In 1986, Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo (born 1942) was elected as the first civilian president of Guatemala following 15 years of military rule. Cerezo Arevalo's term of office lasted through 1990. The significance of these two facts, that he was a civilian president who remained in office for five years, is best understood by examing the violence and political turmoil that was part of daily life in Guatemala for over forty years.
In 1986, Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo was elected as Guatemala's first civilian president in fifteen years (1986-1990). The importance of his election and subsequent five year tenure is best understood by viewing the forty years preceding his election. Guatemala had experienced constant and violent political turmoil, swinging radically to the left and just as radically to the right, from the 1940s onward.
Born in Libertad, Guatemala, in 1942, Cerezo earned an undergraduate degree at the Salesian College of Don Bosco, and then went on to earn advanced degrees in law and public administration from the University of San Carlos. Cerezo joined the Christian Democratic Party in 1964, while still a college student, and was elected to his first office in the organization in 1970. This was the start of Cerezo's political career. He is married and the father of four children.
The first signs of serious political struggle surfaced in 1944, during Cerezo's youth, when a group of students, professionals, and dissident military officers overthrew dictator Gen. Jorge Ubico. Juan Jose Arevalo was elected as civilian president in 1945.
Political unrest continued during the next few years. In 1948, after registering protests with the United Nations, the Pan-American Union, and other American countries over British ownership of British Honduras (now Belize), the Guatemalan republic closed its border to British Honduras.
During this period of civil unrest a coalition of left-wing parties saw their candidate, Col. Jacobo Arbenz, win a decisive presidential victory (1950). Despite strong opposition, Arbenz' administration moved steadily leftward (pro-Communist) in its domestic policies. In 1952, a government order forbade anti-Communist demonstrations and the communist Guatemalan Labor Party was given legal status. By the end of 1953, more than a half million acres of land had been seized from private and government ownership and distributed to landless workers.
At the Tenth Inter-American Conference in March, 1954, the United States secured approval of an anti-Communist resolution condemning the Guatemalan government. Pro-Communists controlled important peasant organizations, labor unions, and government positions. In April, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Guatemala wrote a pastoral letter to the predominantly Catholic population, appealing for an uprising against Communism. In retaliation for these anti-Communist pronouncements, Arbenz' government began a round-up of all opposition leaders. Within days, all civil rights were suspended.
A few weeks later, a group of political and military exiles led by Col. Carlos Castillo Armas and headquartered in British Honduras (Belize) invaded Guatemala. The army refused to defend the government because of political disagreements between Arbenz and key social and military leaders. The coup was successful. By the end of June, Arbenz had resigned as president, the legislature had been dissolved, important Communist leaders had been arrested, and over 600 political prisoners were freed. In November, Castillo Armas was formally installed for a five year term as president and the government party won all 66 national assembly seats in the December elections. Anti-Communist forces were once again in control of Guatemala's government.
But in July of 1957, Castillo Armas was assassinated. Although the Guatemalan Congress named Vice-President Louis A. Gonzalez Lopez as provisional president, the validity of his re-election was challenged. A three-member military junta seized control of the government and the former Minister of Public Works, Gen. Miguel Ydigoras Fuentes, who was a bitter foe of Arbenz, was named president (1958).
Political revolts wracked the Guatemalan government during the next few years. Diplomatic relations between Guatemala and Cuba were severed (1960) when each country accused the other of trying to overthrow the government. The United States became involved once the military unrest became a perceived threat to U.S. lands. (For more information about U.S. involvement and the role of the U.S. secret intelligence forces, refer to the Bay of Pigs invasion.) Several Guatemalan junior military officers, in hiding after a failed revolt, became the nucleus for a Guatemalan guerrilla movement that established close ties with Cuba.
Demonstrations preceding the 1963 elections opened the door for another military coup and Defense Minister Col. Enrique Peralta Azurdia seized power. Peralta declared a state of emergency, cancelled the elections, and began a harsh crackdown on leftist insurgents. His unconstitutional seizure of power fomented a great deal of unrest, particularly with students (of which Cerezo was one). By the end of 1965 a constituent assembly had drafted a new constitution. When Julio Cesar Mendez Montenegro of the moderate Revolutionary Party won the 1966 presidential election, Guatemala was again ruled by a civilian president.
During Montenegro's reign, right-wing counter-terrorist groups, sanctioned by the army, killed hundreds of left-wing guerrillas. In retaliation, guerrilla forces attacked Guatemala City. Following a very violent campaign, rightist candidate Gen. Carlos Arana Osorio won the 1970 election. He immediately declared a state of siege and enforced intense anti-terrorist measures. Political murders conducted by both groups continued throughout Montenegro's term and that of his successor, Gen. Kjell Laugerus Garcia (1974-78). Two devastating natural disasters, a hurricane and an earthquake, struck Guatemala between 1974 and 1976, adding to the misery of Guatemala's people.
Civil savagery and death squads marked the presidential term of Gen. Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia (1978-82). Left-wing guerrilla groups concentrated on violent sabotage attacks, destroying government installations. Right-wing vigilante groups tortured and murdered anyone suspected of taking part in leftist activities. Students, professionals, and peasants were targeted by both extremist parties.
Only two weeks after the March 1982 election, the National Palace was surrounded by army troops. Military coup leaders accused Defense Minister Gen. Angel Anibal Guevara of winning the election through fraud. A three-man junta led by Gen. Efrain Rios Montt was installed. Shortly afterwards, two junta members resigned. Montt took over complete control as president-dictator. He cancelled both the election and the 1965 constitution, dissolved Congress, and suspended all political parties.
When guerrilla forces spurned an offer of amnesty, Montt fought them with a combination of military action and economic reforms, or, in his own words, "rifles and beans." New atrocities were committed daily by both government troops and rebellious guerrilla forces. With Guatemala's economy suffering a severe decline and military infighting steadily increasing, Montt imposed a state of siege, severely restricted civil liberties, and established his own series of special courts.
A military coup led by Defense Minister Gen. Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores (August, 1983) removed Montt from office. Cerezo of the Christian Democrat Party won the following 1985 run-off election with 68% of the presidential ballots. Cerezo's inauguration, held on January 14, 1986, marked a return to civilian government after 15 years of violent military rule.
As the new president, Cerezo faced enormous social, economic, and political problems. The nation's financial equilibrium had long rested on a combination of agricultural exports and tourism but the international demand for coffee, cotton, and sugar had not increased during the five year period preceding Cerezo's election and long-term political violence had discouraged tourism. As a result of these negative economic factors, Guatemala, on the eve of Cerezo's inauguration, suffered a badly depressed economy with an inflation rate of almost 60%, unemployment/ under-employment running close to 50%, and a foreign debt of some $2.3 billion.
These economic problems, however, paled in comparison with the generations-long social disequilibrium which had produced a badly fragmented and polarized society. As a reformer, the president would be under pressure from the far left, which advocated radical revolutionary change, and a far right military-backed conservative private sector that viewed even moderate reform as a dangerous opening to their revolutionary opponents.
Although Cerezo believed that armed confrontation should be resolved through political negotiation he found it difficult to curtail the domestic violence that had plagued Guatemala for so many years. Since 1954, more than 100,000 civilians had been killed by either left-wing or right-wing terrorists. As many as 250,000 Guatemalans had gone into exile, with some 40,000 clustered in refugee camps across the border in neighboring Mexico.
Two attempted coups launched by dissident military forces (May 1988 and May 1989) showed the fragility of Cerezo's position. Negotiations held in Madrid between the rebel leadership and representatives of Guatemala's major political parties resulted in a tentative agreement in which the rebels promised to enter the political process if the government imposed certain restrictions on the military. But the agreement could not be implemented. Even though the position of Human Rights Ombudsman was created in 1987, Cerezo's administration was heavily criticized for its reluctance in investigating and/or prosecuting human rights violations.
Cerezo's efforts at peacemaking in the Central American region met with more success than did his internal peacemaking efforts. Cerezo was able to assume the role of a disinterested broker for contending factions elsewhere on the isthmus partly because of Guatemala's strategic geographic position. His peacemaking efforts were demonstrated at various isthmian conferences (Esquipulas, Tela, San José) as well as at the Organization of American States and the United Nations.
During the last two years of his presidency, Cerezo was faced with a failing economy, protest marches, strikes, and serious allegations of financial corruption and mismanagement of support funds from other countries, especially from the United States. Other problems such as a high infant mortality rate, deficient social services, illiteracy, and a renewed increase in violence contributed to the general discontent.
Cerezo's legacy was one of an uninterrupted five-year term and the smooth transition of one elected civilian government to another, as well as significant contributions to the cause of Central American peace. After leaving office, Cerezo, like other former Guatemalan presidents, became a member of the Central American parliament.
A biography of Cerezo Arevalo appears in the 1989 edition of The International Year Book and Statesmen's Who's Who. For background information on Guatemala see Tom Barry, Guatemala, a Country Guide (Albuquerque: Inter-Hemispheric Education Research Center, 1989). Other sources (in Spanish) are: Secretaría de Relaciones Públicas de la Presidencia, Guatemala en la Democracia (Guatemala, 1989); Prensa Libre (Guatemala, 1985-1990); El Gráfico (Guatemala, 1985-1990); El Siglo Veintiuno (Guatemala, 1990); La Crónica (Guatemala, 1990).