find work on a seasonal basis and those who could not find work often found their way into the informal economy as street peddlers or subproletarians. These were the maids and servants whose lives were dramatized in Gregory Cava's "El Norte."
In the 1960s a guerrilla movement developed that sought to replace the unfair economic system with one modeled on Cuba's. The Guatemalan movement was a coalition of groups that included the Communist Party. Its political orientation was Guevarist, even to the extent of establishing "focos" of guerrilla activity. This movement shared something with the Arbenz reform movement other than its willingness to abolish semi-feudal oppression in Guatemala. It failed to sink deep roots in the Indian population. It concentrated its forces on zones where Spanish-speaking meztisos predominated. One of the explanations for this lapse was the Communist Party of Guatemala's notion that the Indian population was "culturally backward" and not revolutionary. After this movement had been defeated, one of its fractions, the Frente Guerrillero Edgar Ibarra (FGEI) criticized the guerrilla movement, stating that unless the indigenous population was part of the leadership, any armed movement was bound to fail.
Some of these forces reemerged as the Guerrilla Army of the Poor in the 1970s, which had re-theorized the Indian question along these lines. It centered its activities in the Indian communities of the highlands, just as the Maoists did in Peru. A powerfully written chronicle of their activities is found in Mario Payera's "Days in the Jungle," which includes this passage:
"Luis Arenas had a plantation he frequently visited at the mouth of the Xaclbal River in the highlands where this flowing water separates the central massif of the Cuchumatanes Mountains from the wooded ranges of northern Quiche His fame began in the days of the North American intervention in 1954 when he acquired his lands with the help of the new government. The San Luis Ixcáin plantation, his property, had been built with evil, utilizing the forced labor of Indians from the cold highlands. Entire contingents of workers, recruited with false promises and pretexts, were brought down to clear the jungle where there were yet no roads. Many of the men were transported in military helicopters and left to their fate for months in the middle of the jungle. Some tried to escape into the wild mountains, struggling to survive for weeks with neither food nor weapons in a vast expanse of virgin forest, but most perished in the attempt. On the La Perla plantation, men who were paying off hereditary debts formed the better part of the work force. Arenas gave an advance on the Indians' small coffee harvests and later collected in kind, adding usurious interest to the original loan. Coffee sacks were taken to the large towns by mule teams headed by his henchmen on horseback, who, wielding guns and whips, made way for the caravan. This feudal lord's name was linked to all kinds of land seizures and crimes. On some of his plantations he used special cages to punish rebellious Indians."
The guerrillas recruited men from plantations like these to fight for their liberation. At the height of the insurgency, there were 6 to 8000 combatants, primarily Mayan Indians and over 1/2 million collaborators.
One of the central myths of capitalism is that every society will go through some temporary pain after market relations sink root, to be relieved by the "invisible hand" once the kinks get worked out. This is what I call the "teething pain" theory of development. It assumes that when subsistence farmers are driven off their land, that they will become workers and consumers. Inefficient farming practices will be replaced by modern factory farming methods and the food needs of the urban population will be met. This is the theory of development experts such as the Rostow brothers who tried to ram this down the throat of the people of Vietnam, or their modern era progeny Jeffrey Sachs. It is thorough nonsense.
Capitalism does not plan things out this way. If there are peasants who become redundant as a consequence of land confiscation, there is no guarantee that they will be absorbed by the urban manufacturing sector. What is more likely is that they will be victims of poor health and malnutrition. Surplus children will be "processed" as infant mortality statistics. "I, Rigoberta Menchu" documents this sad story as one after another sister or brother of this Mayan Nobel Peace Prize winner succumbed to disease or accidental death or murder.
This is the explanation of the ferocity of Guatemala's guerrilla war in the 1980s. People were not fighting for some abstract notion of socialism, for the abolition of commodity production and the production of use- values. They were fighting for their survival. The army was driving campesinos off their land to make room for agro-export activity. This meant cultural and economic liquidation. When some took up arms to defend themselves, others joined in a campaign to protect and inform them of the army's activities. The countryside was the scene of a massive Indian, peasant and semiproletarian resistance to a genocidal counterinsurgency war. Hundreds of thousands of highland Indians were exterminated and driven into flight away from the violence.
The root causes of the class conflict are in Guatemala's economic system, which simply provide for nothing except the luxury of the big bourgeoisie and the upward mobility of a slender percentage of the urban middle- class. The facts speak for themselves. In the period of the civil war, from the 1970s to the mid 1980s, income distribution worsened significantly. The wealthiest 20 percent of the population received 47% of national income in 1970. This grew to 57% in 1984. The wealthiest 10 percent increased its share from 41% in 1980 to 44% in 1987. Meanwhile, the poorest 50% fell from a 24% share in 1970 to 18% in 1984. In the countryside during the 1980s, the top 2% of the rural population received 40% of income, while 83% received only 35%.
Land distribution remained as skewed as ever. The largest 2 percent of Guatemala's farms cover 67% of usable land, while 80% of farms account for 10% of the land. In another indicator of the growing inequality, over 50% of peasant income came from land cultivation in 1976. By 1988, this percentage had decreased to 25%. And yet Guatemala remains the one country in Central America that has not passed any significant land redistribution law. Excess peasants make their way to Los Angeles to work as maids or car washers or day laborers. Or else they remain in Guatemala City in hellish shanty-towns on the fringes of the city, selling odds and ends in the street. A 1982 UNICEF study combining infant mortality, life expectancy, and literacy rates concluded that Guatemala had the lowest quality of life index in Central America, third lowest in Latin America.
The guerrilla movement in Guatemala, like that in El Salvador and like the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, was defeated by "low intensity" warfare. The Sandinistas I used to come into contact with during my solidarity work in the 1980s used to remark bitterly that it was anything but "low intensity" for those on the receiving end. This was especially true in Guatemala where the military pursued a "scorched earth" policy. Over 440 villages were entirely destroyed. Well over 100,00 civilians were killed or "disappeared." There were over 1 million displaced persons, including 200,000 refugees who fled to Mexico. Accompanying these population displacements was the deliberate destruction of huge areas of the highlands, including forest fires, in order to make sure that the region could never function as a theater for revolutionary operations. The consequent environmental despoliation was monumental, even to the extent of modifying climate and rainfall patterns.
Guatemala seems peaceful now. But this is the peace of the graveyard. Will there be struggle in the future? It is safe to say that the misery that caused the last outburst will sooner or later cause a new upsurge in the future. Whether it will take the same form as the guerrilla warfare of the 1980s can not be guaranteed. The old mole revolution adopts many guises.
The other day I was at the Monthly Review for a brown bag, where I had the pleasure to run into Bill Tabb, an economist who contributed the "Marxist" essay in Ward Churchill's collection "Marxism and Native Americans." Although I have a great deal for Bill's acumen as an economist, I thought that the essay was a bit weak and simply repeated a much more palatable version of what passes as standard Marxist wisdom for what happened to the Indian: tragic, but necessary in a Hegelian sense. I reported my latest thinking on the American Indian question, including my prediction of the increasing importance of sovereignty claims in the next few years. A fellow named Tom Burgess was at the lunch table. He is anthropologist at Queens College, who is a colleague of Eric Wolf's and who puts in time at the Pine Ridge reservation working with Indian activists. After listening to my comments, he commented, "This sounds like the same problems that the Indian faced in 1980." I answered that he was correct. Nothing had changed, including the oppression. All that was different now was the inclusion of fresh forces willing to take up the fight. There was undoubtedly the importance of the Chiapas struggle, which American Indians are keenly aware of and solidarize with.
Perhaps fresh forces will appear in Guatemala. If they do, it will be very important for them to absorb the theoretical breakthrough of the Guerrilla Army of the Poor which managed to sink deep roots in the Mayan population of the highlands. Their Marxism was of the best sort. It synthesized class and indigenous concerns in a seamless manner. Their understanding of the combined socialist and democratic tasks of the Guatemalan revolution will certainly hold up in future struggles. I conclude with this passage from their 1982 document "The Indian People and the Guatemalan Revolution":
"The colonialists need to preserve the basic Indian economic and social organization order to facilitate the exploitation of a rural labor force, is one of the factors which explains why the Indian culture, revolving around precapitalist agriculture based on maize and the corresponding level of social organization, survive in the new colonial society; but it also explains why this culture not develop. The culture imposed by the Spanish colonialists (western, greco-latin, judeo-christian) dominated the Maya-Quicbe culture, because it expressed a mode of production superior to that of the Mesoamerican Indians. No human culture can develop when the material base which sustains it is broken by outside, superior relations of production which are essentially exclusive old, even if in some senses complementary. The Guatemalan Indians' lands were held and worked communally and the differentiation of social classes had only begun. Their traditional form of land ownership violated, forced to regroup into towns created to facilitate the exploitation of their labor, militarily defeated and subject to the ideological onslaught of missionaries, the Guatemalan Indians resisted and rejected the new relations of production and the culture of those who imposed them. Resistance and rejection went from religious resistance to local armed uprisings, passing through all the forms of cultural resistance which the sense of ethnic identity leads oppressed people to create in similar circumstances. The sense of ethnic-cultural identity--the other key to understanding the survival of the Indian culture as we know it today--finds its explanation in the relative independence of the superstructure with regard to the material base which gives rise to it at a given moment."
Some of the Mayan Indians who fled the army assaults found refuge in Chiapas, Mexico. There is every possibility that some of the keys to understanding the Zapatista struggle of today lie in the political and cultural interaction between these refugees and their brothers and sisters in Chiapas. Their struggle is the topic of my next post, which will also include some discussion of Harry Cleaver's interesting analysis of the cyberspace dimensions of the solidarity movement.
Sources: Susanne Jonas, "The Battle for Guatemala," Westview, 1991 Jonathan Fried, Marvin Gettleman, Deborah Levenson, Nancy Peckenham, "Guatemala in Rebellion: Unfinished History", Grove Press, 1983