|| In Guatemala, peace amid cautious
By PAUL JEFFREY
Guatemalans took a significant step toward peace on Dec. 29 when government officials and guerrilla commanders signed an agreement ending Central America's longest running armed conflict.
The document, formally titled the Accord for a Firm and Lasting Peace, was signed in the National Palace before 1,200 invited guests, including representatives from more than 40 countries and the United Nations. Several thousand Guatemalans watched the ceremony on giant television screens outside the building while others participated in local ceremonies throughout the country.
Although most greeted the peace agreement as a positive development, analysts and observers expressed doubts that it will resolve the country's pressing problems. A poll published the day of the signing by Prensa Libre, a popular Guatemalan daily, showed that while 78 percent of those polled approve of the accords, only 38 percent believe they "will be respected."
At best, cautious optimism prevailed. "It's a necessary agreement, a legal document that provides the first step toward constructing real peace," said Miguel Palacios, an Episcopal priest and human rights activist. "Nothing has changed for the popular sectors, for the people who are beaten and marginalized. Yet if this agreement will help us start down the road toward the formal structural changes this country needs, then some day we may have a true and lasting peace."
The war has left its mark on every aspect of life here. "I am 32 years old," said Ronalth Ochaeta, director of the Human Rights Office of the Guatemala City Archdiocese. "I am part of the generation born during the conflict. I've grown up in a culture of polarization where reaching consensus is difficult and where distrust dominates human relationships."
More than 100,000 people died, an estimated 40,000 disappeared and upwards of one million were displaced from their homes during the almost 40 years of bloodshed. Counterinsurgency campaigns waged by the Guatemalan army and its paramilitary counterparts -- both of which were trained, advised and equipped by the United States -- brought the complete destruction of hundreds of indigenous villages in the highlands.
In 1990 the National Guatemalan Revolutionary Union guerrillas -- the URNG -- and government officials agreed to begin peace negotiations, which were mediated first by officials from the Catholic church and later by United Nations representatives. These talks had stalled in recent years, but the right-of-center President Alvaro Arzu revived them after he took office last January, using a pragmatic, hands-on approach that produced a rapid succession of thematic agreements and set the stage for the final act.
The ceremonial signing of the accords, however, will prove the easy part for Arzu; implementing the agreements is a formidable challenge.
"Now the really hard part starts," said Carlos Aldana, the information director for the Guatemala City Archdiocese, the day after the signing.
The Dec. 29 document mandates the implementation of the earlier thematic agreements, which include provisions on indigenous rights, socioeconomic changes and the role of the military in a postwar society. Those agreements contain ambitious programs -- everything from the resettling of thousands of families displaced by the repression and fighting to a litany of improvements in education, health, and other public services. They bear a four-year price tag of an estimated $2.5 billion. Government officials said they hope the international community will come up with two-thirds of that amount, but analysts say those contributions will probably be slow in coming.
The Clinton administration has pledged $40 million for peace and reconstruction, less than half of the $90 million earmarked for similar purposes in 1991.
To raise its own funds, the Guatemalan government must increase tax revenues from the current 7.9 percent of GDP -- the second-lowest rate in the hemisphere -- to at least 12 percent. To achieve that, the World Bank is recommending an increase in the regressive value-added tax, a form of sales tax, from 10 percent to 14 percent. Many financial analysts fear Arzu will have to eventually increase direct taxes on wealth and income, a move that might bring resistance from the politically powerful oligarchy.
Implementation of all the accords also means confronting corruption, a pervasive legacy of more than three decades of military rule. While Arzu has shown a willingness to take on corrupt bureaucrats, he is expected to have more difficulty overhauling the system as a whole. For example, farmers involved in growing export crops are likely to oppose attempts to set up a new registry of land titles, a provision mandated by the peace agreement. Export farmers have for decades expanded their properties by moving their boundary markers onto land belonging to indigenous communities.
Such corruption, unchallenged by a frightened and often corrupt judiciary, helped produce the most skewed pattern of income distribution in Latin America: The wealthiest fifth of the Guatemalan population has an income 30 times greater than the poorest fifth. Land tenure reflects the same reality -- 70 percent of arable lands are owned by less than 3 percent of the population.
An overview of Guatemala's economy and political system reveals that the country's indigenous majority always gets the short end of the stick. The Dec. 29 peace accords were no different. With a few exceptions like Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchu, indigenous people were conspicuously absent from the crowd that gathered for the signing inside the presidential palace. None of the signers from either the government negotiators or guerrilla forces were indigenous, and, of the eight representatives signing, only one was a woman -- Raquel Zelaya, an assistant negotiator for the government.
"We continue being excluded," commented Antonio Otzoy, a Presbyterian leader and indigenous writer. "The scene in the palace only confirms that neither the war nor the peace agreement is something that we want. Indigenous people continue searching for some way to participate in national life."
Such distrust poses a formidable obstacle to URNG rebel leaders. Although a jubilant crowd greeted the comandantes at the airport when they flew home from exile on Dec. 28, such euphoria will be difficult to sustain.
Many left-wing movements and political leaders have criticized the URNG for backing down on several points in the negotiations. Moreover, the intention of the former guerrillas to form a united left-wing party could turn into a turf battle with the New Guatemala Democratic Front, a mostly indigenous coalition that won 8 percent of the national vote in 1995 elections.
And the August kidnapping of 86-year-old Olga de Novella, a friend of the president, by a faction of the URNG has left its most marketable prospective political candidate, Rodrigo Asturias, an unpopular man.
Though details of the peace accord are pending, approximately 2,000 URNG combatants will demobilize in coming weeks. To provide the legal framework for their reassimilation into Guatemalan society, negotiators produced a "reconciliation law" that was approved by the Guatemalan Congress on Dec. 18.
The measure provoked strong criticism from those who said it would let military officials responsible for torture and massacres off the hook. "All of us who had nothing to do with this armed conflict but have loved ones who fell victim to it are totally opposed to such an extremely broad amnesty," said Karen Fischer, a Guatemalan lawyer who heads the Alliance Against Impunity, a coalition of human rights, religious and indigenous groups. "Rather than bringing reconciliation it will only create more polarization."
Legislators from Arzu's ruling party denied the law would absolve officials guilty of forced disappearance, torture, and other acts prohibited by international treaties. Opponents pledged to challenge the law's constitutionality.
Guatemala's Catholic bishops strongly criticized the measure. "The only kind of amnesty that's acceptable is one where the criminals ask publicly for forgiveness for what they've done, in order to open the possibility that the victims will offer them pardon," said San Marcos Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini. Arzu responded to these criticisms by claiming Catholic leaders had been "encouraging strife in the country for a long time."
The Clinton administration also criticized the potential amnesty, and Arzu angrily retorted that the United States and the former Soviet Union "shouldn't throw stones at this agreement, because they fought the Cold War in our back yard."
Guatemala's violent strife did indeed have its roots in the Cold War. The Central Intelligence Agency overthrew the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 because Arbenz planned to confiscate fallow land from the United Fruit Company. The CIA replaced Arbenz with a military government that has ruled Guatemala since with a brutality unrivaled in the hemisphere.
Young military officers, upset over corruption and Guatemala's involvement in the CIA's operations in Cuba, launched a revolt against their superiors in 1960. The failed coup produced a budding guerrilla movement that slowly grew over the years.
In 1981 four separate guerrilla armies merged into the URNG and mounted a significant challenge to the government. The government responded with a "scorched earth" counterinsurgency campaign that wiped out much of the guerrilla movement and tens of thousands of innocent civilians, most of them indigenous Maya. From then on, the rebels were never more than an insignificant military force, but the Guatemalan army used their existence to justify continued repression of civilian activists. Successive U.S. administrations also used it to justify military aid and intelligence assistance to the Guatemalan regimes.
Few believe the signing of the accords will curtail military repression entirely, and analysts say the real test of the agreement will lie in Arzu's ability to moderate sectors of the military leadership and rein in violence. The death squad-style killings in December of both a journalist and a prominent human rights activist lend credence to these concerns.
National Catholic Reporter, January 10, 1997