Guerrillas, Army clash in the countryside

Neither side in the struggle for Guatemala is quite as united as it would like to pretend. The military-dominated government has its detractors, among them some of the wealthy and middle-class people whom one would normally expect to be its supporters. A number of young, university-educated critics have joined the guerrillas in the countryside. Some young Guatemalan military officers are reported to disagree with their superiors' hard-line approach to dissent.

On the guerrilla side, there are four main organizations, and it has apparently taken considerable effort for them to overcome their rivalries and work together.

Neither side seems capable at this point of taking decisive military action. The guerrillas have clearly improved their ability to ambush government troops. But they are not believed to hold any major populated area. The government seems to be incapable of pursuing the guerrillas.

Much could, therefore, depend on the attitudes of the country's traditionally standoffish Indian population and on whether either of the two sides gets significant new support from its foreign supporters.

The fall of Nicaragua to the Sandinista revolutionaries in 1979 is believed to have raised guerrillas morale in Guatemala. A guerrilla triumph in El Salvador, which shares a border with Guatemala, would likely have an even greater impact.

But new observers expect that a leftist victory in El Salvador would cuase Guatemala simply to fall like a domino. Some think that, on the contrary, it would cause the Guatemalan army to intervene in El Salvador, thus "regionalizing" that conflict. It might also cause Guatemala's military leaders to intensify the repressive measures that they have already undertaken in the Guatemalan countryside.

A Guatemalan Army captain complained to a North American that every time his civic-action unit tried to do something, such as digging wells for Indians, another group -- the secret police, for example -- would arrive on the scene and destroy whatever goodwill had been created.

"We hand out coloring books and toothbrushes to the people and two days later somebody else blows them away with the coloring books still in their hands," the captain was quoted as saying.

"A lot of Guatemalan military officers realize that this is a stupid situation," the American said. "But they don't know what to do."

"The scary thing is that these Indians are starting to sign up -- to go with the communists," he continued. "That really takes some doing. That's the great danger for this country."

Apparently driven by the knowledge that the left has made gains among the Indians, the Guatemalan government has launched a number of programs. The big one of the moment is a literacy campaign. Millions are being invested in it, and President Lucas has taken a personal interest in the outcome. In some parts of the western highlands, as many as 80 percent of the people are illiterate. Many speak no Spanish.

The government is sinking money into a new port and a $1.3 billion-dollar highway grid. Some Guatemalans fear, however, that much of the benefit of all this will be siphoned off through corruption, without helping the poor.

An unclassified US Embassy cable last year reported that Guatemala had the most rapidly growing middle class in Central America. But it also asserted that a great disparity of incomes persisted between that middle class and the poor, with much of the middle class's progress being based on "exploitatively low wages" for the working class.

An American who knows a number of Guatemalan plantation owners, or finceros,m says, meanwhile, that their ideas are changing, and that one should not write all of them off as people who do nothing but exploit cheap Indian labor.

"The old colonial idea was to pay as little as you could and make as much as you could," he said. "That was the idea until just a few years ago. . . . But now some of the young inheritors of the fincasm are trying to do something about the problem."

But some of the fincerosm apparently got into an argument with President Lucas at a luncheon last year after the government had decided there should be an increase in the minimum wage. Several of the plantation owners who were invited to the get-together reported that he accused them of being responsible for the country's problems. "Give up a little of what you have now," the tall Army general was quoted as saying, "or you'll have to give it all up in the end."

And at one point Lucas was reported to have grown so emotional that he grabbed one of the plantation owners by the lapels and shook him.

An Indian community organizer who has considerable experience working in some of the poorest areas of the highlands dismisses all this, however, as mere posturing and demagoguery on the part of Lucas. He contends that the $3.20 -a-day minimum wage is sometimes not enforced and that even when it is, the plantation owners find other ways to squeeze the workers.

The guerrilla leaders have obviously studied the labour situation carefully, and their propaganda reveals a considerable sophistication in analysis. One of the leaders is said to be related to the late Nobel prize-winning novelist Miguel Asturias.

How much Cuban advice they are getting is not clear. What does seem clear is that the four main guerrilla organizations -- the ejercito guerrillero de los Pobres, the Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes, the Organizacion del Pueblo en Armas, and the Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo -- do get some Cuban help in the form of training and supplies.

What also seems clear is that Fidel Castro harbors a special dislike for the rulers of Guatemala. Some of the Cubans who participated in the abortive, CIA-organized Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 were trained in Guatemala.

On March 5, the Guatemalan government issued a "white paper" dealing with alleged foreign involvement in Guatemala. But it came so soon after the United States had issued its own paper on "communist interference in El Salvador" that the Guatemalans looked like mere copycats. The Guatemalan paper was so heavily loaded with anticommunist rhetoric that its credibility was further reduced.

The paper speaks of meetings between Guatemalan guerrilla representatives and Cuban and Nicaraguan leaders. It alleges that Nicaragua has supplied the Guatemalan guerrillas with a variety of weapons.

Officials in Washington think that Nicaragua did indeed offer to supply the guerrillas with arms but that the Guatemalan paper goes too far in saying that some of those arms have already been shipped. They also say that far from getting major shipments of arms, the Guatemalan guerrillas ave complained they were being given low priority, particularly in comparison with the Salvadoran guerrillas. Should the Salvadoran guerrillas fail, however, that situation could be reversed, officials say, with Guatemalan possibly being assigned higher priority.

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