The Struggle for Land in Guatemala


The history of Guatemala is the history of the struggle for land. Without land, the majority of the population have no way to feed themselves, or develop independently. This struggle has entered a new phase in the last year, as campesino organizations have begun to seize lands they claim are rightfully theirs under the 1996 peace accords, signed between the military oligarchy and the coalition of the country’s guerrilla groups, the URNG. One such organization, the Comite Unidad Campesina (CUC), whose slogan is “with clear heads, united hearts, and a fighting fist” has occupied seven fincas throughout Guatemala. As two British humans right observers, we recently spent time in a squatter community on one occupied finca, Las Quebradas, in Eastern Guatemala. The struggle for land is fierce, and in the last year in this community alone, two people were murdered by paramilitaries, with total police complicity. Human rights violations and threats are part of everyday existence. There is an urgent need for more volunteers, since international observers help considerably in forcing the local authorities and landowners to respect human rights.

“We know this struggle is no just for us, it is for all the poor,” said Francisco, who, with his wife, was among the firstcomers to the finca when it was occupied in the early hours of April 16th. “We took this land out of necessity. We had nowhere else to live or work. We hope that in the future we will receive recognition from out government, and support, because we have nothing, we are the poor.”

Around 40 families live on the land in Las Quebradas, but with others who live in nearby villages the community numbers around 400 people, who need this land for survival. Since the seizure of the land, they have built houses from reclaimed timber, and begun the cultivation of the basic sustenance crops of maize and black beans. The community has collectively built a school, and is hopeful for other projects in the future, such as solar power, a clean water system, and a community medical centre. However, the future of the land is still very much in doubt, and there are powerful vested interests in Guatemala opposed to independent campesino development. The Accompaniemiento scheme run by CUC helps ensure that this community, and other like it, have a future.

The land in question was worked by members of this community for many years prior to its seizure. It was part of the national land stock, supposedly held by the government for the people. It was illegally sold in 1994, and access was denied to the community. The death of Sarbelio Ramos, one of them, at the hands of the paramilitaries on April 15th 2001, was what sparked the decision to immediately seize the land. It is possible that the communities’ right to the land will be recognised by the government, and once again the presence of international observers helps to ensure the fairness of this procedure.

A very short history of Guatemala:

The Spanish conquest turned the country into a series of giant feudal estates, the latifundios. The majority Mayan population was totally subjugated, and a system of serfdom, whereby Indians would owe their landlords up to 150 days servitude a year, existed well into the 20th century. Repeatedly, the peasantry attempted to change the balance of land ownership, and were brutally put down. By the middle of the 20th century, the dominating player in Guatemalan politics was the United Fruit Company,(referred to by Che Guevara as the ‘Green Octopus’ and run by the brother of Allen Dulles, head of the CIA at the time), owning huge tracts of land throughout the country, all the railway lines and the only Atlantic port. In many ways, Guatemala was, at this point, a banana plantation for the American market.

In 1944, the Jorge Ubico regime was defeated in democratic elections by a liberal left coalition lead by Jacobo Arbenz, and Guatemala embarked on its only 10 years of anything remotely resembling a democratic regime. The most significant development was the attempt by the new government to effect large scale land redistribution throughout the country. A huge proportion of the country’s most fertile land had been turned over to banana growing, and intensive banana plantations require that 85% of the surrounding land be left fallow to prevent the spread of disease. Somewhat timidly, the Arbenz regime began to square off with the United Fruit Company, in an attempt to kick-start independent development in Guatemala.

However, despite the government compensating the United Fruit Company for the land it was redistributing, the multinational was extremely powerful in Washington, and under the banner of “fighting the evil spread of communism in the Americas,” a CIA backed coup in 1954 installed the extreme right-wing regime of Castillo Armas. Land redistribution was halted, and once more the poor were subjected to feudal servitude. Resistance grew and guerrilla movements of the poor arose. However, for the next 30 years, Guatemala was ruled by a series of military dictators backed by the US government. This culminated in the horrific atrocities of the 80s, when over 400 Mayan villages were totally wiped out under the Garcia and Mont regimes, under the policy known as “scorched earth.” Up to 150,000 people died in this period, and 50,000 disappeared. With the virtual annihilation of the resistance, Guatemala returned to a democratic facade, but the military never really left power, and the same elite is firmly in control.

The 1996 peace accords specifically promised the redistribution of land, amongst many other things. The feeling among the poor, however, is that they have been cheated. This is consistent with the experience of the communities in resistance in Chiapas, where the terms of the 1996/ 97 San Andres Peace Accords have not been implemented. Don Tancho, the community leader in Las Quebradas explained, “The government here is just big business, the money is spent on yachts and chateaus in the mountains, there is nothing for the poor.” Tired of waiting, people have begun taking direct action to call attention to their plight, and, more importantly, to help themselves to the basic necessities of survival.

The struggle for land, justice, and social development in Guatemala is entering a critical phase. Poverty is endemic, and once again the poor are mobilizing to take control of their own lives. The question is whether they will be allowed to, or whether once more the US backed elite will succeed in repressing them.

For those who are interested in going to Guatemala as human rights observers, the contact details of CUC are listed below. A basic knowledge of Spanish, and an ability to deal with tense and potentially dangerous situations are the only pre-requisites. It is important to add that the need for observers is great, and that no foreigners have been hurt or threatened to date. Orientation can be provided by a member of Chiapaslink in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, for those who are travelling down to Guatemala via Mexico (Please contact Chiapaslink prior to leaving Europe). CUC is based in Guatemala City, which has an international airport, or can be reached overland from either Mexico or Honduras.

Comite Unidad Campesina 14-46, 31 A Avenida, Cuidad de Plata II, Zona 7, Guatemala City, Guatemala.

[email protected]

+ (502) 594 9754

International Co-ordinator: APARECIî.

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