Thursday, September 03, 2009

Coup d'état

Random Fact #7: I survived a coup d'état.

In 1993, my two-year religious mission to Guatemala was approaching an end, prompting me to reflect on my experiences. During those years, I met hundreds, if not thousands of people from all walks of life, and witnessed cultural expressions I never imagined possible. My mission caused a dramatic shift in my world view, often through subtle events that challenged my previous assumptions. Guatemala forced me to confront complex issues from a completely different cultural perspective. Common terms assumed new meaning in a place where life and death exist side by side – terms like poverty, justice, freedom, human rights, and indigenous communities – they all became more vivid, palpable, and real. The coup d'état of 1993 brought many such issues to the forefront of my mind.


When I arrived in Guatemala in 1991, the nation had already suffered more than 30 years of civil war and various government takeovers. Armed conflict began after the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States conspired with the United Fruit Company of Boston to overthrow the democratically elected government of Guatemala in 1954. The U.S. backed coup essentially installed a series of military dictators that reversed the leftist reforms of the previous government. The indigenous majority of Guatemala suffered the greatest loss under the new military reign. Already landless and deeply impoverished, the indigenous people organized to oppose the military dictatorship. Over the course of 30 years, more than 200,000 people died in armed conflict between the Guatemalan army and indigenous Mayan groups. Most of the dead were Indians.

By the late 80s and early 90s, some democratic reforms began to soften, but not totally eliminate military domination of Guatemalan society. Under this context, Jorge Serrano Elías assumed the presidency. He helped to place the military under civilian control and to facilitate peace talks between military officials and the URNG.

Any positive changes instituted by Jorge Serrano Elías were forever tainted by the coup d'état or self-coup of 1993.

Golpe de Estado

Coup d'état is a French term used to describe the illegal overthrow of a government. It translates into Spanish as “golpe de estado.” In the case of Jorge Serrano Elías, the media referred to his actions as an “auto-golpe” or self-coup, because he began as the legitimate president of Guatemala, but on May 25, 1993 he attempted to seize dictatorial powers by suspending the National Congress and the Supreme Court. The president also imposed a media blackout and banned most public gatherings. Supposedly, Serrano Elías took these measures to prevent a breakdown of social order, but some sources claim a hidden agenda motivated him to deflect attention from an emerging corruption scandal involving his personal finances.

Effects of the Coup

At first, the coup d'état hardly affected me. At the time, I was living in the highland city of Huehuetenango, and the political events of Guatemala City seemed a million miles removed. I never saw tanks or troops descending on the national square and I never heard a single shot. But the coup encroached upon my awareness with subtle strokes of fear, like a cold wind that slowly freezes everything.

I first learned of the coup from a secondary source. The mission president called an emergency meeting with all the missionaries from my zone. He spoke of the coup in general terms and informed us of the media blackout. He also urged us to refrain from speaking of any political matters to avoid putting ourselves in danger. The church was monitoring the situation and would inform us of any changes. They gave us two different code words in preparation for any possible contingency. If we received a call with the first code, we were instructed to remain indoors under all conditions. In that case, the church would contract local members of the church to deliver food and supplies until further notice. If we received a call with the second code, we were instructed to evacuate the country without delay. Church officials would wait at the airport with our passports and plane tickets.

The announcement was sobering. About a year before, the church evacuated all North American missionaries from Honduras after they received a series of death threats. I personally knew many of the missionaries who had been relocated to my mission and I knew their stories. The possibility of violence seemed only too real.

The media blackout had a chilling effect on the community. The normally boisterous street vendors fell silent as local magazines, newspapers, and radio outlets stopped all productions. Even cable news from foreign sources were scrambled. Hungry for any scrap of information, some missionaries called home to the U.S. in hopes of learning more from the outside. Much to our disappointment, most parents never even heard mention of the unrest brewing in Guatemala. No one knew anything.

In the absence of reliable news, disturbing rumors began to spread. One man told me of a massacre in a neighboring town square. Supposedly military officials took advantage of the media blackout to eliminate political rivals. Another person mentioned suspicious disappearances like the ones in the Argentine Dirty War of the 1970s. Unsure what to believe and what to disregard as mere rumor, a sort of quiet unease settled over me.

My feelings grew more unsettled as evidence of unrest pushed closer to home.

During the media blackout, I received a visit from a local woman we hired to wash our clothes. She had taken our laundry to her house to wash, and then returned it to iron in our house. She was a member of a local Evangelical Christian church and listened to Christian radio as she ironed. Without any authorized news, the music simply played uninterrupted without the usual commentary. The woman and I discussed religion for the better part of an hour until a man's voice began speaking over the radio. The woman placed a finger to her lips and hushed me. She squinted her eyes as if to concentrate better, then she said, "I know the man speaking, but he's not the regular announcer. He's the station owner."

We both listened for a moment as the station owner quoted a Bible verse and made some idle commentary about the weather. But even over the radio, the man's voice seemed stilted and stressed; he stuttered and paused in awkward places. Without warning, the man unleashed a frantic, rapid-fire succession of NEWS from Guatemala City! In a few short seconds we heard that a major faction of the military had spoken out against the president and that tanks entered the capitol city to challenge the coup. Then to our shock, we heard a struggle over the airwaves. The announcer's voice feel abruptly silent, followed by the sounds of men shouting and furniture crashing. A few seconds later, the entire station went blank.

We stood looking at each other in stunned silence as the woman's face turned pale. "I need to get home," she said. She quickly gathered her things and hurried out the door. Unfortunately, I never learned the fate of the station owner. I was transferred only a short time later.

Before the coup ended, the government banned all public gatherings with the exception of religious meetings within a formal church building. This meant that we had to cancel all religious meetings held in private homes. This measure only added to the heavy, eerie mood that had settled over the nation.


In the end, the president failed to gain the necessary support to sustain the auto-coup. He fled the country and took up residence in Panama. He was rumored to have taken millions of dollars in cash from the national coffers in the days before his resignation. Luckily, the coup ended and life returned to normal.

Lessons Learned

As a child, I had always heard about the freedoms we enjoy as citizens of the United States, but I never fully appreciated their meaning until I saw them temporarily removed. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly; these are all essential to a healthy democratic society, but I also learned something about the power of fear to control people.

A few months later, my mission ended and I returned to the United States. Somewhere near the same time, President Clinton de-classified top secret documents detailing the role of the United States in overthrowing of the democratically elected government of Guatemala. I would have never believed it, but I saw the country first-hand. I witnessed the oppression of indigenous peoples and experienced the fear of dictatorial power. More importantly, I heard firsthand the testimony of those who witnessed the overthrow of their government. How did our country ever participate in this?

And yet with all our faults as a nation, I learned to appreciate our constitutional freedoms more than ever before. I also learned the the "Indian Wars" never ended back in the days of the Old West. They often continue in places like Guatemala with bullets and armed conflict. We can do more to protect the rights of all people around the world.

To review:

Random Fact #1: I was once a millionaire.
Random Fact #2: I was once an Earth Ambassador.
Random Fact #3: I once drove a get-away car.
Random Fact #4: I read the Bible from cover to cover.
Random Fact #5: I was once a beggar.
Random Fact #6: I sometimes have prophetic dreams.
Random Fact #7: I survived a coup d'état.

No comments:


Related Posts with Thumbnails