Guatemala peace endangered

While Washington's eyes are fixed on the Balkans and other faraway places, postwar Guatemala's peace is endangered.

In December 1996, Guatemalans ended a 36-year civil war through UN-mediated peace accords. One crucial agreement mandated Guatemala's demilitarization by restricting the army to external defense. Another landmark agreement provided for the formal recognition of Guatemala's diverse ethnicities, cultures, and languages, and greatly expanded the rights of the indigenous majority of 60 percent. Both of these are preconditions for fully democratizing Guatemala.

Both accords required significant constitutional reforms, which had to be approved by Congress and subsequently in a referendum. The expected "yes" vote in the referendum would have guaranteed the future of these and other accords. But on May 16, a scant 18.5 percent of Guatemala's 4 million registered voters went to the polls. The winner was abstention.

The reforms were defeated by 55 percent of those who did vote. Rural indigenous areas largely voted in favor of it despite many obstacles to voting. But numerically, the real battle was in Guatemala City.

At one level, the "no" was a legitimate rebuke to the conservative politicians in Congress who'd swamped reforms related to the peace accords with dozens of unrelated others. But more important, a month before the vote, the "no" forces launched a well-financed crusade to defeat the referendum. They claimed the reforms would "Balkanize" Guatemala, rekindle war, turn the country over to Indians, force everyone to learn obscure indigenous languages, and replace the legal system with traditional indigenous law.

Meanwhile, the government and parties in favor of the reforms did little to publicize and explain them. Other pro-reform groups made the mistakes of taking their victory for granted and failing to mobilize their constituencies against the right-wing media blitz.

Guatemala's peace accords could now be up for grabs. The extent of damage will depend on the outcome of the battle under way at this moment.

Leaders of the "No" campaign are misrepresenting themselves as heroes of a generalized rejection of the peace accords. Some are now going for broke, pushing to have the peace accords, as a whole, declared unconstitutional and even to expel the special UN mission, whose presence is vital for verification of compliance with the accords.

Guatemala bears many wounds from the 36-year war in which more than 200,000 civilians, mainly highlands Indians, were killed or "disappeared" by counterinsurgency forces. The country's Truth Commission characterized some of the policies of those forces as "genocidal."

Now, if left in the hands of its own elites, and if the peace accords aren't implemented, Guatemala faces the possibility of repression and racism much like that of the Jim Crow period following Reconstruction in the US.

But there is an alternative. The majority of Guatemalans have everything to gain from the peace accords. If the domestic pro-peace forces learn from the referendum disaster and build on the hopes awakened by the peace process, they can limit the damage and make advances. But they will need support from the international community. There were many times during six years of peace negotiations when the whole effort would have failed without international support for the pro-peace forces.

The US and Western European are preoccupied with other crises . But if they don't want to wake up and find Guatemala in the column of "failed" peace processes and, again, on the list of serious human rights abusers, they should use every opportunity to support the pro-peace forces. Concretely, Washington can send a clear message about demilitarization by not renewing full military training or aid programs to the Guatemalan Army until its transformation is complete.

*Susanne Jonas wrote 'Of Centaurs and Doves: Guatemala's peace process' (Westview). She teaches Latin American studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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