A November Full of Pitfalls
A compromise, but not a good agreement. A plebiscite in which abstention may be the winner. Impunity that never ends. And peace that still does not arrive. Many are beginning to get discouraged.
Emma G. Martínez
November was not one of President Ramiro León de Carpio's better months. The campaign he initiated in August to purge corrupt congressional members ended in disappointment for many Guatemalans. The second massive return of refugees was scheduled for November, but had to be postponed because the army refused to abandon the zone to which they planned to return. Finally, at the end of the month, Mónica Pinto, the independent human rights expert from the United Nations, came to Guatemala. While the government tried to convince her that the country is now a paradise, others gave her proof of the opposite. Among them was an ex military intelligence agent with experience in torture and kidnapping, who openly denounced such actions.
"La Componenda"After two weeks of negotiations mediated by the Catholic Church, the President and Congress signed an accord on November 16 for mild constitutional reforms that would allow the corrupt Congress members to stay in their seats for at least nine more months.
The Componenda (compromise), as the November 16 reform plan is being called, provoked a lot of anger in the grassroots movement, which accused De León of being a "traitor." Soon after the accords were signed, leaders of the Unity of Unions and Popular Action (UASP) put out a call for people to protest the accords in the streets, and announced that they would promote abstention in the January 30, 1994 "consultation."
On that date, Guatemalans will decide about these reforms in a national vote. The plebiscite the President had announced for November 28 to ask if the population was in agreement with purging the Congress members and Supreme Court magistrates was cancelled by the Constitutionality Court, which ruled it unconstitutional because it represented interference by one state branch over another.
When De León took over the presidency in June, many progressive groups in the capital believed in his honesty because of his work as Human Rights Solicitor. Now they see him as any other political demagogue, who makes public office a dirty business. For them, this experience has exhausted the possibilities of non violent change in Guatemala.
Rosalina Tuyuc, leader of the National Commission of Widows of Guatemala (CONAVIGUA), one of the most prestigious national grassroots organizations, warned that the constitutional reform agreement will only exacerbate the current crisis. "It does not resolve the problems of land, salaries, or respect for ethnic identity," she commented. "We're clear that the solution doesn't have to be found right now, but if the basis isn't built for the future instead of dreaming of an end to the conflict, the social problems will be aggravated. Then there will be conflicts not only between the state branches, but a much bigger conflict between the government and the governed."
An End to the "War"The November 16 accord is the result of heavy international pressure to end the political "war" that was destabilizing the government. That war began in August, when De León gave an ultimatum to all Congress members to resign because of their known corruption. They refused, initiating a crisis between the branches of state that appeared to have no end in sight.
In September and October, rumors of a coup became increasingly insistent, although some circles claimed with equal conviction that De León had decided to resign as President. As the crisis deepened, international pressure increased on De León to give in and come to an agreement with the legislators. Manuel Marín, Vice President of the European Community, communicated to De León in November that the approval of $170 million in immediate economic aid for Guatemala depended on a "democratic" resolution of the crisis, adding that neither a coup nor a self coup were acceptable solutions.
Marín warned him that if democracy was not strengthened in Guatemala, all European Community aid to the country could be suspended. "We want to see a political regeneration, with new faces and the consolidation of a democratic regime through elections," he said explicitly. "A final accord encompassing these would be well received by the European community."
The President achieved his primary goal with the November 16 accords: he put an end to the political war within the state and thereby placated the international community. His other goal to clean out the Congress and Supreme Court he still intends to achieve, but in the long term. The cost he had to pay for the negotiation, in terms of his credibility as a leader against corruption, was very high.
The Guatemalan army did not interfere in the negotiations, but neither did it lose the opportunity to make a show of neutrality, emphasizing its respect for civil institutions and the Constitution. Army intervention was not necessary in any case, because the reforms do not address any touchy or critical issues, such as the country's demilitarization nor unjust land distribution. The grassroots movement's constant demands to dissolve the civilian patrols and put an end to impunity were also ignored in the negotiations, by both the President and the legislators.
The AccordsThe most important result of the November 16 accords is that congressional elections will take place in August 1994, thereby shortening the current term, which would have ended in December 1995. According to the agreed upon constitutional reforms, the future term for both Congress and the President will be reduced from five to four years. Candidates for Congress will also now be elected separately and not on a slate with the presidential candidate, as was done up to now. This way, future Congress members will have to respond directly to the voters and not depend solely on their relationship to the President.
The new Supreme Court, which will also be elected within a year, may become more independent of political and military interests. They will now be elected from a list that will be presented by university rectors and the jurists' associations.
The reforms increase from 8% to 10% the national budget for the municipalities throughout the country. They also establish that the municipalities will have to spend 90% of these funds on local development.
In the middle of all these changes, Congress members got a few little pieces of the pie for themselves; they will have four months of vacation every year and can be re elected an unlimited amount of times. They can also be Congress members while continuing to hold other governmental posts, which has always been a source of corruption. One of the most notorious cases in the current Congress is that of a legislator who receives a salary from Congress as well as two from the Supreme Court one as a "consultant" and one as a "boxer" on its sports team.
Kick the Bums Out!"The most important thing is that there was an accord," said Mario Solórzano, representative from the Democratic Socialist Party, "because there was a danger of destroying the constitutional order. To achieve an accord was a step towards political stability. It's difficult for the public to accept this solution, but it was the most mature option and was within the legal framework."
The unsatisfied "public" are those Guatemalans still interested in politics, who continue expressing their disgust with the results in the press. "The only thing these riffraff want is to continue receiving their salary longer," growled one of them, a man named Horacio, when interviewed in the street. "And you'll see I'm no prophet, but one of these days the people will go to Congress and kick these shameless thieves out!"
Alternative ConsultationHoracio's reaction expresses the sentiments of many other Guatemalans. On November 25, a coalition of 27 popular organizations announced a "people's" referendum for January 30, 1994, the same day the government has chosen for a national consultation on the constitutional reforms. Nery Barrios, from UASP, explained that the coalition will call on the people to vote only in the "people's" referendum, which will be published in the 22 indigenous languages. The coalition will ask Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú to preside over the symbolic referendum, and will also request international verification.
The UASP will propose sweeping reforms in economic and social policies, the abolition of forced recruitment and the civil patrols, the formation of a Truth Commission, and the immediate purging of Congress and the Supreme Court. According to Barrios, the goal is to receive one million votes, equal to a third of the registered population.
In Guatemala, elections are characterized by massive abstention (60% in the 1990 presidential election, 80% in the 1993 municipal elections). Given the country's political apathy, it is likely that abstentionism will be the victor in both the official and "people's" referendums. The idea of the parallel popular referendum, however, could offer many Guatemalans a chance to demonstrate their frustration and disappointment, with both the President and political system at its lowest credibility level.
Dissolve Civil PatrolsIn the popular referendum the issue that could be of most interest to many Guatemalans living in rural areas is the dissolution of the paramilitary civil defense patrols. These armed units continue killing and kidnapping with impunity in various parts of the country, while local and central authorities turn a blind eye.
Some groups CONAVIGUA and the Committee of Campesino Unity (CUC) threaten to take action in this area. On November 17, these organizations protested in the capital with a march of some 2,000 indigenous who came in from some very isolated zones.
"The government doesn't have the least interest in resolving the most serious human rights problems," declared Rosalina Tuyuc to the crowd. "The government and military have slammed the door to nonviolent solutions and dialogue in the face of the Guatemalan people. For this reason, we call on our people to begin starting right now an open, nonviolent and organized resistance. We cannot continue permitting the patrols' abuses!"
According to Tuyuc, the authorities have not taken action to process or even capture the patrols in Huehuetenango and El Quiché that have murdered various people this year. Since July, a patrol from Colotenango, in Huehuetenango, has already killed six people.
"The patrols are more heavily armed than the police, who now are even afraid to travel in areas where the patrols are," stated Tuyuc. "The patrols feel strengthened; they murder people and the law doesn't punish them. But our people know how to defend themselves and this is now happening in many communities. If they kidnap or kill a person, the population itself will capture them. The only solution is for people to develop their own defense."
More Refugees ReturningThe second massive return of the year the first during the De León administration has generated open and direct confrontation between the army and the refugees. It had been suspended since Serrano's self coup on May 25. Although De León had promised that future returns would be smoother under his administration, they have actually gotten more complex than the first one, which took place in January 1993.
Some 1,800 refugees had planned to return on November 22 to lands in Tercer Pueblo, Ixcán that they had to abandon in 1982. When they fled that year, the army settled in the same place and built the second most important military outpost in all of Ixcán on top of the former urban center. Since then, the area has been one of the most conflictive in Guatemala, with constant skirmishes between the URNG and the army.
When the refugees negotiated with CEAR, the government commission that deals with the refugees, they asked that the army withdraw from the area, since the military outpost is on private property illegally. That led to an agreement with the refugees, signed in October, in which the CEAR promised to promote the withdrawal of any army outpost that was in a return area.
But the Ixcán detachment is not just any outpost, it is one of the most strategic in the whole country. Mauricio Rodríguez, De León's new CEAR director, did promote the withdrawal as promised, but as could be expected, the military's response was not only negative but emphatic.
Defense Minister ToughIn a press conference offered on November 25, Defense Minister Mario Enríquez angrily affirmed that the army would not retreat from the outpost. Showing a map, he argued that the location is a "red area" for the army, and that it was "an irresponsibility on the part of the refugees, UNHCR [the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees], the CEAR and the Guatemalan government itself to permit a return to this area in the midst of an armed conflict."
Enríquez, who until now had been distinguished for a more diplomatic and politic style than his predecessors, almost "threw down his glove." His criticism of the government he is part of and supposedly a subordinate part alarmed some analysts and agencies working with the refugees. In a threatening tone, Enríquez also said the area in conflict had been mined by the guerrillas and the army would not accept responsibility if women or children lost their legs stepping on the mines.
According to diplomatic sources, the area has been mined by both the army and the guerrillas. Neither side wants to admit it has placed mines, which makes it difficult to initiate negotiations to clean them out. Because of the danger to the refugees and those accompanying them, UNHCR and the CEAR convinced them to settle temporarily in an area seven kilometers away from their final destination. These refugees should be crossing the Mexican border and entering Guatemalan territory the second week of December.
And Peace?The security problems arising during this second return made even more obvious the need to sign a peace accord between the government and the guerrillas that allows the return of all refugees who so choose. But the last peace plan presented by the government in October shows that there is no government and military willingness to reach an accord acceptable to all. In November the peace process remained stalled.
"If we waited until an acceptable peace accord was signed, we'd spend the rest of our lives in Mexico," declared one refugee. "More than 10,000 Guatemalan children have already been born in the Mexican camps, and they've never even seen their own country. We want to return to our land now."
A Secret SocietyThe last few months have not been very encouraging for military intelligence. In October, the soldiers in the Michael Devine murder case gave testimony from their jail cells so compromising to the entire armed forces that the news spread around the world. They implicated high level officers in Devine's death and in that of at least 50 other people. Although they retracted what they had said two days later under pressure, it appears that they now regret having backed off their claims.
There was another such "bomb" at the beginning of December. An ex sub lieutenant of the army who had worked with the G 2 for five years, 31 year old Juan Carlos Osorio, gave similar declarations while in clandestinity. Osorio was not implicated in any of the most famous cases in Guatemala those of Michael Devine or Mirna Mack but he explained how an extensive network of civilian collaborators with the G 2 functions throughout the country, and corroborated the claims that military intelligence is the unit most dedicated to kidnappings, torture and assassinations.
"I was present," said Osorio, "when some eight people were killed. Traditional methods were used: blows to the whole body, suffocating with a hood or a cord, cigarette burns, knife or razor cuts to promote bleeding. I think one begins to get accustomed to all this. I know specialists who have been torturing for 15 years and they are now hardened to it."
Osorio did not want to continue working with the G 2 and tried to turn his back on the organization and return to civilian life. But, as he explained, the G 2 is like a secret society and its members are automatically life members. In September 1993 Osorio was kidnapped by the G 2 on the main street of the small city of Cobán at 10 am in front of 20 witnesses. The captors, agents dressed as civilians, took him to a military zone where he was interrogated and jailed for almost a month. He was able to get out thanks to the testimony of witnesses who had seen the kidnapping and to the intervention of the Human Rights Solicitor's office.
"The pretext of military intelligence to kidnap and kill," said Osorio, "is always the same: that the victim was a member of the guerrillas. The civilian collaborators and the military commissions come to the bases to denounce that so and so is a guerrilla and the majority of the time it's no more than personal vengeance.
"Many civilians collaborate in these accusations because it gives them power over their neighbors. In a town, everyone knows who's G 2 because of their arrogance. And they're feared. They are the `ears' or the `rabbits,' so called because of their ears." According to Osorio, there are at least 500 of these "rabbits" just in the urban center of Cobán.
There are different levels of collaborators. Some do it because of the power it gives them in the community and others for economic recompense. In Cobán, the first type are hotel or gas station or car mechanic shop owners. The second are prostitutes, street photographers, taxi drivers, journalists and even street vendors, who are all paid for specific information.
They Keep Watching Us"You can't fight with the army," continues Osorio. "When one dares to speak up, the military begins its intimidation and tries to undermine the credibility of those talking. The soldiers in the Devine case are in jail; they can't talk there. It's only possible to do outside the country."
Osorio left Guatemala after giving these statements. He fears for his life and for his family, which remains in Guatemala. Before leaving he called on the international community not to close its eyes to the violent Guatemalan situation. "If international pressure eases a bit or ceases altogether, all of the advances achieved thus far, minimal though they are, will be lost. The fundamental thing that will put an end to impunity in our country is international pressure."
NAFTA: A MythWhen President Ramiro De León Carpio was in Washington at the meeting of Central American leaders with President Clinton, he asked Clinton to include Central America in the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA), a complex economic possibility the Guatemalan press have treated with much fanfare and no depth. They praised the free trade agreement between Canada, the United States and Mexico as the cure for all of Guatemala's severe economic problems, but nobody explained concretely how.
"It's much more myth than reality," charged AVANCSO economist Werner Ramírez. "It's not an initiative so the United States will import more from our countries, but rather an economic version of the Monroe Doctrine, aimed at opening spaces so gringo capital can come to Central America."
According to Ramírez, NAFTA will not have a great impact on Guatemala, where the majority of industries are subsidiaries of foreign businesses. The national companies will have to make alliances with foreign capital in order to survive, thereby increasing foreign penetration even more.
Medium and small national businesses will be "protected by poverty," Ramírez predicted. The majority of the population lives in extreme poverty more than 80%, according to the Catholic Church; it cannot afford imported products and will continue to buy less expensive national products.
The Guatemalan industries that could have the greatest problems shoes and textiles already have serious problems anyway, due to the avalanche of inexpensive used American clothing that has been inundating the country.
NAFTA will not resolve the economic problems, and may even worsen them. Ramírez believes that the only solution is a truly "national" business sector, one interested in the country's future development and not just in obtaining immediate profits.
Despite all of this, Ramírez believes that NAFTA could have a positive impact on this "national" business potential. To be competitive, the private sector will need better educated workers. "To pick coffee, an illiterate, passive labor force is better, but a more developed economy can't be based on ignorance." Ramírez believes that this new contradiction could force the modernizing bourgeoisie to spend more on workers' health and education and on the general population. It is, in fact, already pressuring the De León government to invest more in these areas in the rural zones.
Naturally, it is one thing to pressure and another to put the money on the table. "Tax collection in Guatemala is less than 10% of the gross domestic product concluded Ramírez.." "As long as the business sector continues this behavior, the country will continue its path toward africanization."