De Leon's Peace Initiative Greeted With Hope and Doubt

GUATEMALANS are greeting a "bold" new initiative to end Central America's longest-running conflict with cautious optimism. Their hopes are tempered by recent peace proposals that have failed to budge the stalled two-year-old negotiations between leftist rebels and the government.

But Guatemala has a new president who says a peace agreement to end more than 30 years of civil war will be reached before his term ends in January 1996. President Ramiro de Leon Carpio introduced a new plan last week that presents significant changes in the process, analysts say. The plan calls for:

* The United Nations and the Organization of American States to step in as mediators to "coordinate, supervise, and verify" the agreements. The previous Guatemalan government objected to outside mediation.

* The former mediator, Roman Catholic Monsignor Rodolfo Quezada Toruno, to preside over a new "Permanent Forum for the Peace." The Forum will allow "diverse social sectors" to debate national problems.

* Representatives of the leftist insurgency, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), to be granted immunity to enter the country and participate. They have participated in peace talks in Mexico, but live in exile and have not been allowed to return to Guatemala.

Assuming the proposal is accepted by the URNG, the peace talks will proceed in two separate forums. The Permanent Forum will be held in Guatemala City. Hector Rosada Granados, presidential adviser and principal architect of the initiative, says the forum will develop policies to address root causes of the war: poverty, lack of political participation, and human rights abuses.

Mr. Rosada reaching "national agreements" being hammered out in the Forum, such as human rights policies and constitutional and electoral reforms. "The government negotiators and the mediators will go to the Forum to gather ideas, and agreements, and bring them to the negotiating table."

Direct talks between a new Government Negotiating Commission and the URNG will continue to take place in Mexico, sources say; these negotiations will likely focus on the cease-fire, demobilization of forces, and other aspects of ending the conflict.

REACTIONS to the De Leon plan have been generally positive. "Inviting the URNG into the country is an advance. It is an indication that the new government is willing to try new ideas," says Factor Mendez, director of the Center For Research, Study, and Promotion of Human Rights here.

"It's a very innovative plan," says former defense minister Gen. Hector Garamajo. "It will test the true intentions of the URNG."

But many observers are reserving judgment. Mr. Mendez, for example, wants to see who the negotiators will be, how the forum will function, and what influence it will have.

Some express doubts about the new approach. Nineth Montenegro, a human rights activist of the Group of Mutual Support, worries the agreements reached in previous peace talks may have to be renegotiated, and that the new reconciliation process may stretch the war out for several more years.

"The situation is of serious concern to those like the people who don't want anymore war. We should take an attitude less academic, more political, and look for an authentic solution from the state," Ms. Montenegro says.

No one knows how how the URNG will react to the proposal. "Some topics will likely pass from the old negotiating agenda to the Forum," Rosada says. "The difference is that the URNG will now be able to talk directly to the Guatemala community and not just the government representatives."

Another expectation here is that once the talks begin, a rapid breakthrough may occur on the human rights issue. Until the May 25 coup, De Leon was Guatemala's human rights ombudsman.

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