“Land tenure or land ownership is the basic social problem of Guatemala, and portends to be such until some sort of revolution can completely reverse the present patterns of ownership.”
– Thomas and Marjorie Melville, Guatemala, the Politics of Land Ownership (New York: Free Press, 1971), p. XI
“The current conditions of distribution of resources in the agricultural sector have accentuated an unjust duality … While great plantations have mechanization, credit, corporate facilities, and, above all, great extensions of land, so that 82 percent of the agricultural land is held by a few exporters, the rest of the people, 90 percent of the population, live a subsistence economy, with only 6 percent of the agricultural capital and no necessary social and economic infrastructures … The violence is in the system, which denies the majority of Guatemalans access to power, wealth and culture.”
– Christian Democratic Congressman (and Social Christian labor union leader), Julio Celso de Leon Flores, quoted in Guatemala Report #3
“Guatemala’s land story can be summarized in two simple striking facts: 2.1 percent of landowners own 62 percent of the arable land, and 87 percent of landowners own 19 percent of the arable land.
“The 2.1 percent are rich agro-export barons, owning large haciendas, called latifundias or fincas, that grow crops and ship them to the United States, Europe, or Japan. The latifundias generally use the most fertile lands in the country, such as those on the Pacific Coast producing cotton and cattle, and the Pacific mountain slopes yielding Guatemala’s major export crop, coffee.
“The 87.4 percent are subsistence farmers, many of them Indians crowded into the Western Highlands (Altiplano) situated above the coffee fincas. On tiny, steeply inclined, depleted plots, or minifundias, they grow corn which does not provide enough food or purchasing power to allow them to survive. Thus the Indians, in addition to working their own plots, are forced to seek seasonal work on the fincas.
“This latifundia-minifundia system has a clearly defined purpose: to bring the greatest income to the large landowners at the lowest possible cost. In a capitalist economy based on land, labor power is needed to extract wealth and profits from the land. Yet labor is a costly input, and unlike machines it has a tendency to make demands or even revolt if not treated decently. Since the bulk of labor power is needed only at harvest time, a particular problem is what to do with the workers the rest of the year. If they are employed for the entire year they cost too much. Yet if they are unemployed for a large part of the year they either require a welfare system that costs money, or they starve and thereby are unavailable to work the following year.
“The ideal solution is the latifundia-minifundia system. This provides the labor force with tiny bits of land, with space to live on and with enough produce to keep the workers barely alive throughout the year. Yet it is not enough land that the workers will decline to do work on the coffee and cotton fincas at harvest time. In this way, the large landowners are guaranteed a workforce when they need it, yet are not responsible for this workforce during the off-season.
“The latifundia-minifundia system, then, is a slave system without true slavery. It depends on a high level of exploitation of a large number of Guatemalans. And it does not tolerate reform …”
– pg. 14, GUATEMALA, by the North American Congress on Latin America, 1974.
Just before the OAS General Assembly began last week in Antigua, Guatemala, Belize’s security forces shot a Guatemalan intruder in the Belizean jungle. The shooting was not fatal, but the injury was a serious one. In Antigua, Belizean diplomats and journalists were very concerned about the timing of the incident, because there is a pattern of Guatemalan behavior when these incidents have taken place in the past.
Here is the pattern. The leading Guatemalan newspapers make a big issue of the shooting, even though they know fully well that it always takes place on the Belize side of the border. Then the Guatemalan government steps in, expressing grave concern about the incident and reminding Guatemalans that they are duty bound to defend the constitution and the republic. Neither the Guatemalan press nor their government itself really care much of a damn about the poor Petenero who is shot, but the victim becomes an excuse for nationalist bombast.
On the Belize side, the Belizean people then become uncomfortable with the amount of noise and posturing on the Guatemalan side of the border. The inevitable, invariable consequence of these incidents is that Belize is reminded of how powerful the Guatemalan military is, and in some of our minds we end up reaching a state near apology because of an incident provoked by individual and group Guatemalan encroachments into Belizean territory.
In the case of last week’s incident, however, it was notable and noticeable that the leading Guatemalan newspapers did not blow up the matter, and there was nary a word about it from Guatemala’s Pérez Molina government. There was nothing different about last week’s incident when you compare it to incidents which have been taking place over the past fifteen years and more. The thing that was different last week was that the whole of the Caribbean and the Americas were in Guatemala, and it would have been difficult for the Guatemalan press and government to “spin” the incident as Belizean aggression, as they have always done.
The traditional presentation of such incidents as Belizean aggression is a package intended for consumption in the rest of the Americas and in the Caribbean. The intent is to portray Belize as a militaristic nation taking advantage of unarmed, harmless Guatemalans who may have become confused about where the border/adjacency zone is. But when high ranking officials of Caribbean and Latin American countries are convening inside Guatemala itself, and Belizean officials are there with the relevant evidence and able to answer any questions from their Caribbean and Latin American counterparts, Guatemalan propaganda would have been exposed for what it is. Hence, last week a pattern was broken. Guatemala’s press and administration officials ignored last week’s shooting in the Chiquibul.
One of the reasons the Petén is the poverty-stricken area of Guatemala that it is, is because in the post-Arbenz era Guatemalan generals began grabbing all the Petén land they could find. Everything else was already in the clutches of the latifundias. There is very little land for poor Peteneros to farm, and in their desperation they are willing to risk their lives inside Belizean territory. The genesis of the problem lies in the terribly unequal nature of land distribution in the Petén, and in Guatemala overall.
A couple other factors make the Petén situation more intriguing and more confusing. One is that the Mexican drug cartels have drifted into the Petén, and the second is that, similar to the case in Belize, this is a region rich in petroleum and other mineral resources. Because of their petroleum and mineral resources, Petén and Belize are areas of intense interest for relevant American corporations and for the American government itself.
In Belize, we can see that we have socio-economic problems which are sometimes frightening, but the situation is definitely worse in the Petén. This is the sad part of the continuing incidents, that the encroaching Peteneros are very poor people who are being oppressed in their own country. And, these are the desgraciados whom the rich, ruling Guatemalans have been cynically using for propaganda purposes.
Guatemala needs to find a way to share its land and wealth more equitably. When Jacobo Arbenz tried to do this between 1951 and 1954, they ran him out of the country. The likelihood is that Yon Sosa and Turcios Lima were communist guerrillas, but guerrilla war was the only option after Arbenz’s peaceful, democratic changes were rejected. John Kennedy spoke true: “Those who make peaceful change impossible, make violent revolution inevitable.”
There are Belizean individuals and groups who have exposed themselves since independence as having essentially the same perspective as the Guatemalan ruling classes. There are Belizean individuals and groups who are totally dedicated to their own aggrandizement and who spit upon the masses of the Belizean people. Look around you more carefully, and you can begin to identify behavior patterns in the Belizean oligarchy which would take Belize to exactly where Guatemala is today – a land violently divided between the rich and the poor.
The Belizean people have to become informed enough politically to reject personality, and concentrate on philosophy and ideology. We live in a country with “wealth untold” and massive potential, but what is the use if the country’s production statistics start to impress the financial multilaterals and the Belizean people are left behind to become like the Peteneros?
On Wall Street, the investors and traders don’t see any difference between Petén and Belize. All they see is oil fields and nickel deposits. We Belizean people absolutely have to learn to protect ourselves and our country. We have to arm ourselves with information. Those who like to pray, can still pray, but there is some vital information which is neither in the Old Testament nor in the New Testament. Check stats.
Power to the people. Power in the struggle.