THE recent repatriation of 2,500 Guatemalan refugees from Mexico signals a willingness on the part of President Jorge Serrano Elias's government to begin to address seriously the problems wrought by 30 years of civil war. An effective policy to assist in reform of the military and support democratic development in the tough case of Guatemala could provide the Clinton administration with an early success in promoting its new foreign policy on democracy and human rights.
External pressure from the United Nations Commission on Human Rights is, in part, motivating President Serrano to revive the peace process. Last year, the commission threatened to place Guatemala on its "gross human rights violators" list unless it took direct steps to address the abuses. Next month, the commission will be meeting in Geneva to reassess Guatemala's progress. In addition to external pressure, Serrano has domestic political reasons for repatriating the refugees. By allowing them to return, Serrano indirectly made concessions to the guerrilla group, Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), without directly confronting the Guatemalan military.
The Serrano government has agreed to international human rights verification, the allocation of land to the refugees upon their return, protection of the refugees from the military and the guerrillas, and protection from the forceable recruitment into the civil militias. The first two issues were key negotiating points for the URNG during the peace negotiations that are now stalled. In addition, Serrano has called for the URNG's participation in a 90-day negotiation at the UN to find a diplomatic solutio n to the civil war. Serrano further requested UN verification of a cease-fire if no settlement is forthcoming in those 90 days. The military, which believes the refugees are guerrilla sympathizers if not their active supporters, has opposed the repatriation. Last month, the Guatemalan Defense Minister, Brig. Gen. Jose Domingo Garcia Samayoa, threatened to arrest some of the refugees as rebel sympathizers.
GUATEMALA is a hard case for the United States because it is a nominal democracy. Although it has a freely elected president and congress, the society remains in the grip of a strong military that controls many essential political processes. Yet a fleeting opportunity exists to promote peace and human rights. Unless the US works expeditiously with the UN and the Serrano government to find a political solution to the civil war, the moment of opportunity will be lost. Refugees are moving back into areas of
the Guatemalan countryside where the Serrano government does not have the means to guarantee their safety. The refugees will be living in temporary settlements until they can either purchase or regain title to their land. Without material support and protection by the international community, the refugees may face continued harassment.
As the most populous country in Central America with the largest armed forces and the most modern economy, Guatemala is an important and timely test case for the Clinton administration's promotion of democracy and the protection of human rights. In conjunction with the UN, the US should support the peace process that Serrano is reviving. By openly supporting Serrano's efforts and providing economic assistance not just to the refugees but to the Guatemalan population living in the region where the civil w ar has primarily been fought, there may be hope for a lasting peace.
Social reform in such a politically polarized society will naturally take time and patience. US policy toward Guatemala should be primarily designed to strengthen the Guatemalan president, the Congress, the judiciary, as well as other groups vis-a-vis the military. A necessary first step is to appoint a new attorney general who will prosecute human rights abuses no matter who commits them. We should also continue to support economic development coupled with conditioned aid. While recognizing that Serrano
is to be applauded for his efforts to reform and professionalize the military, the US should insist that even stronger steps be taken to reduce political interference by the military. These forms of support should not cost the US very much. The key is mutual political will.