Causes for the Guatemalan Civil War as seen in Paradise in Ashes by Beatriz Manz

By David Pierce
2009, Vol. 1 No. 10 | pg. 1/1

The civil war in Guatemala was the longest struggle in modern Latin American history, spanning decades from the late 1950s to the 1990s, and leading to deadly armed conflict between government and rebel militias that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and made millions of others homeless.1 This struggle was one with its roots planted in the grossly unequal distribution of wealth that had existed in Guatemalan society for many years, and this fact served as an undertone throughout the conflict. In Beatriz Manz’s book, Paradise in Ashes, Manz uses first person accounts from a small but war-torn village to illuminate the true depth of the carnage that plagued Guatemala for decades. As Manz reveals, the Guatemalan civil war occurred in great part because of the synergy created between the apparent revolutionary atmosphere in the international community, and the  years of severe economic and physical hardship suffered by the Guatemalan people, brought on by the governing elites.

Leading up to and during the civil war, the masses of Guatemalan society were consistently dominated by a class of Elites who owned the vast majority of the land. Much of this land was also owned by multinational corporations, such as the U.S. owned United Fruit Company in the 1940s and 50s, which had little concern for the well-being of local populations.  Manz describes this trend in his book:

“­­Social statistics tend to range between appalling and more disastrous… The best land is dominated by export-oriented plantations. Three percent of landholdings control 65 percent of the agricultural surface, while close to 90 percent of the landholdings are too small for peasant subsistence…the vast majority of people [are] excluded from basic constitutional guarantees… Sixty percent of the population lives on less than one dollar per day. More than 95 percent of the poor in Guatemala have not attended a single grade of secondary education, and 44 percent have never attended school at all.”3

The result of such disproportionate land ownership—and thus, resources—was an equally unbalanced distribution of wealth. In Guatemala, an oppressed population living in extreme poverty and squalor hardly felt connected to the political and military elites that helped to shape such economic extremes.  Manz describes the “unyielding elites” as exercising “a stranglehold over both the economy and the political system,” continuing on to say, “State social policy exacerbated deep-rooted inequality rather than alleviating it.”4 In many cases, the realities of daily life for Guatemalan citizens equaled out to hard and miserable physical labor. A woman from the village of Santa Maria Tzeja described her working life to Manz, saying “[We are housed] as if we are pigs… that is how we sleep there, fifty people, some this way, some that way, and the fires in-between. There are no beds. We sleep on the very ground.” 5 Manz further elaborates writing, “these crude structures also lacked sanitary facilities, electricity, running water, even outer walls for protection from the torrential tropical rains.”6

The Guatemalan government was a partner in the economic policies that made life miserable for the majority of its impoverished citizens. However, as military leaders increasingly controlled the government in the late 1960’s and through the 1970s, physical violence also became an overt tactic used to subvert political dissent. These local hardships were ultimately the driving force behind insurgent groups:

“Mounting social problems combined with shrinking political options proved to be a volatile combination that finally erupted into armed confrontation… While repression blanketed the entire country, military operations and paramilitary terror were largely unleashed… The victims were rural organizers, ordinary peasants, schoolteachers, student activists, professors, and those perceived to be guerrilla sympathizers.”7

Many Guatemalan citizens looked to neighboring countries as a source of inspiration for their attempts to take control of the country. Only years earlier, Raúl and Fidel Castro had successfully mounted the Cuban Revolution in Cuba and taken power from the similarly unpopular Batista family.8 Meanwhile, the Sandinista guerilla movement had successfully catalyzed a revolution in Nicaragua in 1979; in El Salvador the  FMLN guerillas appeared close to a similar result. Manz describes the revolutionary atmosphere that surrounded Guatemala, referring specifically to Nicaragua and El Salvador:

“The growth of social movements in Guatemala took place in the turbulent context of Central America in the late 1970s and early 1980s… Social upheavals and indiscriminate repression both were escalating throughout the region. The Guatemalan insurgents and many supporters thought that if victory had already taken place in Nicaragua and seemed possible in El Salvador, why not in Guatemala?”9

From Manz’s descriptions, it is apparent that many Guatemalans drew on the experiences of other countries as a source of support. At one point he says, referring to the insurgents, “Despite their physical isolation, many combatants had an awareness of international issues—particularly the fate of other revolutions, such as those in Cuba and Nicaragua.”10 Violence was one tool the government used to try to avoid such fates, but it was also a means to an end for the guerilla movement that felt a revolution was necessary to end the oppression under which they suffered.

The revolutionary atmosphere, nevertheless, was not limited only to Latin America, and this served to exaggerate the effect. The peak of the Guatemalan civil war occurred during approximately the same time period as the peak of the Cold War. As the U.S. saw its immediate southern neighbors turn towards communism—especially Cuba and Nicaragua—the otherwise insignificant local conflicts in Guatemala became another front for the Cold War. In 1954, the U.S. had played a significant role in overthrowing left-leaning President Jacobo Arbenz for the same reason,11 and throughout the subsequent civil war the U.S. ranged from providing substantial military and economic aid to Guatemala, to tacit-support, to eventual condemnation after the violence had ended in the late 1990’s.12 In his book, Manz shows on multiple occasions that the Guatemalan people were aware of their position in the context of the Cold War:

“Much of the fighting took place at the height of the Cold War and the combatants were well aware of U.S. support for the Guatemalan military. They were also aware, in general terms, of the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. As a result, some adopted the attiture that the enemy of my enemy might be a friend… They were caught in the global Cold War.”13

U.S. support for Guatemala gave the government a significant upper-hand, not only politically but also militarily; it also tied the ruling elite to outside influence by the U.S.  Because of this, Guatemala was placed in the fabric of the Cold War, even if the indigenous population felt they were ultimately fighting for justice.

It is clear that the force that drove the civil war for the insurgents in Guatemala was the reality of economic oppression and violence that existed on a daily basis, inflicted primarily by the governing elite. However, this force alone likely would not have created such a protracted and destructive conflict had it not been for the influence of the international community. Without any exact measurement, it is fair to say that the conflict probably shattered millions of lives, and today it seems Guatemala is still not recovered.

1.) "CIA - The World Factbook - Guatemala," CIA - The World Factbook, 20 Nov. 2008, Central Intelligence Agency, 1 Dec. 2008

3.) Beatriz Manz, and Aryeh Neier, Paradise in Ashes - A Guatemalan Journey of Courage, Terror, and Hope, New York: University of California P, 2004, 16-17.

4.) Ibid, 48-49

5.) Beatriz Manz, and Aryeh Neier, Paradise in Ashes - A Guatemalan Journey of Courage, Terror, and Hope, New York: University of California P, 2004, 42

6.) Beatriz Manz, and Aryeh Neier, Paradise in Ashes - A Guatemalan Journey of Courage, Terror, and Hope, New York: University of California P, 2004, 42

7.) Ibid, 49

8.) "CIA - The World Factbook - Cuba," CIA - The World Factbook, 20 Nov. 2008, Central Intelligence Agency, 1 Dec. 2008

9.) Beatriz Manz, and Aryeh Neier, Paradise in Ashes - A Guatemalan Journey of Courage, Terror, and Hope, New York: University of California P, 2004, 96

10.) Ibid, 213

11.) Class Lecture, 9/20/08

12.) Beatriz Manz, and Aryeh Neier, Paradise in Ashes - A Guatemalan Journey of Courage, Terror, and Hope, New York: University of California P, 2004, 224

13.) Beatriz Manz, and Aryeh Neier, Paradise in Ashes - A Guatemalan Journey of Courage, Terror, and Hope, New York: University of California P, 2004, 213

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