An excerpt from A School of Change: Tribal Cultures
The Political Climate in Guatemala Changes

Following the overthrow of the civilian elected government by a CIA orchestrated coup in 1954, Guatemala had been under the rule of long line of generals.

The U.S. government fears were heightened after the Cuban revolution in 1959.

guatemalan generals
Guatemala's civilian government was overthrown
by a CIA orchestrated coup in 1954,

The U.S. military had increased its presence and influence in Latin America, supporting military strongmen who suppressed any populist movements through harsh intimidation, eliminating (murdering) any union, student or religious leaders speaking out on behalf of the poor. The "banana republics" were safe business environment for corporate interests such as American owned United Fruit.

Early in his term of office, U.S. President Jimmy Carter had established a foreign policy that based financial and military aid on a country’s human rights record. Guatemala’s funding was cut off and this had put a strain on the relationship of the two countries. However the more difficult to control CIA still maintained a presence, providing training and directing counter insurgency campaigns.

In a very real way the earthquake of 1976 had upset the checkerboard and put the entire country in a state of chaos. Desperate for aid on all fronts, the cracks in Guatemala’s infrastructure and control left spaces where groups working on behalf of the poor could squeeze through and organizations like Plenty were able to establish a presence.

By the end of the decade much of Central America was in turmoil. Nothing exemplified this more than the 1979 overthrow of the brutal dictator Samosa in Nicaragua by a broad populist movement led by pro-communist insurgents. Directly adjacent to Guatemala, El Salvador was in the midst of an intense struggle and many thought it would be the next to fall. The long feared domino effect put added pressure on Guatemala’s government to eliminate any possibility of a leftist uprising.

Within the first few weeks after Regan’s election the Guatemalan military set up check points along the Pan American Highway and other roads entering the capital. Buses, the main form of transportation, were frequently stopped and everyone inside ordered off while soldiers checked for weapons and searched for people who might have ties to a growing rebel movement. Plenty volunteers were frequent passengers and orchestrating the relief work included frequent appointments at government offices in Guatemala City, often the target of bomb threats and armed skirmishes.

Much of the countryside surrounding Plenty’s location in Guatemala was undeveloped, steep mountains of virtually impenetrable rainforest. These became the havens for rebel groups which meant the Guatemalan military had an active presence in the region. An army base was set up just outside Solola. Low flying helicopters with armed soldiers holding machine guns passed over the camp on almost a daily basis. For the Plenty volunteers, the idyllic life in the Land of Eternal Spring was disintegrating.

The fear intensified with the emergence of the death squads known as the White Hand, the mark left on doors at the homes of the disappeared. In conjunction with the overt military campaign, the real counter insurgency work was being done outside the realm of accountability.

Life in Guatemala changed dramatically after the election of Ronald Reagan as President of the United States. Even before taking office, it appeared as if deals were being made and the word was clear: use any and all means necessary to maintain control.

Day or night, armed men would arrive murdering anyone even suspected of not being in full support of the government, their mutilated bodies dumped in the center of a village to be an example of what would happen to those who questioned the military’s authority.

Entire were villages burned to the ground, turning anyone who survived into homeless refugees.  Ravines with scores of dead bodies began to become commonplace, reported weekly in the country’s newspapers with pictures and in graphic detail.

Douglas, a Plenty volunteer from 1978 to 1980, remembers, “One story in particular demonstrated the brutality and sent a clear message to the intent of the oppression.

In a town just across the lake from our location in Solola, a party was being held for two students who had just graduated and were returning to serve their community as doctors.

Armed, masked men arrived, took the two students away and murdered them.

It was clear that the life of anyone helping the people was at risk.”

"La Banda Plenty," The Plenty Band, played rock and roll in many town across Guatemala, putting out s subliminal message of hippie freedom and support for the Mayan people.

The Plenty volunteers were not exactly what you would call low profile. Farm men with their long hair and beards fit the profile of the Marxist revolutionary.

Plenty people dressed in the same hand woven clothing worn by the Mayans, a visible blatant statement of solidarity.

Virtually all of the projects were in direct support of the country’s Indigenous population, working with the poorest of the poor.

Douglas continues, “Everyone in the camp began to question how much longer could we stay? We felt a certain sense of security as Americans, believing that it would cause too much controversy in the U.S. media for any of us to become a target. However as we began to learn about American Catholic nuns and priests being tortured and murdered, even that barrier seemed to be dissolving.”

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Working in conjunction members of Plenty from The Farm, a Guatemalan engineer had been hired to design and draw up plans for some of the water projects.

“One evening after returning home from working at our offices, his neighbors came running forward, informing him that a death squad had been there that day looking for him. He came back to our camp in fear for his life, asking for any money he could have to escape with his family to another part of the country.

We gave him what we could and said our sorrowful goodbyes. We realized we were endangering people just by their affiliation with us.”

In the late summer of 1980 the decision was made to leave. The Farm’s greyhound bus arrived in September to transport everyone back to Tennessee. The dream was over.

Sister Diana Ortiz, an American Nun, documents her kidnap and torture by the Guatemalan secret police and U.S. "advisers" in her autobiography, The Blindfold's Eyes

Three single guys stayed behind a few more months to wrap up loose ends. The soy dairy was up and running and a good crew from the San Bartolo community was in place that could keep the operation going. Where and whenever possible, Guatemalans with the necessary experience were hired to implement and complete other ongoing projects. Over the coming decades, Plenty would continue to receive proposals and take on various projects in Guatemala, using the model of working with local organizers rather than sending down teams of American volunteers.

The Guatemala experience set the tone for the work of Plenty International for decades to come.  

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