While Peru's guerrilla-hostage drama continues to capture world attention, the most important political development in Latin America this year is taking place in Guatemala. The government and guerrilla movement are scheduled to sign a peace agreement Sunday ending the country's bloody 36-year-old civil conflict.
The agreement is an extraordinary accomplishment for President Alvaro Arzu, who took office less than a year ago. The guerrillas have been a beaten force for years; they represented no real threat to displace Guatemala's elected authorities, and only rarely interrupted the daily life of the country. Yet, no previous government was able to negotiate an end to hostilities and the disbanding of the guerrilla army - and begin the process of national reconciliation and reconstruction.
The settlement also provides an opportunity for Guatemala to more productively integrate itself into the international community, where it has long been treated as a virtual pariah because of the repression and abuses associated with its anti-guerrilla campaigns.
Mr. Arzu succeeded in negotiating peace primarily because, once in office, he moved boldly and decisively to impose his authority on Guatemala's security forces and to curtail their pervasive human rights violations. He was prepared as well to commit to significant social and infrastructure investments in Guatemala's neglected rural areas, home to most of the country's majority indigenous population.
The government's skill and professionalism were vital both to convincing the guerrillas of its good faith and to reassuring the Army and business community that their interests would be protected. An active United Nations monitoring group and the involvement and support of a number of foreign governments also were key elements in the achievement of the peace accords.
Guatemala's real trial, however, begins with the signing of the accords. The end of the war presents the government with the historic challenge - and opportunity - of building a nationally integrated society that is not cruelly split by race, ethnicity, or class.
Per capita income in Guatemala is among the smallest in Latin America - one-third of the region's average. The distribution of income is skewed, leaving the country's mainly rural, indigenous population dirt poor. Adult literacy and rates of school enrollment are lower only in Haiti. Life expectancy is shorter only in Haiti and Bolivia. Besides help from international voluntary agencies, access to health, education, and other services is not available to most rural Guatemalans. The fundamental problem for Guatemala is how to make its indigenous people into full citizens.
Foreign governments and international agencies have pledged sizable amounts of money to help Guatemala carry out the peace agreement and begin to remedy its deep social inequities and address widespread poverty. (The US share represents only a tiny fraction of the total.) But it is the Guatemalans themselves who must come up with the lion's share of the costs, as senior financial officials in the Arzu government recognize. There is no alternative to raising taxes on businesses and individuals who can pay, though most middle- and upper-income Guatemalans are fiercely resistant. This will be a daunting political task. Guatemala collects less taxes (as a percent of gross national product) than any other Latin American government.
Though it has made a good start, the government also will be challenged to keep the military under firm control. The amnesty approved for most past crimes committed by the Army and the guerrillas may well have been necessary to secure the peace, but it once again extends the country's long tradition of official impunity for human rights violators. Moreover, common violence and criminality are becoming endemic in Guatemala; the country is confronting increasingly dangerous levels of drug trafficking; and there is continuing violence across the border in the Chiapas region of Mexico. The government has to find ways to manage all this without losing authority to the military.
The Arzu administration deserves much credit for bringing peace to Guatemala and ending an era of devastating warfare in Central America. It now faces a new agenda: overcoming economic stagnation, defeating social and political injustice, and establishing one national society. That agenda is the more difficult, and progress will be slower. But after 36 years of war, Guatemala finally has a chance for a better future.
Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue.