Trade Unionists against Terror: Guatemala City, 1954-1985

Trade Unionists against Terror: Guatemala City, 1954-1985

Trade Unionists against Terror: Guatemala City, 1954-1985

Trade Unionists against Terror: Guatemala City, 1954-1985


During decades of relentless state terror, workers in Guatemala City, built a vibrant, and in some cases victorious, labor movement. In Trade Unionists Against Terror, Deborah Levenson-Estrada shows how individual men and women were able to preserve and act collectively despite a violent state, death squads, and a culture of fear.


tion of the devil in Loza's dream is a haunting one: it suggests Catholic images of evil and suffering, a torturer, and a tortured body, the ubiquitous figure of pain and annihilation in Guatemala. That the devil's "mangled, bloody body" was not weak but vigorous and ready to stop Loza's vehicle and "seize" him is emblematic of the frightening proposition that the torturer and the tortured body constitute the strength of the Guatemalan state. It is hardly surprising that Loza might think that.

The nuanced forms of capitalist control of labor to which readers in the United States are accustomed have not existed in recent Guatemalan history. Without the aid or cushion of reformism or populism, the industrial development of the 1960s occurred under the auspices of a terrorist state. This state did not try to win legitimacy through the production of meanings and values that create a consensus about the distribution of power in society. Perhaps because of this, foreign and national capitalists did not establish a subtle means to subdue struggle within the workplace. Violence simplified the politics of production for owners and managers. Asked, "How does one respond to a bothersome labor leader?," a businessman replied, "Shoot him or eliminate him. Assassinate him. Murder him. Whichever word is applicable." A worker recalled this experience in a modern textile plant:

We tried to organize a union once and the death squad people came and beat up a worker with the sound of the machinery covering his screams. And then someone was taken away and did not reappear. And then another one was taken. They took him blindfolded to an unknown place and removed the blindfold and there was the man who had been kidnapped before he was, hanging still alive, his body in shreds, completely cut up, wounded. And they said to the second man, "Do you still want to be a trade unionist?" Well . . . with that, the first attempt to start a union ended. I left soon afterwards. I didn't want to work in a place like that.

Just as Guatemalans had to take this terrorism into account while they went about their lives, the historian must consider the thoughts and feelings of people living in such a society. On one level, Guatemalan workers unionized . . .

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