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The Guatemalan Peace Accords
NACLA Report on the Americas, May/June 1997
On Saturday night, December 28, 1996, the eve of the signing of Guatemala's historic 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 Revolutionary 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 clandestine 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 es tu oportunidad de dar felicidad," ("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 highlands 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 settlement, much like El Salvador's of 1992.
Brokered by the UN, they have not been imposed by victors upon vanquished. Rather, they represent a splitting of differences between radically opposed forces, with major concessions from both 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 minefields, including very serious resistance from those who have held power 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 government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 - and the only such opportunity 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 highlands against the URNG and its supporters. By the time a formally 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 subsequent settlements ending the civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador stiffened the elites' resolve "never" to permit such an outcome in Guatemala.
The extraordinary story of how, between 1986 and 1996, the Guatemalan army and government were gradually drawn into very much the same kind of process as the Salvadoran, with the UN as moderator and verifier of the process, will be chronicled in detail in my forthcoming book. 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 democratization, 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 addition, the Guatemalan process featured a novelty not present in the Salvadoran negotiations: the creation of the broad-based and politically 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 sectors. 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.
Substantively, the resulting Accords are a mix of genuine achievements and serious limitations. 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 the1985 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 intention to monitor respect for human rights, definitively altering the political context.
Secondly, 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 column" 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 one single function: defense of the borders and of Guatemala's territorial 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 guarantee citizen security. Finally, it mandates necessary reforms of the judicial system, to eliminate the pervasive impunity.
Some years ago, Guatemalan writer Carlos Figueroa gave us the unforgettable image of the "centaurization" of the Guatemalan state, i.e. its domination by a counterinsurgency apparatus that was half-beast, half-human - a mix of civilian and military power, with the prevalence of the military component. The demilitarization accord mandates the decentaurization of the state, as the precondition for strengthening civilian power and genuine democratization.
If the battle for full implementation is won, this accord will begin a profound change in the rules of Guatemalan politics. For those who have lived under Guatemala's thoroughly exclusionary political system all these years, ideological pluralism will be a significant achievement. A fog of fear has permeated virtually all human and social interactions 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 thefact that Guatemala is becoming a "normal" country because they have been living 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 anti-discrimination protections for Guatemala's indigenous majority - 60% of the population - to mandate a constitutional amendment redefining Guatemala as a multiethnic, multicultural and multilingual nation. If fully implemented, this agreement will require profound reforms in the country's educational, judicial and political 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 interactions. After its signing, the residents of Solola, a town in the heart of the conflict zone, decided to base the 1996 competition for the "Queen of Solola," traditionally a beauty contest, on who could best explain the Accord on Indigenous Rights. Together with the recent (independent) 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 provide 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 combined with the far-reaching (though partial) amnesty negotiated last December. The latter will cover war-related crimes - excluding genocide, torture and forced disappearances, but not extrajudicial killings. Essentially, the accord kicks the ball back to the courts. But the judicial system, due to be reformed via the Accord on the Strengthening of Civilian Power, still operates within a generalized framework of impunity and threats from the military. 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 representation 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) innocent civilians. These kinds of arguments, 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 constructed an image of "the ordinary Guatemalan" who lacks faith in/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 also see new possibilities. Moreover, 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 popular organizations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are challenging the amnesty law in court, and will continue their struggles 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 Guatemala, a step forward - and it nods in the direction of governmental responsibility for the well-being of the population. It commits the government 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 economic agenda, and the rampant neoliberal tendencies in the international community. People's daily lives will not improve directly as a result of the Accords.
As everywhere else in Latin America, socio-economic policies will be the result of political struggle once all political forces are legalized. The steady deterioration of social conditions in neighboring El Salvador since the signing of peace in 1992 is an ominous 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 fundamentalism, this could well be the Achilles heel of the whole arrangement, and could eventually undermine 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.
Beyond Guatemala, the signing 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 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 resolutions condemning Guatemala as "pro-Communist" out of the UN and into the far more compliant Organization of American States.
In Guatemala itself, on the positive side of the balance sheet, the peace process and the Accords have laid the basis for completing the country's long-interrupted democratic revolution, and have created a new political scenario. If the forces of the left are coherent and intelligent enough to use it well, they now have the space to fight for many of the goals not achieved in the Accords themselves.
On the negative side, in addition to the weaker accords, the signing opens up a new round of struggles, in which Guatemala's "peace resisters" and defenders of the old order are sharpening their knives. Just getting the entire complex of 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 cooperate. Both in the army and in the private sector, there will be hundreds of ways to sabotage 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 civilian police.
Aside from preempting the procedures envisioned in the final accord (a multipartite commission to monitor compliance), it violated the demilitarization accord, both openly and by finding every possible loophole. Concerted international support will be a necessary complement to internal struggles to overcome these kinds of resistance.
On the international front, the predicted "donor weariness" has not materialized, and since the signing, the Guatemalan government has been able to mobilize nearly $2 billion in pledges from the international community for the next four years. What is truly unsettling, however, is that these funds are not being conditioned on compliance with the Accords.
Unlike the IMF's debt-repayment conditionality, "peace conditionality," it seems, does not matter to the international financial institutions and G-7 governments.
Longer range, despite having the highest poverty rates in Latin America, Guatemala is not the poorest country. If neoliberal fundamentalism were abandoned and a strategy based on building an internal market economy were combined with export strategies, there would be a potential for sustainable development. On the other hand, a strictly neoliberal peace would end up serving to establish formal legitimacy for the status quo. Therefore, it will be essential to see just how neoliberal the implementation of the Guatemalan Accords is - and whether, indeed, anything has been learned from the post- war Salvadoran 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. Secondly, given its long, dangerous 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 demilitarization.
Instead, even as the Accords were being signed, talk began to surface about U.S. pressures to involve the army in anti-drug campaigns, clearly undermining 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 conditions 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.