The political situation in Guatemala is far more stable now than during the 35+ years of the Dirty War, in which death squads roamed the country and killed thousands. This remains one of the more horrific examples of US foreign policy and covert involvement in the internal affairs of another state.
In 1950 Jacobo Arbenz, an army officer, was elected president and initiated many reforms, especially redistributing land back to the Mayan peasants. In doing so, he had no choice other than to take on the United Fruit Company,which owned a huge percentage of the country and was virtually exempt from its laws. This was, within a few short years, to be his undoing. In 1953 and 54 several hundred thousand acres of uncultivated land near the coast was seized, and although the Company was compensated, it claimed the amount was insufficient. Meetings were held between the Guatemalan and US governments to try and resolve this and other disputes, but the Company was not happy with the direction the country was headed, and began to have its own meetings with US government officials to convince them that Arbenz was a communist, and needed to be eliminated. United Fruit also hired a high powered lawyer, who engaged in a massive public relations effort against Arbenz and his predecessor, much of which involved a campaign of disinformation to the NY Times and other leading newspapers.
By the time the government meetings occurred, many US officials, as well as the American public, was convinced that Arbenz was a threat to national security. The Dulles brothers, John, who was Secretary of State, and Allen, CIA Director, both of whom had direct connections to the United Fruit Company, soon cooked up a plot to overthrow him. Providing money, weapons, and "advisors" to Castillo Armas, another army officer then living in Honduras, Arbenz was forced to resign in June of 1954. Castillo took over, and within a short time compiled a list of more than 70,000 people active in unions and aligned with Arbenz, many of whom were killed or exiled by the army. Ironically,many of the operations of United Fruit in Guatemala were later broken up by the Justice Department as a result of an antitrust suit. The Eisenhower government however, continued its support of Armas and his successors, to the point of providing Green Berets to help defeat a group of rebel officers.
Slowly a guerrilla organization, EGP, started by students and encouraged by Liberation Theology, grew in strength. It attracted Indian support in the highlands, and began to fight against the corrupt military governments and landed oligarchy.
In 1977, following a massive earthquake which killed more than 22,000 people, a large anti-government rally took place in the capital. General Romeo Garcias responded with death squads targeting students, union leaders, priests, and later, massacred highland Indians in town such as Alta Verapaz. Although this initially increased the ranks of the guerrillas, the army crushed them through a strategy of mass murder, forced resettlement into highly controlled villages, reeducation, and forced militia duty. General Rios Montt, an evangelical christian, took over and continued these tactics, aided and abetted by the evangelical churches, who taught the Indians that rebellion was against the will of God, and Liberation Theology was the work of the Devil.
Although the Carter administration initiated an army embargo because of the human rights abuses, this was later overturned by Reagan. By 1985 the army realized that they had essentially won the war, and so elections were held. Cerezo, a Christian Democrat, took over, but not before he agreed to a blanket amnesty for the army. Sporadic violence continued, and Indians who lived in Santiago Atitlan and other towns, who had previously supported the guerrillas, continued to be "disappeared" by the hundreds. A formal peace accord was not signed until 1966, and although calling for accountability on the part of the army, this was slow to be carried out. Amnesty International has reported that criminals, as well as police, military officers, and multinationals, were often in collusion.
Much of this has not changed. We would often talk politics with our Spanish teachers, and they made no secret of their distrust of the government, and the police, who they said were frequently in league with the crooks. Interestingly, despite many years of CIA involvement on the side of the army and its brutal regimes, they seemed to harbor no ill feelings towards the people of the United States. They made a distinction between the people and the government. This was true throughout our travels. Our teachers were also very open about discussing their own lives and circumstances. Despite their meager existence, they did not seem resentful of us, although they did express some anger over how little of the tuition money the school gave to them. Certainly one of the more interesting things about studying Spanish intensively, is that you learn about the culture through these kinds of discussions. I felt a strong personal connection to my teachers during the brief time that I knew them, and this was repeated while I studied in other countries as well.
(Note: Although several sources were used for this material, the following were especially helpful:
Bitter Fruit, Schlesinger,Steven & Kinzer, Stephen; Central America on a Shoestring, Lonely Planet, 2004; Inside Central America, Krauss, Clifford).