Celebrating - Cautiously - a Year of Peace in Guatemala

In a halfway house for former guerrillas in the Guatemalan city of Quezaltenango, a young artist unveils his latest effort, a woodcut depicting a Mayan goddess riding a motorcycle. When asked about the image, Nicolas de Paz says it depicts an important woman who had arrived in his demobilization camp by helicopter. He recalls the camp official who told him the woman was responsible for helping move the peace process forward. The icon in question is Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who visited the camp in the formerly war-torn area of Quiche last spring.

In December 1996, after more than 36 years of violent internal strife, the government of Guatemala signed an agreement for lasting peace with the coalition of guerrilla fighters it had so long opposed. The agreement called for the guerrillas to demobilize and lay down their weapons within weeks of the signing.

To achieve this ambitious goal, the Guatemalans turned to the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the UN Development Program to build eight fully equipped "demobilization camps," where fighters could turn in their weapons and receive training to prepare them for life as civilians. By March of last year, under the watch of UN peace observers, the first of the former guerrillas entered the camps.

In short order, 2,940 former fighters gave up their arms, were assessed for educational needs, and received health care. Trainers supported by the Organization of American States offered them career and relocation options. By May 1997, Guatemala's former guerrillas emerged as civilians. By year's end - the anniversary of the peace accords - all had left these temporary shelters to begin a new life.

As we celebrate the success of a year of peace in Guatemala, we also must heed a note of caution about the future. We have achieved the initial requirements for ending Guatemala's internal war: the disarming and demobilizing of guerrillas and portions of the military forces. The challenge of strengthening the civilian state, however, still lies ahead.

There are encouraging signs of progress. Guatemala has made great strides in improving its legislative process and reforming its judicial codes, for example. There are, however, great ethnic, economic, and social divides that leave the country at risk. While development assistance can help provide a bootstrap to institutional reform, the bulk of the changes must come from within.

Guatemala's experience highlights what we have learned around the world: The ink and paper of peace agreements alone are insufficient to end conflict. In the post-cold-war world, we have seen a proliferation of internal conflicts, civil wars, and crises. The challenges of working in a nation trying to move beyond crisis can be immense. These countries often are characterized by weak or nonexistent governments with few human or financial resources, barely functioning economies, large numbers of former combatants, a proliferation of land mines, human rights abuses, endemic corruption, nonexistent political systems, and lingering tension that at any moment can break into conflict. Taken collectively, that's a handful.

Sustaining hope for those who have made the commitment to lay down arms must be matched by promises that provide quick, tangible relief to those affected by war. In Guatemala, guerrillas needed immediate attention - demobilization from fighting groups, education, and retraining. In that country, with a price tag of less than $2 million, USAID gave hope to a nation that peace was real. The Clinton administration is encouraging other nations to develop similar capacities. It may be the world's best hope for these fragile windows of peace to succeed.

* Harriet Babbitt is deputy administrator for the US Agency for International Development in Washington.

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