New Hope for Guatemala?

Against the Current, No. 26, May/June 1990

Patti McSherry

IN RECENT DAYS, dramatic new steps toward negotiation between the Cerezo government of Guatemala and the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG), the insurgent movement, have taken place Also in the recent period the U.S. government has apparently been changing its policy towards Guatemala. These intriguing developments may signal a new stage in Guatemala’s long civil conflict.

On March 3O, four days of talks were concluded between representatives of the URNG and Guatemala’s National Reconciliation Commission (CNR), a body set up after the 1987 Esquipulas II accord. The goal was to begin the search for a path toward peace, reconciliation and democracy in Guatemala, as well as an end to the internal armed conflict.

The meetings were held in Oslo, officially hosted by the Government of Norway and sponsored by the World Lutheran Church and the Norwegian Church. The CNR delegation was acting with the full authorization of the Cerezo government in Guatemala and the explicit agreement of the Guatemalan army. This in itself is a striking change, although the army could not foresee how far-ranging the outcome of the talks would be.

Since 1987, the URNG has made 24 proposals for dialogue with the government to resolve the thirty-year armed conflict in the country. These were repeatedly rejected by the army, the dominant political force behind Cerezo’s militarized civilian government. After the Esquipulas II accord, the first and only such discussion took place in Madrid in 1987. Immediately afterwards the Guatemalan government broke off talks and the army launched its biggest offensive ever in Guatemala’s countryside. The army and the reactionary oligarchy in Guatemala have preferred counterinsurgency to either negotiation or the possibility of any structural change.

The two delegations in Oslo signed a Basic Agreement which appointed Monsignor Rodolfo Quezada Toruno, president of the CNR, as head mediator among the parties in the country. The agreement also specified three steps to be taken in the coming months. First, a meeting is to take place between representatives of the URNG and all Guatemalan political parties. Second, the CNR will facilitate meetings between the URNG and representatives of grassroots sectors, religious groups, and the private sector in Guatemala, in order to search for solutions to national problems. Third, a meeting is to be scheduled between the government of Guatemala, including high-ranking officers of the army, and the URNG’s General Command, to seek a solution to the armed conflict Finally, United Nations Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar will be requested to observe these activities.

Increasing Climate of Terror

Each new year since President Cerezo took office in 1986, there have been increasing numbers of human rights atrocities in Guatemala. Just as during the rule of the generals, victims have been unionists, students, religious workers, human rights advocates, Indian peasants, and teachers. In recent months, one American was killed and another, a U.S. nun, was abducted and tortured.

In February, a security guard at the Swedish embassy was killed. This occurred just at the time when the UN Commission on Human Rights was considering the case of Guatemala, and Sweden was leading an effort to reclassify Guatemala to Item 12, where worst-case offenders are considered.

Other recent victims were the second secretary of the Nicaraguan embassy in Guatemala, and Hector Oqueli—a Salvadoran leader of the FDR and the Second International—who was murdered along with Guatemalan lawyer Hilda Flores in January.

Last fall, more than twenty students, members of the Asociacion de Estudiantes Universitarios (AEU), were disappeared, and others were shot in the streets. At least ten were idled and at least six tortured.

Cerezo’s government has proven itself unwilling or unable to stop these atrocities, which according to groups like Amnesty International and Americas Watch are overwhelmingly the responsibility of the military and security forces. These forces effectively occupy and control the countryside, where the majority Indian population lives, and also are a constant presence in the cities.

As art institution, the army adheres to the messianic doctrine of national security, and considers all opposition subversive. Yet the Cerezo government has continued to defend the military and security forces. In a letter written in November, 1989 to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, for example, the Government of Guatemala “rejected insinuations that members of the security forces and the police were linked with human rights violations” and death squads. But the evidence suggests otherwise. Indeed, the evidence strongly suggests that Guatemala is a military state, draped in the mantle of democracy provided by a compliant civilian government

Changes in U.S. Policy

The swelling tide of violence seems to have embarrassed even the U.S. executive branch, which has (with the exception of the Carter administration) long supported Guatemala’s military regimes. While stopping short of accusing the Cerezo government of complicity with the reign of terms in Guatemala, U. S. Ambassador Thomas Stroock complained on February V that Guatemalan authorities had not captured or prosecuted any perpetrators of human rights abuses. On March 5, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler criticized Guatemala along the same lines, saying that “extremists who seek to undermine the democratically-elected civilian government” by committing of acts of terrorism” had not been brought to trial. U.S. Ambassador Stroock was temporarily recalled to Washington that day to protest the Guatemalan government’s failure to halt political murders.

Also at the UN Commission on Human Rights, the U.S. delegation let it be known that for the first time, it would not stand in the way of the effort to reclassify Guatemala to Item 12.

Cerezo noted accurately that the recall move was inconsistent with previous U.S. policy, where the U.S. government had acted as a “silent accomplice” to “dictatorial governments.” He added, “We didn’t hear this kind of criticism with dictatorships in the past? While Cerezo’s irritation with erstwhile allies is not surprising, his protests certainly fall upon unsympathetic ears in his own country. There he is widely despised for his regressive social policies, his decision to give himself a raise during the lengthy and bitter teachers’ strike, his refusal to investigate human rights violations, and his close ties with the generals.

The statements by U.S. officials reflect a new tone of criticism toward Guatemala. However, the statements also demonstrate the continuing interest of the U.S. to obscure responsibility for human rights violations. They imply that extremists of the left and the right are the problem, and repeat the traditional posture that the U.S. government does not know who is responsible for such acts. And at the same time, collaboration between the U.S. and Guatemalan militaries has not been halted.
Why the Changes?

The new agreement between the URNG and the CNR offers some grounds for hope. Negotiations and recognition of the URNG as an indigenous political force with social support are steps forward. The agreement implicitly recognizes the URNG as a key player in the country’s future. The position of the U.S. government, as always, will be influential. While the U.S. role is not entirely dear as yet, several preliminary observations can be made.

Perhaps most important is the new context of the Guatemalan struggle. A different Central America exists today. The subjugation of the rebellious Caribbean governments—Panama and Grenada through invasion, Nicaragua through years of low intensity warfare has transformed the region.

It is worth recalling the 1980 and 1988 Santa Fe papers, which had such a decisive impact upon the Reagan administration and apparently, the Bush administration. They may offer a hint as to the future direction of U.S. policy.

The Committee outlined its version of democratization—one compatible with U.S. national security interests—in its 1988 report. The plan urged a “regime strategy that goes beyond just setting up an electoral system.” The Committee stressed the importance of combating both “statism” and influencing Latin political culture, seen as constantly subverted by a “Marxist cultural offensive.” It urged that particular attention be paid to the Latin economies, by stressing privatization, deregulation, and formation of capital markets. The strategy of the Committee was summarized as promoting democracy” in Latin America, begun under the Reagan administration but still incomplete. In this context, the Guatemalan army’s brutality is tarnishing the image of democracy U.S. policy-makers are eager to claim.

Judging by the triumphalist statements emanating from governmental officials these days, U.S. policymakers seem to think the U.S. has not only won the Cold War, but that U.S.-style democracy and neoclassical market capitalism have emerged victorious worldwide, thus marking the end of history. Such self-confidence may be another factor coloring the change in Guatemala policy. The national security managers in Guatemala and the U.S. seem now to be more disposed to think that a solution in Guatemala requires negotiation with the insurgents, and that such negotiations no longer carry a political threat.

The reasons for the Guatemalan government’s approval of the CNRURNG meeting will emerge over time. Whatever they are, negotiations with the leftist insurgents in Guatemala will open new spaces for the popular movements and other political forces in the country. A loosening of the army’s bloody grip seems possible. Some potential for meaningful social change may result.

May-June 1990, ATC 26

Leave a comment

ATC welcomes online comments on stories that are posted on its website. Comments are intended to be a forum for open and respectful discussion.
Comments may be denied publication for the use of threatening, discriminatory, libelous or harassing language, ad hominem attacks, off-topic comments, or disclosure of information that is confidential by law or regulation.
Anonymous comments are not permitted. Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked *