Rachel A. May. Terror in the Countryside: Campesino Responses to Political Violence in Guatemala, 1954-1985. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2001. xix + 234 pp. $26.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-89680-217-9.
Reviewed by Ann Jefferson (Department of History, Colorado State University)
Published on H-LatAm (August, 2002)
The Key to Democratic Guatemala?
The Key to Democratic Guatemala?
The stated objective of this work is "to understand how popular organizations responded to the violent climate in which they were forced to operate" (p. 8). Rachel May proposes to show that "political violence has affected the development of at least three particular aspects of popular organizations" (p. 2). These three aspects are their ideologies, structures, and strategies. Any reader with a passing familiarity with Central American issues will wonder how this thesis could possibly fail to prove true. Even a guerrilla movement that ends in unmitigated failure, as in the Guatemalan case, could scarcely endure for forty years (admittedly rising, falling and evolving) without shaping its ideology, structure and strategy in response to the actions of the enemy and the realities of the armed conflict. So the book begins with an uncompelling thesis, one that any student of the subject would be hard put to question.
To her credit, the author's central concern is how real peace and democracy will come to Guatemala, given that the signing of the December 1996 peace agreement cannot alone create this outcome. May states several times that analysis of the popular movement may provide some clues to the potential for true peace and democracy. Surprisingly, however, she does not delve deeply into the culture of the popular movement in an effort to discover what elements of democratic process may have characterized various groups; instead, she stays at the level of ideology, structure and strategy.
The omission of women is striking, since their experience has lately served as a kind of litmus test of democratic process. Of the twelve interviews listed in the bibliography only one is with a woman, Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu--an important source, but hardly a typical representative of women's experience in the popular movement. The interview with "Campesinos of Suchitepequez" does not mention the inclusion of any campesinas. Analysts of the Salvadoran and Nicaraguan popular movements have shown that the guerrilla struggles in those countries included, even relied on, women and thereby contributed to the disorganization of gender stereotypes and the extension of democratic rights to a formerly disenfranchised group. May might have followed their example and shaped her research to employ women's experience in support of her claim that "[t]he maturation of popular movements ... is a powerful model for democracy and an enduring reminder of Guatemalans' capacity for civic responsibility" (pp. 10-11). Unless, of course, closer investigation into the experience of women in Guatemalan guerrilla organizations were to disclose the highly un-democratic nature of those organizations, thus undermining May's confidence that "this popular struggle ... will prove to be the key to the future of democratic Guatemala" (p. 163). Indeed, she may be exactly on target, as one could argue that it was precisely the failure of the Guatemalan guerrilla organizations to achieve internal democracy and bring that experience into the national dialogue that has proven fatal to the peace process and the construction of a democratic Guatemala, a creature now stillborn, or, the more optimistic view, still in incubation.
To conclude her discussion of the meaning of political violence (chapter 2) May introduces a summary of her "cycles of violence" theory, supported by a schematic table of the four stages of a cycle along with the participants, objects, geographical density, intensity and level of organization of each stage. The four stages are turmoil, counter-attack, internal war and reactionary terror. Is there anything new here? There can be no doubt that there was a confrontation between the post-1954 Guatemalan government and the popular classes and that this dispute manifested various ebbs and flows over the period from the coup/military revolt against Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 to the signing of the peace accords in December, 1996. May's schematic might be described in lay terms as follows: the war began with popular unrest (for reasons that remain largely obscure in this work) which guerrilla groups quickly sought to organize and direct; this in turn led to repression by the armed forces which escalated into a campaign of terror, or genocide as May quite properly terms it, against a civilian population. Is there something in this "cycles of violence" approach that is not completely obvious in the context of insurgency/counter-insurgency?
Moreover, while the "cycles of violence" argument adds nothing to our understanding of the internal war, it detracts from the author's effort to hold the Guatemalan military responsible for the repression. May lays the blame for most of the deaths during the war squarely at the door of the military and adduces the findings of the two most respected summaries of the internal war: the report of the Catholic Church's human rights office that led to the 1998 martyrdom of Monsignor Gerardi, Recovery of Historical Memory (REMHI), and that of the United Nations Commission for Historical Clarification in Guatemala (CEH). May points out that both attribute "the overwhelming majority of civilian deaths" to government forces (p. 19). The "cycles of violence," however, work at cross-purposes to this judgment, at times acting as a kind of Invisible Hand that replaces the military high command as the motor of the terror. "But as the cycles moved toward internal war and ultimately reactionary terror, the organizations submerged" (p. 147). To paraphrase a slogan popular in the U.S. anti-gun-control movement, "Cycles don't cause genocide; people do".
The saving grace of the book is its history of a wide variety of groups in the popular movement and the tracking of their activities during the period from 1954 to 1985. This portion of the work is well researched, clearly written, and invaluable to anyone with an interest in the history of the key groups that make up the popular movement in Guatemala today. May has laid out for us the birth dates, the goals, the constituencies, and the internal structure and process--to the extent that any outsider can ever know that--of the main forces in the ever-shifting popular movement from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s, and this is her contribution. The choice to emphasize an uninspired, uninteresting theoretical framework at the expense of the very useful and practical history of the groups that constitute the movers and shakers of the democratic movement in Guatemala today can only be called unfortunate. Another positive aspect of the book lies in the aids the author has thoughtfully provided: a list of acronyms to help us keep our heads up while swimming through the alphabet soup of Central American political nomenclature and a useful chronology of key political events from the Castillo Armas regime to the election of Vinicio Cerezo.
Perhaps the book's greatest disappointment is its failure to situate the Guatemalan popular revolutionary struggle in the international context. While May mentions Mao Zedong, the great architect of peasant revolution, she demonstrates a lamentable unfamiliarity with his writings when she supplies her own translation from the Spanish of Mao's famous statement of 1950--"A revolution is not a dinner party"--and attributes it to Guatemalan guerrilla leader Marco Antonio Yon Sosa (p. 55). One can understand that Yon Sosa felt no need to reference this famous quote since he very likely had no idea that he was writing for posterity, but May's failure to recognize the quote and use its standard English translation, not to mention her editor's failure to correct the error, indicate a lack of grounding in twentieth-century revolutionary writings that undermines the credibility of the author and thereby impoverishes the book's analytic power.
A more important lapse in regard to international contextualization, however, is the failure to place Guatemala side-by-side with its neighbors in Central America. The most useful question on this subject, at least for the forces interested in seeing a more egalitarian Guatemala, would probably be: can analysis of the Guatemalan movement explain why it was such a wash-out in comparison with similar movements in Nicaragua and El Salvador? That is, why did both the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran struggles, which evolved in response to a similar set of rural and urban problems, attract much larger followings? Why did one of these movements succeed in capturing the state and holding it for eleven years through two democratic elections while the Guatemalans never even came close? Why did the other succeed in creating a level of ungovernability in the country that eventually made a negotiated peace the only way out for the government (leaving aside for the moment the question of whether the Salvadoran peace agreement has been effective)? Neither of these popular successes emerged in Guatemala where the peace accords have ground to a halt, and Amnesty International recently quoted commentators calling the past two years "a human rights melt-down." These are important questions, certainly for the majority population of Central America that continues to suffer from a lack of access to the region's resources and a lack of control over everyday political and economic life. May's research on the popular movement in Guatemala supplies a foundation for asking, and--dare I suggest it?--even answering, some of these questions, but we await that book. The current one neither raises nor addresses the key questions.
. May's period runs from the fall of Arbenz in 1954 to the 1985 election of Vinicio Cerezo, the first civilian president after thirty years of overt or covert military governments, although she includes passing references to some of the political high points since that date.
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Ann Jefferson. Review of May, Rachel A., Terror in the Countryside: Campesino Responses to Political Violence in Guatemala, 1954-1985.
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