Impressions of Guatemala

Bullet-proof cars, indiscriminate violence, and cocktail parties—a first-hand look at one of Central America's trouble spots


Recently I was invited by a private university in Guatemala to give a week-long series of lectures there. I had never before been to Central America. With this area of the world figuring prominently in the news because of escalating political violence—and figuring equally prominently in the Reagan administration's foreign policy pronouncements—and with my own academic work being focused on political philosophy, I took a keen interest in Guatemala's situation.

Of course, a society cannot be understood and evaluated on the basis of a week's visit. Yet with political bias now prevalent in the social sciences and advocacy journalism in much of the media, one must grab the chance when at hand to get a glimpse of the truth through the meager but honest observations possible on short visits.

EARLY WARNINGS It comes down to this in regard to my own recent visit to Guatemala. I did get a careful glimpse at the land, the culture, the day-to-day politics, traffic, economics, leisure, education, and related features of the country. I met with an admittedly small group of people. I read only bits of Spanish but several issues of Guatemala City's English newspaper.

Prior to going I had undertaken a brief reading program. I searched the daily press for news from Guatemala and Central America. But more than that, I tried to appraise the credibility of news reports and came up less than enthusiastic about what reporters do to show us that their reports are trustworthy. I found lengthy stories on Central America in such publications as the New York Review of Books, Green Revolution, Inquiry, and so forth, but they were seldom anchored for the reader on anything more solid than "reliable sources" and "reportedly"s. I also read reports published by such groups as the Heritage Foundation and the Council for InterAmerican Security. Here, too, credibility was difficult to establish. One is left with the uncomfortable suspicion that political hot spots attract ideologically zealous members of the press.

And Guatemala, while not as much in the news as El Salvador as I made preparations for my trip, is definitely a political hot spot. At the university in Santa Barbara, my office is across from that of a graduate student from Turkey—now, actually, serving in the Turkish army—who happens to be a forthright, unapologetic Marxist-Leninist. He is the sort who will say that, well, yes, Stalin was unfortunate but very necessary for his time, the kulaks being a reactionary element that had to be wiped out with some unfortunate side effects. When I mentioned to him that I had been invited to Guatemala and the circumstances of the invitation, he exploded, "Surely you aren't going to go?"

I answered, "Of course. Barring an outright threat on my life, I will take this opportunity to get further play for the good words I tend to speak and to see for myself some of what the fuss is all about. Then there is the money I will receive for my work there."

"Then I won't blame them in the slightest if they kidnap and murder you," came the earnest, thoughtful answer.

This gave me pause, of course, but not cold feet. Those crept up on me as my day of departure neared, surrounded by news reports of the nonaccidental demise of various prominent citizens in Guatemala City, including several professors at the national university. I wrote to my prospective hosts and received the somewhat perplexing reply: "As to your personal safety, don't worry. This is a very peaceful and secure country, in spite of what some American newspapers say." Could Amnesty International be so far off? Could Green Revolution? Could AP and UPI? Or was there a caution in that reply that I could not discern? (It turned out that the operative term was "personal safety." And sure enough, I got back safely.)

The day came, I left on Pan Am, and was picked up in Guatemala City in a bullet-proof car by one of my extremely gracious and intelligent hosts. Outside of the car's equipment, no special care was taken. No one even seemed to notice us, although with my 6-foot, 2-inch sandy blonde structure I could not be confused with the locals, I can assure you.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS Guatemala, about the size of Ohio, is very hilly everywhere except in the northern part and by the Pacific Ocean, with a mild, humid climate. Farming is widespread but not very efficient because the topsoil is shallow. Coffee, sugar, bananas, and more recently, cardamom (used extensively in the Middle East) have been the major exports.

Sixty percent of the people are natives of varying Indian origins. They range from the few virtually modernized—approaching middle-class in and near the cities—to the many illiterate and superstitious in the countryside. Present-day Guatemala was mostly part of the highly developed Mayan civilization. After conquering the Indians in the 1520s, the Spanish ruled the area for 300 years, and in terms of social status their descendants still dominate Guatemala.

But by "social status" I do not mean political power, which is actually in the hands of a group of people who seem to feel socially inferior. Judging from what I have learned about some of the military people in the country, the arm of government consists of what we might call lower-middle-class bullies. For example, many officers of the Guatemalan militia are eager to defend their name and honor by way of killing people they personally regard as enemies of the society. It is a tragic joke among Guatemalans that if one wishes to have someone done in, all that's necessary is to make sure that word gets to the military claiming the party is a communist. Personal grudges sometimes get settled in such wonderfully civilized ways.

Nevertheless, the classy part of the society still consists mainly of those who trace their origins back to Spain or to the Austro-Hungarian or French royalty. But a middle class is in evidence as well.

The influence of American culture, partly from sheer emulation of its styles, music, movies, and technology, and partly from the osmosis that friendly trade fosters everywhere, cannot be missed. Guatemala City, 5,000 feet above sea level and the largest city in Central America, is dotted with modern hotels, shopping centers, and arcades, mostly built by US firms and altogether indistinguishable from those found in Hawaii or Florida. There are, as well, beautiful resort hotels by such scenic places as Lake Atitlan, about 100 miles west of Guatemala City and ringed by three volcanoes. Almost the entire country is subject to earthquakes, and this has shifted the centers of commerce, culture, education, and government several times in Guatemala's history.

The Universidad Francisco Marroquin to which I was invited is a college in Guatemala City established about 10 years ago to teach a variety of college programs, with a liberal arts curriculum guided by the philosophy and especially the economics of Ludwig von Mises, the 20th-century leader of the Austrian school of economics. The university's president, Manuel F. Ayau, is a prominent Guatemalan citizen, a father of six and the head of a family that dates far back in the country's history as well as to origins in various parts of Europe. Ayau is an industrialist as well as a very impassioned, cheerful, relaxed man. He grew up in North America, studied engineering, and speaks English fluently. The school's programs include, in addition to the humanities and economic and social sciences, medicine, law, computer science, clinical psychology, and architecture, all unable to accommodate all the applicants each year.

The university, as it is always called, is a smashing success. I lectured there on five occasions, in English, and found the quality of students and faculty distinguished by eager interest in the topics covered—human liberty in the history of political philosophy—and by the intensity of intelligent inquiry into how these matters related to Guatemala's present circumstances.

POLITICAL TALK That I was often asked, even against my wishes, to comment on the country's situation, at least in general terms, pointed up a widely noted difference between Central or Latin American regimes and those closer to the Soviet Union, namely, that the former are authoritarian and the latter totalitarian. In regimes that tilt in the direction of elitist or military government, only direct attacks and organizational assaults on particular leaders or government agencies are regularly met with reprisals. Theoretical challenges to the system are not forbidden and not punished.

The same is not true in totalitarian systems. No one in Guatemala ever said to me or anyone else: "Watch out, the walls have ears"—a standard warning even now in Soviet bloc nations. Nor did Guatemalan police authorities require that I appear in their office the day after arriving in the country, to be quizzed about my purpose, as did the Hungarian police when I visited there several years ago.

On the other hand, in Hungary I had no fear of arbitrary, terrorist-style attacks. Terrorism as such is not generally known in totalitarian systems (probably because everything is under thorough control and supervision by the official terrorists, leaving no cracks through which enemies of the State might launch an attack). In Guatemala, the fact is that my visit was constantly punctuated by reminders that things are out of hand. Many businesses, both connected and unconnected with tourism, post 40 percent losses that are commonly blamed on the terrorists. When Green Revolution urged that Americans stay away from Guatemala, they needn't have bothered. Many Americans would rather go to a peaceful concentration camp, such as the Soviet Union, than to a dangerous madhouse in which it is difficult to tell who is right, who wrong, and where no one is decisively in charge and thus violence is on the loose.

One of the sad things in Guatemala is that symbols are often taken for substance, as in other countries where the disenchanted and maltreated have only Marxism with which to make sense of their opposition to the system. Everyone not embarking on the overthrow of the system by violence is regarded as part of the system. The American press has, of course, followed the pattern uncritically. When leftists in Central America kidnap some wealthy person, this is tacitly sanctioned, since by not being one of the destitute poor, the wealthy person is automatically classified with the oppressors. Nonsense, of course, but widely embraced nonsense at that.

THE STATUS QUO The fact is that not many people there respect the present regime—a collection of militantly authoritarian paternalists who maintain that their authority, because democratically derived, is legitimate. There are genuine parties, although others are outlawed; and there are elections, although vote fraud is frequently reported. The president is elected directly for a four-year term and cannot succeed himself.

The economy is run along familiar Keynesian lines. The place is a welfare state, and as usual this means lots of welfare for many bureaucrats, some for the rest. As to local topics that remind one of home sweet home, the municipal bus company charges only five cents for a ride, but most people take the privately run jitneys, which stop anywhere you want them to but cost more than the municipal line. All the standard welfare-statist troubles known across the spectrum of western and eastern bureaucracies can be found in Guatemala.

The national university of Guatemala, with around 30,000 students, is protected by Guatemala's constitution against government interference. That university is home to various left-wing groups, several of which are in constant internal fight over who should control its nearly $4 million annual budget. It is widely acknowledged that 80 percent of the students care not a whit for the political goings on, but the rest are all left-wing and all entirely protected from the wrath of the so called right-wing regime.

A professor of humanities whom I had a chance to talk with briefly mentioned that, so long as nothing is said explicitly about some group or leader, there is no danger. Only those who get involved in politics—campaigns, criticism of people, etc.—need fear for their lives. Self-delusion? The week I arrived, the dean of the College of Law and director of the School of Political Science at the national university was kidnapped, reportedly by groups friendly to the government, in retaliation for a leftist kidnapping of the brother of some government bigwig.

This and other snippets of news prompted me always to ask, "Well, is this just the way these countries have had it all along?" Those whom I asked nodded and shook their heads, saying something like, "Yes, largely, but before it was mostly internal. And even when the far left succeeded, they were locals. Now it is outsiders."

One hears much about the need for land reform in Central American countries. Some attempts have been made in Guatemala, but they were at best odd experiments and at worst cruel jokes. Starting in 1951, various regimes have expropriated land from the wealthy; some has been given or sold for nominal sums to natives on the condition that they improve the land by a certain time, something that was impossible by any reasonable standard but not evident to the natives themselves. After a few years they were ousted, having been told that they didn't accomplish all the improvements, only to have the land resold to the wealthy in better condition than ever. And it is the government that carries out such wonderful programs.

The forces of liberation advocate something else, of course, namely, the partitioning of land into little plots so that everyone can have a roughly equal share. But that would spell the demise of agriculture in Guatemala because of the poor quality of much of the soil.

UNNERVING VIOLENCE Caught in the middle of all this are a few individuals who have come to appreciate the prospects of a free society. They are not violent revolutionaries of the sort embraced by many intellectuals as representing the forces of liberation in largely nonindustrial, relatively poor regions of the globe. But they are not among the established rulers, either.

It is not simple to imagine just what such individuals face in a country like Guatemala. Reckless, brutal, Marxist-Leninist thugs on the one side and a scared, unimaginative, punitive, but not wholly repressive bureaucracy, also given to brutal violence, on the other, and with millions of simple folk just emerging from poverty and illiteracy—that kind of domestic circumstance is nothing less than a major challenge to anyone who loves liberty. Universidad Francisco Marroquin is one of their attempts to meet that challenge.

Although these individuals do not support the present regime, they are not spared from the threats of the guerrillas. Such threats are made evident in bulletins issued by the various leftist organizations containing "hit lists." The fact that individuals with greatly varying views appear on these lists indicates clearly that it is not their political points of view but their economic status that is often at issue. It is, perhaps, a case of if you don't join us outright by condoning the violence we practice, then you are one of those on whom violence should be practiced.

This fact of indiscriminate violence is perhaps the most unnerving for a visitor to Guatemala and, I imagine, the other Central American countries in the news. I was transported around town alternately by way of armored, bullet-proof wagons and light sports cars, moving back and forth between the meticulous caution and the reckless abandon showed over and over again by the people I visited. I was constantly told that nothing would happen to me, although I was frequently told this in a Chevy Blazer or Ford Bronco equipped with hand grenades and steel-plated underneath to withstand anyone else's grenade explosions. At lunch, dinner, or coffee, everyone talked about the lurking dangers permeating the realm. One of my hosts, the most prominent of them, even had a young motorcyclist precede him everywhere, sending back word by walkie-talkie about whether unfamiliar cars or groups gathered near his destination.

Yet most of those around me seemed relaxed enough, I should mention—the way I recall feeling during World War II, when daily bombings in Budapest were the norm and where finding a hole through the floor of grandmother's living room was a charming addition to our regular weekend visit. I exaggerate somewhat, of course. But as one local told me, "What do you expect us to do—fret about it all the time? We have got to live here."

More than that, there are thousands of Americans living there who haven't yet decided to move. And these folks, the few I met, aren't wealthy industrialists or retired millionaires but people earning a living from their special professional skills: photographers, whose training is very useful in recording finds among Guatemala's unending treasures from ancient cities, caves, and other archaeological sites; librarians, who can handle college libraries in ways not that familiar to locals; restaurateurs, who are able to tie in with the international market for great varieties of foods; and so forth. I met one family of Americans that has not visited the states for 15 years, yet the members had remained American as well as learned to fit in with the culture with considerable ease—judging from the several excursions we made in the town, some 30 miles outside Guatemala City, in which they live.

From all the circles, native, Guatemalan, American, French, German—of which I met a fair sample for a first-time visit—I learned that no one is appreciative of the existing regime's political and legal practices but no one wants Cubans to gain a foothold. Why? Of course, personal safety and well being are high on the list of reasons. But many of the folks I spoke to came to their view of the situation before reaching positions of prominence. Others used to think differently and would be much safer even now if they would just not talk of free enterprise and limiting the powers of government. Most, however, still hope that sometime in the near future it will be possible to make serious changes in the direction of a free society—by influencing the new generation, by showing the establishment the error of its ways, by fending off the immediate threat of a communist takeover that permits the trigger-happy right to play its militarist games with impunity.

ENIGMAS Some of the more interesting comments are difficult to evaluate from my vantage point, of course. Thus I didn't know what to make of the following exchange:

"Surely, whatever distortions can be found in reports from Amnesty International, etc., it cannot be denied that the government of Guatemala ignores the principles of due process of law in dealing with its opponents!" The matter was established fact—even Guatemalan newspapers, sold openly on newsstands, made no secret of it.

"Yes, that is true. Now and then there are attempts to prosecute guerrillas instead of going out and killing them straight off as the military does often these days. But following their conviction, the judge would be murdered. Just like that. Today this serves the government as an excuse, even in cases where there may be no reason to suspect reprisals."

"But isn't it the business of governments to carry on with the maintenance of justice, even in the face of such reprisals?"

"That's all well and good, but we will have no judges left. No one will serve as judges any longer. This country is 60 percent native, largely illiterate, and the system is overburdened…Oh, I could go on, but not even I, a Guatemalan, fully understand."

The exasperation was evident in his eyes and voice. We dropped the topic.

Quite a few conversations I initiated led to dead ends. I wasn't well enough versed in local affairs to press. I did see halls of congress, police buildings, military buildings, and the like surrounded tightly by uniformed guards with their machine guns drawn, peeking through the columns of the buildings as if awaiting an assault on the government at any moment. While traffic in downtown Guatemala City went on normally, with crowds shopping and coming and going to and from work and enjoying Friday and Saturday nights like the middle class from Berlin to San Francisco, there was always this presence of guns. It all kept calling to mind those awful episodes from late-night reruns of Mission Impossible.

I must confess that I was relieved when I finally boarded my plane back to the states. Actually, I am almost always relieved to return to the United States, even from tranquil and spotless countries like Austria and Switzerland, where what drives me up the wall is the outright, unabashed regional hatreds that permeate so many conversations. (Yes, "we in this country," to use a phrase favored so much by pundits and talk show hosts, treat people with different geographical and cultural and religious backgrounds with far greater respect than do people anywhere in Europe. Even the allegedly mild Danes speak hatefully of the Swedes, not to mention the north Austrians of their southern country folk!)

But this time I was nervous for my skin. The day before departing, I was being driven to a lake and at one spot in the middle of the road a man lay, most probably dead, with a bashed-in face and something that looked very close to a machine gun hanging across his chest. We saw some people running up to the man, and down the road an ambulance was heading toward us. We didn't stay around to see the details—some ambushes are well engineered, and in hit-and-run cases the police often get the closest patsy who happens by. But whatever the true account of this case, it certainly served to top off my visit with an uninviting goodbye.

THE CHALLENGE In 1976, attending a philosophy conference in Europe, I met and spoke with a philosopher from the Eastern bloc. We talked a good deal about political conditions, and in the course of our wide-ranging explorations I asked about the prospects for serious change.

"Is Marxism live or dead in your country?" I asked.

"Clearly dead, except for the obligatory footnotes in all theoretically oriented books and, of course, in political speeches."

"What are the prospects of overcoming even that and embarking on a new course?"

"There is no answer to that, but here is what I do: make every effort to alter things quietly, subtly, imperceptibly. I am not suicidal. I am allowed to travel. I live reasonably well, and my work [in publishing] is interesting. But every chance I get, I think, What can I do now to make a little bit of a change? And believe me, the answer guides my actions."

I got some of the details from him and then, with my journalistic hat on my head for a moment, I asked, "Could I perhaps write this up in an American magazine?"

"No, please don't. Attention is not what I want. Others may need it, but for the sort of behind-the-stage operations I am engaged in, advertisements would be fatal." I never wrote up the story, and I am still reluctant to be more specific than I have just been.

In Guatemala there are folks who are doing the right thing, but as in Hungary, their probability of success is difficult to judge from the outside. This hasn't been some kind of knowing analysis of that country's political affairs, only a reminder that some people who do value liberty in the form defensible as the highest political value in a human society are hard at work and claim some real chance for eventual success. I can only wish them very much good fortune.

Tibor R. Machan is a senior editor of REASON. He teaches in the economics department of UCSB.