The International Politics of Post-Conflict Reconstruction in Guatemala

By Armbruster-Sandoval, Ralph | Capital & Class, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview

The International Politics of Post-Conflict Reconstruction in Guatemala


Armbruster-Sandoval, Ralph, Capital & Class


Nicola Short The International Politics of Post-Conflict Reconstruction in Guatemala Palgrave, 2007, 187 pp. ISBN: 0-230-60051-4 (hbk) £42.50

reviewed by Ralph Armbruster-Sandoval

There has been widespread celebration - as well as consternation in some quarters (most notably inside the Bush administration) -about the rise of the so-called 'Latin American' left over the past few years. Ostensibly leftist or social-democratic/ democratic-socialist presidents currently rule in Venezuela, Ecuador, Chile, Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. Some analysts believe that the war in Iraq has provided a temporary opening (meaning that the US has been distracted and not completely focused on the region, with the possible exception of on Venezuela and Colombia) for these governments to emerge. While this claim may have some validity, what is most striking about the discourse surrounding the 'Latin American' left is that it is most decidedly a 'South American' phenomenon. There are no leftist governments in power in Central America save for Daniel Onega and the Sandinista Party in Nicaragua, and Onega's progressive and personal credentials have become deeply tarnished ever since the FSLN (Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional) lost the historic 1990 elections.

Why hasn't the left been more effective at obtaining 'state power' at the national level in countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in particular, all three of which experienced tremendous conflict and violence in the 1980s? This is a crucial question, and one that scholars and activists should be addressing. Nicola Short's theoretically engaging book does not explore it directly, but her text does help us understand how Guatemala essentially remains the 'land of eternal tyranny'.

Short's main contribution is her brilliant problematisation of the Guatemalan 'peace process'. That process and the ensuing accords (on the role of the military, indigenous rights, socioeconomic issues, etc.) that resulted from the negotiations have been generally widely praised for resolving a bloody, genocidal civil war that lasted forty-two years (1954-1996) and cost 200,000 people their lives. Short claims that while the peace accords were symbolically and literally important, they did not basically disturb the 'heart of the matter': a deeply traumatised and divided society marked by tremendous racial, class and gender inequality. Many researchers have hailed the accords (particularly the agreement on indigenous rights) because they solved the most pressing problem of state terrorism and extreme violence. While it is true that death squads no longer roam the streets and the countryside, and that farm workers, students, workers, indigenous people, women, poor people, unionists and priests are no longer being tortured, disappeared, and massacred, the bigger problem - capitalism - has not been addressed or even named.

The problem, as Short points out (borrowing from Antonio Gramsci), is that the Spanish Conquest helped facilitate a certain 'ensemble of social relations' that lasted for 400 years. Guatemalan elites created a 'disarticulated* economic system that relied heavily on a dependent, mostly landless and indigenous agricultural labour force. In classical and possibly anachronistic Marxist language, the 'means of production' were held by a tiny ruling class that happened to be either European or 'ladino' (of mixed indigenous and European descent), while the working class was largely indigenous. That system sparked periodic uprisings, but none toppled the regime or transformed the ensemble of social relations until 1944-1954, when Guatemala experienced its first 'spring'-a decade-long period of reform. During those ten years, labour unions were legalised, democratic elections took place, and agrarian reform was introduced. The latter in particular alarmed the USA, which overthrew President Arbenz in a CIA-backed coup. The subsequent, counter-insurgent regime ruled in a brutal and ruthless manner over the next four decades. …

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