2 July 2020

Collection L contains materials collected by Ernesto Capuano in the time period from 1948 to 2001, mostly on Guatemala and on the Guatemalan exile in Mexico and, to a lesser extent, on other Central American countries and Communist Parties. Capuano, born in 1914, headed the Department of Agriculture in Guatemala under president Jacobo Arbenz. Arbenz was democratically elected in 1951. He attempted to implement a land reform to address the extreme poverty among the peasant and indigenous population of the country, and redress the extreme injustices in land distribution. Unused land owned by large landowners was to be nationalized and handed to small-holding peasants and cooperatives. Compensation payments to the previous owners were to be calculated on the basis of the value they’d declared in their last tax return – an amount that was usually far below the actual value of the land. One of those affected was the U.S. based United Fruit Company, which owned large amounts of land in Central America and exercised considerable political influence. The UFC was an important tool in the U.S. American politics of Empire, and the U.S. American government and the UFC’s shareholders were deeply intertwined with each other. Because the U.S. government considered Arbenz’s project of land reform as Communist and as detrimental to its interests, the U.S. supported a coup against Arbenz, who was forced to resign and sent into exile. Capuano was also forced to leave, to Mexico.

Capuano had been in exile in Mexico before. Active in the Communist Party of Guatemala since the 1930s, he’d travelled to Mexico in 1938 to participate in the Worldwide Antifascist Congress. Dictator-President Ubico refused him entry to Guatemala when he tried to return, and Capuano stayed in Mexico until the dictator was overthrown in 1942. During this first period of exile, Capuano completed his law degree and worked as a lawyer. Capuano – and this is reflected in the Collection L – was especially interested in questions of organising, in the different forms of anti-capitalist and anti-colonial resistance in the name of communizing resources and power, and in the forms of repression deployed against these resistances, especially in Guatemala. Collection L consists of the documents and press clippings he collected over the years on the Communist Parties and insurgencies in Guatemala, and it contains some information on other countries in Central America such as Nicaragua, Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica. The material links with Collection J, though it covers a longer time span, includes an earlier period, and approaches the subject matter not from the perspective of journalists, but from the perspective of someone involved in organising processes.

Some of the headers of the collection contain a vast range of material which reflects Capuano’s broad areas of interests. Guatemala 1954-2001 I and II GT2, for example, are a collection of newspaper clippings, typed documents, flyers and other documents which, taken together, form a tapestry of the situation in Guatemala during these time periods, seen from the perspective of an activist in exile. Similarly, the folder ‘Repression in Guatemala 1962-1984’ contains press clippings as

well as specific documents such as one produced by trade unions on activists that were forcibly disappeared (Documento Sindicalistas Desaparecidos V GT 3) and that preserve the gruelling events as well as a testament to the courage of the victims, and to the efforts made by those who compiled such information.

Under the label ‘Movimientos y Grupos armados’ is a significant collection of material on the various guerrilla forces in Guatemala, including the ORPA, EGP, PT, FAR and eventually, their umbrella organisation UNRG. This includes internal analytical documents as well as an interview with UNRG commander Gaspar Ilóm from 1989, and documents from around the time of the peace negotiations in the early 1990s.

The material collected under the header ‘Solidaridad y trabajo en el exilio 1971-1983’ (Solidarity and work in Exile 1971-1983) B GT 7 gives a fascinating insight into the many facets of the activity of exiled Guatemalans especially in Mexico and also, of the solidarity movement that supported them. In conjunction with collection K this enriches the picture of Mexico as a hub for Latin American exiles. Among the materials are many on the Universidad de San Marcos en el exilio (The University of San Marcos in Exile), the Unión Nacional de Mujeres Guatemaltecas (National Union of Guatemalan Women) which show the internationalist and solidarity-oriented outlook that the members of this organisation took on their own situation and that of all Central American women, and extensive material on Refugiados guatemaltecos en México (Guatemalan refugees in Mexico) which focuses on Guatemalan refugees from the rural areas who fled to Chiapas. In terms of the repression in the context of which so many atrocities were committed, the Manual de Guerra Contrasubversiva del Ejército de Guatemala of the Centro de Estudios Militares y Escuela de Comando y Estado Mayor, available under V GT 1, is one of the many useful documents for those studying and investigating counterinsurgency warfare.

The material on the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Rigoberta Menchú Tum, including Capuano’s invitation and ticket to the ceremony in Oslo and a transcript of a lecture she gave to celebrate this occasion in Mexico City, preserve materials from this significant event, when the quest of the Guatemalan people and especially, the indigenous population, finally found some resonance within global mainstream societies.

The papers in Collection L were donated to the CAMeNA by students of Capuano’s, to whom he had entrusted these papers before his death, with the explicit request to make them accessible to the public. The collection as a whole gives an insight into the view of the individual Capuano and into his intense organizational and intellectual involvement into his historical moment.

The research on which this post is based was funded by The Leverhulme Trust Fellowship on ‘Acquiescent Imaginaries: Snapshots from the Cultures of Low-Intensity Democracies ’. Cornelia Gräbner would like to thank the staff at the CAMeNA for their generous collaboration and support.

Re-posted from: