Permanent Counterinsurgency in Guatemala
Telos, No. 73, pp. 9-46, Fall 1987
38 Pages Posted: 22 Nov 2010 Last revised: 6 Oct 2013
Date Written: 1987
This 1987 article in the critical theory journal Telos examined the counterinsurgency carried out in Guatemala during the late 1970s and 1980s by the Guatemalan army and security forces, and the country's transition to civilian democracy in 1986 under the presidency of Vinicio Cerezo. The article, as an exercise in radical sociology of the Left, argues sharply that the transition is little more than the appearance of democracy, while beneath lies a "permanent counterinsurgency" and authoritarian control by the army. Based on extensive interviews by the authors with many actors in Guatemala, including leading military officers, it offers an inside look at how the Guatemalan military leadership conceived its extensive and brutal counterinsurgency campaign, particularly by comparison to other conflicts in Central America at the time - El Salvador and Nicaragua in particular.
Although parts of the account are of course dated twenty years later (it suffers particularly from the authors' youthful radical social theory, in which seemingly nothing, not even in principle, could show "actual" democracy as opposed to mere false consciousness) it is noteworthy for two features today. First, it offers an uncompromising account of what counterinsurgency requires, in the view of the Guatemalan army, including its view of the US-advised strategy of "hearts and minds" in neighboring El Salvador. That account remains relevant today by comparison to US counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Second, it observes that the success of the Guatemalan army's countersinsurgency depended crucially upon its internal nationalist coherence against corruption, whether by the private interests of the oligarchy which, strikingly, is clearly distinguished as often working against the interests of the "nation" by army officers - or the then-emerging drug trade.
Twenty years later, Guatemala, including its military, oligarchs, and others, are all deeply enmeshed in the drug trade and the effect is tearing apart society in ways often more extreme than, but overshadowed by, neighboring Mexico.
Keywords: Guatemala, counterinsurgency, democratization, post-conflict, disappearances, death squads, 1980s, guerrillas, Latin America, Central America
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