7. 1973-77: The social struggle
After years of armed conflict in Guatemala, 1973 opened a period of mass organizing around social and economic issues. That year a sharp increase in petroleum prices provoked a global economic crisis, especially in oil-importing countries like Guatemala. In the countryside, agricultural inputs, such as petroleum-based fertilizers, moved beyond the reach of peasants who had grown used to improved yields. In Guatemala City the cost of basic goods increased sharply and salaries lost much of their purchasing power.
After years of silence, urban workers, beginning with public primary school teachers, began to agitate for wage increases to counteract the effects of the crisis. Striking teachers included many university students and the San Carlos campus provided them a space for organizing. After a three-month strike, the teachers won a hefty wage increase from the government. Inspired by the victory and aided by the consolidation of organized labor, other public sector workers took to the picket lines. With the decline in state violence (and guerrilla activity) the confidence of popular organizations increased.
During the 1974 presidential elections, a blatant electoral fraud favored the government's preferred candidate, General Kjell Eugenio Laugerud García, representing the right-wing alliance between the Movement for National Liberation and the Institutional Democratic Party (MLN-PID), against a center-left alliance promoting the ticket of Christian Democrat General José Efraín Ríos Montt and leftist economist Alberto Fuentes Mohr.
In the early 1970s politics at the San Carlos was still not wholly dominated by leftist parties. The strong organization of the Social Christian Student Front (FESC) had led many students to support the Ríos Montt candidacy; the same was true in the union movement, where Christian Democrats also had a great degree of influence over the National Workers' Central (CNT). In 1974, as in 1962, students and workers led the protest against the fraud.
This forced the new government to seek legitimacy by coopting some of the opposition's proposed reforms and allowing opponents greater political space. Unlike previous presidents, Kjell Laugerud did not begin his term in office with a wave of political violence to consolidate his control. His government even sought negotiated solutions to certain labor conflicts rather than the usual recourse to state repression to silence workers (Levenson-Estrada 1994: 105).
During this political opening, on February 4, 1976, a devastating earthquake shook Guatemala. Nearly 30,000 Guatemalans perished in the disaster and close to a million were left without adequate housing. The earthquake had a political impact as well: the visible incapacity and corruption of the government to deal with the effects of the catastrophe led to a rise in independent organizing and made many survivors deeply critical of the government. In poor barrios disproportionately affected by the quake, neighborhood groups helped to rescue victims or dig out the dead, distribute water, food and reconstruction materials, and prevent looting (Levenson-Estrada 1994: 52, 67, 124).
High school and university students participated in the reconstruction effort, many with a distinctly political interest in strengthening connections with the city's popular classes and building a mass movement. The organized opposition to the government was gaining strength. University students worked with the National Slum-Dwellers' Movement (MONAP) to demand greater investment in local infrastructure and price controls on basic foodstuffs, while increasing their coordination with public high school students through the Secondary Students Coordinating Committee (CEEM). Within the University, the AEU ceased to exist as just a small group of politically-minded leaders and increased its ability to mobilize large numbers of students. On June 25, 1976 in the city center, the AEU held the decade's first mass protest outside the University, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 1956 student massacre (El movimiento estudiantil en Guatemala, no date; interviews).
Meanwhile organized labor began to reassert the strength that it had lost since the Counterrevolution. A few weeks after the earthquake, workers at the Coca-Cola bottling company occupied the plant after management tried to shut down the enterprise to destroy a growing union movement. To aid the workers, unionists founded the National Committee of Trade Union Solidarity (CNUS), a group which soon became the coordinating body for much of the urban popular movement (Albizures 1985: 29).
Law students and labor lawyers, many from the San Carlos Law School, advised workers and defended in the courts their right to form unions. As a result, in 1977 more workers went on strike than in any other year in the country's history. Press reports of these actions were numerous and often favorable, and mass protests became a common occurrence in the city. The year ended with the "Glorious March of the Miners of Ixtahuacán," involving
Note: Though Law and Economics are the faculties with the most victims, they also have the most students. To give an idea of the relative sizes of the USAC academic units, below are the student enrollments at the Guatemala City campus for the year 1980, when urban violence reached its peak. Economics: 9132; Law: 5032; Engineering: 4393; Medicine: 4290; Architecture: 1982; Agronomy: 1943; Chemical Sciences: 1241; Psychology: 1159; Humanities: 1062; Social Work: 826; Veterinary Medicine: 793; Dentistry: 762; History: 300; Political Science: 248; Communications: 149 (data from the USAC Department of Registry and Statistics).
Mam and Ladino workers from Huehuetenango who, after days of walking the Pan-American Highway, arrived in the capital accompanied by thousands of supporters. For many observers, this protest represented an early union of country and city, Mayas together with Ladinos, in common cause against the power of the State (Levenson-Estrada 1994: 127-29).
But the political opening had its limits. The business community and the government felt increasingly threatened by the mass opposition. Not unexpectedly, violence against the popular movement and its University allies began anew. In June 1977, armed men ambushed and killed Mario López Larrave, the director of the University's Labor Orientation School and the most important link between the University and the workers' movement. His death foretold a wider repression: Amnesty International reported 61 murders in Guatemala in August of 1977 that appeared to be the work of paramilitary death squads. Though security forces had stepped up their repression of intellectuals and students, most of the victims were peasants, workers and residents of poor urban neighborhoods (1978: 123).
The death of López Larrave marked the beginning of a sustained attack on the activist Law School. The appendix of this report presents the cases of students and professors killed or disappeared between 1974 and 1981, including many who worked in the Bufete Popular, such as Edmundo Guerra Theilheimer, Johnny Dahinten Castillo, Carlos Recinos Sandoval, Jorge Jiménez Cajas, Carlos Figueroa Aguja, Ranferí Neftalí Paredes, Rodolfo Montoya, Jorge Mancio Ortiz, Carlos Tuch Orellana, Oscar Bonilla de León and Eli Hidalgo Ponce. In the Labor Orientation School, one source claimed that 70 percent of the teaching staff was killed or forced into exile (CITGUA 1989: 62).
In the late 1970s the popular movement still had the organizational capacity to respond to the repression with mass protest, often during the burial of one or another victim of state violence (see Box #3).
Some participants from the period insist that this social movement emerged spontaneously from different social sectors in the capital, and that these sectors achieved a partial coordination through the mass mobilizations of 1973 to 1978. Others acknowledge the role of the insurgent groups in encouraging the development of a mass movement. The clandestine organizations, according to these sources, helped build the connections between different sectors: for example, between university and high school students, and between squatters and allies in the University (interviews).
Either way, by 1978 social polarization was on the rise, together with state repression. As a consequence, Guatemala was about to suffer a period of terror on a scale unlike anything in the history of Central America.