Guatemalan Homecoming Rests On Fragile Peace

As 36-year civil war ends, Indian returnees pin hopes on government promises of land and a better life

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Through the large gap in the walls of her unfinished house of wood, plastic, tin, and thatch, Evangelina Rodriguez can see the nearby jungle, a giant wall of trees poised as if to reclaim the open land.

Her husband, Hilberto Herrera, is clearing away underbrush to plant beans. Several other men and two teenage boys are sawing planks from a freshly cut tree to build a school.

Chickens run through the open-sided house where Mrs. Rodriguez sits on a wooden chair, taking a break from her dawn-to-dusk chores. Her young son, Hilberto, peers shyly at the visitors from a handmade hammock. Teenage daughter Angelica is preparing to head off to meet other teenagers.

Recommended: International Women's day: Test your knowledge about women leaders

Descendants of a people nearly destroyed by the Spanish conquest in the 1500s, and survivors of a genocidal civil war in the 1980s, Rodriguez and others in this settlement in northern Guatemala are "starting afresh," she says.

They are among some 150,000 Mayans, indigenous Guatemalan Indians, who fled the country for Mexico in the early 1980s. During that part of a 36-year war, the Army destroyed more than 400 villages and killed at least 100,000 people in a scorched-earth response to a leftist guerrilla movement whose main recruits were Indians.

But many who left have returned as the civil conflict has wound down - some under an agreement with the Guatemalan government, others on their own. While their motives for coming back vary, all the returnees share one concern: They are staking their lives on continued peace in Guatemala.

On Dec. 29, 1996, the government of Guatemala and leaders of the guerrilla movement signed the final of several peace pacts, ending a war that killed at least 150,000 over 3-1/2 decades - mostly civilians, mostly Indians. This pact ended the last of Central America's civil wars involving leftist guerrilla insurgencies.

Whether the former refugees find peace and get land titles and basic services will be a test of the sincerity - and capability - of the government to live up to its promises.

"The peace pact is only paper," Rodriguez says. "What we want is a life of dignity - including schools, roads, land, clinics, things like this."

Of the Guatemalans who fled to Mexico, 46,000 landed in UN camps. The circumstances of their return have given them hope that some of these goals may be realized.

In 1992, in an unprecedented move, those refugees signed an agreement with the government of Guatemala that set terms for their return.

The agreement came about in part because the Guatemalan government was under pressure from its neighbors and the United States to resettle refugees. Even the Army wanted the issue settled: "They couldn't prove the war was over if people wouldn't come home," says Curt Wands, national director of the Chicago-based, nonprofit National Coordinating Office on the Refugees and Displaced of Guatemala (NCOORD).

"This was the first time in history - all over the world - that refugees negotiated conditions for their return," says Juan Carlos Murillo, protection officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Guatemala. "It's a good precedent." The agreement included access to land, basic services such as roads and clinics, and exemption from military service for three years. The refugees also spelled out when and where they would return.

Since 1993, Rodriguez and some 30,000 others have returned to Guatemala from the camps in organized groups to their old villages, or to new settlements such as La Esmeralda in cases where others have taken over their old lands.

What happens to the former refugees - and the rest of the majority Indian population - may also determine whether Guatemala remains at peace.

"Land and security issues are the two major causes of what brought about the war in Guatemala," says Mr. Wands of NCOORD.

The government has promised returning refugees land, or money to buy it, but the recent peace pacts make no such promise for the rest of the population. Land ownership remains concentrated in the hands of a few elites.

For most of Guatemala's indigenous peoples, which account for about half the population, and for many others living in poverty, life is difficult. Life expectancy in Guatemala is only 63 years, compared to an average of 68 in Latin America and 75 in the US. Some 30,000 children die in Guatemala each year of preventible diseases, Wands says. Many farmers still plant corn using a stick to poke a hole in the worn-out soil for each seed. Often farmers carry 150 pounds of coffee or firewood on their backs.

If basic needs continue to be unmet, "within five to 10 years there will be another guerrilla group in Guatemala based on the desire to survive," Wands predicts.

Many Guatemalans also complain about lack of the rule of law. They worry that demobilization of the guerrillas and one-third of the Army, under terms of the peace pacts, will add to unemployment and armed robbery.

Meanwhile, the country's power structure has changed little over the last century. About 60 percent of urban residents and 80 percent of the rural population live in poverty, too poor to afford an adequate diet, according the United Nations Development Program.

The wealthiest 10 percent of the population received 44 percent of national income in 1987, according to the UN Economic Commission for Latin America.

"Guatemala's land distribution is the most unequal in Latin America," writes Susanne Jonas, a specialist and author of several books on Guatemala. The largest 3 percent of farms cover nearly two-thirds of arable land, according to Guatemalan government statistics.

A history of repression

Guatemala's history is one of repression of the majority Indians. In her book "The Battle for Guatemala: Rebels, Death Squads, and US Power" (1991), Ms. Jonas writes that an "estimated two-thirds to six-sevenths of the Indian population in Central America and Mexico died between 1519 and 1650, as a consequence not only of the conquest [by the Spanish] per se but also of subsequent raging disease epidemics."

The 20th century has been little better for Guatemala's Indians. In the early 1900s, many were forced into virtual slave labor on coffee farms and in building public works. Debt servitude became common. A 1934 law required landless peasants - in debt or not - to work at least 150 days a year for private growers or the state.

The US-based United Fruit Company (UFC) became the country's largest landowner. It enjoyed practically unlimited privileges in Guatemala and virtual exemption from labor regulations, Jonas writes.

But this began to shift when Jacobo Arbenz Guzmn was elected president in 1950 and the country undertook a series of bold land reforms.

With the backing of Mr. Arbenz, the Congress passed an agrarian reform law aimed at providing unused farm land to poor rural residents and compensating the owners. The government seized some 400,000 acres of land belonging to the UFC. In addition, the government began trying to enforce labor laws protecting workers.

But as a new sense of nationalism was growing in Guatemala, the US was caught up in cold war fears of communism. In 1954, the CIA helped engineer the overthrow of Arbenz and flew his successor, Carlos Castillo Armas, to Guatemala City in a US aircraft. What followed was 40 more years of military repression against Indians. Guerrillas also committed atrocities and forcibly recruited Indians, and imposed war "taxes."

"Guatemala has suffered 40 years of repression and violence, and exclusion of the indigenous majority [from most benefits of society]," says Mark Schneider, assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean for the US Agency for International Development (USAID). "That has come to an end," Mr. Schneider contends.

He points to the firing of some senior military officers, corruption charges filed by the government against several other senior officials, and the election of several Indians to Congress as signs of a "fundamental change" in the status quo. To support the country's transition from war to peace, USAID will provide a "peace bonus" of some $100 million in above-normal funding for projects over the next several years, he says.

There are other signs of potential change. In 1995, civilians led by Paul Martinez Prez, who headed a private patrol, violently blocked some refugees from resettling on their land in the Ixcan area of northern Guatemala.

After publicity from human rights organizations, the government finally put Mr. Martinez in prison. In another case, the government has announced plans to prosecute soldiers who killed 11 returnees in the village of Xaman in October 1995.

Home again

Visits to returned refugees in La Esmeralda and two other remote settlements in the north show that the government has not yet lived up to most of its promises for land titles, schools, clinics, and roads.

The UNHCR and other international agencies are helping. Usually the UNHCR "brings [refugees] to the border and says, 'goodbye, good luck,'" says Mr. Murillo of the UNHCR. In a new role, UNHCR is providing building and other materials. The UN's World Food Program provides food; various donors, including Canadians and USAID, have helped with small projects.

Life for most returnees is still spartan. In El Tumbo, a small riverside village in the Petn region, many families live in partially open shelters. They cannot afford to rent a tractor to haul logs for their homes. There is no local doctor or trained nurse. Fourteen-year-old Juan Carlos Coc-Caal, who has had one week of training in medical aid, is a volunteer at the village clinic. "I give advice to the people. We [he and several other young volunteers] give them medicine."

The government has not issued land title to the families in El Tumbo. (In La Esmeralda, the government, with foreign aid, provided funds for the former refugees to purchase land.)

Pedro Quib Maaz, president of the El Tumbo community, says they need a better road. A partially improved dirt road connects the village to the nearest market town but is unusable by most vehicles during the rainy season.

Getting action may be difficult. When Mr. Quib circulated a petition to pressure the government, neighboring villages failed to join in. "The others feared a resurgence of the past," he says.

There are signs of progress in the village. A local, cooperative cardamom-processing plant brought $30 profit to each participating family last year. Ema and Carlos Reyes have opened a small stall selling vegetables and candy.

Cypriana Argeta is a member of the local womens' union. Using money from families and help from the UNHCR, the women built 130 wood-fired stoves that use less fuel. They also made mosquito nettings and helped more than 200 families start raising baby chicks for food and income.

A man who did not want to give his name says the needs of the Indians remain the same as before the war. "This time we can [press for change] without war," he says. Before, repression was hidden, "like a quarrel in the family," he says. Now, the "the windows are open" to the world.

KEY DATES

1524 Spanish conquest

1821 Independence from Spain

1944 Dictator Jorge Ubico is overthrown

1944-1954 Liberal "revolution" reform period

1954 Jacobo Arbenz Guzmn overthrown in CIA-assisted coup.

1960 Military coup against Gen. Miguel Ydigoras Fuentes fails; some participants flee to the mountains to begin armed struggle.

1962 Guerrilla insurgency begins. US sends military aid until temporarily reduced in the latter 1970s due to human rights concerns; resumed in 1983.

1980 Government burns Spanish Embassy in Guatemala, where protesting Indians had taken shelter.

1981-1983 Major Army offensive; more than 400 villages destroyed.

1990 Start of government-guerrilla talks.

Dec. 29, 1996 Last of a series of peace pacts signed.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...