La Marcha was purposefully scheduled to be in Guatemala for the inauguration of the
new president, Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo. Guatemala was host to the longest-running
revolutionary movement in the hemisphere. Begun in 1961, it was a response to
a succession of unspeakably brutal governments, all of which enjoyed Washington's
unstinting support and friendship. (For a fine account of the CIA-orchestrated overthrow of the
progressive, and democratically elected Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, and the
installation of the first of this series of brutal regimes, see Bitter Fruit: The Story
of the American Coup in Guatemala, by Stephen C. Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer.)
As I recall it, Cerezo—a member of Guatemala's upper class—had nevethelss been an opponent of the
repression, and had been arrested and tortured by the military. In a radical departure from all
previous U.S. Presidents, Jimmy Carter actually said out loud that human rights were important, and thereby
helped make U.S. support for Guatemala's hyper-brutal repression something of a liability. This in turn helped to
make Cerezo's election to the Guatemalan presidency possible.
Thus, the peace and justice community around the world, along with millions of Guatemala's poor, hoped that Cerezo
would be able to at least mitigate the horrendous human rights violations committed by the Guatemalan military against
Guatemala's Indian community. La Marcha wanted to show Cerezo that he had international support for any such
efforts he might make. ¡Que lastima! After all was said and done, Cerezo turned out to be just as corrupt as
My notes show that as of the morning of January 10, a charter flight into Guatemala City seemed possible,
but it is likely that opposition from the Guatemalan military put an end to that idea. They would not
benefit from a well-publicized, international peace and justice group coming in overtly to draw attention
the worst human rights record in the hemisphere.
Thus, we proceeded with the plan which we had prepared: we would fly in as small groups of "tourists,"
trying not to draw attention to ourselves. We would be met at the airport by marchistas who had arrived
earlier, and receive from them advice and directions to the local pensions which would be our home for
the next 4 days. Tickets had already been purchased for most of the group—I seem to recall helping
in that process myself—and I am not aware that any problems in entering Guatemala were encountered
by any of the marchers. (More on this below.)
Whether by accident or by design, Theresa from Canada; Anna from Scotland; Jodi and Eric from
Minnesota and I formed a little band of "tourists" for our departure, and we pretty much hung
out together during our stay in Guatemala. We arrived at the airport
in Managua at 6:30 p.m., and were pleased to learn that the Sandinistas waived the standard $10 tax.
Money was running short for some of us, and the gift was greatly appreciated. The plane left the
runway at 7:20. We touched down in San Salvador, El Salvador at 8:02, and took off from there at
8:32 without disembarking. We landed at the Guatemala City International Airport at 8:55 p.m.
My sketchy notes show that while we were on the plane, Theresa and Jodi were questioned by a man sitting
near them. Where were they from?
"Canada," they answered. They probably added that they were here as tourists, although my
notes don't say specifically that they did.
"Do you see those people over there," he asked, pointing at several of us marchistas. "They're all
Cubans and Russians."
"Really," asked our "tourists."
"Yes," he affirmed.
"All of them?"
"Yes," he insisted. "I'm from Costa Rica," he said. "Costa Rica is different. It's
99% like the U.S. We have no military, and we have lots of freedom."
This man revealed the same degree of political sophistication as his
Costa Rica Libre compatriots.
We found a pension—the MEZA, and a great restaurant—The Picadilly, located as I recall
on Guatemala City's main drag, 6th Avenue.
We had a very good pizza, and we paid in dollars instead of
Guatemalan quetzales. After dinner we walked around the neighborhood playing dumb tourists.
It was now after 10:30, and it was chilly outside. Our first sight out of the
restaurant was of a small figure huddled in a shop doorway. Across the street two
women and three children huddled in another doorway.
The next morning, the 11th, I went to the tourist center to get maps,
changed money, bought toilet paper and toothpaste. While walking around town—whether alone
or with my little band my notes don't indicate—I met Steven, Stan, and Daniel, and
received an update on Brigido Sanchez's situation in El Salvador from Daniel. (See the Salvador page.)
The daily paper Prensa Libre carried a diatribe from a right-wing Guatemalan political type
condemning Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who had been invited to attend Cerezo's inauguration.
Ortega was accused of
being responsible for the deaths of Guatemalan soldiers and officials, but we marchistas had
never heard of any direct hostilities between the two countries. Perhaps the politician was
referring to Guatemalan soldiers and officials who were covert CIA operatives, and who
perhaps had been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Tom, from Minnesota, related that he had attended a talk by a Guatemalan woman at
the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN). She spoke about Guatemala's spy network, and
about how dangerous
it was to talk openly against the government. She also told him some horror stories, which he
either did not relate, or which I did not record. I recall being approached by a very
friendly Guatemalan who asked a lot of questions and offered me a private tour of the city.
I respectfully declined.
That evening, Tom and I waited at the airport for an American from Miami who was scheduled to join us.
In fact, I wished that I had been there the night before, to greet him. As he told the story, he was walking toward the
baggage check area when he heard a loud voice behind him: "Tom ..., I'm from the CIA, and
we're not going to let you into Guatemala." Tom froze, then turned to see the speaker. It was one
of the Americans he had seen January 6th, at the meeting with U.S. embassy official Sweeney in
Managua. This fellow had followed us to Guatemala, and apparently had been instructed to
have a little fun with us.
It worked. Tom had calmed down by the time he told his story, but he said he broke out
in the proverbial cold sweat during the encounter. My notes don't say what Tom's response to
his tormentor was, but I recall expressing quite vividly my own regret that I had not been the one
our spook employee had decided to confront. Perhaps
foolishly, at the time I would have given my eye teeth to have
been able to confront this CIA compatriot with my own opinions on his choice of
livelihood, and perhaps his lineage as well. If I had attended the meeting at the
embassy, perhaps I might have been the lucky one. (On the other hand, I'm not totally dumb.
Had it actually
been me, given the repercussions that I knew could affect the march as a whole,
I might well have been quite circumspect in my response.)
I called home. Dinner at Los Cebollinos, which had become my favorite restaurant. I
have no other notes for the day.
January 14, Tuesday:
Cerezo will be inagurated today at the National Theater at 9:15 a.m. This evening he will address
Guatemala and the world from the National Palace. It promises to be a memorable day.
In response to the repression, Guatemala's Indian community formed the El Grupo De Apoyo Mutuo,
The Group of Mutual Support [for the reappearance alive of the disappeared, as I once
heard the full title expressed]. GAM, with its contacts in the global human rights community,
was a painful thorn in the side of the Guatemalan government and the oligarchy. GAM would be
there for Cerezo's inauguration and for his later inaugural address. La Marcha would be
there too. We did not plan to hide our light under a bushel.