He Wants to Be President : Guatemalan Priest Battling for Land Reform

Associated Press

His role models are the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador, two assassinated civil rights activists.

He nearly followed them full circle in September when attackers opened fire on his car, killing his bodyguard-driver and wounding his adopted son.

Father Andres Giron, a 42-year-old Roman Catholic priest, hasn’t stopped what he has been doing--pressing for land reform and seeking permission from the Vatican to run for president of this Central American country.

But that doesn’t mean that he is fearless.


“I’m afraid,” he said. “Sometimes I think it’s better to be a live burro than a dead thoroughbred.”

Giron, a U.S.-educated cleric who taught in the slums of Memphis, Tenn., in the 1960s and marched with King in the city’s garbage workers’ strike, continues to pursue land reform even though it can be mortally dangerous to do so.

Slaughter Quelled

His father and four other relatives were among the estimated 100,000 people killed in political violence during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Local and international human rights groups blame government security forces for the vast majority of the killings. The slaughter of suspected leftists quelled a stubborn, decades-old insurgency, though pockets of guerrilla activity remain.


Giron spent 1981-83 in the United States because of threats on his life here.

“In Guatemala, land is the source of power. No land, no power,” he said in an interview beneath an almond tree next to his church in Tiquisate, 55 miles southwest of Guatemala City.

Two bodyguards, one with a submachine gun and the other cradling a shotgun, leaned against the priest’s car nearby. Giron had just said Mass for about 200 parishioners, among them eight adolescent girls dressed in white lace and finery for their First Communion.

He told them in the homily that his Christian duty, and theirs, included “denouncing the terrible things going on in this country; that officials are stealing, that the army is killing people.”

He exhorted them to act as yeast in the figurative bread of society, to contribute to a rising up.

Focusing on Election

Giron has enlivened a political scene already focused on 1990 presidential elections.

He said he intends to use the National Campesino Assn. he formed in 1986 as the base for a political party. The party will challenge the centrist Christian Democrats and rightists who have dominated partisan politics since the return to civilian government in 1986.


The peasant organization represents 120,000 people, he said.

Ultraconservatives, who with the armed forces ran the country throughout its modern history, consider Giron a subversive. Some have called for his arrest.

“This country needs a spark to ignite a revolution, and I want to be part of that revolution,” he said.

The priest calculates that 71% of Guatemala’s arable land is owned by 1% of its population. Others dispute that figure. But there is agreement that land distribution is among the most skewed in the hemisphere, favoring a small group at the expense of Indian peasants, who make up nearly 60% of the population.

According to the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), enough uncultivated land is available on big estates to provide five-acre plots to each of the estimated 500,000 heads of peasant households with no land at all.

Dangerous Challenge

Challenging the gentry’s hold on land has always been dangerous.

President Jacobo Arbenz began the country’s first and only land reform in the early 1950s and his initiative galvanized rightist opposition. Military officers supported by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency overthrew Arbenz in 1954 and returned all expropriated holdings to their previous owners, among them the U.S.-based United Fruit Co.


AID subsequently described Arbenz’s reform plan as “moderate and progressive”

Giron does not have a detailed plan yet for redistributing land. But he describes his philosophy as radical. He envisions a Guatemala with no landless peasants, a place where country people have enough land to grow the food they need.

“It can’t be done in one year, or even two, because people have to be educated. But I would make a real revolution here, and they (the landholders) know it,” said Giron.

Giron, who supported the successful presidential candidacy of Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo in the 1985 election, said he has letters from the president in which the Christian Democrat committed himself to land reform.

No Public Commitment

Cerezo has made no such commitment publicly, but he has supported programs to aid small farmers. He also has used government funds to buy about 11,000 acres of land to divide among about 3,000 peasant families.

“All that has been done has been done very timidly,” said Giron, who with some followers invaded and occupied fallow farmland in 1986. The government bought the parcel and sold it to the peasants at subsidized prices.

Giron’s campesino association runs three cooperative farms on such land bought cheaply from the government.

He said Cerezo probably would have pursued small-scale redistribution had it not been for a coup attempt last May.

More, More Dependent

The military high command backed Cerezo’s government and put the rebellion down. But the civilian administration, which had been barely able to assert authority against the military in the best of times, became even more conditioned by and dependent upon military tutelage.

“May was it for Vinicio,” said Giron.

Rightists contend that breaking up large holdings would hurt production of hard currency-earning mainstays of the economy--coffee, sugar, bananas and cotton.

“Even in good export years, people are dying of hunger,” Giron said. “I’m not in favor of destroying the productive apparatus. I’m smart enough to know we can’t live without dollars.

“But I can’t go along with a system under which a small group of the privileged live like kings while most people live like beggars.”