Dealing With Guerrillas

The political evolution of Latin America is back on the world stage with the end of a decades-long civil war in Guatemala and the hostage-taking by guerrillas in Peru.

Guatemala's release from a conflict that has taken as many as 140,000 lives and kept the country out of the economic mainstream is another step forward for the hemisphere's poorest region - Central America. This country now follows Nicaragua and El Salvador toward a political opening that brings once warring parties into a common governmental forum.

Making the new politics work - in the sense of forging greater economic opportunity - won't be any easier in Guatemala than in its neighboring lands. The country faces a huge gap between its majority Indian population and those of European ancestry who have always monopolized resources and power. But years of negotiating have brought about constitutional changes - scaling down a brutal military and recognizing the cultural and linguistic rights of indigenous peoples - that should provide a basis for progress.

The hostage-takers in Peru profess similar goals: justice for that country's poor, as well as freedom for their jailed comrades. But their movement, decimated by a government crackdown in recent years, appears to have little popular backing. They may be angling for a fresh burst of publicity in hopes of surviving. Bargaining between the guerrillas and the government has gotten under way, after an initial standoff, and many hostages have been freed. The outlook for a peaceful resolution is brightening.

Guerrilla movements have been endemic in Latin America. Economic inequality feeds them politically. All too often in recent years, drug money sustains them financially.

The experience of Guatemala is showing that genuine democratic reform can give economic and cultural grievances a more constructive outlet. Authoritarian repression alone - more the model of Peru - is likely to be less effective in the long run.

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