Do or Die

An article from Do or Die Issue 10. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 164-166.

United Hearts and a Fighting Fist

The Landless of Guatemala

"Cabeza Clara, Corazon Solidario, y Puño combative" - "With clear heads, united hearts and a fighting fist". This is the slogan of the Comite Unidad de Campesina (CUC), an organisation which has been fighting for the rights of "peasants, agricultural workers, indigenous and ladinos, poor men and women" in Guatemala since the late 1970s.

The history of Guatemala is the history of a struggle for land. This struggle has entered a new phase in the last year as campesino (peasant) organisations have begun to seize lands which are rightfully theirs according to the 1996 peace accords between the military oligarchy and the guerrilla groups. CUC has been instrumental in the seizure of seven fincas (latifundio, or feudal estates) throughout the various regions of Guatemala, as well as blocking roads and staging demonstrations in the capital. The struggle for land is fierce and the death toll is mounting.

CUC represents campesinos from many different areas with different needs and experiences. This is by default a lopsided account of the experiences of the community that we lived with. It is not intended to be a definitive account of all the struggles the various campesino organisations are involved in. We recently spent time as human rights observers in a community which was occupying the finca of Las Quebradas, in the east of the country. In this community alone two people have been murdered by paramilitary pistoleros, with complete complicity from the authorities.

"We know this struggle is not just for us" said Francisco Pinto, who with his wife was among the first to arrive at the finca when it was occupied in the early hours of April 16th 2001. "We took this land out of necessity, we had nowhere to live or work, we hope that in the future we will receive recognition from our government and support, because we have nothing, we are the poor."

Las Quebradas was worked by members of the community for many years prior to its seizure. It was part of the national land stock, supposedly held by the state for the people. In an act typical of the corruption of the period, it was illegally disposed of in a private sale to a company based in the US in 1994. This was just as the government and guerrillas were beginning peace talks which included discussion of the redistribution of land. Following the sale, the people were denied access to the land that they had been working. The death of community member Sarbelio Ramos at the hands of paramilitaries on April 15th 2001 was what sparked the decision to immediately seize the land. Ramos was murdered as he was walking to his maize patch by gunmen who had entered the area with a police escort. Not surprisingly, despite the supposed civilian rule and guarantee of human rights in Guatemala, no one has even been charged for his murder.

The finca was seized in the early hours of the morning by 160 people with machetes in hand, who immediately began constructing a communal champa (thatched house) and staking claim to the land. Since then there has been one other murder and an endless stream of threats and intimidation. (A favourite trick of the pistoleros is the naming of a certain day by which time the victim will be dead.) However the community of Las Quebradas is determined to stay put - in the words of Don Tancho, headman of the Las Quebradas community, "our people have died for this land, we will not leave."

Life on Squatted Land

Approximately forty families now live on the land, and when local villagers who come to work fields are included the number is nearly 400. They grow maize and black beans as a subsistence crop and are able to produce two to three harvests a year. The houses are small, handmade from reclaimed materials and roofed with corrugated iron or palm leaves. Most families are large - women told me they had between five and ten children. Most people can't read or write and the work clearing and planting the land is hard and demanding. Both the men and the women work in the maize fields, where they slash and burn back the jungle to plant the corn rows. The women get up first, though, to make the tortillas and black beans. The diet is monotonous and poor, with little protein, and people hardly ever eat meat or vegetables. The community has no water system or electricity, all the water comes from the local river which is far from clean, and all the cooking is done on wooden fires. We were told that many children became sick.

However, the people have built a school from the disused buildings on the land and have organised teachers to come and teach the children for free. In the future they hope to build a water system and solar panels for electricity, and to plant trees to replace the ones that are necessary for firewood and building. There seemed to be a strong sense of community and collective focus. For example, every day the women cook a meal for anyone that happens to be around the communal champa, the ingredients of which are donated by everyone. Every night the men take it in turns to keep guard of the entrance, ready to defend their community "by any means". While we were there the son of one campesino had an accident that left him with a shattered leg, and the community took up a collection to help with the medical expenses of the family.

Their sense of collective struggle is not rooted in any political ideology, but in everyday practical necessity. Land is life to these people. Sometimes this throws up what look like contradictions to the mind of a Western politico. For example, the people would refer to themselves as 'illegal' occupiers in contrast to the more organised Zapatistas to the north, who refer to their land as tierra recuperada. Many in the community want nothing more than to reach a compromise with the government which will allow them to stay on their land, even taking out a loan and buying it if necessary. There is a different sense of awareness amongst the full time CUC activists who travel the country, many of whom will have been in the guerrilla groups during the war. The campesinos collectively elected their headman, but there often seemed to be little discussion of quite crucial issues, and a willingness to follow his authority. Essentially the community required land for survival and they have adopted the political form which seemed to them most likely to achieve this.

CUC have requested international observers to come to Guatemala to live and work alongside the communities. By doing so they prevent the authorities from interfering with their development. There is a marked contrast between places which have observers and those which don't. For whatever reason, the Guatemalan authorities tend to tread very carefully around gringos. There is an urgent need for more volunteers as in recent weeks the killing has begun again, with two murders in Lanquin, another squatted community in the department of Izabal near to Las Quebradas.

For more information contact:

CUC, 14/42, Avenida 31A, Ciudad de Plata II, Zona 7, Guatemala.

A Very Short History of Guatemala

CAP: Guatemala bus riots; you wait to turn one over and then three come all at once.

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 twentieth century. Repeatedly the peasantry attempted to change the balance of land ownership but were brutally put down. By the middle of the twentieth century the dominating player in Guatemalan politics was the United Fruit Company (referred to by Che Guevara as "the Green Octopus") which owned all the railway lines, the only Atlantic port, and huge tracts of land throughout the country. In many ways, at this point Guatemala was nothing more than a banana plantation for the American market.

In 1944 the Jorge Ubico regime was overthrown by a liberal-left coalition and Guatemala embarked on its only ten years of anything remotely resembling a democratic regime. The most significant development was the attempt by the new government to effect a 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 these intensive banana plantations required that 85% of the land be left fallow to prevent the spread of disease. Somewhat timidly the Arbenz regime began to square off with United Fruit in an attempt to kickstart independent development in Guatemala.

However, the multinational was extremely powerful in Washington and a CIA-backed military 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 thirty years Guatemala was ruled by a series of military dictators backed by the West. This culminated in the horrific atrocities of the 1980s, when over four hundred Mayan villages were totally wiped out. 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 still firmly in control.

Amongst many other things, the 1996 peace accords specifically promised the redistribution of land. The feeling among the poor is that they have been cheated. Don Tancho explained: "The government here is just a 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 stage. Poverty is endemic and once more the poor are mobilising 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.

Do or Die DTP/web team: