10 April 2008 Edition
INTERNATIONAL : Interview with a Guatemalan guerrilla fighter
Revolution flows through the veins
AN PHOBLACHT correspondent SEÁN Ó FLOINN is travelling in South America. He speaks to Tino, a Guatemalan former guerrilla fighter who tells his story of his country’s struggle against inequality, military dictatorship and imperialist interference.
NESTLED directly below Mexico lies Guatemala, a country of over 13 million people and boasting 37 volcanoes, three of which are active.
However, its political history is even more temperamental and explosive than these natural phenomenons which contribute to its uneven landscape.
In contemporary times, Guatemala leaned Left with the election of Juan Arévalo as president in 1945, who established the country’s first social welfare system, introduced public healthcare and paid genuine heed to indigenous concerns.
Colonel Jacobo Arbenz was elected to replace him and continued leftist policies, promoting agrarian reform, prising land out of the tiny, exploitative elite’s hands and distributing it among those who worked it. This elite had close connections with the United States and Arbenz’s policies alarmed the North American government so much that they initiated a CIA-led covert invasion from neighbouring Honduras, which eventually toppled Arbenz, consistent with US interventionist policies in Latin America.
Incidentally, Che Guevara was in Guatemala at this time and events left an indellible mark on young Ernesto as he witnessed at first-hand Yankee imperialism at play in overthrowing democratically elected governments. Several ruthless military dictatorships followed, inflicting decades of oppression on the Guatemalan people. As a direct result, in the 1960s, left-wing revolutionary guerrilla groups were formed. There were four main armed groups who, in 1982, joined under the umbrella of URNG, Union Revolucionario Nacional de Guatemala/ Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), and collectively took on the might of the brutal, US-backed Guatemalan Army.
The Government responded with the violent repression of mainly rural, poor, indigenous areas, usually strong bases of support for the guerrillas. Thousands were slaughtered and numerous ‘disappeared’.
Tino was only seven years of age when he first became aware that his uncles were left-wing guerrillas. In fact, revolution flowed through his family’s veins: 21 of his relatives were active guerrillas, one was killed, and two more served prison sentences.
At the age of 10 his father, who was a campesino (peasant) leader, was abducted by the Guatemalan Army and murdered. The raw emotion was still clearly etched on Tino’s face as he tentatively relayed this atrocity. This callous act was to engulf young Tino’s heart with rage and he pledged to gain revenge.
During his early teens, Tino travelled to Mexico and Cuba to train and he became more politically aware. During his trip to Castro’s Cuba he learned all there was to know about radio broadcasting and preparation. While openly admitting he was filled with fear, now aged 18, Tino actively engaged in battle for the first time with the Guatemalan Army. This teenager, armed with just a small pistol, stood bravely with his comrades in combat during a battle which was to last three hours.
Tino, who doesn’t regret his actions and decisions as a left-wing guerrilla, stated that at the time there was no alternative as peaceful political gatherings and protests were violently repressed. The guerrillas had no option but to take up arms and organise in the mountains. Extraordinary means are justified in extraordinary circumstances for any true revolutionary.
Tino distinguishes clearly between left-wing guerrillas and the right-wing Guatemalan Army. The former took up arms to fight for equality and to ensure that every Guatemalan was awarded the same opportunities. They struggled to achieve the right of all to health, education, food, housing and safety. The army was there simply to protect the rich elite and to maintain the status quo.
At that time, a mere 10 families essentially controlled Guatemala, while around 90 per cent struggled in poverty.
Tino was instrumental in forming Voz Popuar (Popular Voice), which was broadcast on Radio Rebelde (Radio Rebel). The guerrillas’ radio base was situated on Tajumulco Volcano, Central America’s highest, and its environs. They managed to evade detection for almost a decade.
Tino and one of his compañeros cycled back and forth over the Mexican border with an 8 metre secret aerial on one bicycle. They dressed as campesinos but had grenades in their bicycle bags and were prepared to use them if detected by the military.
Despite the fact that Tino was now driving a car for nine years, he could not ride a bike and literally took a crash course over two days. To this day, Tino is still involved in radio and is adamant that his microphone is more powerful than any weapon he has held in his hands in the many battles he participated in.
The former guerrillas are responsible for the setting up of 27 community radio stations which employ local people and broadcast progressive programmes, ranging from politics and culture to education and health. Some of the radio stations are broadcast in indigenous languages, both extremely impressive and important as over 70 per cent of Guatemala’s population is indigenous.
Peace accords were eventually signed on 29 December 1996, bringing an end to Guatemala’s civil war, which spanned over three decades.
Tino strongly believes that, despite the tragic and brutal reality of this conflict, major advances were made. Without the actions of the guerrillas there would be no schools, hospitals or roads in many areas, not to mention the process of land redistribution.
While Tino admits that the war is finished, he concluded his interview with An Phoblacht by stating that the struggle very much continues.
An Phoblacht Magazine
AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:
- The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
- It will include a personal reminiscence by Gerry Adams and contributions from the McGuinness family.
- There will also be an exclusive interview with our new Uachtarán Mary Lou McDonald.