Few countries have suffered as much as Guatemala. The resignation of President Otto Perez Molina on Thursday, followed by his arrest on corruption charges, seems like just the latest episode in the long cascade of crimes, coups, revolutions, interventions, and massacres that shape Guatemalan history. In fact, it reflects something new. Political and social consciousness is rising dramatically in long-traumatized Guatemala.
For generations Guatemala was terrorized into silence. Slowly the grip of the old elite is slipping. A new generation of Guatemalans, many from the indigenous majority, has used social media and modern organizing tools to push back against power and history.
The president’s resignation does not portend quick change for Guatemala. Political life has become deeply corrupted. Street gangs are powerful and murder rates are astronomical. Large numbers live in deep poverty. The land-holding elite fiercely resists change. This month’s presidential election offers a depressingly unappealing set of candidates, so the fall of one bad leader is unlikely to lead to the rise of someone substantially better.
In one important way, however, Guatemala is changing. Ordinary people, mainly Indians, have organized, lost their fear, and begun demanding reforms. This is remarkable in a country where, for decades, death was the likely fate of all who protested.
Guatemala was horrifically brutalized by Spanish conquerors. It became a nation dominated by a handful of rich landowners who continued oppressing the Indian majority. Early in the 20th century, the Boston-based United Fruit Company became the country’s most powerful force. After democracy emerged in 1944, Guatemala’s congress passed a land reform law that required United Fruit to sell its unused property for distribution to landless peasants. The company appealed to Washington, and in 1954 President Dwight Eisenhower authorized a coup in which the elected government was deposed.
After the coup, social conflicts erupted into a 36-year civil war that cost 200,000 lives — more than were killed in political violence in all the rest of Latin America during that period. Labor leaders, student activists, and others who spoke out were routinely either killed by death squads or tortured to death on military bases.
Most weaponry and political support for this campaign came from the United States. When Congress cut off military aid in the 1980s to protest the Guatemalan regime’s brutality, President Ronald Reagan arranged for Israel to fill the gap. During the most intense period of civil war, Guatemalan soldiers dropped into Indian villages on Israeli-made Arava transports and did their killing with Uzi and Galil rifles.
The war ended with a negotiated settlement in 1996. Slowly, Guatemalans began emerging from their cocoon of silence. Among the most eager protesters were thousands of Indians who had spent war years living in refugee camps across the border in Mexico. New organizations began to spring up — the kind that could not possibly have survived in the murderous old days. Their first nationwide campaign, against an American mining company, gave them a taste of their own power.
Guatemala’s indigenous movement was further energized in 2012 when a former president, General Efrain Rios Montt, became the first former head of state to be tried for genocide in his home country. Most victims of his scorched-earth campaigns had been Indians, and Indian communities around the country intently followed his trial. Rios Montt was convicted, and though a judge later ordered a new trial, the sight of a former president in the defendant’s dock thrilled many Guatemalans.
Not satisfied with bringing a former president to justice, Guatemalans took aim against their current one. After an international team of prosecutors documented government corruption, people took to the streets. Week after week, tens of thousands of protesters filled the plaza in front of the presidential palace. President Perez Molina’s resignation was their victory.
Guatemalans are edging back toward the democracy they enjoyed for ten years before the CIA coup of 1954. Pressure for change is coming not from the political class but from newly defiant poor people, mainly Indians. Their emerging power, not the president’s resignation, is the big news from Guatemala.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.