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Forgotten 30-Year War In US Backyard

By Richard C. Hottelet. Richard C. Hotteletlongtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs. / November 9, 1995



GUATEMALA is worth more attention than it gets. Here is the longest civil war in Latin America, feeding on the hemisphere's worst human rights record. Over the past 30 years the violence has cost more than 100,000 dead and nearly 50,000 ''disappeared,'' as well as tens of thousands fleeing to Mexico and a million displaced in the country. It continues like a force of nature through five years of peace negotiations. With the end of communism, American concern for Latin America is limited.

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Ten million people make Guatemala the most populous of the five Central American republics. More than 6 million are Mayan Indians, who have, effectively, been in peonage since the Spanish conquest nearly 500 years ago. Small wonder that the country's history has been a succession of insurgencies, dictatorships, coups, and stretches of military rule with only occasional periods of representative government. An election, Nov. 12, for president and parliament is expected to make little difference. Thus far, the trappings of democracy - constitution, legislature, judiciary, and the rest - have been cosmetic. The two great powers have been, and are likely to remain, 1) the oligarchy of landowners and big business and 2) the Army, which dominates them both.

The United States has contributed to the turbulence. In the Eisenhower administration, as the cold war settled in, a CIA covert operation drove out Guatemala's President Jacobo Arbenz, who made commun- ist noises and antagonized the mighty United Fruit Company with his land-reform ideas. In retrospect, Arbenz was befuddled but probably harmless. The assassination of his installed successor led to a period of confusion in which military rebels established close ties with Castro's Cuba and started the current phase of civil war.

Massacres of Mayans

Not that this conflict is, or ever was, waged as a Communist assault on the government. Nor is it an uprising of the Indians in the classic pattern of peasant war. It is essentially a fight between the ins and the outs. Both sides' leaders are Latinos (Spanish speakers). The spokeswoman of the Mayans, Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, has been quoted as saying that neither represents her people's interests. The Mayans are victims, oppressed, brutalized, massacred. Villages have been burned to the ground by the military in so-called counterinsurgency sweeps designed to preserve a status quo that gives landowners cheap labor and the Army ultimate control. The US, unfortunately, added a sinister undercurrent, giving aid to the Army over the years while the CIA, in a rogue scheme, hired selected officers as spies, men who murdered and tortured people, including American citizens, as they pleased.

The rebel UNRG, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union, is a loose coalition of peasant groups, fragmented (21 languages, many mutually incomprehensible), and no match for the Army. Its tactic has been hit-and-run attacks on the military, sabotage, and minelaying as well as exhorting ''war taxes'' where it can.

Five years ago, the government and the URNG asked the United Nations to be observer at a peace dialogue. UN experts have been trying, since then, to nudge, wheedle, and cajole them forward. They cannot do more because the government insisted that UN participation be mandated by the General Assembly, not the Security Council, which can enforce a mandate. This has made it impossible to do in Guatemala what the UN did in bringing peace to El Salvador. The dialogue is now at a standstill.

UN reporting on human rights

The one practical step the UN has been able to take is a human rights monitoring network across Guatemala. Its latest report projects an ominous picture. Between 10 and 12 bodies are brought daily to the Guatemala City morgue, many shot with hands tied behind their backs. Members of the national police and the Army run death squads that do ''social cleansing,'' killing common criminals as well as political suspects. Experts say they are also involved in narcotics trafficking, car theft, kidnapping, and illegal logging. Lavish construction projects in Guatemala City smell of laundered drug money. Senior Army and Air Force officers have been indicted in American courts for shipping commercial quantities of cocaine to the US. A legal system that the report calls ''virtually paralyzed'' leaves them all untouched.

The tragedy in Guatemala threatens all in the region. Its Mayans are the same people as those who have risen up in Chiapas, directly unsettling Mexico. One of its most bloodthirsty dictators, Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, now president of the parliament, is plotting to get back into power.

What to do? Intervention is out. An unconventional move might be a start, rallying the whole range of nongovernmental organizations around the world to condemn what is wrong and encourage the elements of decency in Guatemala. A full court press in the UN Human Rights Commission and in the General Assembly would add more visibility. Businesspeople could communicate their disgust at what is going on. Governments, especially the United States, would do the same. The Guatemalan officer corps, which has long enjoyed the prestige of acceptance in America at military schools and training courses, could be told that their presence is unwelcome until things are put right.

Meanwhile, one should study seriously what more to do if such persuasion has no effect.