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  Number 151 | Febrero 1994
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Guatemala

A Powder Keg

We find an almost total attrition in the presidency, permanent politicking and corruption, and a country that is being put up for sale through privatizations. The detonator of this Molotov cocktail is the severe economic crisis.

Emma G. Martínez

In Guatemala, the new year began overshadowed by the process and the results of the January 30 Popular Consultation, an extravaganza in politicking that resolved not one fundamental problem and polarized the country even more. The country suffered alarming levels of violence throughout January. The "yes" to the constitutional reforms promoted by President Ramiro De León Carpio won the consultation, but it was a totally illusory victory, given the 84% abstention rate. Rather than lend the President broad support, the results underscored his government's weakness.

While this political circus played in the capital, the real changes feeding optimism are taking place in the country's most isolated and conflictive areas. In Ixcán, Quiché, the refugee return process began again in December after months of stagnation. This time 1,290 Guatemalans returned to this militarized region.

And at the beginning of February, the Communities of Population in Resistance (CPR) came out of hiding after more than a decade of living hidden in the mountains. They settled permanently in Ixcán with the protection of international accompaniment, leaving behind them their constant flights from the Guatemalan army. Both the returnees and the members of the CPR are pressuring for the demilitarization of Ixcán. This pressure is expected to increase throughout the year with the programmed return of thousands more refugees.

Another sign of hope in January was the resumption of the peace process in Mexico between the Guatemalan government and URNG leaders. The process had been on hold since the coup in May 1993. At the preliminary meeting in January both sides expressed their willingness to sign a definitive peace accord in 1994, and elaborated a framework to continue new talks in February.

Everything But Popular

The Popular Consultation convoked by De León was a disaster for him, given the extremely high levels of abstention. Many Guatemalans, including those who did not vote, appeared to be in agreement with a frustrated voter whose ballot was photographed by the press. He had written, "I don't believe in shit! I vote for Zapata!"
Of those few who voted, the yes vote won with 69%, while 13% of the voters said no and 18% filed null votes. According to analysts, the abstention is a sign of rejection, of both the President and the unsuccessful political system of formal democracy that began with Vinicio Cerezo's election in 1985.
"It is the death of the 1985 political model," declared Edgar Rosales, a member of a broad coalition that opposed the constitutional reforms. "De León is a man who no longer represents anything. The political caste no longer has anything to do. We can only try to take action to rescue democracy."
The yes no consultation on 43 constitutional reforms was badly conceived from the beginning and was clearly an attempt to manipulate De León's popular support. More than 50% of the Guatemalan population is illiterate and a high percentage speaks one of more than 20 indigenous languages and not Spanish. Many never understood "what the noise was all about." For these reasons abstention reached 90% in isolated rural zones.
De León proclaimed victory, while admitting that the abstentionism was "worrisome." "It appears that the Guatemalan people think the democratic system is wearing out," he said. Friendly governments in Europe and Latin America publicly applauded the consultation results, but in private more than one questioned its legitimacy given the high abstention rates.

The President hoped that the consultation would put an end to the political crisis that began in September 1993 when he demanded the resignation of corrupt congressmen. As was to be expected, the legislators refused and the executive and legislative branches got involved in a war that brought to a halt all legislative activity. After two months of this, De León gave in to international pressure and sat down to negotiate with the legislators. The constitutional reforms were part of the negotiation. According to one of these reforms, both the current congressional representatives and the Supreme Court justices would have to look for new jobs within a few months. The elections for the new Congress will take place in September, according to the Supreme Electoral Council.

But this was not enough for many Guatemalans, who interpreted the negotiations as a shady deal and accused De León of having abandoned his proclaimed purge campaign. The reforms allow the same representatives to be re elected as many times as they want. The constitutional changes are superficial, and do not touch the population's most felt needs: the country's militarization, unjust land distribution the most unequal in Latin America and generalized poverty.

"At any rate they can always be re elected. And they are all drug traffickers, 100%," commented Arturo, as he shined shoes in the capital's central plaza. "They won't leave their posts. The only way to fix the problem here is the way they do in other countries like Mexico and Venezuela, with a social explosion."

Enemy of Democracy

A local television reporter who interviewed De León the night of the consultation, as partial results began to come in, asked how he would like Guatemalans to remember him. "As an honest President. As the President who fought corruption, which is democracy's greatest enemy," answered De León, his voice hoarse from fatigue.

In the last two months De León had dedicated himself to the yes campaign, resorting to the same old dirty tricks to buy votes. He delivered the delayed 1993 municipal budget to many municipalities before the consultation. The Supreme Electoral Council spent 12 million quetzales (more than $2 million) on the consultation, according to Fernando Bonilla, its director. This amount does not include the millions of dollars invested in the publicity campaign that saturated the media. Currently, the Public Ministry is investigating whether or not De León illegally used government funds to finance the campaign.

The private sector was an important source of financing for the consultation. Business had a special interest in the reforms, above all in one that captured the attention of the majority of the population and public debate. The reform of Article 133 prohibits the Bank of Guatemala from "direct or indirect financing, guarantees or endorsement to the state, its decentralized or autonomous entities or to non banking private entities."
"This reform appears innocent," said economist Jorge González del Valle, "but it implies the prohibition of loans from the State Central Bank, using the economic formula applied in Chile and other Latin American countries. It means the strangling of the state. To pay its deficits, the state will have to sell shares; that is, it will have to privatize."
The possibility of privatizing profitable state enterprises was mentioned in 1993, including the GUATEL telephone company. Due to protests in 1993 in various state sectors, particularly health and education, the word "privatization" disappeared from politicians' vocabulary, and when he took office De León declared that the process was being postponed.

"Guatemala already has one of the smallest states in Latin America. It is a lucrative business and we are financing ourselves by voting yes. I don't care if the representatives go or not because they are tearing the state to pieces," stated González del Valle.

Only two days after the Consultation, the Guatemalan Businessmen's Association organized a conference titled "Economic Perspectives for 1994." The speaker, José Raul González Merlo, director of one of the most influential economic research centers in the country, concluded that the only solution left to the state to resolve the country's debt is to sell its shares.

Another Dirty Trick

Although the yes vote won, there is no guarantee that it will end the conflict between the executive and legislative bodies. Various representatives said they will contest the results because of the high abstention levels as well as anomalies in the process. Among the anomalies is one noted by the Archbishop's Human Rights Office, which claims that the civil patrols pressured people to vote yes in the Quiché department. This is not surprising, since Defense Minister General Mario Enríquez publicly declared his support for the yes vote before the consultation took place.

The De León government, which began its term without the support of a political party or organized social base, is even more weakened by the consultation's results. Instead of trying to consolidate the popular support he had at the start, De León immediately made a strategic alliance with sectors of the army and the private sector. Vinicio Cerezo, the first civilian president after three decades of military governments, maintained a certain level of popularity in his first two years, but galloping corruption stained his image. De León enjoyed great popularity when he took office in June 1993, given his position as Human Rights Ombudsman. In just eight months, he has lost almost all the support he had.

"It would have been better for him to continue as the Human Rights Ombudsman. He worked well there. He was against electricity cost hikes and against the civil patrols, and now he supports both," said Dimitri Benítez, representative of an agricultural cooperative, during a public forum. "His peace proposal is worse than Serrano's. He spent millions on this ridiculous consultation. How many more dirty tricks is he going to play on us?" Benítez was one of many at the meeting requesting De León's resignation.

As happened with his civilian predecessors, De Leon's weakening makes him even more dependent on the army. According to Manfredo Marroquín, an analyst with the Mirna Mack Foundation, "The situation is very dangerous. People believe in neither the Congress nor the President. Rather than promoting reconciliation, the consultation has further polarized the country."
The Archbishop's Human Rights Office denounced an "alarming" increase in violence between December 1993 and January 1994. In January alone there were more than 48 extra legal executions (assassinations with certain characteristics that indicate involvement of the security forces or death squads). There was also a new wave of death threats and kidnappings against workers in nongovernmental organizations and people linked to the grassroots movement. Marco Vinicio Mejía, a journalist who appeared on a death threat list in March 1993, has personally suffered the consequences of terror. Only four days before the consultation, his wife and daughter who had been kidnapped days before were found dead and with signs of torture. The last week of January was tense with the explosions of various bombs in the capital that left the country without electricity for hours.

At the end of January, battles between the URNG and the army raged in the southwestern department of San Marcos and also in Ixcán, on the northern border with Chiapas. Although in the last two years the war had been primarily a series of skirmishes, combats have increased over the last three months. Some analysts believe that the military activity will continue to increase, given the massive abstentionism.

According to Marroquín, "The militarist sector of the guerrilla movement is very strong now. They called for abstention and can interpret the results as support for their struggle."
This powderkeg could well be detonated by the economic crisis. The cost of living shot up in 1993 and prices have tripled in the last four months alone, according to data from economist Jorge González. The increases in electricity and transport costs have already begun to provoke disturbances, strikes and more instability. Price hikes in February and March 1993 provoked a serious crisis in the capital and a chain reaction that eventually led to Serrano's self coup in May.

Divided and Conquered?

There is little hope that the urban grassroots movement can mobilize around the recent intensification of the crisis. Union, student, indigenous and human rights organizations are divided about their tactics and activities, and marches carried out in recent months have generally been able to attract no more than 1,000 people. The consultation made the divisions among the groups clearer. They were unable to maintain a united front and confused the population even more: some promoted abstention, others a no vote and others pushed for annulling the vote.

In November 1993 the leaders of the Union and Popular Action Unit (UASP) announced that they would promote an "alternative" consultation the same day as the official one. This consultation would address the key issues affecting Guatemalans, in particular militarization and the neoliberal economic model. They were not able to come to agreement with leaders of other organizations, however, and decided to wait a few months before promoting an alternative consultation.

Good News from Ixcán

The second massive return of Guatemalans in 1993 occurred despite the fact that the process began with an open and direct confrontation between the army and the refugees. The refugees wanted to return to lands they had abandoned after the 1982 massacres in Tercer Pueblo, Ixcán. When they fled, the army settled there and built the second most important army outpost in all of Ixcán on the ruins of the old urban center. At the beginning of December, the defense minister was still refusing to move the outpost from the refugees' property. The refugees therefore decided to exercise their rights and they returned, despite everything, on December 8, settling temporarily only seven kilometers from the military installation.

Although these refugees suffered the worst repression of the 1980s when they left the country, they showed no fear during their return. On the contrary, they returned with a militancy that left both the international organizations and the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, as well as the army officers, astonished. In the trip from the Mexican border to their new home they had to pass by three army outposts. At the last one the refugees stopped the caravan of 40 buses and got out to shout at the soldiers, "Murdering army! As long as there are people, there will be revolution!"
Four days after their arrival, the returnees began to pressure for the outpost to be moved. On Sunday, December 12, some 400 among them many women with children marched the seven kilometers from Tercer Pueblo under a blazing sun. The non violent march of these peasants, with their colorful banners and the taped marimba rhythm in the middle of the jungle, was a scene without precedent in Ixcán. Unforgettable.

When the returnees announced their return to Tercer Pueblo, some feared a massacre. The last time that something similar happened was December 2, 1990, in Santiago Atitlán. On that occasion the soldiers of the Santiago outpost opened fire on some 5,000 Tzutuhiles and 13 died in a massacre that provoked international condemnation. The memory of Santiago was in the minds of some of those who accompanied the returnees to Tercer Pueblo that hot Sunday.

The returnees climbed the last hill before getting to their former home and entered the outpost calling out, "Get out army!" while some young soldiers nervously held their M 16s. The leader of the outpost, Major Sergio Cárdenas, welcomed the group and said he would listen to all their demands. For half an hour, various returnees used the portable microphone to describe to the leader, the soldiers and the press how they had to run away eleven years ago from the same place. An indigenous woman began to cry when she showed them where her house had been before the army burned it.

At the end, the returnees asked that Cárdenas sign a letter to the defense minister with their demands. The major agreed and the protest concluded with songs and prayers. The returnees then made the seven kilometer trek back to their temporary settlement. Later they learned that the soldiers had received strict orders from the capital to permit the protest.

This small heroic piece of history was made in one of the country's most isolated and forgotten zones. The march caused an uproar in the circles of power in the capital and was front page news for two days. The army and the government blamed the guerrillas and the international witnesses from human rights organizations of having stirred up the returnees to make the march. On December 13, De León declared that he would investigate those foreigners who had accompanied the refugees.

There was another reaction, but from a government official who was in Ixcán during the events who did not want to express his view publicly. First he echoed the official army interpretation, claiming that the whole event had been "provoked." But later he contradicted himself and said, "As Guatemalans, the returnees have the constitutional right to free movement. I also thought at first that it was an action promoted by the guerrillas, but after talking to these people I realized that they only want to see their homes after twelve years of being far away."
On January 25, the army silently transferred the outpost from Tercer Pueblo to another place close by. The returnees were still not satisfied, however, because they continue to live in a highly militarized zone. Nonetheless, just one and a half months after returning, the civilian population has begun to change the face of Ixcán.

CPRs into the Light

At the end of January, the members of the Communities of Population in Resistance emerged "into the light," ending twelve years of clandestine life. The CPRs and the refugees are living in the same zone and together are a force that could change the conflictive region.

"It is a reality that is emerging, it is the dawn of the poor in Ixcán," said Jesuit Ismael Moreno, who lives with the CPRs. "The return of the refugees, the emergence of the CPRs, the rebuilding of the Ixcán cooperatives, the beginning of production projects...are all elements in the transformation process in Ixcán, and the force of change is civil society. The Church and all of Guatemala face a huge challenge. How will we accompany a people who have decided to build their own future?" Moreno substituted Father Ricardo Falla, who was forced to leave Guatemala in December 1992.

Celebrating a mass welcoming the returnees, Moreno said, "This project that is being built in Guatemala will not bear immediate fruits. We underwent a revolutionary avalanche in the 1980s. Now we are recovering from the wounds of a protracted conflict. If we want to think like transformed men and women, we have to think about a very active, solid project that will bear fruit in 15 or 20 years. Anything else would be to fall into activities that bear some fruit, but can suffer serious reversals and could frustrate us more."
Moreno is very optimistic about the possibility that a "project of the poor" will win in Ixcán and will extend to all Guatemala, resulting in the country's demilitarization. He insists that the CPRs and the returnees have to demand that both the guerrillas and the army leave the zone. Despite his hopes, however, the Jesuit does not dismiss the possibility that terror may return to Ixcán, although he considers that international changes favor the alternative project.

"As opposed to what happened at the beginning of the 1980s, the military factor no longer has the force or relevance at the international or national level that it had then. Today no one will bet on the military in Central America or Latin America. Naturally there are other factors that can frustrate us, like the supra national neoliberal project. But the dangers cannot destroy our conviction that we will triumph," he concluded.

God Has to Want It

"God has to want it," was the response given by Defense Minister General Enríquez when a journalist asked him on February 2 if a peace accord would be signed in Guatemala in 1994. In the second half of February the Guatemalan government and URNG leaders will renew peace talks in Mexico. At the beginning of January they met in this country and agreed that they wanted to sign a definitive peace accord during 1994 to put an end to the conflict that has now lasted 33 years.

The peace proposal formulated by the government in 1993 was a resounding disaster and was abandoned. The February discussion will begin by debating a general accord on human rights and the possibility of international verification. The De León government had refused up to now to discuss the human rights issue.

In Guatemala, the civil sectors are not in agreement with the framework for the accord reached in Mexico between the URNG and the government because they continue to be excluded from the talks. The guerrillas accepted the government proposal to create an "assembly" of civilian sectors within Guatemala which will be a parallel debate of society's problems. But the assembly has no established organic link to the Mexican negotiating table. The government wants former conciliator Bishop Rodolfo Quezada Toruño to head the assembly of the civilian sectors, but at the end of January the Bishops Conference had not yet made a pronouncement about his participation.

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