Guatemala's 'Adios' to War

The US and the international community still face many challenges

As Guatemala prepares to ring in its first happy new year since 1954, many Guatemalans are torn between hope and skepticism. Hope that a negotiated end to several decades of civil war will open up space to build a new society. Skepticism because the road ahead is full of mines to be deactivated.

Guatemala's peace accords are the product of nearly six years of negotiations, moderated by the UN since 1994, between the government and the insurgent leftist Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG). Overall, the accords, to be finalized in Guatemala City on Dec. 29, proclaim an unequivocal "adios" to 42 years of bloodshed, repression, and exclusionary politics. They do not guarantee socioeconomic equality or offer adequate justice to victims of human rights abuses committed primarily by the Army during the war.

However, they do promise the right to fight for those and other goals in a more democratic political arena. If fulfilled, this democratic promise would be a major achievement in Guatemala, where the 36-year civil war, Latin America's longest and bloodiest, has cost the lives of 150,000 to 200,000 unarmed civilians. The accords mean a great deal to the entire hemisphere because they close the era of cold-war civil wars that pitted leftist rebels against US-supported counterinsurgency armies.

Controlling the Army

The most significant accord restricts the Army's role to external defense, while creating a new civilian police force to handle internal security. It also reduces the size and budget of the Army - heretofore omnipresent, omnipotent, and the hemisphere's worst human rights violator - and subordinates it to civilian authority. Meanwhile, reforms in the judicial system are designed to end the pervasive impunity for political and common crimes. Another breakthrough is the accord on Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which goes beyond anti-discrimination protections for the indigenous majority (60 percent of the population) to establish Guatemala as a multiethnic, multicultural, multilingual nation. To achieve these changes, the accords mandate major constitutional reforms.

But the new Guatemala cannot be consolidated without strong support and vigilance from the international community, including the US, in the upcoming battles to guarantee the government's full compliance with the accords. Casting a shadow over Guatemala is the "El Salvador syndrome." When neighboring El Salvador signed its peace accords five years ago, the expectations were boundless. El Salvador has been significantly demilitarized and democratized. But every year since 1992, the indicators of social deterioration and violence have become more alarming.

The dangers in Guatemala are even greater. It is already experiencing a crime wave (some of it organized by opponents of the peace process) and generalized citizen insecurity. Former paramilitary units throughout the countryside retain arms, and Guatemala's "peace resisters" in the Army, the private sector, and Congress remain quite powerful. If social violence worsens, these sectors could call for the Army's reinvolvement in maintaining internal security. In short, poverty and uncontrolled crime could defeat democracy and unravel the accords' greatest achievements.

How can the international community "accompany" peacebuilding and support pro-peace forces in Guatemala? For one thing, all international funds and resources must be conditioned on full compliance with the peace accords, as certified by the UN mission in the country. The highest priority - in fact, the cornerstone of governability - will be creation and effective functioning of a new civilian police force, completely autonomous from the Army. Building on the many lessons of recent Salvadoran experience, the international community can help assure the effectiveness of the new police and counter opposition from peace resisters.

On the economic side as well, a sustainable peace must avoid the Salvadoran syndrome, in which some commitments in peace accords were undermined by orthodox adjustment programs that negatively affected jobs and income distribution. The logic of the accords must not be subordinated to the logic of neo-liberal fundamentalism.

Furthermore, Guatemalans deserve a tangible peace dividend; since the Army's budget will be cut by one-third, additional resources will be available for social programs. Given the underemployment-unemployment rate of 66 percent, job creation must be prioritized. Finally, the private sector must pay its share of the internal resources needed for postwar rebuilding, rather than continuing to pass regressive taxes to be paid primarily by the poor (80 to 90 percent of Guatemala's population).

US responsibilities

The US government has particular responsibilities. It was the US-engineered ouster of the democratic nationalist government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 that set the stage for Guatemala's decades of violence. During the first phase of Guatemala's civil war, in the 1960s, US military advisers played a direct role in shaping the Guatemalan Army into the hemisphere's most brutal killing machine.

Given the US role in ending Guatemala's 1944-54 democratic revolution and in creating the repressive counterinsurgency apparatus that is now to be dismantled, Washington has an obligation and an opportunity to demonstrate unequivocal support for Guatemala's demilitarization. In addition, as became clear from the 1995 revelations about longstanding CIA involvement with human rights abusers in the Guatemalan Army, the US has a great deal of information about war crimes during the past four decades. Full disclosure and declassification of such information by the US will be a necessary part of efforts to bring the truth to light. Finally, on another front, US financial and political backing will be essential to the success of the UN mission to verify full compliance with the accords.

These are among the concrete actions by the US and other international actors that can tip the balance against skepticism, toward hope in Guatemala.

Susanne Jonas, who teaches Latin American & Latino Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is author, most recently, of "The Battle for Guatemala."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.