|Central American University - UCA
Number 213 | Abril 1999
"Memory of Silence:" A Stunning Indictment
Some 200,000 dead and disappeared between 1962 and 1996,
the vast majority Mayans, and over 90% of that number accountable to state military and paramilitary terrorism. The government's initial reaction to the report, however, has demonstrated just how difficult it remains for the country to come to terms with its past.
Juan Hernández Pico, SJ
The Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) presented its unexpectedly frank report on February 25 in Guatemala's National Theater. It was a fitting stage. By presenting the facts and analyzing the causes of the national tragedy, the report provided a catharsis for the audience in the packed theater building and for the many who congregated in the lobby in front of giant television screens. The most repeated word during the presentation was "cruelty."
We weren't expecting itThose of us in the audience already knew of the brutality that characterized Guatemala during the war. But to hear it pronounced like a formal verdict against indescribable crimes, like some judgment of history, there in front of President Arzú, top-ranking army officers, Guatemalan human rights activists and representatives of the Guatemalan people—relatives of Mayan and ladino victims—was still quite a surprise. It was a stunning and socially momentous event.
So why was the report so surprising? The CEH was created as part of the 1994 Oslo accord between the government and the guerrilla movement. According to the agreement, the commission was entrusted with the task of objectively, equitably and impartially recording for posterity "human rights violations and acts of violence linked to the armed conflict that have caused suffering to the Guatemalan population." The terms of the agreement allowed the commission to mention the institutions involved and demonstrate their historical responsibility, but prohibited it from naming those responsible. Thus, no legal responsibility could be determined. A year after the publication of the Truth Commission's report in El Salvador, which did name names, the parties that negotiated the end of Guatemala armed conflict, worried by such levels of transparency, took measures to protect those who had violated the Guatemalan people's rights and caused them such suffering.
Unlike in El Salvador, where all those involved in producing the report were foreigners, the Guatemalan commission, as in Argentina, included citizens of the country under investigation. The commission members elected to prepare the CEH report did not inspire much confidence among those who wanted to see the truth revealed. Many feared that they were not up to the task. The commission's president, Christian Tomuschat, a professor of international law in Berlin with political links to the Christian Democrats, had earlier headed up the United Nations' monitoring of the Guatemalan human rights situation and had failed to impress. Although Otilia Lux de Cotí is ethnically Mayan, many felt that her comfortable economic position had shielded her from the armed conflict; others feared that that the murder of Alfredo Balsells Tojo's son had left him mentally unfit to carry out the task entrusted to him. Such were the rumors circulating in Guatemala on the eve of the report's official presentation.
Ovation for GerardiWith these expectations, the report took everyone by surprise. Again and again the audience in the National Theater burst into applause. The first ovation came at the beginning of the presentation when the commission members posthumously thanked Monsignor Juan Gerardi for his contribution to the process of recovering and shedding light on the historical truth. In many ways the whole presentation was an act of homage to the bishop who was assassinated after presenting the report of the Project for the Recuperation of Historical Memory to the Guatemalan people. The members of the audience rose from their seats and remembered Gerardi in a standing ovation that lasted nearly three minutes. The cameras focused on President Arzú, who appeared uncomfortable to be on his feet applauding. In the end, Gerardi's murder may have been key in convincing the members of the commission and their research team that they could not allow themselves to defraud Guatemala and the rest of the world.
Between the bursts of applause, the faces in the audience slowly became streaked with tears. Rigoberta Menchú cried for her family and her people. Nineth Montenegro, a founder of the Mutual Support Group (GAM) and now a congressional representative, cried for her husband and the many, many others who also disappeared. It was difficult to hold back the tears: tears for the exiled, the refugees, the displaced, the tortured, the massacred, for those buried in unmarked mass graves, for the women who were attacked so viciously, for the children, the elderly, for the scorched land.
Alvaro de Soto, UN undersecretary for political affairs, shared the stage with the three commission members on behalf of UN Secretary General Koffi Annan. Also there to officially receive the report were Rolando Morán, general secretary of the URNG, now an officially recognized political party; Jorge Soto, whose nom de guerre was Pablo Monsanto during his years as a URNG comandante; and Raquel Zelaya, head of the government's Peace Secretariat. The absence from the stage of President Alvaro Arzú, who headed the government responsible for negotiating and signing the peace agreements but chose to remain in the audience during the presentation of the report, did not go unnoticed.
Truth is no substitute for justiceCommission member Balsells spoke with an objective and measured tone. His was a declaration of impartiality, overwhelmed, however, by the figures. Few people have questioned it. Lux de Cotí vindicated the Mayan people's right to human dignity and said that her people had suffered from the imposition of a conflict that did not concern them. Many, however, have since reacted to her insistence that the Mayan people were not active participants in the war. Jorge Soto accepted the results of the CEH investigation even before they had been presented and promised to study and assume them. He also begged the Guatemalan people's pardon for any excesses that the URNG may have committed during the war. Raquel Zelaya focused on the future and announced that the government has a budget of 10 million quetzals (some US$1.7 million) for 1999 with which to compensate victims.
The CEH then presented the voluminous preliminary report. Alvaro de Soto read a speech by Koffi Annan praising the enormous commitment to the historical truth that the report represented. The UN secretary general's speech also applauded the positive and equally historical role played by the peace negotiators from 1987 to 1996, and in particular the work of the Arzú government. At this point a good part of the audience reacted with shouts and boos. He concluded his speech by stating that shedding light on the historical truth is not a substitute for justice, which generated a great deal of applause. The concept of reconciliation defined in the peace agreements calls for a law that will pardon crimes committed in connection with the armed conflict. But unlike other amnesty laws, the Guatemalan one that has been in force since December 1996 expressly excludes torture, genocide, forced disappearance and other crimes against humanity that are covered by Guatemalan legislation or by treaties ratified by the Guatemalan government.
Pain, shame and tearsThe final speech fell to commission president Christian Tomuschat. It was at this point that those of us in the audience found it increasingly difficult to breath, attacked by pain, shame and tears, surprised by the nature of the accusations made by the commission members. Some undoubtedly responded with indignation and rejection, but for the majority there that night, it was a most welcome if anguishing surprise. For the first time, what we had already learnt through rumors, private investigations, testimonies and books, but never in the mass media, was publicly and authoritatively stated. For the first time, through Tomuschat's words, the audience in the National Theater, Guatemala and the world heard the true dimensions of the tragedy in Guatemala. His speech is contained in an 85-page booklet called Guatemala: Memory of Silence, which summarizes the conclusions and recommendations of the Historical Clarification Commission's report while the full report is being published.
Racism: The root causeAccording to the CEH's calculations, over 200,000 people were killed or disappeared between the outbreak of the armed conflict in 1962 and the signing of the peace accords in 1996. The testimonies presented by the CEH cover just a part of these: 42,275 victims, of which 23,671 were the subject of arbitrary execution and 6,159 of forced disappearance. The report calculates that 83% of the victims fully identified were Mayan and 17% ladinos.
It is particularly significant that the report dares to dig deep enough to expose the historical roots of the conflict, concluding that "the structure and nature of economic, cultural and social relations in Guatemala have been profoundly exclusive, antagonistic and conflictive, reflecting its colonial history. Independence in 1821, an event promoted by the country's elite, was followed by the construction of an authoritarian state that excluded the majority, was racist in theory and in practice and served to protect the interests of the privileged minority. The evidence for this throughout Guatemalan history, which was demonstrated in a particularly crude way during the armed conflict, lies in the fact that the violence came fundamentally from the state and was directed against the excluded and the poor, particularly against the Mayan population, and against those who fought for justice and greater social equality."
In its 1993 report titled From Madness to Hope, the Salvadoran Truth Commission stated that the Salvadoran state had subverted its role and shirked its duty to provide a rule of law during the conflict, transforming its structures to serve the interests of a state within the state. In 1999, the Historical Clarification Commission stated that right from the beginning, since independence, the Guatemalan state has been authoritarian, exclusive, racist, protective of the privileged minority and violent towards the poor, the indigenous and those who have fought to create a fairer, more democratic state, and that all of this was a direct reflection of its colonial past.
Such viewpoints have already been put forward in the best Guatemalan history books, in serious research works such as La patria del criollo by Severo Martínez or Guatemala: linaje y racismo by Marta Casaus Arzú. But this is not the history reflected in primary and secondary education programs, where the Barnoyas, Larrazábels, Aycinenas and Gálvez's are referred to as "founding fathers" rather than "members of the elite." The CEH takes them down from their pedestals, clearly defining them as dictators and tyrants against the majority, in much the same way as Guatemalan Nobel Literature Prize laureate Miguel Angel Asturias did in his novel El Señor Presidente.
The CEH states that this characteristic, this tradition of the Guatemalan state, its "anti-democratic nature," has economic roots: "the concentration of productive goods into a few hands" with resulting massive exclusion. According to the CEH's analysis, this exclusion was reinforced by "a racist culture that is in turn the most profound expression of a violent and dehumanizing system of social relations."
Tracing historyA full two weeks after its public presentation, the CEH report was still being discussed in the country's editorial pages. Many analysts and columnists accused it of being biased. Several complained that the commission members are not historians or questioned why the report reached back only to the sixties instead of going further to investigate the government of Colonel Jacobo Arbenz (1950-54) and the purported crimes committed during his rule. They fail to realize that the CEH has gone much further back in Guatemalan history than the Arbenz years—whatever its errors or achievements may have been—to state that what happened in Guatemala between 1962 and 1996 cannot be properly explained historically without first understanding that in Guatemala "the state was gradually constructed as an instrument to protect that structure" of possession and distribution of goods and administration of the economy. These were inherently unjust because they were exclusive, "guaranteeing the persistence of exclusion and injustice."
The CEH also states that since the end of World War II, the Guatemalan state has lacked an effective social policy, thus accentuating "this historic dynamic of exclusion." It backs this up with the evidence that in the years "of Guatemala's greatest economic growth (1960-1980), the state's social spending was the lowest in Central America" and the state demanded and collected fewer taxes than any other country in the region. And while the history written by the victors terms the overthrow of Arbenz's democratically-elected government in 1954 "National Liberation," the CEH report says that the period between 1944 and 1954 is "the exception" to this pattern of state behavior. In that period, the Guatemalan state attempted to implement a much more active and efficient social policy. But, as we all know, that course of history was cut short.
The CEH goes further, declaring that "due to its own exclusive nature, the state was incapable of achieving a social consensus around a truly national project." It also "renounced its role as mediator between divergent interests," leaving a vacuum that facilitated direct confrontation between those interests. The state turned successive constitutions with their guarantees of human and civil rights "into formal instruments that were violated by the various structures of the state itself." The legislative branch and the political parties represented there served to legitimize "regimes that ignored and suppressed" guarantees and "hindered or impeded processes of change." The country was left with no adequate channels for democratic dissent, which resulted in a "confrontational and intolerant political culture." The entire social order became riddled with instability.
"This created a vicious circle in which social injustice provoked protests and then political instability, which was answered in only two ways: repression or a military coup. Faced with movements that made economic, political, social or cultural demands, the state increasingly resorted to violence and terror to maintain social control. In this sense, political violence was a direct expression of the structural violence of the society."
Although these conclusions have an undeniable historical weight, they are still grounds for debate now as they were in the past, because accepting them involves accepting shame, pain, tears and above all, change.
A state within the stateThe CEH concludes that the violence and terror introduced as a way to avoid answering legitimate demands were exercised through "an intricate network of parallel apparatuses of repression." This network of repressive social control replaced laws and courts, installing "a punitive, illegal and underground system orchestrated and directed by the military intelligence structures." It was this system that became "the main form of social control exercised by the state throughout the internal armed conflict."
By examining the historical roots of the colonial era and independence, the CEH has determined the existence of a "state within the state," something also identified by the Truth Commission in El Salvador. The CEH concludes that this illegal, underground parallel power system was "complemented by the direct or indirect collaboration of the dominant economic and political sectors." The judicial system, whether actively or passively, favored impunity, which became both the means and the end within the state. "As a means, it covered up and protected the repressive actions of the state and of individuals who shared its goals. As an end, it was the result of methods used to repress and eliminate political and social adversaries."
The report also says that political spaces were closed following the overthrow of the Arbenz government in 1954, "inspired by an anti-Communist fundamentalism" that launched a crusade against the country's broad, diverse social movement. This crusade was the result of a pact "among various powerful sectors in the country" and activated by the state. It is also revealed in "the close relations between military power, economic power and the political parties that emerged after 1954." The repression of any form of opposition after 1963 narrowed the political options in Guatemala even further. The CEH's conclusion is that "coinciding phenomena such as structural injustice, the closing down of political spaces, racism, the consolidation of an exclusive and anti-democratic institutionality, and the refusal to carry out meaningful reforms that could have reduced the structural conflicts were factors that fundamentally determined the origin and subsequent explosion of the armed conflict."
The role of the United StatesThe CEH recognizes that the "polarization, militarization and internal war" were particularly conditioned by the Cold War, and points out that rightwing political parties and various powerful sectors of Guatemalan society supported the anticommunist US policy. It also emphasizes "the support given by the United States to strong military regimes in its strategic backyard," which in Guatemala's case meant "assistance in reinforcing the national intelligence apparatus and training officers in counterinsurgency warfare." According to the CEH, these were "key factors that influenced human rights violations during the armed conflict." But the report goes even further, stating that anti-communism and the National Security Doctrine were part of the US anti-Soviet strategy in Latin America and that "in Guatemala they assumed first an anti-reformist, then an anti-democratic, and finally a counterinsurgent direction that turned criminal." This idea of "the enemy within," which formed an intrinsic part of the National Security Doctrine, became state policy and the army's raison d'être.
This is a late but important recognition, bearing in mind that the US government, along with many others, provided international financing for the CEH. The CEH recognizes that this anti-communism, for whose end all means were valid, found fertile ground in similar sentiments that were already deeply rooted in Guatemala. It fused with a religious conservatism strongly supported by the top hierarchy of the Catholic Church during the 1950s, which helped to "further divide and confuse Guatemalan society."
Changes in the ChurchThe CEH also describes how the Catholic Church rapidly changed from this conservative stance to one based on Vatican II and Medellín, "prioritizing work with excluded sectors, the poor and the marginalized and promoting the creation of a fairer and more equitable society." According to the CEH, these doctrinal and practical changes "clashed with the counterinsurgency strategy." The state then began to consider Catholics to be "allied to the guerrilla movement, part of the enemy within and therefore subject to persecution, death and expulsion." In addition, the report concludes that the guerrilla movement viewed "the practice of liberation theology as a point of convergence that could be used to extend its social base." As a result, "a great number of catechists, priests, nuns and missionaries were victims of the violence and gave their lives in testimony to the cruelty of the conflict."
Profile of the guerrilla movementAccording to the CEH, the Guatemalan insurgency "emerged as the answer of one sector of the population to the country's various structural problems." Thus, "faced with injustice, exclusion, poverty and discrimination," they proclaimed "the need to seize power to build a new social, political and economic order." The investigation confirms the Marxist roots of the insurgency movement and states that Guatemala, like the rest of Latin America, was influenced by "Cuba and its exaltation of the armed struggle." More specifically it says that "the support Cuba provided to the insurgency in political and logistical terms, in instruction and training, was another important external factor that influenced the evolution of the armed confrontation," leading left-wing Marxist sectors to view "the Cuban perspective of armed struggle as the only option in the context of an increasingly repressive state." The insurgency was more united around the "necessity and primacy of the armed struggle" than it was "around a political-ideological project."
The CEH concludes that the insurgency promoted military training over political action and disparaged the efforts of other forces to exploit the limited spaces available for legal participation. Its distrust of those who preferred to remain on the fringes of the conflict "contributed to the climate of political intolerance and polarization." The insurgency movement defined its enemies as not only the army but also "civilians representing economic and political power" who it considered to be linked to the repression and, particularly in rural areas, those it suspected of supporting the army or those who exercised "local economic power."
In one very important conclusion, the CEH affirms that its investigation demonstrates that the internal armed conflict in Guatemala was not limited to the battle between the army and the insurgency. Rather, the whole state was involved while "the groups with economic power, the political parties, university students and churches" also contributed in various ways to both the origin and the perpetuation of the violence. Any explanation that reduces the conflict to two armed opponents also fails to explain "the repeated organizational efforts and the constant mobilization of sectors of the population that fought to achieve economic, political and cultural demands."
Most of the victims were Mayan civiliansThere were some particularly startling moments during the presentation in the National Theater. One of these came when the CEH announced that the "state deliberately magnified the military threat posed by the insurgency." The CEH is convinced that the state and the army knew perfectly well "that the military capacity of the insurgency did not represent a serious threat to Guatemalan political order," but that this exaggeration of the situation "served to justify numerous serious crimes." The state tarred a wide social, political, economic and cultural opposition with the same brush then "resorted to military operations aimed at physically annihilating or completely terrifying them." The CEH believes that this "explains why the vast majority of the victims of the state's actions were not guerrilla fighters but civilians." The victims included "men, women and children from all social levels: workers, professionals, religious workers, politicians, peasants, students and academics." Ethnically, however, "the great majority were Mayan."
Who is guilty?One of the most difficult problems facing the CEH was that the agreement governing its creation established that it could not individualize responsibilities. In response, the CEH creatively divided the armed conflict into periods and identified the areas of the country that suffered most during each one. It concludes that "most of the human rights violations took place with the knowledge of or under orders from the highest state authorities" and that therefore, "in the chain of military command and political and administrative responsibility, the responsibility reaches to the highest ranking army officers and government officials." The CEH rejects the excuse that the violations were the result of "excesses" or "errors" committed by subordinates and states that "the recognized fact that no high- or middle-ranking official was tried or condemned" for human rights violations over such a long period of time "is further evidence that most of these violations were the result of an institutional policy that guaranteed an impenetrable impunity throughout the period examined."
In short, the CEH concludes that "within the army, the National Defense High Command was the institution ultimately responsible for these violations." It adds that "the President of the Republic and the Minister of Defense should be held subject to the same criteria of responsibility, since the formulation of national objectives in accordance with the National Security Doctrine was carried out at the highest level of government."
First Pinochet¼Tomuschat's speech in the National Theater brought all of the pieces together. He defined 1978-1985 as "the most violent and bloody period of the whole armed conflict." He then went on to examine the period more closely. Mayan communities became identified with the insurgency between 1978 and 1983, a link "intentionally exaggerated by the state." The results were "massive and indiscriminate aggression aimed at the communities, scorched earth policies and the kidnapping and execution of authorities, Mayan leaders and spiritual guides." Finally, he announced that "over half of the massacres and scorched earth activities were concentrated" between the years 1981 and 1983, during which time racism was also prevalent "as a doctrine of superiority permanently expressed by the state, a fundamental factor in explaining the cruel and indiscriminate way in which military operations were carried out against hundreds of Mayan communities."
Tomuschat was forced to pause there as some in the audience began to chant "First Pinochet, now Ríos Montt!" although the period 1978-85 also covers President Lucas and General Mejía Víctores. Using the CEH methodology, it really is possible to point the finger at those most responsible for the horror. It is also possible to "infer the undeniable responsibility of the highest ranks in the guerrilla movement's organizational structure" from the violations attributed to the insurgency. The CEH is convinced that these acts were carried out with their knowledge "as they were the concrete results of a deliberate political and military strategy or were carried out in fulfillment of decisions adopted at the highest level." This is but one step away from naming the four former commanders of the URNG.
The horror of the massacresFor the first time ever in public, the horrifying figures of the massacres committed echoed through the National Theater. The CEH recorded 626 massacres perpetrated by the state armed forces. "Entire Mayan communities were exterminated and houses, livestock, crops and other elements necessary for survival were destroyed." All of the massacres were characterized by "an aggressive, extremely cruel element of racism." The justifications and the brutality of this cruelty resounded through the theater, shocking everyone, even those of us who already knew many of the details having read Ricardo Falla's Massacres in the Jungle and other similar testimonies:
"The counterinsurgency strategy not only led to the violation of basic human rights, but also meant that the crimes were carried out through acts of great cruelty, the archetype of which was the massacre. The majority of these were characterized by multiple acts of ferocity: the murder of defenseless children who were beaten to death against walls or thrown alive into mass graves where the bodies of the adults were later thrown on top of them; the amputation or traumatic extraction of limbs; impalement; the burning alive of people who had been soaked in gasoline; the extraction of viscera from living bodies in the presence of others; the confinement of people already dying from torture so that they were kept in agony for several days; and the opening of the wombs of pregnant women. These and other equally atrocious actions were not only acts of extreme cruelty towards the victims but also reflected a complete loss of bearings that morally degraded the perpetrators and those who inspired, ordered or tolerated such actions."
Based on the results of this study, which showed that 83% of the state's violations were committed against indigenous Mayans, on a study of the massacres that took place in the Ixil region, northern Huehuetenango, Rabinal and Zacualpa, and on article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (UN 1948, ratified by the Guatemalan state on November 30, 1949), the CEH affirms that "in the context of the counterinsurgency operations undertaken between 1981 and 1983, agents of the Guatemalan state carried out acts of genocide against groups of Mayan people who resided in the four areas studied."
This accusation was followed by a great burst of applause that arose from the need to hear the truth about the horrors announced officially, in front of some of those responsible. It was a way of reacting to the knowledge of how much cruelty we are capable of inflicting on others in order to defend our interests when blinded by racism, a way of reacting to the practices written into the training methods of the special forces, the kaibiles.
Machista violenceTomuschat also stated that, in addition to racism, machismo was another element in the brutal strategy. He announced that "the CEH investigation determined that approximately one out of every four direct victims of human rights violations and acts of violence were women," and that they were often tortured and raped. Thousands and thousands of women were also widowed or stripped of all their possessions. But he stressed that women have played "an exemplary role" in groups dedicated to the defense of human rights, in groups of relatives of the disappeared and in the fight against impunity.
The CEH report gives special attention to the people who disappeared and to the system of clandestine jails and cemeteries, especially in the context of military intelligence work. The CEH concludes that military intelligence "was the main instigator of a state policy that exploited the scenario created by the armed conflict to control the population, society, the state and the army itself." It also concludes that many of the "death squads" started their criminal activities as groups of individuals but ended up as "authentic clandestine military groups" responsible for kidnapping or eliminating "purported `subversives,' their allies and collaborators, lists of whom were drawn up by military intelligence."
The CEH also found that large agricultural landowners collaborated with state agents in the violation of rights and in acts of violence against peasants and allowed the state forces to protect their interests through violence. In the cities, several human rights violations carried out by state agents against union activists and labor advisers "were due to the close collaboration between powerful businesspeople and the security forces" to protect business interests, in accord with the government's anti-union policies.
In sum, the CEH investigations determined that "state forces and paramilitary groups linked to them were responsible for 93%" of all the violations documented, including 92% of arbitrary executions and 91% of forced disappearances."
Responsibility of the guerrilla movementThe CEH also holds the guerrilla movement responsible for serious violations such as the arbitrary execution of members of the military or the Civil Defense Patrols. Some of these actions were designed to create "revolutionary terror" and were committed in front of whole communities. It also mentions the shooting of members suspected of deserting or collaborating with the enemy and even massacres. According to the CEH, 32 such massacres took place, mainly between 1981 and 1982, and in several cases there is "reliable information that women and children were killed." It also registered cases in which people kidnapped by the guerrilla movement were forcibly "disappeared." In addition, the guerrilla movement repeatedly resorted to the kidnapping of "prominent figures from the political, diplomatic or business worlds" with the aim of negotiating ransom. In some cases the victims, including one foreign ambassador, were executed. The insurgency also "forcibly recruited civilians, including minors." And although the report states that "torture did not constitute a generalized practice among the insurgent groups," there was some evidence of this horrible practice. In all, the CEH calculates that the insurgency is responsible for 3% of all the violations registered, including "5% of the arbitrary executions and 2% of the forced disappearances."
The CEH concluded that many of the insurgency movement's "armed propaganda" activities left the communities and villages in which they were carried out "defenseless and vulnerable" to army reprisals. Although the army was clearly responsible for carrying out such criminal reprisals, the CEH is convinced that the guerrilla movement's actions "influenced the unleashing of those acts." It is in this context that the CEH emphasizes the responsibility of the insurgency's high command.
Forgiveness and reparationThe CEH's recommendations are impressive. First, it recommends that the President of the Republic, in the name of the state, recognize the acts described in the report before society, the victims and their families and communities, and that he assume responsibility for them and ask for forgiveness, so that the victims' dignity can be restored. It recommends that the URNG leadership do the same, and that Congress make a formal statement along similar lines.
Second, it recommends that the victims be remembered every year on a special day and that monuments be erected and streets and public buildings such as schools renamed after them. Such acts of remembrance should respect Guatemala's multi-cultural nature and the significance of sacred Mayan places violated during the conflict.
It is also recommends that a National Reparation Program be implemented for the victims. The government should present this to Congress as a bill, which should contain four kinds of individual and collective reparation: material restoration, particularly of land; compensation; rehabilitation and psychosocial reparation; and the redressing and restoration of dignity. It recommends certain criteria for identifying the beneficiaries, proposes a participatory structure for the program's executive board and recommends that the government finance the program by pushing through the progressive tax reform agreed to in the peace accords, redirecting social spending and reducing military spending. It also suggests that, in addition to this primary source of funds, the government seek international financial support from those states that economically and militarily supported the opposing parties during the armed conflict and that the program should run for a minimum of ten years.
The CEH recommends the speedy determination of the whereabouts of people who disappeared or of their remains if they died, so that they can be handed over to their relatives. It calls on the army and the URNG to cooperate by providing any relevant information. A special recommendation is made for children who disappeared and were subjected to processes of forced adoption. It also suggests that the state recognize the term "disappeared" as a legal status so that inheritance and reparation processes can take place. Finally, an active search for clandestine cemeteries and a legal policy of exhumation is recommended to allow the mourning to conclude with ceremonies and burials appropriate to the relevant cultural traditions.
The CEH also suggests measures to forge a culture of mutual tolerance and respect for human rights. These are set out in measures for the dissemination of the report Memory of Silence, and an educational reform that contemplates education in democracy, tolerance, dialogue and peace. It recommends that the government and Congress work to ratify all pending international human rights agreements, that they incorporate international humanitarian law into Guatemalan legislation and instruct the army in this, and that the government particularly protect human rights organizations after first consulting with them.
Cleansing the armyPerhaps the most delicate of the CEH recommendations is that which calls on the government to study the conduct of army and security force officers active during the armed conflict. It suggests that this task be assigned to a special commission "consisting of three independent civilians recognized for their honesty and faultless democratic credentials." This commission should be accountable to the Presidency and work under its immediate supervision. It should listen to the interested parties in the light of the CEH report and examine the files of the officers involved. Once the results are known, the commission should take the appropriate administrative measures in accord with the UN Human Rights Commission's Project for the Defense of Human Rights through the Fight against Impunity. To all intents and purposes the CEH is calling on the government to carry out an effective cleansing of army and security force officers.
The CEH also calls on all state branches to implement the Commission's recommendations to strengthen justice in order to bolster the democratic process. In another bold but wise stroke, it recommends that the state branches honor the National Reconciliation Law, investigating, bringing to trial and punishing those responsible for crimes of genocide, torture and forced disappearance and all crimes for which penal responsibility cannot be annulled.
The CEH recommends eliminating the presidential and vice-presidential military staffs, reforming the principle of obedience to limit it to actions "strictly within the law and never outside it," restricting military intelligence activities to exclusively military objectives, subjecting all civilian and military intelligence organizations to congressional control, and implementing policies to ensure citizens' access to any existing information held on them in public or private files. It recommends reforms to military doctrine, training and service and the establishment of alternative forms of service, recognizing the right to conscientious objection. It calls for a strictly civilian police force, with ethnic Mayans allowed and encouraged to participate in the institution. It also suggests that if the constitutional reforms limiting the role of the army in internal security matters are not approved in the May referendum, the branches of the state should very clearly define and legally endorse the army's role.
The CEH recommends continuing the historical research carried out for the report, encouraging the political participation of indigenous peoples, overcoming racism— at the very least by honoring the agreement on the identity and rights of indigenous peoples— and immediately implementing the fiscal reform already agreed to in the peace accords.
It concludes by stating that Congress should create a commission responsible for pushing through its recommendations and overseeing their implementation. It suggests that this commission not be exclusively governmental and that government representatives not form the majority, recommending that it consist of seven members, including representatives of the victims and of indigenous groups as well as human rights organizations.
Gerardi in the front rowThe report is a historical landmark. It represents a reversal of the course of Guatemalan history over the past five hundred years and suggests a new national project. It is up to civil society to keep it alive so that it does not end up as a dust-covered library curiosity. The more people and institutions in Guatemala that overcome the harvest of terror, assume the broken silence and commit themselves to defend the full respect for human rights and the democratic rule of law, the firmer will be the foundations laid for a new nation. In the National Theater, the CEH offered its thanks to those who are currently contributing to this, or who contributed in the past. "In the first row among them" was Monsignor Juan Gerardi.
The reactionsThe first to react to the CEH's conclusions and recommendations was US President Bill Clinton. On his arrival in Guatemala on March 10 during his visit to the countries hit by Hurricane Mitch, Clinton was met by a demonstration organized by university students and human rights activists demanding that he recognize the US responsibility in the violation of human rights and the prolongation of the armed conflict. Clinton did not mention these issues in his first speech in the gardens of the National Palace of Culture. He did, however, promise that his government would collaborate in clearing up the "dark events" that occurred during the armed conflict and shedding light on the human rights violations that took place at the time to ensure that they are never repeated.
Following a meeting with representatives of civil society in the same building, Clinton went on to recognize "the errors" that his country committed by getting "indirectly involved" in the Guatemalan armed conflict, but did not go as far as asking for forgiveness or offering to help compensate the victims as recommended in the CEH report. The following day in the United States, Oliver North and former undersecretary of state for inter-American affairs Elliot Abrams defended the US role in Guatemala and accused Clinton of ignorance. Former undersecretary Bernard Aronson on the other hand came out in defense of Clinton's position.
On March 13 the URNG leadership held a press conference to publicize its response to the CEH report and handed out an official statement titled "From Historical Truth to Reconciliation." The URNG recognized the report as a reliable source on the history of the armed conflict and accepted its recommendations as a positive step towards reconciliation. "This is not the moment to argue over nuances or details and is certainly not the moment to dodge responsibilities," stated the former guerrilla fighters. True to its words, the URNG went on to unconditionally ask for forgiveness: "In memory of the victims, we beg forgiveness with pain and humility from the relatives and communities that have suffered irreparable damage, acts of injustice or offenses through whatever excesses, mistakes or irresponsibilities committed either personally or collectively in the course of the armed conflict by any members of the former URNG forces or by its member organizations." The URNG leaves it up to those affected to take their cases to the courts to seek justice. Its extensive communiqué also evaluates the implementation of the peace accords, stating that this implementation has been "haggled over and delayed." It insists that "their full and timely implementation represents a great opportunity for our society to rebuild and become reconciled.¼ It is the essential component of the reconciliation process."
On March 16, the government rather oddly chose to present its "initial position on the Historical Clarification Commission's report and recommendations" through a paid advertisement in the national newspapers. When Vice-President Flores was asked why the government had not called a press conference, he replied that it wanted to avoid any journalistic distortion of its position. Such a statement only served to highlight the current government's now almost habitually defensive attitude towards the media and the President's avoidance of journalists.
Just another contributionUnlike the URNG, the government did decide to argue over nuances and details. "Over and above the exact statistics of the damage produced during the armed conflict," the government stated that "its magnitude and cruelty" should teach us to consolidate our democratic coexistence, to become reconciled and to respect the peace achieved. The government believes that "the historical interpretation of the internal armed conflict represents a contribution towards a task that has barely begun, given the complexity of the subject and its controversial nature." Thus the government views the CEH report as just another debatable piece of research work. It does not address the CEH's recommendations concerning the "disappeared," such as the legal recognition of "absence due to disappearance" which would allow inheritance procedures to take place, the search for those who disappeared or for their remains, or the identification and exhumation of clandestine cemeteries.
Nor does the government feel it necessary to clean out the army by examining the conduct of officers during the armed conflict. Rather it claims that the army has already been reformed and is undergoing a continuous cleaning-up process. The government did reconfirm the exceptions to the "elimination of criminal responsibility" contained in the National Reconciliation Law—for crimes of torture, genocide and forced disappearance—but refrained from stating that it will pursue those responsible for such crimes, even symbolically, or will ask the attorney general to do so now that the CEH's results have made it possible to identify them.
The government also failed to pick up on the recommendations for recovering the victims' dignity by erecting monuments. As for the compensation of victims, it did not elaborate on Raquel Zelaya's National Theater speech. Yet again the government pointed to the forgiveness President Arzú sought on December 29, 1998, during the act commemorating the second anniversary of the signing of the peace accords in Santa Cruz del Quiché: "It corresponds to the state to beg forgiveness for the violence suffered by the population as a result of decisions made by those who held political power and the actions of the army and the security forces of that time. In the name of the state, I am asking for that forgiveness." But it is obviously not the same to ask forgiveness before learning of the CEH's stunning report as after, particularly bearing in mind that the government is now trying to wrest authority from that report by considering it just another investigation.
There's no future without a pastThe human rights community was highly indignant about the government's official position in its paid advertisement, while the URNG called it "frivolous." In general its tone is discouraging and appears to indicate that the time has not yet come for the army to bow its head and recognize the horrors for which it was jointly responsible. Several government representatives have even hinted that the CEH report will sharply cut into state income derived from tourism. They claim that the publicity will create the false impression that Guatemala is a country where such atrocities still take place, thus dissuading tourists from coming here to enjoy their holidays.
There certainly is a sense of frivolity in such statements, but worse still the country is crushed by the unwillingness to assimilate the full extent of the horror, the shame and the guilt in order to start anew on the road towards the creation of a new country free of racism and its inherent violence after a dignifying catharsis. The synthesis between recognition of the past's pain and the reconciliation necessary for the future is still to be achieved in Guatemala. But if we have learnt anything from the Pinochet case, it is that a country cannot build its future on peace and reconciliation without first dealing with its past.
Juan Hernández Pico, sj, is the envío correspondent in Guatemala.