Out of the Rubble: Doctors Strikes and State Repression in Guatemala’s Cold WarRoundup
tags: Cold War, Guatemala, Central America, coups, Latin American history
Ilan Palacios Avineri is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin.
Medical professionals are often viewed as apolitical, but what happens when they come to challenge a government? On February 4th, 1976, a cataclysmic earthquake brought an embattled Guatemala to its knees. Amidst a raging civil war, the terremoto (earthquake) razed countless houses and killed roughly 21,000 people in just 39 seconds. Thousands more emerged from the rubble with serious injuries and over a million, disproportionately Mayas from rural regions, were left homeless.
As Kjell Laugerud García’s right-wing regime scrambled to rebuild critical infrastructure, the country’s crippled hospitals became inundated with a flood of patients. In the crisis’s aftermath, doctors and nurses grew increasingly embittered by the abysmal state of public hospitals and began to agitate for more rights.
In August of 1976, public health care workers in Amatitlán organized a strike to demand salary increases along with better working conditions. These putatively middle-class physicians also insisted that their fellow employees, previously dismissed by the Public Health Ministry, be immediately restored to their posts. Contemporary news reports revealed that the government feared the prospect of solidarity between these urban workers and their rural counterparts. Such a history showcases how natural disasters can spur the middle-class into activism and threaten the established order.
As the health workers’ strike stretched into its third week, Agencia EFE published a lengthy speech by President Laugerud García that called for an immediate end to the protests. The dictator excoriated his country’s health care workers not only for violating Guatemalan laws prohibiting public employees from striking, but for engaging in an “immoral” movement. Invoking the Hippocratic oath, he lambasted the doctors and nurses for abandoning their “obligation to look after the sick” following the quake. He then pitted middle-class physicians and nurses against the peasant class, arguing that “the poor are the ones who suffer the most…who have been deprived of medical attention.”
After shaming the hospital employees, the caudillo (leader) threatened violence similar to that being deployed against leftist guerrillas in the countryside. “I am responsible for the health of all 6 million Guatemalans…,” Laugerud declared emphatically, “and [I] will not hesitate to act as drastically as necessary.” Notably, such warnings were a deliberate response not only to the physicians, but to growing protests among others “not involved in the hospital dispute.”
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