Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 171 | Octubre 1995



The Bishops Speak of True Peace

The direction and the fulfillment of the peace accords depend on the results of the November elections. Meanwhile, the bishops point out three obstacles to peace in this country that has one of the greatest gaps between poor and rich.

Gonzalo Guerrero

A controversial pastoral letter from the Catholic Bishops' Conference identifying the historical causes of the country's social confrontations began circulating in Guatemala in August. The 96 page document, titled "Urging True Peace," sums up that "the gap between rich and poor" is the fundamental origin of the conflicts.

Based on United Nations data, the bishops state that Guatemala "is one of the world's countries with the greatest difference between the average wealth of the richest 20% of the population and the poorest 20%. The ratio is 30 to 1. No other country for which data is available has such a great disparity.... This leads us to consider yet again that the generalized poverty of large sectors of the population is the fruit of institutionalized injustice, crystallized in power structures and in privileges difficult to transform."

Necessary Link or Message of Violence?

The bishops consider it impossible to reach "true peace" in Guatemala if three basic problems "corruption, impunity and the unjust distribution of goods" are not resolved. Some see the link between impunity, human rights violations and the dominant socioeconomic structures in the country as necessary. Others argue that the pastoral message is "violent and disruptive," and will spark "more conflict, more instability and more deaths."
Ever since the concept of "impunity" was established and took root in Guatemala, and human rights struggles began to grow, the privileged sectors have tried to promote a line of thought aimed at separating the "fever" of impunity from the "illnesses" it causes. That allows the impunity debate to include criticisms and recommendations from all state sectors and from society. The message of the Church's pastoral letter becomes controversial and "disruptive" precisely because it analyzes the historical roots of the country's impunity.

In an editorial titled "Episcopal Violence," the August 25 issue of Crónica, Guatemala's most important magazine, accused the bishops of publishing "a rehash of ideas from Vatican II, a bishops' assembly that will not go down in history as reconciliatory." In the article's opinion, the bishops "insist on this hackneyed position" of armed revolution as "the only road to true peace." "The illustrious bishops," it says, "are returning to the ideological catacombs to drag out a violent and disruptive message."
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the pastoral letter for critics is the part dealing with the land problem. Referring to arguments from a 1988 pastoral letter, "The Clamor for Land," the bishops consider current land distribution to be "an obstacle to harmonic, sustained, integral and solid development in Guatemala."
"Some 2.2% of the landowners still own 65% of the tillable land. Peace in Guatemala depends in great measure on the satisfactory, just and solid solution to this problem," states the Bishops' Conference. To their detractors, this demand is "anachronic" and "irrational." "No one in their right mind could guarantee that agrarian reform can be carried out without blood," warns Crónica.

The debate about the pastoral letter coincides with the promotion of an inter diocesan project seeking to document the violence of the last 35 years and its effects. The project, called "Recovering the Historical Memory," was announced in April and is a sort of unofficial Truth Commission. "It attempts to analyze the three principal participants in violence; the army, the guerrillas and the paramilitary groups," explain its promoters. "It tries to document what happened, according to testimonies of individuals and communities that suffered violence or the effects of violence, and also to explain why the violence happened." According to the vicar of the archdiocese, Bishop Juan Gerardi, the Church seeks "to scientifically analyze what happened from 1960 to 1995 in order to avoid the same errors in the future."
In June 1994, the General Leadership of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) and the Guatemalan government signed an accord that opens the way for the creation of an Historic Clarification Commission, which should begin functioning after the signing of a definitive peace accord. With its project, the Catholic Church is trying to support this effort to clarify the truth. Though there could be a certain duplication of efforts by the Church and the Commission, the Church project has the advantage of being independent of a negotiation in which political interests will determine the limits of freedom of movement in the search for truth.

Two Revealing Documents

Five more agreements have been signed by the URNG and the government in the 20 months that have passed since the first accord. The most recent one, the Accord on the Identity and Rights of the Indigenous People, was signed five months ago. Since then, the government and the guerrillas have been discussing the issue that for many is the thorniest of all: Socioeconomic Aspects and the Land Situation.

envío recently got access to two internal negotiation documents, prepared by United Nations monitor Jean Arnault, which show the evolution of the "closed door" negotiations. The first base document, prepared at the start of the current round of talks, made an effort to gather all the initial converging and diverging positions of the two sides. The second document was drafted after several weeks of negotiations, with the aim of serving as an accord proposal.

A comparison of the two documents demonstrates that, while at several difficult moments the government and the guerrillas were willing to take up the issues, those proposals were diluted or completely eliminated in the second document. Even though the organized private sector and the big landowners insist that they have no influence on the negotiations, their tracks are clear in the transformation suffered by the base document.

A good example of this is the issue of taxing idle land. While the first base document states that "both sides consider that taxes on idle or under utilized land should be increased," the proposal in the second document promises only "to analyze the cost benefit of creating a Territorial Tax that could be easily collected by the municipalities, and would contribute to lowering the incentive for idle lands or their underutilization."

Government and URNG Proposals

The URNG proposed a constitutional reform that "would recognize the social function of land ownership and offer facilities to peasants in amounts and forms of payment for land acquisition." The reform would also modify the form of indemnification payments for expropriated idle lands.

The summary of the URNG position in the base document is that "the greatest obstacle impeding the country's social and economic development is unequal land use, tenure, exploitation and ownership." That same document states that "both sides consider rural development and the resolution of the agrarian problem to be fundamental to national development."
Both sides also coincide on the need "to promote Guatemala's insertion in the world economy." The URNG, however, "puts forward the need to de monopolize private export activities," and "promote a new, more equitable economic order with poor countries and peoples and generate cooperative relations within a framework of mutual respect and benefits."
Although the two sides agreed on the need to promote participatory and democratic economic and social development, the URNG proposed three specific measures to broaden social participation in the development process:
* Strengthen municipal autonomy with constitutional reforms that give municipalities the ability to establish taxes;
* Strengthen the Urban and Rural Development Councils with the participation of indigenous and workers;
* Strengthen civil society's ability to participate: "admit and promote all possible kinds of organization of civil society in accord with different interests."
In terms of economic development, the URNG proposes a project that "requires the efficacy of the productive systems, savings and private initiative investment, and the active participation of public administration." Such a project would have to "dynamically solve the agrarian problem, furnish the government with the funds necessary to fulfill its functions through an adequate tax structure, induce the business sector to take a responsible attitude, generate a legal scheme and institutions that strengthen civil society and transform state institutions to increase efficiency and efficacy as a promoter of socioeconomic development and catalyzer of a real and participatory democratic process."

Interminable Negotiations

The last government URNG meeting lasted four days. The two sides discussed rural development and the land issue. The next meeting should be in the second week of September and the agenda will cover social services.

It is already clear that the negotiations will not end before the inauguration of the new government to be elected in November. It is also clear that the effectiveness of the already signed accords and those left to discuss will depend greatly on the willingness of the incoming government. Although Peace Commission president Héctor Rosada states that the accords are state commitments and transcend the willingness of individual governments, Alvaro Arzú, the front running presidential candidate, claims that they will not be state commitments until approved by the Congress of the Republic.

Ríos Montt: Only Setbacks

General Efraín Ríos Montt's Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) suffered severe new setbacks in August. After Ríos Montt was legally prohibited from running for president for having led a coup, the FRG tried to register his wife, Teresa de Ríos, but she was also disqualified for being a relative. A week later, one of the party's most important leaders, Congressman Arturo Soto, left the FRG, complaining about the lack of internal democracy and the undue influence of Congressman Francisco López Reyes.

At the same time, the Supreme Court ruled that two suits against Ríos Montt, currently president of the Congress, and his FRG bench colleagues López Reyes, Harris Whitbeck and Fernando García Bravatti for crimes committed in June could be tried. They are accused of telephone espionage, usurpation of functions and abuse of authority in an attempt to encroach on the privileges of five Supreme Electoral Tribunal magistrates so as to get Ríos Montt accepted as a candidate.

With this Court decision, the four FRG congress members lost their legislative immunity and are at the disposition of the courts. They all requested permission to take a leave from the Congress for the next four months to prepare their defense.

With both Ríos Montt and his wife disqualified as candidates, and the best known FRG leaders facing legal problems or abandoning the party, the General's party had to turn to Alfonso Portillo, a recent party militant, as presidential candidate. Although Portillo insists that "knowing Ríos Montt is the best thing that has ever happened to me," many have doubts about his candidacy and polls indicate dropping support for the FRG.

Arzú: Probable Victor

Without the threat of Ríos Montt or a candidate close to him, no one else currently even comes close to National Advancement Party (PAN) candidate Alvaro Arzú. Fighting against complacency and over confidence, Arzú fears that his campaign is going "too well, too soon."
envío spoke with Arzú for two hours on August 31. He expresses himself with the care of someone who knows he has much to lose and little to gain every time he opens his mouth. His lead in the polls worries him and he has avoided the majority of forums and candidate meetings. This has given strength to criticisms from his detractors in the press, and Arzú spends much of his time trying to rectify what he considers distorted perceptions.

During the envío interview, he expressed frustration with the image the media paints of him and insisted on the following points: he will not apply neoliberal policies; he does not believe that the private sector is necessarily more efficient than the state or that privatization of state enterprises is necessarily positive; he believes in a strong state; he wants to see a civilian head up the Defense Ministry even though the Constitution currently requires that it be a military officer; and he believes that the country's three fundamental problems are discrimination, privileges and citizen insecurity. He does not favor agrarian reform and considers "offering legal security for investments" an important step to eliminating extreme poverty.

The following are extracts of the exchange between envío and Alvaro Arzu.

envío: What will your position be on the peace process?
AA: We are going to respect the peace accords with all clarity. We are aware that there needs to be a final signed accord as soon as possible. If the peace accords lie within the framework of constitutional norms, we will not be an obstacle to them.

envío: Are the five already signed accords commitments of the state or of a government?
AA: They are not state commitments because they have not been approved by the Congress of the Republic. We are going to take the corresponding measures in Congress [so that they will be approved].

envío: And the accords still to be negotiated?
AA: I am not participating in the peace talks. We can't give out a blank check. We can't guarantee what will happen before the results are known.

envío: What are your plans for the Presidential High Command of the army?
AA: I would maintain the High Command, but within the attributes corresponding to it. The High Command's power and authority has been overextended, but it is the only organized and effective group that the President of the Republic has to deal with issues of mobilization and security.

envío: How can the army be redesigned, since it has historically played a key role in the country that oversteps its constitutional functions?
AA: The fact that history demonstrates that it [the Constitution] has not been respected does not mean that it won't be respected in the future. We truly have the enthusiasm to change certain facets of history which have been twisted. With sufficient endorsement from the electorate, a leader can dominate pressure groups, be it the army or organized business groups or unions. If the endorsement is weak, then logically governments start depending on those pressure groups and become fearful, and the administration becomes one more in an already notable history.

envío: Would you be willing to carry out a true cleansing of the army?
AA: Clearly, if there have really been some arbitrary actions or crimes that are not within the framework of military actions as established by the Constitution, this must be submitted not only to a purge but probably also to judicial action.

envío: Among the constitutional reform proposals is a restriction of the army's role to the defense of sovereignty, leaving internal security to civil forces. What is your opinion?
AA: I think that, yes, control of the country's internal security should be taken away from the army.

envío: What will your government's policy be towards the indigenous population?
AA: In the first place, end discrimination. We have to give the floor to the people and stimulate their initiatives. The indigenous communities have demonstrated that they have their own formulas for their development processes. We want to be facilitators for those processes so that the people can maintain their identity, customs, traditions, even their own languages.

envío: Does your program include agrarian reform?
AA: Not necessarily agrarian reform, but yes agrarian modernization. The clamor is not for a plot of land, which can become insufficient as the family grows. What is wanted is access to good jobs, to effective and sufficient social security, to education for children. Within modernization is land tenure, which implies a land bank for people without land and also giving them access to jobs with a just salary.

Impunity for Foreigners

An incident that occurred on August 7 has sent a worrying signal. That day, a son of the Mexican Embassy's commercial attaché, an adolescent, was shot on the outskirts of an upper class residential neighborhood of Guatemala's capital, in the presence of several sons of European and US diplomats. National journalists reported that several foreign youths probably implicated in the crime "got away." The victim, Raúl Ulises Avendaño de la Selva, died in a Mexican hospital the next day.

A curtain descended on the case immediately after the crime. Neither the victim's relatives nor the Mexican embassy nor witnesses to the crime offered explanations of what had happened. Supposedly, Avendaño was visiting some friends in the neighborhood and crossed words with some youths; when he tried to escape in his car, they chased after him shooting.

Four days after the crime, two Norwegian students left the country. A week later, Migration authorities received orders to detain the two as principal suspects in the crime. Public Ministry Prosecutor Nery Orellana Leiva declared that he had requested the capture of the two Norwegians on August 10, the day before they left the country, but that National Police authorities did not immediately issue the order.

This is not exceptional; over 12,000 arrest orders in police hands have never been implemented. The seriousness of this case is the absolute silence of Guatemala's diplomatic community, in what would appear to be an intent to let those involved evade justice. Most serious of all is that the suspects protected by this silence are citizens of the same countries that so often state their desire for an end to impunity in Guatemala.


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