Volume 2 Number 5
Ambush in Guatemala
01 May 1989
With a bullet in his arm, he zigzagged away, missing by inches the car that was blocking the road.
By PETER HINTZEN
Death looked Eliezer Cifuentes in the eye one night in September 1980. Four carloads of killers were waiting near his home; and as he drove into his street, they closed in on him and opened fire. With a bullet in his arm, he zigzagged away, missing by inches the car that was blocking the road. `I took off, with the cars in hot pursuit,' he says. `I had to sit low in the seat, using the outlines of the houses to steer by as I couldn't see the road.' Minutes later, he abandoned his car and ran for his life, finding shelter in a shop where he hid for five long hours.
Then, at midnight, he borrowed the shopkeeper's car, and, disguised as a woman, he drove back to Guatemala City, where he found asylum in the Costa Rican embassy. A diplomat with some nursing experience had to treat his wound, as no doctor was allowed in to see him.
It took four months of negotiations before he could fly away to safety in San Jose, on Pan Am flight 502. It was Christmas Day - sad hours that are now burned into Cifuentes' memory. Social Democratic Party colleagues, friends, his wife and children all came to see him off. Prayer services were held at the embassy and at the airport. Part of the deal allowing him to leave stipulated no statements to the press.
With his dark hair and imposing moustache, Cifuentes looks a typical Latin American. As you get to know him, you discover a man of exceptional warmth and charm. But as he left his country for exile, a fierce hatred of the military and a burning desire for revenge filled his heart.
Cifuentes was born in 1942 in the town of Quetzaltenango, 200 kilometres from Guatemala City. Four fifths of Guatemalans are Catholics, but Eliezer was the son of a Presbyterian minister. Since ministers are migrants, he had his schooling in a series of different places - an unconscious preparation for later uprootings. When he grew up, he became a school teacher, and married Maria Clemencia. On the side, he studied law, and at the time of the attempt on his life, he had completed the course, though the graduation ceremony was still to come.
Cifuentes' country has an enthralling beauty. About the size of West Virginia, it has a population of eight million. When they gained their independence from Spain in 1821, the five Central American republics of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala were all briefly united in one country. Today they still regard themselves as `one nation divided into five states'. Sixty per cent of Guatemalans are Indians, speaking 23 different languages.
Relations between them and Cifuentes' Spanish-speaking community have been difficult since the colonial conquest. From the arrival of the Conquistadores a small number of families have controlled most of the wealth, while the majority have remained very poor.
From the 1840s onwards, when North American settlers reached the Pacific Coast and gold was discovered in California, Washington has been keenly interested in the Central American isthmus, the key to two world oceans. Since then, the small republics have been caught between their strategic importance, and their political and economic weakness and instability. There have been 50 interventions by the US marines since 1850.
While Cifuentes was at school in the 1950s, the Cold War began to involve Central America. In 1954, Jacobo Arbenz, a democratically elected President of Guatemala, was kicked out of office by a military coup which received backing from the CIA and the American ambassador. Arbenz was considered soft on Communism, since he had begun to nationalize American interests, including those of the all-powerful United Fruit Company, nicknamed El Pulpo, the Octopus, by critics. Time and again the soldiers have taken over, claiming that the democratic organizations are being infiltrated. Washington has wanted stability before anything else, and strong regimes have long enjoyed US support, so the military have been regarded by opposition forces as the puppets of the big power to the north. Thus many have seen violence as the one road to freedom.
As a student, Cifuentes thought that way himself. Later he began to see the importance of persuasion and dialogue, and he joined the Social Democratic Party, getting deeply involved in the cooperative movement. But the traditional landowning classes have often seen even these more moderate movements as a threat to their position and privilege - so to them he was suspect. In Central America, that can mean death.
His exile filled his wife and children with hate, and it affected their health - they had seen the attempt on his life from their doorstep. For Cifuentes, the pain was eased a little by the warm welcome he received in Costa Rica from his party's exiled Secretary-General, Mario Solorzano. Through Solorzano's links with the Costa Rican ruling party, Cifuentes found himself with a job at the Social Democratic Documentation Centre, and he now works at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences.
`I never lost a sense of God's presence,' he says. With the help of friends, after months of separation, his family were able to join him and their fifth child was born in their new country. Their eldest daughter, Persida, says, `When I first arrived in Costa Rica I couldn't bear to see a policeman. I had to take pills to sleep and other pills for terrible headaches.'
`We have never suffered from hunger, or lack of clothing or shelter,' Cifuentes says, but he remembers their first Christmas in exile, when they had very little. They were preparing to celebrate without the fruit which is an essential part of the season there, when another exiled friend turned up to share a basket of fruit that he had been given. `I felt that God would look after us, and so he did,' comments Cifuentes.
A few months later, another Guatemalan friend, connected with the Christian Democratic Latin American trade union organization CLAT, invited him to an international conference of Moral Re-Armament, sponsored by the then Costa Rican President, Luis Alberto Monge. At first, as he listened, he thought that all he heard only echoed his own Social Democratic and Christian convictions. But then he saw a film that bowled him over. Called For the love of tomorrow, it told the story of a French Socialist woman, Irene Laure, who worked for reconciliation between France and Germany after the last war, despite all that she had suffered.
Cifuentes says, `I saw the tigers of hatred in my heart for the military, whom I blamed for the attempt on my life, and for the US which I felt was backing them. I hadn't practised the love that I had repeatedly preached. I found a renewal inside that began to change my feelings of hatred and my desire for vengeance.' He adds, `Giving up hatred is a wonderful personal experience, but my danger was to leave it at that.'
He took a radical step: he went to see a former Guatemalan intelligence officer, who he thought had been responsible for drawing up the lists of intended kidnap victims. `I told him about my new ideas,' he says, `but I did not have the courage to tell him about my hatred of the military.' Further meetings led to full honesty between them, and the beginnings of a change of attitude on the other side. He has now met outside the country with senior army officers who have also expressed their readiness to work with him for national reconciliation. After a struggle, Clemencia and the children also decided to forgive.
Cleaning out your own heart is not enough, Cifuentes believes. `What the Germans were for this French woman in the film, the military were for me. God has laid on my heart a task: the reconciliation of the military and the civilian population of my country.'
The bloodletting in Central America since the 1950s has been horrendous. Tens of thousands, often innocent peasants, have been caught between the guerrillas and the army. Though the East-West struggle has made it more bloody, the causes of the conflict are local. Mexico's President Lopez Portillo launched a search for `a local solution without outside interference', and in 1986, Esquipulas I - a regional peace agreement, named after a beautiful Guatemalan cathedral city - was signed by all five Central American presidents. A further agreement, Esquipulas II was signed in 1987, and this process earned Costa Rican President Oscar Arias a Nobel Peace Prize.
In the agreement, all the parties promised to refrain from supporting guerrillas in their neighbouring countries, and to move towards greater democracy. In February 1988, Esquipulas II received further impetus when Nicaragua promised free elections in return for the demobilization of the Contras, and by 1991, all five countries will have had the chance to vote for new leaders.
`Peace is not around the corner, but it is bound to come,' says Cifuentes. He has already gone back home on a visit, despite threats, and was able to see his father, his relatives and his old church community. He is now planning to move back to Guatemala with all the family. Since the election in 1986 of Christian Democrat Vinicio Cerezo as President, there is `a farfrom-perfect limited democracy' in Guatemala, he says. He wants to strengthen this process. `It can only succeed if the majority of people live in better circumstances. And all of us are responsible for this: the Ladinos (the people of Spanish culture), the Indians, the rich, the poor, the politicians and the military.'
He plans to run for Congress, but politics has its drawbacks, he believes. `The weakness of the politicians,' he says, `has been that they have sometimes irresponsibly turned real grievances into party banners, exploiting suspicion, and separating the Ladinos from the Indians, and the rich from the poor. That is why our country has suffered so much violence.'
Cifuentes advocates a dialogue with the Confederation of Agriculture, Commerce, Industry and Finance, the association which brings together those who hold the economic power in the country. `They have to become more aware of the conditions of our people,' he says. In such a highly polarized situation, the explosives littering the road towards national reconciliation make the journey look impossible - but what other road is there?