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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 200 | Marzo 1998



A Year Without War: "Low Intensity Peace"?

The first year that Guatemala experiences without war is diagnosed by the government, the opposition, public opinion polls, the bishops, the ex-guerrilla movement and human rights organizations. The balance is quite complex and sets an agenda of tasks before us.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

After the first year of peace in 1997, the Guatemalan stage is filled with too many people unreservedly praising what has been harvested so far and too many others excessively criticizing what was sown. There is intolerance and intransigence on both sides, clearly expressed in the ongoing clashes between the media and the President and between the government and the opposition.

President-Media Conflict

The media proudly but unjustifiedly claim they unequivocally represent the voice of the people. President Alvaro Arzú arrogantly resists considering criticism as an instrument of reflection or a tool of rectification. Neither attitude has helped put the country on the path towards a functioning democracy.

The media are not the only representatives of "citizens' demands." They are the fourth estate, one not elected by the people. To present themselves as "the" watchdogs of state power leaves undefined in whose interests they exercise that vigilance. And it ignores other investigators inserted in the state structures: the Constitutionality Court, the Human Rights Law Office, the Comptroller of the Republic, not to mention civil society organizations.

The President tends to present the Peace Accords not as a state project in the national interest but as a government party program. His undeniable arrogance is not such that one could say Guatemala is on the path to autocracy, as the press tends to do. If the Peace Accords in Guatemala have harvested any fruit at all, it is the unprecedented opening of political space for participation and free expression.

The Bishops' Conference of Guatemala states in its first 1998 message that "there have been substantial advances in the development of and respect for the rule of law, and we are now living in a more democratic society than at any moment in the last forty years."

Opposition-Government Conflict

The opposition in Congress is not demonstrating responsibility appropriate to a state body; party interests predominate. Despite the deficiencies of the 1995-96 elections, especially the high abstention levels, PAN won an absolute majority in Congress. But this does not authorize it to govern without dialogue or negotiation, above all in an historic moment such as this, when national consensus is so critical to lead the country to reconciliation. But it also does not authorize the opposition to exercise a systematic blockade, on the grounds of the governing party's defective or steamrolling procedures, which leaves the real issues to one side as if the parties were still in an electoral campaign.

The government is not working correctly if the habits of business secrets of many of its officials are applied to public administration. Guatemala needs a much more transparent government, and one much more sensitive to democratic criticisms. The democratic game has no room to develop when the opposition is in a permanent electoral campaign and systematically tries to paralyze government functions. The leaders need to acquire the stature of serious state functionaries and to act with a long-term vision less dependent on day-to-day events.

If the President and the media, the government and the opposition, do not rectify their respective social roles, the sterility of their ongoing confrontations will bring the peace process excessive and unnecessary costs.

What do the Polls Say?

What does public opinion have to say now, a year after the peace accord was signed?
The weekly Crónica reports the results of an exclusive poll, taken between December 3-6, 1997 in Guatemala City, in which 51% of those polled considered that Alvaro Arzú was most responsible for the confrontation between himself and the national press. And 53% considered that Arzú has been more critical than the press in this confrontation. Some 59% agree with the media's critical attitude toward Arzú, and 79% do not agree that the media should limit itself to informing, and not offer opinions or interpretations of events. A full 82% do not think that freedom of the media should be restricted in any degree. The poll did not ask whether or not the media should report on government accomplishments, an issue that is one of the battle horses of the President in his dispute with the media.

Other polls also offer clues to understanding the balance of public opinion about the first year of peace, although all were taken in the capital, which is a serious limitation in a country with a rural majority. Bearing that in mind, one poll shows 47% of Guatemala City residents responding that 1997 had been average, and only 20% that it had been good, very good or excellent. For 33%, the year was bad, very bad or horrible, and the same 33% expects no change in that for 1998. The number of those who think it will be average dropped to 25%, while the number who think it will be good, very good or excellent rose to 39%. We are thus looking at a third of the capital's population without hopes due to seemingly endless poverty and insecurity. Crónica reports that this poll, done on January 5 and 6, 1998, was given to 300 people, three-quarters of whom were working class and two-thirds of whom were "youths" between 18 and 34 years old.

In that same poll, 37% of Guatemala City residents think that public security will be good to excellent in 1998, while 30% think it will be average and 34% think that it will be between bad and horrible. Expectations about the economy are worse: 51% of those polled think 1998 will be between bad and horrible, 29% think it will be average and 20% have expectations ranging from good to excellent. Thus, more people trust in an improvement in the fight against crime than those who believe in an improvement in the country's material conditions. In the opinion of the Myrna Mack Foundation, Guatemala's growth is not in proportion to the stage of post-war reconstruction the country is in. The approximately 4% growth in the GDP in 1997 is half of that required for an authentic national reconstruction.

When asked what they would ask for if they could request something for Guatemala, 37% responded that they would ask for "security" or "crime control." Another 33% would ask for "more jobs, economic stability" or "wage increases." Only 4% would use their one wish to ask for a "fair government." If the request were personal and not collective, 43% would ask for "work, wage increases" or "job stability," while 28% would ask for "security" and "peace." Only 5% would ask for "health."
It is clear that "security" without opportunities for economic wellbeing is not that attractive, as so many civil society organizations are saying. The desire for better material living conditions in the country is top of the list of capital public opinion. It is a pending agenda for the current government, and is related to decisions it makes about taxes as well as rural development.

URNG Balance Sheet

In January, the URNG published a long and very critical report about fulfillment of the Peace Accords a year after their signing. The spokespeople for the ex-guerrillas explained their prolonged silence throughout 1997 by saying that there were no complaints about fulfillment of the accords in the first calendar phase—from January to April, which included the finalization of the conflict, demobilization of combatants and their first reincorporation into legality. The URNG thus waited for the second phase, scheduled for April to December, to express a responsible judgment. The closing of that second phase coincided with the first anniversary of the signing of the accords.

Summarizing its report, the URNG recognized that "as signatory of and party to the peace accords, [the URNG], given its initial configuration as a legal political force, has faced limitations that have not allowed it to adequately play its counterpart role in social projection around the fulfillment of the accords." Certainly the deficient dissemination of the accords among the population, which subsequently failed to take ownership of them, limits their substantial fulfillment.

Four parameters guide the URNG's evaluation: the creation of "conditions for free political participation and ideological pluralism"; the "edification of the institutionality of peace"; the building up of a "legal foundation," especially constitutional, for pacification; and the "delivery to the state of new financial resources" to promote socioeconomic and cultural processes that respond to some of the deepest causes of the armed conflict. For the URNG, these four factors express the "political transition process" in which Guatemala finds itself "building foundations for the future," thus making it necessary "not to limit vision or efforts in the immediate context."
The URNG states that there has been fundamental progress in the first parameter: the reincorporation into legality of the ex-guerrillas, who are on their way to forming a political party; the substantial drop in political repression; and the growing protagonism of indigenous peoples. The report however, notes its concern over the delays or lack of political decisions to make the program to incorporate ex-combatants into civil life effective. It implies, but does not formulate, the concern that ex-combatants will resort to crime if the job, land or housing projects announced for them are not made concrete.

Legal Foundations Still Lacking

The URNG says it is basically satisfied with the second parameter, the establishment of 14 commissions to follow up the accords. A total of 300 people are participating on these commissions, including a significant number of indigenous people and women. However, the URNG stresses that the government appears little willing to negotiate and compromise, an attitude the URNG blames for the inability so far to reach agreement around pending reforms.

The URNG is more critical in assessing progress in the third parameter used in its report, legal foundations. The report notes that recognition of the unity of the Guatemalan nation as multiethnic, pluricultural and multilingual, the reorientation of public security, the application of justice and the redefinition of the army's role depends on complying with the legal and constitutional changes agreed to in the accords.

The URNG criticizes the delays in the approval of constitutional reforms and accuses some parties with parliamentary representation of having abused the spaces for debate to slow down the peace process and gain political advantages. The URNG reiterates that the constitutional and legal reforms contained in the accords should prevail, and that their presentation for grassroots consultation as well as their legislative approval should be speeded up, independent of the 1999 electoral process.

The URNG argues that it is important to move the electoral dates forward to August of the year for which they are scheduled, so that the significant portion of the rural population involved in agricultural harvests in November and January can participate in the elections.

In terms of redefining the army, the URNG document expressed concern about its continued participation in domestic security tasks and maintenance of excessive defensive readiness. The document also mentions the URNG's suspicion that the only reduction of the army has been by attrition and draft cuts, not by reducing the number of officers. On the other hand, the URNG recognized that the defense budget has been cut as agreed. The URNG registered indignation at leaked strategic plans that still contemplate military intelligence operations to control politicians and social and cultural agents. It also reiterated the need to begin the gradual demobilization of the presidential high command and its replacement by a truly new body only in charge of security for the President, Vice President and their families.

The Biggest Obstacle

The URNG is very critical with respect to the fourth parameter— providing the state more and more equitable fiscal resources. It states that the package of tax innovations does not constitute a true fiscal reform, does not respond to "either the spirit or the letter" of the peace accords and "does not alter the inequitable tax structure." Above all, it points out that the government is twisting the fundamental objective of the reforms—which is to increase the tax burden to 12% of the GDP by 2000—by presenting it as the cost of peace on the basic market basket. It should rather be seen as a resource for translating peace, through public spending, into tangible benefits for a population with scarce resources.

The URNG report recognizes that the creation of a Superintendent of Tax Administration will strengthen the state's tax collection capacity and, together with other laws, will reduce the amount of tax evasion. The URNG's fundamental criticism is that, without an authentic tax reform, international cooperation is at risk and fulfillment of the Accord on Socioeconomic Aspects and the Agrarian Situation becomes much less viable. This accord requires a real increase in public spending on education, health, housing, job creation, etc,. and in the costly, though indispensable, creation of a new national property registry that would make it possible to find solutions to the innumerable land conflicts.

Despite the measured tone of the former guerrilla organization's criticisms, it is seriously frustrated with the government. The latter has responded by claiming that the URNG's positions are not guided by objectivity about how much and how well the accords have been fulfilled, but by political and electoral interests.

In reality the URNG touched the major obstacle the accords face in the majority of government officials: these functionaries trust more in a state that is socially weak but strong in maintaining macroeconomic equilibrium, a state with a security structure able to discourage the protest of any social movement rather than a strong democratic state based on the social character of public spending as a development tool.

The URNG's challenge will be to maintain its critical abilities alongside its co-responsibility for fulfilling the peace agenda. Politically this leads to a tough dilemma. If the URNG resolves it, it will have contributed a great deal to the creation of a political opposition with a lofty vision.

For those in the circle of "the President's friends," those who are to the left of him but still work in important government posts, the importance of reflecting on the first year of peace is not to examine every commitment in detail, but to analyze whether or not fundamental irreversible processes have been set in motion that will build peace with continuity and sustainability.

Reflections of "Friends"

Ricardo Stein, on the President's Secretariat of Peace, stresses the importance of having institutionalized dialogue and negotiation in the 14 commissions created to provide follow-up to their fulfillment. These commissions, through their 300 members and another 1,000 people connected to them in working groups, could create a new type of relationship between the state and civil society.

Stein also refers to the process of redefining civil-military relations as another achievement in this first year of peace. The promotion of public security, the creation of mechanisms to resolve land conflicts and of production alternatives for rural areas, as well as the already-initiated fiscal transformation depend on this redefinition. Within Stein's extremely measured observations one notes an official concern for the real obstacles threatening both the peace process and the points of convergence between the sectors that negotiated the accords. The challenge is whether President Arzú will be able to maintain representatives of diverse tendencies among his collaborators, and not allow himself to be dominated by the traditionally most powerful forces, thereby sacrificing the social concern for equity that is indispensable to consolidating peace.

Reflections of the Bishops

In its reflections, the Bishops' Conference, in addition to pointing out advances in the development of democracy, also notes as achievements that women now occupy more social spaces, community organizations are growing, community development projects are on the increase, indigenous peoples are participating more, the historic memory is being recovered and having a healthy effect on the accumulated grief process of the people, and there is a vitality in commitment among religious and lay people in the Guatemalan Church.

The bishops stress the continued presence of realities that "destroy or block the hopes" of many that peace will bring real changes to the country. Increased poverty is the first of these realities. The bishops see a connection between the new forms of violence and the new forms of unjust and disproportionate enrichment that generate new poverty. They point out the lack of dignified and stable work for many, and the incoherence between the drop in inflation and the inability of many people to cover their fundamental needs.

Second, the bishops refer to the land conflicts, which they say have intensified. They comment that "in this area one notes even more clearly the incoherence between faith and the daily life of many Christians." They state that the Church has committed itself to many projects to gain access to land and work it productively, despite the obstacle represented by speculation in land prices.

They denounce the prevalence of authoritarianism evident in the continued reliance on the death penalty, the use of lynchings and acceptance of the impossibility of overcoming impunity and corruption in the administration of justice.

They insist once again that the economic model being built with globalization and the market as the ultimate criteria must be surmounted in order to make human beings the ultimate criteria and to find alternatives to the scandalously massive inequalities between nations and between majorities and minorities within each country.

"Mechanical" Fulfillment

Frank La Rue, president of the Center for Legal Attention to Human Rights and former member of the Unitary Representation of civic organizations allied with the URNG in international organizations, is severely critical of those responsible for fulfillment of the accords in the first year of peace.

His basic evaluation is that "the mechanics of the accords" have been fulfilled by establishing operating commissions, but he still perceives no political will for significant fulfillment. He sustains that, with few exceptions, the government has separated itself from spaces of dialogue and consultation. He adds that, within the government, the members of the governing party (PAN) have overpowered the "Arzú's friends" advisory circle, with the result that interest in the neoliberal economic agenda predominates over interest in a social and democratic transformation of the state. He considers that the URNG has ended up prisoner of an alliance with the government and has remained silent, unable to play a critical policy role or to speak out against accord violations. This evaluation is a sign, among others, of the URNG's loss of leadership among the Guatemalan left.

La Rue concludes that the peace accord obliges open and responsible civil participation in Guatemala and that the government's new interlocutor in the peace process be civil society. In this assessment, only if civil society organizes and mobilizes, defining its sectors and forces, will there be the possibility of consolidating democracy. The government, La Rue says, should recover habits of dialogue and consultation, not only when incorrect positions reign in public opinion or militant social mobilizations occur, but in daily social and civic life.

The Myrna Mack Foundation notes that the party program has displaced the national peace agenda within the government, which has marginalized the international community and the UN Mission (MINUGUA) to roles of non-critical technical and financial support. It feels that the government has lacked the boldness to institutionalize the spirit of the negotiations into a great social consultation forum, which could buttress the other organizational efforts dedicated to supporting the peace accords, including the Catholic Church. This vacuum has allowed major business families and top air force and navy officers to be strengthened. Thus, the move toward civil predomination over military power has been set back and implementation of the peace accords has ended up being "low intensity."

1998: Overloaded Social Agenda

The Myrna Mack Foundation believes that the URNG can become an option not only to vote for but also to be elected, but that this will not lead to a different political culture from the traditional one of strong political bosses unless it internally reviews its leadership and its ethical- political references.

The foundation believes that 1988 offers possibilities for social movements to increase their ability to develop an autonomous agenda and act independently. It predicts that in 1998 "the social movement agenda will be loaded with issues like indigenous rights, women's and children's rights, impunity, historic memory, compensation for victims of the conflict, reforms in the security and justice apparatus, access to rural and urban land, violence and insecurity and the high cost of living."
The greatest threat to the state, in the Foundation's opinion, lies in the return of militarism with social control based on arms and punitive methods. This would leave the population, already oppressed by growing poverty, inert before the armed groups— both military and organized crime—whose mutual connections are more than just a suspicion.

Clarify the Truth

The results of the Historical Clarification Commission will be released in 1998. The commission is chaired by the German Christian Tomouschat, and includes Guatemalans Otilia Lux de Coti, representing the indigenous concerns, and Alfredo Balsells Tojo, a Social Democratic lawyer.

On February 16, the commission signed a public declaration evaluating its work. It has finally concretized government financial support, delayed many months, adding it to the international financing that its members acquired. In the declaration the commission gently reproached the government for its lack of cooperation, particularly— though this was not stated—in the army's refusal to turn over its records: "This January the government began to turn over the information of greatest relative interest to the requests formulated, but while they contain useful data for historical clarification, they are still not enough." This means that the government delayed six months before beginning a cooperation that ended up inadequate. On the contrary, the Commission states that "the URNG has been progressively providing the Commission with information about the majority of situations that have been requested."
The commission is now in a period of analyzing "the great quantity and variety of testimonies and information gathered," to "release a report that offers elements of judgment about the events and specific recommendations." To do this the commission has announced that it is convoking a social consultation and a conclusive national forum that, without reducing its own independence, will allow it to "listen to all of civil society with respect to their needs and expectations, as well as their opinions about possible recommendations." With this goal, the commission will use its prerogative to extend the first six-month period to a complete year, to conclude with its July 31 report. At that time the commission will report in more detail about the collaboration of various sectors. Meanwhile, the commissioners "exhort them to fulfill their obligations, though it should be noted that the failure of different sectors to do so will not alter the seriousness or the validity of the final report."
In connection with the historical clarification, 1998 will be a test for both the Arzú government and the URNG. In the case of the government, it will show whether it has not only the political will to shed light on the recent past, but also the ability to impose this will on the army and other security branches. As to the URNG, it will demonstrate its ability to leave behind its excuses and justifications and accept its own historical responsibility.

URNG: "We Recognize Excesses"

The URNG already declared publicly on February 19 that "because of the particular characteristics of the Guatemalan war, we recognize having committed some errors and excesses. We participated in injustices in some very concrete and particular situations." It added that "with the greatest emphasis, we stress that it cannot be established in our documentation, testimonies and reports that our policy was to proceed through methods of repression, torture, massacres, revenge or injustice to obtain objectives. In no way are we trying to deny our responsibilities for the war situation. When we chose the path of armed struggle, we did it accepting all the responsibilities. This includes the risks, errors and excesses that are committed in a process that is innately violent, actions that have no explanation except in the political and historical contexts in which they develop."
The government has not released a declaration of similar depth in response to the Historical Clarification Commission. There is a tendency now in various national sectors to treat the conduct of both sides as equal. It will be the commission's difficult task throughout this second year of peace to illuminate both the historical context and the events that occurred in those violent decades of confrontation and suffering.

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