Guatemala Nears the End Of an Era of Bloodshed

President Alvaro Arzu has pushed for peace and asserted control over the Army

The Western Hemisphere is about to get a Christmas present. Guatemala, emerging from 35 years of civil war, has set itself on the road to peace. In five years of arduous negotiation, the government and the rebels, with United Nations mediation, have agreed on profound changes in the life of the country.

The parties were scheduled to meet in Oslo Dec. 4 to sign a definitive cease-fire. Norway is one of six nations known as the Group of Friends of the Guatemalan Peace Process. Its diplomats also fashioned the Middle East process, now in such trouble. But here the UN and the Group of Friends were dealing with adversaries who wanted equally to make peace. In fact, the war is already over. Guatemala's new president, Alvaro Arzu, ordered an end to offensive operations last March, and the rebel URNG (Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca) has avoided clashes.

On Dec. 7 another of the so-called operational agreements will be signed in Stockholm, on constitutional reforms and increased voter participation. This is much more than a formality. More than 60 percent of Guatemala's 10.5 million people are Mayan indians who have been excluded from political power and economic benefit since the Spaniards came nearly 500 years ago. Only recently has this begun to change. Mayans have become mayors. The 21 Mayan languages are accepted in court. Like the cease-fire, one of the basic agreements, the Accord on the Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples, has been taking effect. Discriminatory laws and decrees will be repealed, and this spectacularly beautiful land for the first time will be officially a "multiethnic, multicultural, and multilingual nation."

On Dec. 12 an agreement on the reintegration of the URNG into public life will be signed in Madrid. Then, on Dec. 29, the Agreement for a Firm and Lasting Peace, together with a binding timetable for implementation, will be signed in Guatemala City. This act will end Latin America's longest, bloodiest war. As many as 200,000 people - many innocent civilians - have been killed or have disappeared.

Perhaps the most dramatic part of the process has been the demotion of the armed forces, which have been the supreme power since an armed rebellion instigated by the United States Central Intelligence Agency overthrew a left-leaning government in 1954. The Army will be scaled down by one-third and its sharpest teeth pulled. It will be responsible only for national defense under strict civilian control. Semiofficial units, notorious for brutality and corruption, will be disbanded. Counterinsurgency is finished; a new police force takes over the Army's domestic security functions. Offenses by military personnel under civil law will be tried in civil, not military, courts.

Assurance that all this will really happen lies primarily with President Arzu. A conservative businessman and politician, scion of a wealthy family, Arzu was elected last January by the thinnest of margins. But with his party in control of the National Congress, the support of the business community, the church, and even of a large section of the Army, Arzu never looked back. Upon election, he expressed the hope for a final peace accord this year and then, in a move without precedent, went to Mexico to meet with the guerrilla leadership.

Within days of his inauguration, Arzu tore into the bloated, rotten military establishment, dismissing 11 of the Army's 23 generals and a batch of colonels (including two who were linked to the murder of two US citizens). In October, the president smashed a criminal organization involving top levels of the Army, police, and customs service. He had the backing of the Army's "institutionalists." Opposing the "Duros," hard-liners, they were ready to accept a more normal, professional role.

One major question still open is impunity. President Arzu forcefully opposes any general amnesty for the crimes committed, mainly by the Army, in the war. A truth commission will tell the story but has no power to prosecute or even name names. Many feel that peace will not be complete unless the guilty are punished.

The patience and resourcefulness of United Nations mediators throughout the last five years of negotiation have been indispensable in the process now nearing completion. A rising consciousness of human rights has helped materially. Award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Mayan leader Rigoberta Menchu was a signal event. Many religious and human rights groups have played a part. But none has been more effective than a human rights verification mission, MINUGUA. It has established a trusted presence throughout the country, registering human rights complaints and showing that it is safe to make them. Now it is to have broader responsibilities like verification of the cease-fire and resettlement of thousands of displaced persons and refugees - if the UN gives it the mandate and the money.

Money is an essential element in the reconstitution of Guatemala, the renovation of institutions, land reform, resettlement. Outside help is needed to anchor what is agreed. The people, aroused to great expectations, will demand some quick evidence of historic change. It is in everyone's interest to ensure that they are not disillusioned with democracy - and that its enemies do not return to power.

Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS News, currently writes on world affairs.

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