Interview with Rodrigo Asturias

Interview withRodrigo Asturias, September 6, 2003

Conducted on the campaign trail in Quetzaltenango [Xela] Guatemala and translated from Spanish by Mansur Johnson

 Rodrigo Asturias is the URNG candidate in the November 9thelection for President of Guatemala. The URNG (Unidad Revolutionaria Nacional Guatemalteca) is now a political party in Guatemala. During the war which lasted from 1962 until 1996, when the Peace Accords were signed, the URNG was the umbrella organization for several cooperating guerrilla groups. Rodrigo Asturiaswas the commander of one of those groups and a signatory of the Peace Accords.  On September 13, Abel Perez, the URNG candidate for mayor in Santo Domingo, Suchitepequez, was disappeared on route to a political function. Only his car was found. September 15thhe returned home in a taxi dazed, and received treatment from a psychologist for a severe nervous breakdown. According to URNG functionaries and friends of the victim, the purpose of the kidnapping was to get Pérez to abandon his campaign for mayor.

 MJ When were you born?

RA I was born in the capital of Guatemala, Guatemala City, in 1939.

MJ What month?

RA October 30thin 1939.

MJ Who was your father?

RA My father was Miguel Angel Asturias, who would later be the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, a Guatemalan writer, author of many novels, the first of which was HOMBRES DE MAIZ (Men of Corn) from where I took my nombre de lucha (nom de guerre) many years later.

MJ Your nombre de lucha was Gaspar Ilom. Who was Gaspar Ilom?

RA It’s the name of the principal character in the novel HOMBRES DE MAIZ by my father. He is an indigenous leader working to defend the culture of corn of the Mayans from the commercialization of the growing of corn.

MJ Your father was Ambassador to France, right?

RA He was Ambassador in France and also in El Salvador during the administration of Jacobo Arbenz [Arbenz was democratically elected and overthrown by a CIA-directed coup in 1954, because a United States corporation, the United Fruit Company, objected to Arbenz´s land reform measures.]

MJ Why did your father resign as Ambassador to France?

RA He renounced the embassy when the administration of Mario Mendes Montrenegro was terminated by General Carlos Manuel Arana Osorio. This was the moment that he left.

MJ What year was that?

RA 1971.

MJ When did you begin the armed struggle in Guatemala?

RA The historical moment was March, 1962 [when Coronel Carlos Paz Tejada, together with 22 soldiers took to the hills. Two days later, they were rounded up by the army.] against the dictator Miguel Idigoras Fuentes.

MJ How long were you fighting in the mountains?

RA My first involvement was very ephemeral, because it was discovered before we reached our camp in the mountains. They discovered us and arrested us while we were walking toward our encampment.

MJ And then you were in Mexico, right?

RA I was in jail for 15 months, the jail of Salama in Guatemala. When I got out, I was captured again in December, 1963, and was expelled from the country. Actually, I was thrown in the Suchiate River, and then I was an exile in Mexico.

MJ What did you do in Mexico?

RA To survive in Mexico, I began to work in the world of editorial writing; I worked with the editorial board of Fundo de Cultural Economicafor two years. Later, I was called to collaborate with a group of editors for the newspaper Siglo 21, and I did this for seven years.

MJ Now you are running for President of Guatemala. You were one of the signatories of the Peace Accords of 1996, which ended the struggle that started in 1962. Today, the United Statesand Israelcall the Palestinian freedom fighters terrorists, and accuse Hamas and the rest of the groups opposing Israel’s occupation and state terrorism of being responsible for all the suffering of the Palestinians. The United States and Guatemaladeveloped a similar propaganda line about the guerrillas during the armed struggle in Guatemala, saying that the guerrilla was responsible for the terror visited by the army on the people. The strategy was effective, even if its logic may be questioned. Is this a problem in your campaign for president?

RA In reality, the process of the war was legitimate and necessary. This was recognized by the international community. The process of struggle using the means of war goes with the process of peace. The peace process is the point of more than 30 years of struggle that has permitted us to have an agenda to end the conflict, and to be able to situate ourselves in the path of democratization.

MJ The phrase used by Prensa Libre (September 11, 2003) to summarize one of the proposals of the Myrna Mack Foundation is “To recesitate the peace process that has been abandoned.” Is the peace process dead?

RA No. But I believe the Peace Accords have not been completed. The Peace Accords still have the force of law, and now in the next government led by myself is the opportunity to complete them, and this is what we are proposing.

MJ As you know the anthropologist Myrna Mack was assassinated in Guatemalain 1991. The killer who stabbed her 21 times, Noel de Jesus Beteta, a member of  Estado Mayor Presidential (EMP), was tried and jailed, but the alleged intellectual authors of the crime, General Juan Valencia Osorio and two colonels, Edgar Augusto Godoy Gaitan and Guillermo Oliva Carrera, were absolved by the court for their part in the crime after finally being charged and tried in 2002. The Myrna Mack Foundation was created by Myrna Mack’s sister Helen, who initiated the legal battle for justice in the case of her sister. The Mack Foundation has challenged the presidential candidates to impliment  eight points that encourage the Executive branch (without impinging on the autonomy of the Judicial branch) to dismantle secret security forces, reduce the military, and increase the likelihood of justice. For example, today, out of 100 cases of violent death, only six are resolved. What is your position regarding the Mack Foundation’s proposals?

RA The proposal of the Mack Foundation is adequate and correct. We are the most appropriate political alignment to endorse these proposals and put them into practice. A part of our plan of government goes in this direction.

MJ In your plan for the government, what would you contemplate doing about the army and the Estado Mayor Presidential (EMP)as it pertains to the security of all the families in Guatemala and presidential security?

RA I consider the function of the army in a democratic society to be to defend the sovereignty and frontiers of the country. These things are in the Peace Accords.  About Presidential security, both past President Alvaro Arzu and present President Alfonso Portillo signed an accord to dissolve the Estado Mayor Presidential [the office in charge of presidential security]. The office was not dissolved. What is important to do at this point is to institutionalize the Secretaria de Asuntos Administrativos, [a small office that deals with various administrative issues],  and give presidential security obligations to this office. Doing so would solve the problem of corruption that exists in the Estado Mayor Presidential.

MJ Would you please give a brief comment on the most popular candidates running against you to be the next president of Guatemala: Oscar Berger of the Gran Alianza National (GANA), Alvano Colom of  Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE), Efrain Rios-Montt of Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (FRG), Leonel Lopez Rodas of Partido de Avanzada Nacional (PAN), and Fritz Garcia-Gallont of Partido Unionista (PU)?

RA Yes. Oscar Berger represents business in Guatemala, the oligarchy.

MJ CASIF (Caminara Agricola Commercio Industrial Financiera) [a sort of Guatemalan Chamber of Commerce]  and all that?                                                                     

RA Yes. Alvaro Colom is someone who was close to the democratic position of the left in past elections, but later he went away and joined the business sectors of the right. Rios-Montt is a remnant that has been able to survive by using dictatorial methods and he has the help of the military. As a representative of the military dictatorships of the past, he represents a hard line against insurgents who would challenge the status quo. Lopez Rodas was a politician without office in the previous government, who was enriched by the previous government, which represented various other business sectors. Fritz Garcia-Gallont is a politician who came from the government of Alvaro Arzu and the PAN party. He also represents the business sectors.

MJ What do you think of the polls?

RA I believe the polls are valid instruments. (laughter) For one side the polls are valid instruments, but for the other side it is an instrument that can be used to manipulate an answer for one candidate. Although this is not necessarily a manipulation, in this case the polls have been created to demonstrate a grand superiority of Berger, which is very dangerous, because this type of poll doesn’t correspond to reality. But this poll is very clearly in favor of Berger. We’re not surprised by these polls. As far as we are concerned, our biggest fight is with PAN. The polls you refer to were taken in urban areas. What’s most important to us is our studies of opinion which give us an appraisal of our chances much better than the polls.

MJ [Three days after this interview, on September 9, 2003 Prensa Libre published a new poll in which 46% of the respondents lived in urban areas, and 54% in rural areas. The result was as follows: Berger, 37.8%, Colom, 18.2%, Rios-Montt, 11.4%, Rodas, 4.6%, Garcia-Gallant, 3%, Rodrigo Asturias, 1.4%. Three other candidates received 1.9%, and 21.5% said they weren’t going to vote or didn’t want to respond.] Have you found a lack of reception from Guatemalans who consider both the URNG and Rios-Montt to be war criminals?

RA We have not found any rejection from being guerrillas, on the contrary, we believe that in all the places that we have visited, we have been well received.

MJ [On the day of this interview Rios-Montt’s helicopter was prevented from landing in San Pedro Necta, in the Department of Huehuetenango, by 600 ex-patrulleros—local people who were forced without pay to patrol their villages during Rios-Montt’s and other administrations during the war, and even to kill their neighbors, at the behest of the army. Before this, on June 14, Rios-Montt was stoned in Rabinal by families of the victims of massacres in Rabinal, Baja Verapaz. Rios-Montt escaped running and wounded by the rocks from the city, and his security ring subsequently is so tight that neither supporters nor the press is allowed close to him.] How do you feel knowing that you ought to be in front of all the candidates but you are not because the right-wing has so many resources that give them more influence at this time?

RA In the first place, we initiated this campaign based on our armed struggle and a dedication to the people. We feel very good because we believe that we are being instrumental in constructing an alternative to the status quo. To be in a disadvantageous situation with few resources is not new for us. The popular struggle always is in a disadvantagous situation from the point of view of money. But it is not only money that is important for people’s lives. I believe that we are going to demonstrate that the unity of our people, the necessity for our causes, and progress for these changes are more important than economic strengths. This campaign is a bet that we are making in real life.

MJ In the time of Miguel Idigoras Fuentes, all the parties said that when they won the election, they were going to prosecute the corrupt people. This never happened. There are many concrete examples which you know about, so I want to ask: Why hasn’t any political party dared to bring to justice former government officials?

RA I believe that there are no strong political movements dedicated to this principle. They only want to “to get power for the sake of power” (en el poder por el poder). And then they leave to one side the moral principles which men use to seek justice for wrong-doings. We consider that our responsibility for the battle against corruption begins with the necessity to set a good example, to investigate the corruption, and this will inspire the other elected officials of the state to set good examples and to fulfill honestly their responsibilities.

MJ Can you separate the economy of Guatemala from that of the United States?

RA Simply, I would say it is necessary to negotiate free trade treaties. One supposes that a negotiation is not necessarily to accept the positions proposed by the other party. I believe that one of the most serious problems is the asymmetry of the economies of Guatemalaand the United Statesand the rest of those who might be going to sign the treaty. If you don’t take into account the asymmetry of the different economies, the results could be fatal, and we could lose all opportunities. On the other hand, we believe we ought to negotiate regionally, all of Central America against the United States.

MJ Does the URNG plan on instituting land reform measures?

RA The vision of the URNG is the vision of rural development as part of the development of the whole society. Rural development signifies the attainment of access to land by the campesinos (farmers). To do this we will strengthen the institution that already exists, Fondo de Tierra.Also, we need to strengthen the market through taxing unused lands.[The sense here is that if owners of unused lands have to pay taxes on these unused lands, they will allow the farmers to cultivate the lands.] Another effort of ours will be to recover lands wrongly given in the past. Through these three actions, a base of land will be created. This land base was envisioned by the Peace Accords, but has not yet been realized. In another context, we say that agrarian reform is not only a land problem. It’s is a problem of  the ability of farmers to obtain credit, a lack of technical knowledge, and of marketing, so that the farmers can escape the precarious situation that exists in the countryside. We will favor this line of work, and strive to create new agrarian institutions; that is, a whole chain of entities, from La Juridiccion Agraria  to La Procuraduria Agraria,and finally to the Ministero de Asuntos Agraria [from a local office to the federal department] so that we can utilize the land of the country.

MJ The political power structures of the past have presented their development projects as long term projects, which do not get finished when their term of office ends and, consequently, the projects are abandoned when the next government comes into office and doesn’t follow through. Do you plan to continue this failed long-term project strategy, or to initiate something different?

RA We believe that we don’t have a culture of good government in Guatemala; unfortunately, the country is in a bad condition. We are pointing out that there are many laws that are unenforced; for example, the Peace Accords, which have the force of law. What we are going to do is analyze the Peace Accords and put them into practice. Our vision is to create a political culture which is missing in this country. It is not necessary to strengthen democracy per se, we have elections. It is important to create within the reforms of the state the creation of a bureaucracy which does not change with every election. It is a very serious problem that the whole bureaucratic structure changes every four years if a new political party gains power. We want to terminate this system and professionalize the bureaucracy, so that changes of administration result in changes only for the heads of departments, who would be appointed by the elected officials.

MJ One of the books of your father, El Senior Presidente, still has a life and a relevance for the situation today in Guatemala. How will you proceed to incorporate these ideas?

RA We need to complete our projects and make them realities. Because Guatemalalacks a democratic government, one of our aspirations is to have a complete democracy. Political democracy is not enough. The integration of political, social, and economic democracy is what will permit us to have a complete democracy.

MJ Where will the URNG be if you don’t win the election? How will you be able to help the people of the country if you don’t win?

RA URNG is very clear about what to do, win or lose the election. Our program is an historical project that already has passed very difficult tests for over 40 years. The goal is to struggle for populist causes, either as the opposition to another government or as the government. Now, in the political struggle in which we have obligations, we want to develop our projects. But also, we are sure that if we don’t win, we are going to emerge stronger, although we don’t abandon at this moment the idea of winning, and we work as if we are going to participate in the second round [where the two candidates with the most votes will face off for the top spot].

Mansur Johnson, a trade union activist and compiler of Tales, told by (the Sufi) Hazrat Inayat Khan (Omega Press, Lebanon, NY),  has spent 13 weeks in the last 15 months in Guatemala.