Guatemala (November 1998)
by Daniel Long, World Council of Churches November 1998

The signing of Peace Accords between the Government of Guatemala and the URNG (The National Revolutionary Unity of Guatemala) on 29 December 1996 put a formal end to more than 35 years of internal armed conflict. But the promised benefits of peace have been slow in coming and the peace process is in deep crisis; implementation of the Accords is severely behind schedule and major power sectors oppose implementation of key elements of the Accords. Furthermore, the international community is threatening to significantly reduce its contributions to the $1.9 billion commitment originally approved by the Consultative Group of the International Monetary Fund if there is not considerable progress on the key elements of implementation within the next months. The implementation of the Accords, which contain nine agreements on substantive issues such as treatment of uprooted peoples, a Truth Commission, the rights and identity of indigenous peoples, social-economic and agrarian policy, strengthening civilian power and the role of the military in a democratic society, constitutional reform and the reincorporation of the URNG guerrillas, has been at a virtual standstill for the better part of 1998.

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The government attributes this to the complexity of implementing more than 400 commitments contained in the Accords and to the opposition of certain political power centers. But, progressive popular and political groups say that the conservative government of President Alvaro Arzú lacks political will when facing confrontation with conservative economic sectors and the military. The public lacks knowledge about and enthusiasm for the Accords as no immediate benefits have materialized to alleviate constant major concerns – citizen insecurity and poverty.

In addition, the peace process suffered a major set-back when Catholic Bishop Juan Gerardi, the leader of a church project which collected, catalogued and analysed testimony and information on the 35 years of violence, was assassinated just two days after the project made public its report “Recuperation of the Historic Memory” – REMHI. Despite efforts by the government to portray the assassination as a common crime, the prevailing assumption in the country is that it is a political crime committed by former and present members of the military – those most implicated as the violators of human rights in the REMHI report. The assassination and the inability of the state to mount a credible investigation of the crime re-enforces the culture of impunity that protects human rights violators and the belief of the people that military repression has not ended. It rekindles the fear of the war years, making national reconciliation a seemingly unreachable goal.

While almost everyone agrees that the Accords have brought a new political opening in the country, the URNG, significant sectors of civil society, the international community and other analysts have indicated that there are five key areas of concern in the agreements that require immediate and dramatic action in order for the peace process to have a future. With national elections planned for the latter part of 1999 and the electoral process already politicising all issues, the time for action is reduced to the last three months of 1998.

The international community of donors is most concerned that the government meet its commitment to increase taxes. The peace agreements indicate that by the year 2000 the state should be able to collect 12% of the Gross National Product in order to sustain the economic goals related to national investment in education, health, housing and rural development and to pay the debt that will be incurred to implement the Peace Accords. The increase is to come through direct taxation in which those who have more, give more. Nevertheless, the first progressive tax measure suggested by the government and approved by the legislature was quickly rescinded when the conservative economic interests objected, and the government, fearful of losing the support of this group to the rival conservative party led by ex-General Rios Mont, withdrew its support for the measure. Now, the government is stating that the 12% goal needs to be rescheduled for the year 2002.

Another key element to the implementation of the Accords is constitutional reform which would provide the legal and constitutional basis for civilian control of the military, redefine their role in society, reform the corrupt and inefficient justice system, recognise the rights and identity of indigenous peoples and reform electoral law. The original goal was to have such reforms approved by the Congress early in 1998 in order to present them to the people for approval in a popular referendum before the end of this year. International donors have indicated that approval of such reforms is an absolute necessity for continued aid. Nevertheless, the constitutional reforms are only now being considered by the Congress and the popular referendum cannot be held before early next year, by which time election campaigns could possibly affect the outcome.

Progress in three other key areas of concern for a successful peace implementation – reform of the justice system, land reform and important questions related to human rights, has been slow or non-existent. If these commitments are not implemented more effectively and quickly, then the Accords will fail in helping the nation overcome some of the principal causes of the recent armed conflict. Thus, by the second anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords, it remains to be seen if the Accords will provide the possibility of a path toward economic development for the poor and social justice for all, or, whether there is only a continuation of economic and social repression under the facade of a formal, but meaningless, democracy.

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