An important struggle is taking place in Guatemala. It is a battle over the past. But its outcome may have a major impact on the country's future - and the potential for peace and reconciliation in that troubled nation.
The protagonists are the country's Historical Clarification (or Truth) Commission on one side and the Guatemalan armed forces on the other. Under a comprehensive peace agreement signed in December 1996 between the Guatemalan government and opposition guerrillas, the Truth Commission has a year to investigate the estimated 140,000 murders and disappearances carried out during the 36-year conflict.
Its mandate reflected the power of the military in the negotiations: The armed forces would not accept any agreement that could result in military personnel being brought to justice for human rights violations committed during the war.
The commission is thus authorized to clarify "acts of violence and human rights violations that caused suffering to the Guatemalan people" but may not "individualize responsibility." Its findings also will not have judicial consequences.
The commission's mandate was a big disappointment to human rights groups and victims' families, who felt impunity had triumphed once again. But these groups were determined to squeeze as much truth and justice as they could out of an unsatisfactory situation.
Human rights and religious groups, as well as organizations of relatives of victims, handed over tens of thousands of testimonies and studies of rights violations. The Truth Commission, headed by a German law professor experienced in human rights and two respected Guatemalans, sent out scores of investigators who received more than 7,000 testimonies.
Analysts will try to put these massacres, disappearances, tortures, and death-squad killings into context. They will try to make sense of how these terrible things happened and give an inkling of why. They will investigate a limited number of "emblematic" cases and try to have them speak for many more. And they will draw conclusions and make recommendations to ensure reparation for those who suffered and to provide some assurance that this won't happen again.
There is a palpable, growing sense of hope and confidence in the work of the commission, which has received support across the political spectrum. The obstacle to truth is the group that feels most threatened by a full accounting of events - the military, which in the early 1980s waged one of the most brutal counterinsurgency wars in the history of the hemisphere.
In recent years, the military has taken important steps toward a redefinition of its mission. Under the peace accords, it accepted a new, more limited role: responsibility for external defense of the nation rather than internal security. It also agreed to a one-third cut in budget and personnel.
In the first year of the peace accords, the military appears to have complied with these agreements. But in clarifying the past - essential if the process of forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation is to advance - the Army is stonewalling. Christian Tomuschat, coordinator of the Truth Commission, has called for the release of key files from the armed forces and former insurgents. The guerrillas, after a shaky start, are cooperating, but the military has provided only superficial documents.
The release of information is essential for the commission to be able to paint as full a picture as possible of what happened and why. It is also an important barometer of the extent to which the military views itself as subject to civilian authority and the rule of law.
Time is running out. The commission is halfway through its one-year mandate and entering the phase of analyzing the data. The US has a crucial role to play. The Guatemalan armed forces claim they are a reformed institution looking for a new relationship with the US military. The US should send the message that so long as Guatemala's armed forces continue to behave like an old-style force hiding behind a shield of impunity, no new US-Guatemalan military relationship will be possible.
THE US also can provide a demonstration in practice that democratic nations and institutions have nothing to fear from telling the truth: It can promptly release to the Truth Commission relevant documents from the CIA, Defense and State Departments, and other US agencies on human rights violations committed during Guatemala's armed conflict.
Finally, it can ensure that the commission has the wherewithal to carry out its work by providing additional funds - above the $1 million it has given - and encouraging other donors like the European Union and Japan to provide financial support.
Some important advances have been made in Guatemala in the year since the peace accords. With the support of the US and the international community, a Truth Commission that at first seemed toothless can play a large, unexpected role in the transformation of Guatemalan society. And the Guatemalan military can demonstrate that it has fundamentally changed by facing up to rather than hiding the past.
* Hugh Byrne is senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America.