Guatemalan Peace Accords: An End and a Beginning

September 25, 2007

On Saturday night, December 28, 1996, the eve of the signing of Guatemala's his- toric Peace Accords, Guatemala City's central plaza was the scene of unprecedented-previously unimaginable-popular ceremonies and celebrations. At the plaza's acoustic bandstand, supporters of the country's guerrilla movement, the Guatemalan National Revo- lutionary Unity (URNG), held a public rally. As if they themselves couldn't quite believe it, some of them still covered their faces with kerchiefs, the mark of the old clan- destine mentality. A young man thrust a URNG women's-rights flyer into my hand. The lights of the majestic Metropolitan Cathedral gave off a surreal glow, while the buildings surrounding the Plaza were draped with banners: "La paz Susanne Jonas teaches Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz. In 1974, NACLA published Guatemala, which she edited with David Tobis. She is the author of The Battle For Guatemala (Westview Press, 1991) and is now writing a book on the peace process. es tu oportunidad de darfelicidad, " ("Peace is your chance to spread happiness") and "Construyamos la paz: Guatemala lo merece" ("Let's build peace: Guatemala deserves it"). The December 29 signing of the Peace Accords ending Guatemala's 36-year civil war opens up a new chapter in the country's history. Guatemala's was the longest and bloodiest of Latin America's Cold War civil wars, leaving between 150,000 and 200,000 civilians dead or "disappeared," primarily high- lands Indians. Taken as a whole, the Accords declare an "adios" to 42 years of painful Cold War history. Taken one by one, the Accords are a mix of strong and weak agreements. They are certainly not the product of a revolutionary victory, but they do represent a truly negotiated settle- ment, much like El Salvador's of 1992. Brokered by the UN, they have not been imposed by victors upon vanquished. Rather, they repre- sent a splitting of differences between radically opposed forces, with major concessions from both Guatemala's road to peace is full of minefields. But if fully implemented, the Peace Accords open an opportunity for significant transformations of Guatemalan society. Onlookers watch a Mayan ceremony celebrating the signing of the Accords in Guatemala City's central plaza. sides. The obligations they impose on the Guatemalan government, including significant constitutional reforms, are written down in black and white; they are internationally binding and will be verified by the UN. The road ahead is full of mine- fields, including very serious resis- tance from powerful forces that retain a stake in the old system. But if fully implemented, the Accords open up an opportunity for some significant transformations of Guatemalan society-the only such opportunity in half a century, since the CIA-orchestrated overthrow of the democratic reformist govern- ment of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. This is also the only such opportuni- ty that Guatemala will have for another half century. The process leading to the signing began in the mid-1980s, 26 years into the civil war and following the government's genocidal 1981-1983 "scorched-earth" counterinsurgency campaign in the indigenous high- lands against the URNG and its sup- porters. By the time a formally 6 z e r s L 6 NACIA REPORT ON THE AMERICASESSAY/ GUATEMALA End and a Beginning civilian government took office in 1986, the URNG recognized that winning state power through armed struggle was out of the question, and took initiatives to propose a political negotiation. The government and army maintained that since they had "defeated" the URNG, they had no need to negotiate until the guerrillas had laid down their arms. The sub- sequent settlements ending the civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador stiffened the elites' resolve "never" to permit such an outcome in Guatemala. Between 1986 and 1996, howev- er, the Guatemalan army and gov- ernment were gradually drawn into very much the same kind of process as the one that took place in neigh- boring El Salvador, with the UN as moderator and verifier of the process. The negotiations began in 1991 with a leading Catholic Bishop as "conciliator." But the process took on a new, less reversible dynamic in 1994, after the UN and other international actors became key players. Meanwhile, the peace process itself became central to a gradual opening up, or democratiza- tion, of Guatemala. It created a space for discussion of issues that had been taboo for decades-and that remained taboo in the still- restricted electoral arena. In addi- tion, the Guatemalan process fea- tured a novelty not present in the Salvadoran negotiations: the cre- ation of the broad-based and politi- cally pluralistic Assembly of Civil Society (ASC), a forum of virtually all of the organized sectors of civil society except, by their own choice, the big-business sector. As the main agreements were being hammered out, the ASC-after engaging in a fascinating process of consensus- building among widely divergent positions--offered proposals to the negotiating parties that had to be taken into account. ubstantively, the resulting Accords are a mix of genuine achievements and serious lim- itations. The first breakthrough achievement was the Human Rights Accord, signed in March, 1994. It was important not so much for any new concept of human rights- these were already guaranteed on paper in the 1985 Constitution-as for the new mechanism it created for ending their systematic violation in practice: it brought a UN Verification Mission (MINUGUA) into the country. The on-the-ground, in-country UN presence signified the international community's inten- tion to monitor respect for human rights, definitively altering the polit- ical context. Second, at the heart of the entire arrangement is the Demilitarization Accord (Strengthening of Civilian Power and the Role of the Army in a Democratic Society), signed in September, 1996. This accord requires far-reaching constitutional reforms to limit the functions of the army-which since the 1960s has considered itself the "spinal col- umn" of the Guatemalan state and has involved itself in everything from internal security to civic action and vaccinating babies. Henceforth, the accord stipulates, the army will have a single function: defense of the borders and of Guatemala's ter- ritorial integrity. The Accord also eliminates the dreaded paramilitary "Civilian Self-Defense Patrols" and other counterinsurgency security units, reduces the size and budget of the army by a third, and creates a new civilian police force to guaran- tee citizen security. Finally, it man- dates necessary reforms of the judi- cial system to eliminate the perva- sive impunity. Some years ago, Guatemalan writer Carlos Figueroa gave us the unforgettable image of the "centau- rization" of the Guatemalan state. Dominated by a counterinsurgency apparatus that was half-beast, half- human, that state was a mix of civil- ian and military power, with the prevalence of the military compo- nent. The Demilitarization Accord mandates the "decentaurization" of the state, as the precondition for strengthening civilian power and Vol XXX, No 6 MAY/JUNE 19977 Vol XXX, No 6 MAY/JUNE 1997 7ESSAY/ GUATEMALA genuine democrati- zation. If the battle for full implementation is won, this accord will begin a pro- found change in the rules of Guate- malan politics. For those who have lived under Guate- mala's thoroughly exclusionary politi- cal system all these years, ideological pluralism will be a significant achieve- ment. A fog of fear has permeated vir- Lieutenant Mau tually all human Alberto, of the and social interac- Peace Accords w tions except among the privileged elites. As recently as the early 1990s, an intellectual like Myrna Mack could be brutally assassinated for overstepping unwritten research boundaries, and activists could be assassinated for "paving the way" for the URNG's return (which the army had vowed to prevent). Strange as it sounds, people can celebrate the fact that Guatemala is becoming a "normal" country because they have been liv- ing in a virtual state of exception for over 40 years. As Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias said of Guatemala in 1994, "We'll be secure when we hear that knock at the door at 6:00 a.m. and we know it's only the milkman." The other significant gain is the 1995 Accord on Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This accord goes far beyond antidiscrimination protections for Guatemala's indige- nous majority-0% of the pop- ulation-to mandate a constitutional amendment redefining Guatemala as a multiethnic, multicultural and multilingual nation. If fully imple- mented, this agreement will require profound reforms in the country's educational, judicial and political ricio Marcos, left, of the Guatemalan army ai URNG, visit Cantabal, in the Ixcan departmen ,ere signed. systems. It lays the formal basis for a new entitlement of Guatemala's indigenous majority, a right to make claims upon the state. It also creates a new context for social interac- tions. After its signing, the residents of Solold, a town in the heart of the conflict zone, decided to base the 1996 competition for the "Queen of Sololi," traditionally a beauty con- test, on who could best explain the Accord on Indigenous Rights. Together with the recent (indepen- dent) growth of various indigenous movements, the accord was part of the context for the unprecedented 1995 election of an indigenous mayor of Guatemala's second city, Quezaltenango. Of course, there are very serious limitations and flaws in the Accords. Most prominently featured in the United States is the failure to pro- vide real justice to victims of the war. To begin with, Guatemala's "Truth Commission" will be empowered neither to take judicial action nor even to name individually those responsible for unspeakable human rights crimes. This accord, which generated howls of protest in Guatemala when it was first signed in 1994, is even worse when com- bined with the far- reaching (though partial) amnesty ne- gotiated last Decem- ber. The latter will cover war-related crimes-excluding genocide, torture and forced disappear- ances, but not extra- judicial killings. Essentially, the ac- cord kicks the ball back to the courts. But the judicial sys- tem, due to be nd Comandante reformed via the Ac- t, the day after cord on the Strength- ening of Civilian Power, still operates within a generalized framework of impunity and threats from the mili- tary. The struggle against impunity will undoubtedly be a weathervane of the progress toward change in Guatemala. Given the magnitude of the army's crimes, the weakness of the accords on the issue of justice for victims raises unquestionable moral challenges. Nevertheless, the repre- sentation of that weakness in many U.S. media-including some of the pro-human rights left-has vastly oversimplified the issue. Articles on the editorial pages of the New York Times, among others, have argued that the flawed amnesty law "defined" (i.e., ruined) the Peace Accords as a whole, and that this was largely due to an opportunistic, self-serving stance of the URNG. A subtext of this current of opinion is that the URNG was as guilty as the army of using (even abusing) inno- cent civilians. These kinds of argu- ments, which implicitly condemn the entire peace process, have been carefully avoided by the majority of human rights activists inside Guatemala, even as they continue to fight for justice. NACIA REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 8ESSAY/ GUATEMALA The current of nihilism running throughout much of the U.S. reportage and interpretation of Guatemala's peace has also con- structed an image of "the ordinary Guatemalan" who lacks faith in, or is indifferent to, the Peace Accords. Such negativity misses the victory, partial though it may be, finally won by the Guatemalan people. Worse yet, it misses the opportunity to pressure for the government's total compliance with the many positive provisions of the Accords. Many Guatemalans are skeptical or worried about the future, but they also see new possibilities. And thousands of refugees exiled in Mexico since the 1980s are now deciding, finally, to return, despite the uncertainties awaiting them in Guatemala. Fortunately, many organizations and coalitions of Guatemalan civil society have taken matters into their own hands to compensate for the weaknesses of the Truth Commission and the amnesty law. The Catholic Church has a massive nation-wide project, called "Recovery of Historical Memory," to bring forth testimony from victims and to name names. Several coalitions of popu- lar organizations and nongovern- mental organizations (NGOs) are challenging the amnesty law in court, and will continue their strug- gles to hold human rights criminals responsible. Equally or more serious are the shortcomings in the Accord on Socio-Economic and Agrarian Issues. The accord recognizes poverty as a problem-for Guate- mala, a step forward-and it nods in the direction of governmental responsibility for the well-being of the population. It commits the gov- ernment to increase the ratio of taxes to GDP from under 8% (the lowest in the hemisphere) to 12% within the next four years. However, it sidesteps the ever- present issue of land reform, and it guarantees no reforms to address the alarming rate of un- and under- employment, now 66%. The compromises on these issues are not surprising, given the need to get the private sector on board, the government's conservative eco- nomic agenda, and the rampant neoliberal tendencies in the interna- tional community. People's daily lives will not improve directly as a result of the Accords. As every- where else in Latin America, socio- economic policies will be the result of political struggle once all politi- cal forces are legalized. The steady deterioration of social conditions in neighboring El Salvador since the signing of peace in 1992 is an omi- nous precedent. Some high-level UN officials express confidence that the "international community" will heed the lessons of the Salvadoran experience. But if it turns out that the logic of the Guatemalan accords is subordinated to the logic of neoliberal fundamen- talism, this could well be the Achilles' heel of the whole arrange- ment, and could eventually under- mine democratic gains. To mention only one possibility: an increase in social violence and common crime, driven partly by poverty, could spark calls to reinvolve the army in maintaining internal security. ing of the Accords marks a milestone for the hemisphere in several ways. First, it closes the cycle of Cold War civil wars in Latin America that, since 1960, have pitted pro-Cuba, pro-socialist guerrilla rebels against U.S.- supported, trained and maintained counterinsurgency armies. Let us remember that Guatemala during the late 1960s was Washington's counterinsurgency laboratory for Latin America. Clearly, this is not the "end of history" in Latin America. New cycles of resistance have already emerged, most notably on Guatemala's northern border, in Chiapas. But these are not full- fledged civil wars, nor are they steeped in Cold War ideology. Guatemala ended one cycle, and Chiapas is part of a new cycle of resistance to oppression which will have a different dynamic. Second, Guatemala's Accords reiterate one of the great messages emerging from Central America's civil wars and peace processes of the 1980s and 1990s: that there is a While the Accords are not perfect, those who stress only their negative aspects miss the victory, partial though it may be, finally won by the Guatemalan people. world of difference between a true negotiation between armed leftist insurgents and the civilian/military elites, as in El Salvador and Guatemala, and a more limited "pact" simply between civilian and military elites, as in Chile. Even today, Chile's General Pinochet retains substantial veto power, and leading politicians can be jailed for verbally insulting him. Third, the "decentaurization" of Guatemala, if successful, will send a message to the hemisphere: if power could be wrested from the counterinsurgency monster in Guatemala, if this army could be effectively de-fanged, then there is hope that no one in Latin America should have to fear that knock at the door at 6:00 a.m. Finally, the central role of the UN as mediator and now as guarantor of compliance with the Accords in the Vol XXX, No 6 MAY/JUNE 1997 9ESSAY/ GUATEMALA historic "backyard of the United States" poses a challenge to U.S. domination in the hemisphere. Recall that in 1954, when laying the diplomatic groundwork for the overthrow of Arbenz, Washington went to great lengths to steer the constitutional reforms and new laws through the Guatemalan Congress will entail a series of battles. The second-largest party in Congress is the extreme-right party of ex-dictator Efrain Rios Montt, which has stated that it feels no obligation to cooper- ate. Both in the army and in the private sec- tor, there will be hun- dreds of ways to sabo- tage the Accords or to secure only partial compliance-which, on some points, would be as bad as non- compliance. An early example of just how difficult the struggles will be is the February 1997 congressional law creating the new civil- ian police. Aside from preempting the proce- dures envisioned in the final accord (a multi- partite commission to monitor compliance), it Two former guerrilla fighters, lxil Indians who belonged to the Ho Chi Minh Front of the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (one of the member groups of the URNG), pose at a demobilization camp monitored by the UN. resolutions condemning Guatemala hole. Con as "pro-Communist" out of the UN port will and into the far more compliant ment to ir Organization of American States. come thes In Guatemala itself, on the posi- On the ii tive side of the balance sheet, the dicted "de peace process and the Accords have materialize laid the basis for completing the the Guate country's long-interrupted democ- been able 1 ratic revolution. If the forces of the lion in plec left are coherent and intelligent community enough to use it well, they now have What is trt the space to fight for many of the that these i goals not achieved in the Accords tioned on themselves. Accords. On the negative side, in addition repayment to the weaker accords, the signing conditiona opens up a new round of struggles, matter to t in which Guatemala's "peace institutions resisters" and defenders of the old In the lo order are sharpening their knives, highest p Just getting the entire complex of America, violated the demlita- rization accord, both openly and by finding every possible loop- certed international sup- be a necessary comple- iternal struggles to over- e kinds of resistance. nternational front, the pre- )nor weariness" has not ed, and since the signing, malan government has to mobilize nearly $2 bil- Iges from the international y for the next four years. aly unsettling, however, is funds are not being condi- compliance with the Unlike the IMF's debt- t conditionality, "peace lity," it seems, does not he international financial and G-7 governments. ng run, despite having the overty rates in Latin Guatemala is not the poorest country. If neoliberal funda- mentalism were avoided and a strat- egy based on building an internal market economy were combined with export strategies, there would be a potential for sustainable devel- opment. On the other hand, a strictly neoliberal peace would end up serv- ing to establish formal legitimacy for the status quo. Therefore, it will be essential to see just how neolib- eral the implementation of the Guatemalan Accords will be- and whether anything has been learned from the postwar Salva- doran experience. Finally, there are issues of special concern to U.S. citizens. First, it is essential that the U.S. government be willing to fully declassify and disclose information to help bring to light the truth about the last 42 years. Second, given its long, dan- gerous liaison with Guatemala's counterinsurgency army-a history I examined in the Summer 1996 issue of Foreign Policy-Washington should be showing unequivocal support for Guatemala's demilita- rization. Instead, even as the Accords were being signed, talk began to surface about U.S. pres- sures to involve the army in anti- drug campaigns, clearly undermin- ing the accord that limits the army's role to external defense. Does Washington intend to maintain the Guatemalan army as a strategic ally or "asset" even into the twenty-first century? The path to a lasting peace will be difficult. The most important battles for implementation of the Accords are yet to come, but at least the con- ditions now exist to move into that new phase. Guatemala's supporters in the United States can contribute to building peace and help defuse the many mines in the road ahead by monitoring compliance, insisting on peace conditionality, supporting the role of the UN, and watching our own government's actions like hawks.

Tags: Guatemala, civil war, peace accords, human rights, URNG


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