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
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
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
z e r s
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
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
genuine democrati-
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,
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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

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

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