Coming to Terms with the Past: Remembering and Forgetting in Guatemala: Rachel Sieder Considers the Role of 'Memory Politics' in Guatemala's Uncertain Path to Democracy as Government and Society Attempt to Come to Terms with the Brutality of the Counter-Insurgency War

By Sieder, Rachel | History Today, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Coming to Terms with the Past: Remembering and Forgetting in Guatemala: Rachel Sieder Considers the Role of 'Memory Politics' in Guatemala's Uncertain Path to Democracy as Government and Society Attempt to Come to Terms with the Brutality of the Counter-Insurgency War


Sieder, Rachel, History Today


IN GUATEMALA, AS IN OTHER COUNTRIES OF LATIN AMERICA, the political transition from authoritarian to democratic rule, and from war to peace, has involved a balancing act between truth and justice. Throughout the region during the last two decades, the balance has generally tipped in favour of the former, at the expense of the latter. Official attempts to deal with past violations of human rights that took place during the civil war of the 1980s and 1990s typically meant commissions of inquiry and the passing of amnesty laws, to provide immunity from prosecution for those responsible for such violations.

The prevailing orthodoxy maintains that truth-telling constitutes a valuable contribution to national reconciliation. In a more pragmatic light, truth commissions--like the one held in South Africa under the leadership of Bishop Desmond Tutu--also serve to legitimize transitional governments. They symbolically distance them from a repressive past; in general, such transitional governments tend to shy away from legal sanctions against perpetrators on practical and political grounds, arguing that this risks an authoritarian backlash.

Human rights activists, though, may well support truth commissions but argue that they should be accompanied by some measure of legal accountability and sanction against those guilty of gross violations. This point of view has been strengthened in recent years by developments in human rights, particularly the notion that states must protect certain fundamental rights and have an obligation to punish those who abuse them.

'Memory politics' is the term used for the combination of international and national, official and unofficial attempts to deal with the legacy of past violations. I want to consider the tradeoffs made between truth and justice in Guatemala as it crossed from authoritarianism to democracy in the later 1990s, and the interplay between government, international organizations and civil society involved in attempts to 'come to terms' with Guatemala's violent past.

A CIA-backed coup in 1954 overthrew the reformist Arbenz regime, which had begun to implement a programme of land reform. The subsequent reversal of social reform, combined with repression against former officials and peasant activists, led to the emergence of an armed left-wing guerrilla movement in 1961. This was all but wiped out in the late 1960s in a vicious counterinsurgency campaign which left over 8,000 dead. Political and economic exclusion continued to worsen, leading to a second wave of guerrilla organizing, this time with mass involvement of the majority indigenous Mayan population. Counterinsurgency violence intensified under the military governments of Romero Lucas Garcia (1978-82) and Rios Montt (1982-83). The military subsequently oversaw a return to elected civilian rule: in 1985 a new constitution was approved, and in 1986 Christian Democrat Vinicio Cerezo was returned to the presidency. A peace process began in 1987, but dragged on for years and was only concluded in 1996, following active mediation by the United Nations.

Long before height of the counterinsurgency war under Rios Montt in the 1980s, stark economic inequalities, military dominance, ethnic discrimination, restricted civil and political liberties and violence were commonplace. In the 1980s, the military targeted the entire civilian population in an all-out war designed to deprive the guerrillas--who advocated wholesale land reform--of a rural support base. These wars took place within a Cold War context of potent United States involvement in the region. Many hundreds of students, trade unionists and community activists disappeared or were killed by paramilitary death squads in the cities, but the destructive power of the military was most concentrated in the rural areas.

According to the UN-sponsored Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH), 161,500 people were murdered and 40,000 disappeared during thirty-four years of armed conflict. …

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Coming to Terms with the Past: Remembering and Forgetting in Guatemala: Rachel Sieder Considers the Role of 'Memory Politics' in Guatemala's Uncertain Path to Democracy as Government and Society Attempt to Come to Terms with the Brutality of the Counter-Insurgency War
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