In, “Testimony: Death of a Guatemalan Village,” Victor Montejo describes events surrounding the military regimes occurring throughout Guatemala. The book itself is an eyewitness account detailing one instance of violence between the indigenous peoples village’s “civil patrol” and the army. This occurrence leads to the execution and imprisonment of many villagers. Even though the book is mainly a testimony by one person, in which he discusses the personal conflicts and struggle between himself and the army, the account is structured around the Guatemalan civil war and the conflict between the government and civilians.
The Guatemalan Civil War occurred between the years 1960 to 1996. It was a battle between the government of Guatemala and the numerous leftist rebel groups who were supported by the Mayan indigenous, poor, and working class. This civil war began as the many poor realized that their government had little concern for them, as the elites in the country owned most of the land. Much of the land was also owned by multinational corporations, such as the U. S. wned “United Fruit Company” in the 1940s and 50s.
The result of this unequal land ownership, which also contributed to an unbalanced distribution of wealth, led to an oppressed population living in extreme poverty. These local hardships were ultimately the driving force behind the rebellious leftist groups As military leaders began to have control of the government by the 1960’s and through the 1970s, physical violence became a method used to overthrow political opposition.
As other countries in Latin America had their own revolutions; Guatemalan citizens looked to them as a source of inspiration for their attempts to take control of their country. The example of Cuba became a stepping stone and a clear example for Guatemala as Fidel Castro was successful throughout the Cuban Revolution in Cuba and was able to overthrow the Batista family. Other examples included the Sandinista guerilla movement who successfully completed a revolution in Nicaragua in 1979, and in El Salvador where the FMLN guerillas also appeared to be having similar results.
However, these regimes are appealing at first, but after having them continue for long periods, much conflict ensued which contributed to much loss for the poor rebels and their fight for sovereignty. Looking at Montejo’s testimony, Maria Lupe’s testimony, and the cold war in Guatemala; we will examine how these violent regimes appeared to the civilians, their effects on society, and their connection to the civil war. Victor Montejo describes several political instances that have led to the people’s desire for a revolt against the acting government.
He mentions that former president Lucas Garcia left many things “undone;” though not much information is given for background information of Garcia, we can conclude that he was responsible for the growth of the military’s power and an initial cause for the dissent of the poor. He also mentions Garcia’s successor, president Efrain Rios Montt and his lack on taking the government out of the hand of the military. Montejo states “no president would be able to control the situation because the military were the ones in charge.
Later on Montejo reveals that under Lucas Garcia’s administration’s military; “paramilitary, police, and priests, were kidnapped, tortured, and killed; or rather anyone who had influence in the town who spoke out against the government. ” As the government paved ways to try to economically stabilize the state, many of its poor suffered, and regimes occurred to support the poor, leading many to suspect communistic or socialist identities, and a desire for government change. With the military being in control, with help and support coming from the U. S. , the army was used to stamp out the leftist guerrillas who were pushing for a new government that would support the people.
Looking at Montejo’s testimony, we see the creations of civil patrols, a group of men designated by the military government to protect their town from the guerillas. However, some of these patrolmen were thought to also secretly support the guerrillas and under a confused set of operations, attacked the army and; according to Montejo’s testimony, many villagers were killed. The army also rob and burn down parts of the village.
In one case, a young man who was part of the patrols is shot and as he laid dying, reveals that the uniform worn (in that particular day) by the army was similar to the ones the guerrillas would wear, except that the guerrillas didn’t cause any harm as they walk through the village. This has a lot to say about how the civilians saw the government’s military, and how they saw their repressive state; being something they had to do without question due to fear. Taking a look at the testimony alone, we can also see how society was effected.
Out of Montejo’s brief background detailing the ailures of the presidents and the absolute repression faced by the civilians, we can conclude that the governments force to keep the guerillas unsuccessful was limited and pushed society into rebellions. In other words, as the army continued to torture and persecute the innocent, many found it necessary to fall into the hands of the guerrillas in order to stamp out their oppression. Maria Lupe’s account is similar to Montejos. She describes her hardships as a house wife, working on a plantation of a rich land owner. Her husband worked for 50 cents per day, and her payment was in food.
She mentions moving closer to the north in a town called Ixcan, hoping for better jobs. At about two years the member of the guerrilla army for the poor began entering the town, recruiting people, and telling them that they were fighting so that they could all live better lives. After she had met with the guerrillas, she realized that their interests were aligned with hers. The guerillas and “companeros” as the group was called, effected society for the better; they were able to construct support within the community, almost “communistic” in style; sharing food, selling materials, and taking care of each other.
She mentions that spies were beginning to infiltrate the village and set up a military commissioner. Just as Montejo, suspicion of guerrilla collaboration was dangerous and could lead to death. She eventually becomes involved with this group which enables her to feel secure, and at some point is given arms for protection. She also mentions that the ”companeros” made efforts to include women and support women’s roles in society, outside of the home, giving women more of a say in the community.
We see an opposite reaction as to how the civilians felt about the guerrillas that is only slightly mentioned in Montejo’s testimony through the eyes of the dying patrolmen when he mentions that the guerrillas never attack them. The government military’s efforts was to remove any dissent, particularly those of the guerrillas. The hatred for them is revealed in Montejos testimony, as he is constantly beaten by the army because of the suspicion of him being a guerrilla. He eventually flees the country for fear that they may target him again under false pretenses.
In Lupe’s account the military is the enemy, and when suspicion arises, she is arrested and detained for several months, leaving behind her children; she later flees and leaves the community, having to work for low wages again in another town. Lupe’s case shines a light upon the guerrillas, they are almost portrayed as saviors. She never discusses the government’s military repression into great detail, but we see here that civilians showed a bit of amnesty toward the guerrillas and favored their motives against the repressive government.
The history of these conflicts stem from the effects of the Guatemalan civil war. Initially, it began as a “social revolution,” a stance against neo-colonialism. Through 1944 to 1954, Guatemala experienced the “Ten Years of Spring” a time when two democratically elected Presidents; Arevalo and Arbenz, stressed reform, nationalism, and new constitutions. The Arbenz reforms stressed the importance to remove any outside corporations and instead focused on independent commerce within the country. He was able to move Guatemala from a semi-colonial system to an independent country.
He did this by moving the country’s economy from a feudal system to a more capitalistic one. He was also able to raise the standard of living for most of the population. In order to do so, he confiscated large estates and redistributed them to the peasants, he also seized unused “United Fruit Company” and railroad lands to benefit his people. His most controversial step was his opposition to the “Declaration of Caracas,” which aligned all of Latin America with the United States to ensure the “success” of democracy. He instead supported solidarity against U. S. interventions.
This lead to wide speculation by the Eisenhower administration, and concluded that Guatemala was moving toward communism. This led to a huge U. S. infiltration on the Guatemalan government. The U. S. trained and armed proxy forces in Honduras who later joined the conservative Guatemalan military to overthrow Arbenz. These coups are the ones who will become responsible for the military takeover that plagued Guatemala for many years, and which are highlighted in Montejo’s and Lupe’s accounts. By June 1954 a new military junta in Guatemala formed, supported by the U. S. nd established the “National Committee of Defense Against Communism,” which allowed for the arrest and death penalty of “subversive” activities.
By September 1954, General Carlos Castillo Armas, who was supported by the U. S. becomes president of Guatemala. He then forces society to reverse many of the Abrenz reforms; revoking voting rights for illiterates, which made up half of the population, forced peasants to leave the acquired lands, banned political parties and peasant organizations, and restored the secret police. By the 1960s, a 36 year civil war had begun, with the U. S. supporting the authoritarian government.
With the onset of the civil war, we see the outcomes which shaped Montejo’s and Lupe’s testimony, and the hardships the civilians faced and the effects on society; being banished from lands that were given to them, having to abandon jobs and a thriving economy due to outside efforts to contain “communism. ” For three decades the civil war was fought, a fight, one might say, to reclaim what belonged to Guatemala from greedy outsiders and those wanting to ensure their own success, while the poor Indians had no say in government and were forced to remain loyal to a government that did not share in their interests.
Luckily, the civil war came to an end and the violent regimes once waged ceased. However, through the eyes of Montejo and Lupe, we are able to see the lives of the civilians that had to live under the repressed state and the attitudes these people shared for their government, leaving an important legacy for all people to witness, that regimes started by the poor where necessary in order to create a society where everyone had an equal share to the same rights as the elites.