Air Date: October 14, 1997||
Eduardo Stein, Foreign Minister, Guatemala
Raquel Zelaya, Peace Secretary of the Presidency of Guatemala
Byron Barrera, columnist, La Prensa Libré
(This text has been professionally transcribed, However, for timely
distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.)
MARY GRAY DAVIDSON: Guatemala, the land of coffee, misty mountain slopes, rain forests,
and the site of Central America’s other civil war. Most American’s were well aware of the
recent conflicts in Nicaragua and El Salvador, but few knew of the intensity and savagery or
the war in Guatemala. It was the longest running war in Central America and it was fueled by
help from the United States.
PHILLIP ROETTINGER: The CIA was given the responsibility of the overthrow of the
government of Jacobo Arbenz, the President of Guatemala, and I was one of the officers down
in Honduras, charged with training the exiles. We had a bunch of dissident Guatemalans that
had fled their country.
DAVIDSON: Last December, the combatants in this 36-year-long dirty war signed a peace
accord and the country is slowly starting to recover.
EDUARDO STEIN: It’s a ruinous house and the opportunity is given to us to remodel. For
some of us, it’s even more drastic than that. The house fell apart, so we have to rebuild.
DAVIDSON: During this half hour of Common Ground, we begin a series of programs
on Guatemala, the toll that nearly four decades of war have taken on the society, the
estimated 150,000 people killed or disappeared, the effect it had on the country’s indigenous
Mayan majority, and the tentative peace in the country today. Common Ground is a
program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley
Foundation. I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
PABLO NERUDA: (translated) When the trumpet sounded, everything was prepared on earth.
And Jehovah gave the world to Coca-Cola Inc., Anaconda, Ford Motors, and other corporations.
The United Fruit Company reserved for itself the most juicy piece, the central coast of my
DAVIDSON: Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, captured the start of modern day Guatemala’s
problems in his poem titled “United Fruit Company.” To understand the roots of the conflict,
you have to go back to the 1940s when Guatemala’s freely elected, but left-leaning president,
Jacobo Arbenz , tried to address the profound inequities in Guatemalan society by turning over
land to impoverished peasants. He went over the line though when he tried to include unused
land of the Boston-based United Fruit Company, the largest landowner in the country, which had
many important connections in Washington DC. The CIA intervened in 1954 and President Arbenz
was overthrown in a coup.
NERUDA POEM: Meanwhile the Indians fall into the angry depths of the harbors and are
buried in the morning mists. A corpse rose, a thing without a name, a discarded number, a
bunch of rotten fruit thrown on the garbage heap.
ROETTINGER: The CIA was given the responsibility of the overthrow of the government of
Hacobo Arbenz, the president of Guatemala, and I was one of the officers down in Honduras
charged with training the exiles. We had a bunch of dissident Guatemalans that had fled their
country and we gathered them together down there and trained them.
DAVIDSON: This is retired Colonel Phillip Roettinger, speaking on the Other Americas
Radio about the CIA-engineered coup that overthrew President Arbenz, a coup that led to a
series of military dictatorships that lasted until the mid 1980’s.
ROETTINGER: Initially we were told that we were preventing a communist beachhead in
this hemisphere. We were told that President Arbenz was a communist and that he was going to
have a leftist government, of course, there. And this was the only one at that time which had
challenged our control. And President Arbenz decided that this was his country, it belonged to
the Guatemalans and he was determined to run it the way he thought it ought to be run. Arbenz,
of course, was not a communist in any form. He was a reformist and he was an army officer of
course, and one of the few army officers that decided to reform instead of form a dictatorship
over the people.
STEIN: We all know of the direct CIA involvement in that operation. We all know many
of the details of the headquarters in southern Florida, of the talks at the highest level with
DAVIDSON: Today, Guatemala’s Foreign Minister, Eduardo Stein, sounds somewhat
philosophical in these carefully measured words about the events that took his country into
nearly four decades of civil war.
STEIN: Well, what’s interesting is that in recent inside evaluations by U.S administration
officers, even by CIA-hired historians, they themselves are re-evaluating what they got into,
as well as the reports of success that were provided then to the administration by CIA officers.
The type of reactions of the time were of such naive nature, that one wonders if maybe the
sheer ideological weight of the Cold War at that time was so intense as to blur their vision,
as the visions of Guatemalan’s was blurred as well. But the importance lies perhaps, not so
much in how do we understand that specific overthrow, but how do we understand the entire
process through which the U.S. Administration combined different resources in dealing with
countries such as ours. Because U.S. intervention in Central American affairs did not end with
the overthrow of Arbenz. It kept on going, all the way through the many things that I’m sure
you already know very well about the contras and the Sandinistas, about El Salvador’s internal
war, about what happened in Panama, etc.
DAVIDSON: Foreign Minister Stein says the government of Guatemala has been pleasantly
surprised so far by the attention Secretary of State Madeline Albright has given to Central
STEIN: We had our misgivings about Madeline Albright taking care of the State Department
and we thought that she would perform heavily Eurocentric because that’s what Time,
Newsweek, and all the other more analytical media had been portraying. I don’t find
in her the type of dogmatic attitudes that one would see in former Secretaries of State, and
we do not find those attitudes any more in the U.S. Ambassadors in Central America as well.
That proconsular image of years back has drastically changed, and it’s not only style. We’ve
found that there is an intelligent dialogue going on in which the United States officials in
charge of the region are doing their very best to understand the processes that are going on
here and see how they can help in a constructive way to allow for these democracies to fully bloom.
DAVIDSON: You’re listening to Common Ground, a service of the Stanley Foundation.
This is the first program in a series about Guatemala—it’s 36 year counter insurgency war and
the efforts to rebuild the country since a peace accord was signed last December. Common
Ground is produced by the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that
conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world
affairs. Printed transcripts and audio cassettes are available of this Common Ground
program. At the end of the broadcast, I’ll give you details on how you can order.
BYRON BARRERA: (Translated) My name is Byron Barrera. I am a journalist. I currently
work as an information officer for the United Nations Development Program and I am a columnist
for La Prensa Libre, one of the major newspapers of Guatemala.
DAVIDSON: Journalist Byron Barrera has lived almost his entire life in a country at war
with itself. Barrera, who’s 44 now, had to flee his country three times during the war,
beginning in 1979, when he learned he had only hours to live. Journalists in Guatemala were
regularly harassed for reporting on human rights and other problems. Barrera was also targeted
for organizing the first journalist’s union in Guatemala. He was accused of being a communist
for his activities, a charge he says was not true.
BARRERA: (Translated) In those days, Guatemalan society was very closed politically
and anyone who defended labor rights, human rights, etc., was accused of being a communist.
My departure was very sudden. My father was the Secretary of the Journalist’s Association of
Guatemala and he talked to the Minister of the Interior and asked him, if in all frankness,
they were going to kill my son for sure. If that was the case, he would rather have me leave
the country. The Minister said your son’s life was going to end in a matter of hours. My
father went to the American Embassy for a visa and they gave it immediately. So my two year
old daughter, my wife and I left the next day by plane. I left with about $150. I didn’t
know what I would do in the States, but was working in a matter of weeks as a carpenter. At
the time, there was not an organized exile group or human rights organizations as there are
today. When I left, I felt completely alone and unprotected.
DAVIDSON: Barrera lived in Chicago for two years and eventually settled in Mexico to be
closer to his country. There, he started a news agency to report on events inside Guatemala
to the rest of the world. In 1986, he was encouraged by Guatemala’s first civilian president,
Venizio Cerezo, a friend, to return to Guatemala and start his independent news service again.
BARRERA: (Translated) There was never a warning, so we assumed we could go ahead and
establish the news agency and a newspaper called The Times. The first issue was
published in February of 1988. Then in June of 1988, the premises were bombed and everything
destroyed. No one was hurt and we decided after the bombing to stay in Guatemala and to move
to another location. Just after the bombing there was a lot of persecution. For example,
there were armed individuals chasing me all over. The civilian government could not guarantee
my safety. A friend working with the new civilian government called me and informed me of the
situation. He said if I continued with my work with this weekly publication, I would be
kidnapped and disappeared. The government suggested I leave the country for awhile. I went
back to Mexico without my family and returned to Guatemala three months later. We established
the news agency again. During the next two years I worked on an almost normal basis. On
October 20, I was a victim of an armed attack while driving my car in downtown Guatemala City.
My wife, who was in the car with me, was killed. She was shot to death. I received three
bullets. It is known that the attackers were linked to a group called the High Command at
the Presidency, a military body that had control of the Presidency. I left the country after
that with my two children and lived in Costa Rica for five years.
DAVIDSON: Despite the tragedy he suffered, Byron Barrera has come back to his country.
He’s still writing his outspoken column, now for La Prensa Libre, Guatemala’s leading
newspaper, and working for the United Nations Development Program.
BARRERA: (Translated) I think this is traditionally a very closed society, an unjust
society, and the army wanted to maintain the status quo at any cost. That was the problem all
the time, that Guatemala was a closed society and we were trying to open it up just a little.
I returned to Guatemala in 1995 because I missed my country very much. I have political
convictions that kept me going. Democracy was a good cause to work for. I benefit from my
work with the UN. I’m in contact with a lot of people and work with people involved in the
fight against poverty, human rights, the strengthening of the justice system, things I’ve
worked for all my life. We have to see Guatemala’s situation as a process that’s going to
take time. We’re establishing the basis for the transformation of the country that will
produce results over a long time.
MAURICIO VALDEZ: These are the guys who invented very clever programs, who are very
bold, took risks, so they are also an inspiration for us. I mean, see what these guys have
DAVIDSON: Mauricio Valdez works with Byron Barrera in the Guatemalan office of the UN
Development Program. Part of the UN’s plan to get Guatemala back on its feet is to reverse
the intellectual brain drain that occurred during the war.
VALDEZ: You know Guatemala in the worst of the war, a sector that was really hard hit
by the repression was the intellectuals, in the broadest sense of the word—journalists,
school teachers, university professors, political leaders—and the repression was so terrible
that the first guy who appeared to have some kind of leadership, or you know, to be moving
forward in some progressive direction, was immediately killed or exiled. They say that at
least two generations of the real, the natural leaders of this country, were completely destroyed,
beheaded. So now really, we here in the UNDP and in UN in general, we feel that one thing we
should do is try to provide certain opportunities for those brilliant guys who had to leave
the country with their families, to return. So we try to provide some basic opportunities and
some basic links also with the government for a variety of brilliant individuals, individuals
living abroad, and we feel it’s a way of doing something really good for the country, you know.
They lost their leaders and they’re coming back.
DAVIDSON: I asked Mauricio Valdez, who comes from El Salvador, why it is that we in the
United States heard so much about the other wars in Central America and knew so little about
the war in Guatemala.
VALDEZ: The internal armed conflict in Guatemala was for the most part, very low intensity,
compared to El Salvador’s and Nicaragua’s. It was not known. I mean even inside the country,
let me tell, you, if you’ll allow me this comment, that there could be big massacres in the
highlands, in the Maya highlands and people in Guatemala City would not know, they did not
know. It’s a very closed society. It’s very fragmented, you know, and besides, if it was the
damn Indians who were being killed, if you’ll allow me the expression, the Ladino middle class
really didn’t care. I mean, there’s big racism involved here also, you know, and as long as
it was the Mayans who were dying. And there were towns literally disappeared from the map, and
this has just been discovered, because Guatemalan young anthropologists or sociologists or
guys from the university, they would go there and come back and report, “Hey listen, there’s
200,000 internally displaced people in Guatemala because of the destruction of the war; they
have had to move all over the country.” And people would not believe. “Give us proof, we
don’t know anything about that, that’s not true.” This is a very introverted society, you
know, people don’t talk a lot.
DAVIDSON: Eduardo Stein, Foreign Minister of Guatemala, outlines the difficult process
ahead of rebuilding the country, with changes needed in nearly every sector, from tax collections
to a true system of justice, to the politically explosive issue of land ownership, which has
been at the heart of Guatemala’s conflicts, according to Minister Stein.
STEIN: You cannot discuss competently, the land situation in Guatemala, without
discussing the situation of indigenous peoples and the other way around. And this has many
complexities, not only that of land tenure and land usage, but it has to do as well with deep
rooted cultural and religious beliefs in the indigenous peoples which make it even more
complex, not insurmountable, but complex. And we find it very difficult to straighten out
over 400 years of mishaps in a three year governmental period. Even the best of intentions
and the best of technical resources and money will not be able to reshape things that have
culturally been accumulated. When you have such an enormous dosage of injustice imbedded in
what has happened for many years. So justice, land, indigenous peoples, citizen security are
like ways of tackling clusters of problems. We do not think that we are facing extremely
severe economic impediments. The country is a very rich country with a lot of poor people,
so it’s also a problem of distribution and participation. This array of view points and
clusters of problems, we cannot tackle all at once and I think that the peace accords provide
us with a blueprint for a new type of country.
DAVIDSON: One of the more difficult challenges is to change the mindset of the
STEIN: I think the peace accords has given us the opportunity to really clean up the
table, to really being to deal with deep rooted problems in Guatemala which traditionally had
not been dealt with. If you would ask, five years ago, a Guatemalan on the street of
Guatemala City, if there was racial discrimination in Guatemala, Guatemalans would get
offended and say by all means no. There is no racial discrimination in Guatemala. Only
economic discrimination, that they would concede. Now I think it’s really gained cultural
conception and interpretation and view of our own reality that we have lived in a highly
discriminatory society, a society filled with systematic exclusion. Just the fact that we’ve
been able to gain that viewpoint is a historical move forward of enormous importance because
now when we try to deal with the problems of land or the problems of indigenous peoples, or
the problems of injustice, or the justice system, or the problems of distribution of opportunities
and wealth, we have the weakness to believe that it will be done in a more encompassing and
in a more radical way—radical means going to the roots—than what could have been accomplished
in other era or other years in which the internal armed conflict would not allow to go about
understanding our own internal problems and trying to solve them little by little with the
participation, or allowing a progressive participation, of many people.
DAVIDSON: You hear complaints from all sectors of Guatemalan society that the process
of change is too slow and that they personally have yet to see any peace dividend. The
president’s Peace Secretary, a newly created post, held by Raquel Zelaya, says they’re
figuring out how to do things as they go along. She says the peace accords told the
government what to do, but not how to do it.
RAQUEL ZELAYA: (Translated) What’s been accomplished so far has been totally done
within the letter of the law. We may not be satisfied with how the law is, but we have to
learn how to change within the system. For years the governments of Guatemala have operated
on the margins on the rule of law. We had 36 years of war, almost 450 months, and we’ve had
8 months of peace, so you have to understand where we’re coming from and it’s a long term
process of change.
DAVIDSON: Guatemala’s Secretary of Peace, Raquel Zelaya. Foreign Minister Eduardo
Stein agrees that complying with the peace accords is a daunting challenge. He doesn’t know
how long it will take to completely overhaul the institutions and the gross inequities in
Guatemalan society, but he wants the administration of President Alvaro Arzu to at least begin
an irreversible process of change.
STEIN: How long is this going to take? I don’t know, but we would want to be the
government who lays the foundations for this to happen. For some of my colleagues, it’s like
a, you know, it’s a ruinous house and the opportunity is given to us to remodel. For some of
us, it’s even more drastic than that. The house fell apart, so we have to rebuild.
DAVIDSON: Guatemalan Foreign Minister Eduardo Stein. When we continue our series on
Guatemala’s recovery from war, we’ll look at two of the most difficult issues in the peace
process, the demobilization of the soldiers and guerrillas to make them productive members of
a civil society and the efforts to reverse the effects of centuries of discrimination against
the Mayan people. For Common Ground I’m Mary Gray-Davidson.
Our thanks to Mario Santizo, Corbin Stone, Mary Steinmaus, and the Other Americas Radio for
their help in this production. Cassettes and transcripts of this program are available. The
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The Stanley Foundation