After War, Guatemala Sees First Fruits of Peace

Six years ago, this lakeside Indian village was awash in violence. For more than a decade, the Guatemalan Army abducted and killed hundreds of villagers for allegedly aiding Indian guerrillas. In December 1990, villagers surrounded the garrison, demanding the Army's departure; 13 civilians were killed when soldiers fired on the crowd.

Today, the Army is gone, and the town is awash with tourists. Stalls and shops line streets, hawking handicrafts to Seattle backpackers and French honeymooners.

"The war seems a long time ago," says a shopkeeper as she stocks a refrigerator.

Guatemala has come a long way since the military ruled and death squads terrorized the countryside. A peace accord signed in December put an end to a 30-year civil war that claimed an estimated 140,000 lives. Indian guerrillas have disarmed, the military is retreating from politics, and foreign aid is pouring in.

"I'm so happy there's peace and that we have this historic opportunity to overhaul our state and society and establish justice and the rule of law here," says Mario Permuth, a Guatemala City-based lawyer who helped negotiate the peace settlement. "But ... I fear it may not work. People are afraid of change, and politicians work in their own self-interest. We may squander our greatest opportunity."

Guatemalans face difficult challenges in addressing the causes of the war, and nearly everyone involved is concerned for the future. At risk, they say, is a return to civil war that could cost thousands of lives and destabilize an already-shaky region.

Most of the country's problems stem from the exclusion of the Mayan Indian majority from political, economic, and social life. Mayans make up 60 percent of the population, but control a tiny fraction of the wealth. Without access to schools and health care, 70 percent are impoverished and between 80 and 90 percent are illiterate, the UN Verification Mission in Guatemala estimates. Without access to sufficient farmland to feed their families, most Mayans work as low-paid migrant laborers.

Meanwhile, the richest 2 percent of the population owns an estimated two-thirds of all the arable land.

"We need to redefine the country to reflect reality. This is a multicultural, multilingual society, and there's room for everyone if there's mutual respect and equal opportunities," says newspaper columnist Estuardo Zapeta, a Mayan rights advocate in Guatemala City, the capital.

"As long as we leave Mayans illiterate, we're condemning them to being peasants. And if that happens, their need to acquire farmland will lead us to another civil war."

Landless peasants have already been seizing unused farmland in the highlands or migrating to the jungle-covered Petn region to carve out crude fields by burning the rain forests. The absence of a national land registry makes property ownership difficult to prove - traditionally allowing rich landowners to seize Indian lands.

The accords create a land registry, but surveying the rugged countryside and resolving property disputes will take years. Every piece of land is claimed by three or more owners. The peace accords also call for the redistribution of some state-owned lands to peasants. But with the population growing, subsistence farming won't provide a living for everyone.

Thus the emphasis on increasing education and health care opportunities for the Mayan majority, millions of whom have access to neither. The accords commit the government to increase spending in these areas by 50 percent and ensure everyone has access to at least three years of education. "Problem is, the private sector is completely opposed to increasing taxes, even though we have the lowest rates in the hemisphere," notes Dinora Azpuru de Cuestas, a political analyst at Guatemala's Association for Social Science Research.

Diplomatic sources say foreign investment is unlikely to fill the breach because of heightened security concerns. Since the end of the war, there has been an explosive increase in violent crime. Kidnappings are common, and many wealthy parents hire bodyguards for their children. In the capital, stores are guarded by teams of men with pump-action shotguns.

"Bringing a lasting peace will be an enormous undertaking," says a United Nations official in the capital, Guatemala City. "Everyone's just keeping their fingers crossed that it all works out."

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