Guatemala's 'Adios' to War the US and the International Community Still Face Many Challenges

Article excerpt

As Guatemala prepares to ring in its first happy new year since 1954, many Guatemalans are torn between hope and skepticism. Hope that a negotiated end to several decades of civil war will open up space to build a new society. Skepticism because the road ahead is full of mines to be deactivated.

Guatemala's peace accords are the product of nearly six years of negotiations, moderated by the UN since 1994, between the government and the insurgent leftist Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG). Overall, the accords, to be finalized in Guatemala City on Dec. 29, proclaim an unequivocal "adios" to 42 years of bloodshed, repression, and exclusionary politics. They do not guarantee socioeconomic equality or offer adequate justice to victims of human rights abuses committed primarily by the Army during the war.

However, they do promise the right to fight for those and other goals in a more democratic political arena. If fulfilled, this democratic promise would be a major achievement in Guatemala, where the 36-year civil war, Latin America's longest and bloodiest, has cost the lives of 150,000 to 200,000 unarmed civilians. The accords mean a great deal to the entire hemisphere because they close the era of cold-war civil wars that pitted leftist rebels against US-supported counterinsurgency armies. Controlling the Army The most significant accord restricts the Army's role to external defense, while creating a new civilian police force to handle internal security. It also reduces the size and budget of the Army - heretofore omnipresent, omnipotent, and the hemisphere's worst human rights violator - and subordinates it to civilian authority. Meanwhile, reforms in the judicial system are designed to end the pervasive impunity for political and common crimes. Another breakthrough is the accord on Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which goes beyond anti-discrimination protections for the indigenous majority (60 percent of the population) to establish Guatemala as a multiethnic, multicultural, multilingual nation. To achieve these changes, the accords mandate major constitutional reforms. But the new Guatemala cannot be consolidated without strong support and vigilance from the international community, including the US, in the upcoming battles to guarantee the government's full compliance with the accords. Casting a shadow over Guatemala is the "El Salvador syndrome." When neighboring El Salvador signed its peace accords five years ago, the expectations were boundless. El Salvador has been significantly demilitarized and democratized. But every year since 1992, the indicators of social deterioration and violence have become more alarming. The dangers in Guatemala are even greater. It is already experiencing a crime wave (some of it organized by opponents of the peace process) and generalized citizen insecurity. Former paramilitary units throughout the countryside retain arms, and Guatemala's "peace resisters" in the Army, the private sector, and Congress remain quite powerful. If social violence worsens, these sectors could call for the Army's reinvolvement in maintaining internal security. …