Guatemala's False Dawn: Five Years of "Peace". (Global Notebook)

By Murphy, Edward | Harvard International Review, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Guatemala's False Dawn: Five Years of "Peace". (Global Notebook)


Murphy, Edward, Harvard International Review


With the signing of the peace treaty that ended Guatemala's civil war on December 29, 1996, Guatemala's Mayan majority hoped that its years of chronic poverty and political disenfranchisement were drawing to a close.

Calling for reparations and an official statement of remorse from the government, the treaty promised to put the Mayan people--thousands of whom had died in the country's 36-year civil war--on an equal footing with the traditionally dominant, ethnically Spanish ladino minority. Five years later, however, most of the treaty's provisions remain unfulfilled.

The civil war took an estimated 200,000 lives, most of them Mayan. The fighting left over a quarter million orphaned and widowed and displaced over one million people. Over 150,000 Mayans fled to Mexico. These numbers, out of a total population of only 11 million, led foreign observers to declare Guatemala's civil war to be Latin America's worst.

The national army massacred thousands of Mayan peasants as part of its campaign against left-wing insurgent groups, the most prominent of which was the URNG (Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity). The URNG and other groups actively recruited in Mayan villages, where the largely impoverished residents made easy converts to radical leftist ideology. Investigations have confirmed that an apprehensive army deliberately targeted Mayans, killing them and destroying their villages. A report by the Catholic Archbishop's Office of Human Rights found that the government was responsible for over 80 percent of the killings. Widespread racism among the ladinos, who control the government, economy, and military, also explains the high death toll.

Some hope for the Mayans lies in the fact that the plight of indigenous peoples, particularly in Guatemala, has gained international attention recently. Mayan activist Rigoberta Menchu publicized the violent repression in her 1983 autobiography, I, Rigoberta Menchu. In 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the New World, the Nobel committee made a strong political statement by awarding Menchu the Nobel Peace Prize. While some called the controversial selection a triumph of political correctness and others accused Menchu of having ties to guerrilla organizations, no one could deny that she had put the Mayan cause on the map.

Despite the adoption of the 1996 treaty and the increased visibility of the Mayan cause, real advancement for the Mayan population of Guatemala has been nonexistent. One reason is that the government has not worked faithfully to implement the peace accords. The accords set up a Commission for Historical Clarification, which released a report in February 1999 offering 83 suggested reforms ranging from establishing a national holiday honoring war victims to compensating the families of the dead. However, virtually none of the suggestions have been adopted thus far by the government of Alvaro Arzu or by that of his successor, President Alfonso Portillo, who took over in January 2000.

Financial troubles have been partly to blame. When the treaty was signed, the government knew that implementation would cost the equivalent of several billion US dollars. Even the US$2.6 million of assistance actually set aside to be distributed to families who lost relatives in the war has disappeared from government accounts. Although the United States and other countries provided over US$3 billion of aid to help the government foot the bill for peace, external funding has proven politically damaging to advocates of reform by creating the impression among Guatemalans that the accord is being imposed from abroad.

The controversies surrounding Menchu have not helped either. …

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