Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 179 | Junio 1996



Next Thorny Accord: The Armed Forces

Guatemalan society, reserved and mistrustful, speaks out in a recent survey about the army. The topic of the armed forces is the thorn of contention on the peace negotiations.

Gonzalo Guerrero

The Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) and representatives of the Guatemalan government signed the Accord about Socioeconomic Aspects and the Agrarian Situation on May 6, after over a year of discussion. Although this is the fifth "substantial" accord in 28 months of negotiations, it is considered the first to respond to the causes that sparked the revolutionary movement 35 years ago.

Throughout 1995, this accord's negotiation prompted firm resistance from private enterprise and contributed to tensions in rural areas, where land conflicts escalated dramatically. Dozens of cases of land takeovers during recent months by peasants protesting mistreatment or the usurpation of ancestral lands can also be understood both as mechanisms to pressure the negotiations and as expressions of the high expectations created by those negotiations.
Protests from the agricultural sector which had temporarily derailed the peace process in December vanished when the new government took power in January. The suspicions of various political observers that the accord would not affect fundamental big business interests were confirmed on May 6. The accord emphasizes generating employment in the private sector on the one hand, and strengthening a government that establishes clear and just rules of the game on the other. But it does not touch the medullar issues: the land tenure system, the concentration of wealth or the regressive nature of the Guatemalan tax system.

Now It's Our Turn

Although a complete analysis of the accord is yet to be done, initial reactions from various grassroots movements have generally been positive. The Center for Legal Action in Human Rights (CALDH), affirmed that the May 6 accord "lays the foundation for a new model of more humane and just development, setting new opportunities that will only be reached if we all work together."

The CALDH commentaries emphasizing the accord's potential role more than its power to provoke structural changes are shared by many. "It is enough to reflect that an analysis of the accord lets us think about possibilities, leaving for the future what is desirable. The two sides have done their part; now it is our turn to support the building of peace," concludes the CALDH analysis.

What does the Accord Say?

The accord is divided into four large chapters: Democratization and Participatory Development, Social Development, Agrarian Situation and Rural Development, and Modernization of Public Administration and Fiscal Policy. A summary of the most relevant aspects of each chapter are summarized below.

Democratization and Participatory Development

To strengthen the population's participation, the government promises to promote legal reforms that give more power to municipal governments; regionalize health, education and cultural services; increase departmental participation in the nomination of departmental governors; and reestablish local development councils. The accord emphasizes the state's obligation to "promote the elimination of all forms of discrimination" against women and seek mechanisms to guarantee equal opportunities for women in access to education, housing, health and work. This is the first time in an accord of this type that the issue of women as domestic workers is addressed: "Legislation is needed to defend the rights of domestic workers in particular, especially in terms of just salaries, work hours, social benefits and respect for their dignity."

Social Development

The accord emphasizes the fundamental role of private investment in the country for "the generation of jobs and social development...indispensable for economic growth and a greater insertion in the world economy." The government's role will be to "promote, orient and regulate socioeconomic development to assure economic efficiency, a rise in social indicators and social justice." Many of this chapter's suggestions sound like electoral campaign promises. The chapter speaks of a 6% annual GDP increase, improved resource administration, etc. The accord stipulates that public health and education spending by the year 2000 will be increased by 50% over 1995 spending in relation to the GDP. At least 50% of health spending will be on preventive health. The government promises to reduce infant mortality by 50% before 2000 and to promote legal and regulatory changes in 1996 that severely sanction infractions against labor laws and increase labor inspection services. Training and professional formation are contemplated for at least 200,000 workers before 2000. The structural contradiction is mainly in the population growth rate, which could absorb the impact of these numbers. Before the year 2000, more than one million Guatemalans will join the work force.

Agrarian Situation and Rural Development

This chapter triggered the most conflict throughout the year of negotiations, and now speaks of "incorporating the rural population into economic, social and political development." It contemplates the creation of a Land Trust Fund, which "will initially be made up of national idle lands and farms registered in the name of the nation, national lands given away with irregularities in the Petén and Northern Transversal Strip that the government promises to recover through legal actions, and lands obtained through government resources that are being directed to FONATIERRA and FONAPAZ for that goal." The rest of the chapter establishes support for peasant businesses, associations and cooperatives; an increase in public spending on rural infrastructure; the creation of procedures to annul land litigations; ecological promotion programs; and the establishment of a national registry to be initiated by January 1997 at the latest. To finance all these measures, the government will promote the application of a territorial tax collected by the municipalities, and a new, "significantly higher" annual tax scale on idle or underutilized private lands.

Modernization of Public Administration and Fiscal Policy

The government commits itself to promote the decentralization of responsibilities and resources, a greater fiscalization of resources, and the professionalization of the civil service career. In terms of fiscal policy, it will prioritize investment and social spending, increasing the 1995 tax load (from 7% to 11% of the GDP) before the year 2000. It will establish stronger sanctions for tax evasion and fraud and strengthen tax administration.

Formal Advances, Real Warnings

As the accord was being celebrated in Mexico on the evening of May 6, with government Peace Commission (COPAZ) president Gustavo Porras playing the marimba and Gaspar Ilom and Rigoberta Menchú dancing, a group of social activists from the Guatemalan Catholic Church analyzed a series of attacks against several of its leaders who work on human rights and land conflicts. Just the day before, a leader from the Human Mobility Pastoral had been kidnapped, beaten and later released.That same weekend the offices of the Confederation of Guatemalan Religious (CONFREGUA) were broken into, as was the residence of a Historic Recovery Project director. The week before, a Russian diplomat visiting the country was shot at while traveling south of the capital with his wife. He later died. Days later in the same zone, Public Ministry investigators were also shot.The increase in political violence, executed with almost surgical precision, is now part of the political dynamic that accompanies the negotiation process. It can be summarized as a game of formal advances permanently marked by real warnings.

The Army: A Lousy Image

The next issue the two sides will negotiate is the Role of the Army in a Democratic Society. Everyone agrees that this will be the last thorny one that the peace process will have to tackle. Former COPAZ president Héctor Rosada, and its current one, Gustavo Porras, both think that this issue will be less controversial than the most recently signed accord. To support the debate process on this issue, the Arias Peace and Human Progress Foundation recently published the results of a national poll on the Guatemalan population's image of the army, done in November 1995 by the firm Borge and Associates.

The poll paints a country with great differences of perception according to geography, gender and the level of violence that one has experienced. Nonetheless, the results of 1,200 interviews provide a valuable illustration of a generally reserved and suspicious society. Panelist Edgard Gutiérrez, from the Catholic Church's Historic Recovery Project, offered this interpretation during the presentation of the results: "The poll shows us to be suspicious and skeptical of the possibilities for institutional change and an end to the war. We are apathetic, we point out problems but don't want to actively participate in their resolution. We don't want to run risks. We are shown to be an intuitive people. The opinion exists that this is not the moment for autocratic solutions, for hard handed governments, for coups. We are also a people with little information and plenty of fear. Without a doubt, that is the predominant characteristic."

At the national level, the army's bad image is overwhelming: 84.3% of those polled have no (56%) or very little (28.3%) confidence in the armed institution. The army is noted by 84.5% of the population as a human rights violator. The National Police ranks close to the army, followed by the Civil Self Defense Patrols and Ambulatory Military Police. Only 5% or less of those interviewed considered the security institutions to be defenders of human rights.

The perception of responsibility for human rights violations also extends to judges: 36% consider them violators, and only 11% think they defend human rights.The URNG was signalled as violating human rights by 36.4% of those polled, while 24.1% considered them to be defenders. According to the poll, "big business" and the unions defend human rights the most.

The poll also serves to demonstrate the war's impact in Guatemala: 36% of those polled said they had suffered a direct or indirect los because of the domestic armed conflict. In conflict areas the figure rose to 54%.

Despite viewing the army as a human rights violator and generator of violence, few interviewees believe the institution should be abolished. While 62.3% believes the army should be reduced, only 14.2% believes it should totally disappear. There is greater rejection of the army among women: 79.7% of the women interviewed thinks the army should be reduced, while only 44.8% of the men does.

Although the majority agrees with reducing the army, almost half (48%) thinks it is "indispensable to maintaining Guatemala's security." Paradoxically, 83% of those polled perceives that "if the army did not exist there would not be so much violence in the country."

While an overall 57% believes that the people are afraid of the army, the number rises to 80% in the highlands and northern areas. Some 76% of those interviewed says that the army "has done nothing good for the communities." With respect to the URNG guerrillas, 30.1% of the population says it is afraid of them, while 19% says it respects them.

Women sympathize much less with the army, with 83% stating they have "no confidence in the armed forces." Only 28% of men shares this level of rejection.

There is also a breach between rural and urban perceptions. In rural areas, 24% of those interviewed believes that people are worried about community problems, while in the urban sample only 6.1% shares this opinion. In terms of the army, 72.3% of those living in rural areas has no confidence in the army, while in urban areas only 37.6% has no confidence.

Another conclusion that can be extrapolated from the poll is that people feel disconnected from national political events. When asked the question, "Who is the oldest president you remember?" 58% responded Jorge Serrano Elías (1991 93) and 29% Vinicio Cerezo (1986 91). Presidents from before 1986 disappeared from the collective memory, with the exception of Juan José Arévalo, who 50 years later is remembered by 10.4% of his countrymen.

Cuba Gets Closer

Thirty five years after the now forgotten government of Ydígoras Fuentes offered the United States the use of the Helvetia farm in southern Guatemala to train anti Castro troops who participated in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, the Guatemalan government is initiating negotiations to reestablish relations with the island. Sources close to the Alvaro Arzú government affirmed that the two countries will soon establish commercial interest offices.

Three significant incidents of rapprochement have occurred in the last four months. In January, Cuban Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina was invited to Arzú's inauguration. In February, a group of Guatemalan businesspeople sponsored by the Nontraditional Export Producers traveled to Cuba to look at investments and markets on the island. And in April, a Cuban technicians' mission came to Guatemala to offer assistance in health, biotechnology, sports and culture.

Despite these events, however, Guatemalan Foreign Minister Eduardo Stein denied rumors that diplomatic ties are being reestablished. "These relations are not part of the government's priority agenda," he succinctly stated.

While Cuba's openness is easily explained, the reasons for the Arzú government's receptivity vary. One is that Cuba is giving the government the opportunity to demonstrate independence from the United States, reaffirming a nationalist position. For the first time in almost 40 years, a number of small countries of the continent are joining forces to express solidarity with Cuba.

In its relations with Cuba, Guatemala also has a negotiating tool with its great northern neighbor. In an interview with envío in mid April, Arzú expressed his disappointment with the lack of "a positive and constructive spirit" by the United States. "The epoch of recriminatory and domineering attitudes has passed," he said. Arzú praised the support and solidarity with Guatemala by European and Asian governments, which "understand the changes we are making."

And the Refugees?

While the new Arzú government is winning applause at the negotiating table, in the international press and, thanks to his diplomatic efforts, in the international community, there are important, relatively hidden signs that it has not yet healed the nation's open wounds.

Fourteen years after the great exodus to Mexico, 32,000 Guatemalans continue living in the neighboring country. The collective return process is tottering due to conflicts between the government and the refugees' representatives.

According to an analyst who has watched these negotiations carefully, "Behind every emerging conflict the government appears to be questioning the viability of the return, the October 1992 accords, and the legitimacy and representativity of the Permanent Committees.

"By the beginning of May, 29,362 refugees had returned to Guatemala, half of them under the individual repatriation program and the other half in collective returns over the last three years. Today, 9,826 more refugees live in camps in Campeche, 4,310 are in Quintana Roo and 18,164 are in Chiapas. Almost half of this total was born during the 14 years of exile, and is thus Mexican by birth.

In October 1995, the Mexican Commission to Support Refugees (COMAR) made public a proposal to integrate the Guatemalan refugees who wanted to remain in Mexico. In a poll COMAR had done among the Campeche and Quintana Roo refugees, 72% showed intentions to integrate, 14.5% had not yet decided and 13.5% wanted to return.

At the end of February, President Arzú made an historic visit to Mexico, where he met with Guatemalan refugees and the governors of Campeche, Quintana Roo and Chiapas, all of whom reiterated their support for the COMAR proposal.

With the Mexican offer and acceptance by a great portion of the refugees, the Guatemalan government breathed a sigh of relief. Instead of having to accommodate some 32,000 people, the number will be between 4,000 and 9,000.

In response to this chain of events, however, the Mexican government took a step back ward and changed the COMAR director who had made the proposal. "It appears that there is no consensus within the Mexican government about how to treat this problem," concluded an analysis by the Jesuit Service to Refugees in Mexico. "The Secretary of Government decided to stick with return or repatriation as the solution." Although sources from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says that there are signs that the Mexican government could go back to its original proposal, confusion and insecurity have overwhelmed the refugee population for months.

In October 1992, the Jorge Serrano Elías government signed an accord with refugees in Mexico offering them land and credit in Guatemala to facilitate their return. The result was an unprecedented wave of returnees: 14,888 people came back collectively between 1993 and 1995.

In April of this year, representatives of returned refugees and the government were negotiating an extension on the credit rules for buying land. But the government's National Peace Fund now insists on putting a series of conditions on the returning refugees to continue providing them credit. The conditions include a population census of all the return communities; a study proving that the NGOs involved in this project have fulfilled their commitment to support with 26.9 million quetzals; the presentation of a viable methodology for managing revolving funds; and a list of all refugees interested in returning. An extension was granted for only 30 days and the credits will be given only to those planning to return to two specific communities. The refugees have refused to accept these conditions and the negotiations are at a standstill. Meanwhile, the return process has been halted.

As a result of policy changes both in Mexico and Guatemala, the situation for the refugees has worsened. If Mexico cancels its integration proposal and their own country blocks their return by denying credits, where will these 32,000 Guatemalans still living in the camps go?

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


Honesty Doesn't Come Cheap

El Salvador
The Challenge of Crime

Next Thorny Accord: The Armed Forces

An Authoritarian Answer

The End of the Army: An Enormous Step


Election Polls: Will the Güegüense Return?

Authoritarian Roots and Democratic Shoots
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development