Guatemalan University & Political Change

A review of ‘Do Not Tempt Us!’: The Guatemalan University in Protest, Memory, and Political Change, 1944-Present, by Heather A. Vrana.

In her dissertation, Heather Vrana has produced the first English-language monograph on the national university of Guatemala and its students. She draws on a wealth of sources to analyze how Guatemalan students at the University of San Carlos (USAC) contributed to the dialectical processes of state-making, the construction of the middle class, civil war, and reconciliation. Vrana argues that university students played determinant roles in all these processes through their cooperation and confrontation with the Guatemalan state. At the same time, the students used their actions to construct their political subjectivity and identity as San Carlistas. Vrana skillfully combines the historian’s art of narrative storytelling with a theoretician’s eye for meaning-making and subtext, weaving a nuanced, intricate story of political formation, struggle, and resistance.

Vrana’s introduction to the dissertation provides a detailed overview of the entire work. She offers a sweeping synopsis of twentieth-century Guatemalan history, including the Ten Years’ Spring (1944-1954) and the long civil war that followed (1960-1996), as well as a useful background on the national university/Universidad de San Carlos and its student population. She also familiarizes the reader with the physical and social geography of Guatemala City, a principal character in her story as well as the backdrop for much of the action. Vrana finishes by laying out the theoretical and methodological framework of her project, situating her work with that of a wide range of historians, anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, and cultural and social theorists.

Chapter 1 traces the transformation of the University of San Carlos from a “factory of professionals” to the “Republic of Students” during the democratic opening known as the Ten Years’ Spring. It examines how the overthrow of Guatemala’s dictator inspired a generation of young people to begin articulating a new San Carlista identity and a new sort of student nationalism “defined by a dual faith in the principles of Liberalism and the students’ duty to guide the nation in those principles’ full expression” (p. 46). USAC students both reached out to the pueblo and participated in the construction of Guatemala’s new government, taking on jobs in a growing bureaucracy that was central to the formation of an urban middle class. At the same time, the university enjoyed greater autonomy than it had in almost a century and gained independent control over its internal affairs. Vrana examines how debates over freedom, citizenship, progress, communism, suffrage, and inclusion shaped these various processes.

In the second chapter, Vrana examines the dynamic relationship between the university and the regime of Carlos Castillo Armas in the years immediately following the military coup against Jacobo Arbenz (1954-1957). There has been little historical scholarship produced on this period, a fact that alone makes Vrana’s research a valuable contribution to the literature on Guatemala. In this chapter, she continues her analysis of the middle class, arguing that the formation gained increasingly political meaning through student collaboration with and then opposition to the state. She traces how, in these liminal years between counter-revolution and civil war, an escalating series of conflicts drove a small group of anti-Armas protestors at USAC to lay the groundwork for greater battles to come, and San Carlista identity took on new meaning, shifting from state advisor to antagonist.

In Chapter 3, Vrana analyzes the arrival of the Cold War to the Universidad of San Carlos by examining how student celebrations and protests established traditions of struggle, revolutionary lineages, and structures of feeling. San Carlistas adopted new strategies of alliance building, appealed to international bodies, and openly criticized the government. Through strikes, festivals, commemorations, and symbolic burials, students’ feelings of belonging and citizenship continued to change and their skepticism toward electoral processes and yearning for dignity continued to grow. In this chapter, the first part of the dissertation to address the social meaning of time, Vrana argues that students’ “genealogies of affect” worked in a time of “past-as-ongoing,” and contends that “terror and San Carlistas’ affective responses to terror bridged the past, present, and future” (p. 217).

Chapter 4 deals with the years between 1965 and 1981, during which time Guatemalan students dedicated themselves to the modernization project of correcting their nation’s underdevelopment. Vrana recounts how they adapted dependency theory to explain their own colonial and ethnic circumstances, and constructed extension programs that sent educational brigades out into the countryside and into poor urban neighborhoods to engage in a reciprocal educational exchange with the pueblo. Acting as “hesitant agents of developmental interpellation” (p. 273), San Carlistas envisioned themselves as caretakers of the nation while at the same time they sought to learn from real-life encounters with other sectors of the population.

In Chapter 5, Vrana takes a detailed look at how the 1976 earthquake and the increase in state violence affected students. She argues that natural and political violence compelled students to engage more with national issues outside the campus, as they increasingly opted for direct action over verbal or written appeals. Thanks to this new activism, San Carlistas became “both architects and targets of the Guatemalan state” (p. 330). No longer simply caretakers, the students came to see themselves as part of the pueblo, participants in a coalition with rural and urban workers. Through campus and editorial memory practices, San Carlistas carried out unpredictable protests and reimagined their relationship to society and the state.

Chapter 6 focuses on mourning practices, as Vrana analyzes how students used a new “politics of death” to respond to the increased frequency of state violence in the late 1970s and early 1980s. While some students joined guerrilla groups, others developed innovative strategies of resistance, including appealing to international human rights law, strengthening alliances between city and countryside, and holding political funerals. The majority of the chapter focuses on this last element, as Vrana describes the deaths and funerals of four San Carlistas. She argues that “revolutionary transubstantiation” and “funeral flânerie” remade the meaning of death, time, space, and history and transformed understandings of San Carlista identity.

Vrana’s conclusion brings the story to the present day by examining the issues of human rights and popular memory. Recounting students’ struggles for university autonomy and their repeated denunciations of human rights violations, Vrana argues that “autonomy and human rights were twin articulations of just national democracy” (p. 458). She also retraces the many varieties of student nationalism, arguing that this ideology shaped Guatemala’s national politics, its civil war, and its process of reconciliation.

Heather Vrana’s dissertation is a valuable contribution to the historical literature on Guatemala: at once lucid and intellectually challenging. She joins a cohort of scholars who are doing exciting new work on Guatemala, including Greg Grandin, Deborah Levenson, J. T. Way, Kirsten Weld, Virginia Garrard-Burnett, Diane Nelson, and Kevin Lewis O’Neill. Her work also engages with that of Victoria Langland, Jaime Pensado, Louise Walker, Claudia Rueda, and Fernando Calderón in finding new ways to understand student movements and the middle class. Social and cultural theorists will find her work provocative and rewarding, as will historians, anthropologists, and sociologists.

Renata Keller, Ph.D.
Department of International Relations
Boston University
http://www.bu.edu/ir/faculty/alphabetical/renata-keller/

Primary Sources

Student publications, including the newspaper No Nos Tientes/Do Not Tempt Us
Archivo General of the University of San Carlos
Hemeroteca Nacional
Interviews
Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional

Dissertation Information

Indiana University. 2013. 496 pp. Primary advisor: Jeffrey L. Gould.

Image: Newspaper clipping identifying Victor Manuel Perez Avila as a victim of assassination by the Guatemalan National Police and a survey form for students’ interviews of survivors of violence. Archivo General de la USAC. Photo by Author.

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