DECEMBER 30, 1996
Yesterday, government and rebel officials signed a peace agreement ending 36 years of civil war. Charles Krause looks at the war, its impact, and the future road to peace.
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
Browse the Online NewsHour's Latin America Index.
The CIA Factbook on Guatemala contains maps and statistical information about the country's people and geography.
The Guatemalan embassy to the U.S. supplies links to government information.
An American woman searches for the killers of her Guatemalan husband. She believes there was government and CIA complicity.
As recently as 1995, the group Amnesty International had still been keeping records of people who its members believe have reason to fear the Guatemalan government.
A photo essayist catalogues the destruction of a Guatemalan village in the 1980s.
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, the peace accord in the Central American nation of Guatemala. The Guatemalan government and leftist rebels signed a treaty yesterday. Charles Krause has the story.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Yesterday's signing ceremony in Guatemala City marked the formal end to 36 years of conflict, what was the longest and bloodiest civil war in Latin America's recent history. Rebel leaders and government officials signed the peace accord in the patio of the National Palace. Outside, thousands of Guatemalans gathered to celebrate what they hope will be a permanent end to the fighting. Yet, the atmosphere was described as more solemn than festive in large part because of the war's vicious toll.
Located in the heart of Central America, Guatemala is a small but exquisitely beautiful country with fewer than 11 million people. Yet, human rights groups estimate that at least 100,000 Guatemalans have died since the fighting began in the 1960's when leftist guerrillas first rose up to challenge Guatemala's military rulers. From the beginning the Guatemala strength was in the highlands, in rural villages where country's indigenous peoples, many of them descendants of the Mayan Indians who once ruled Guatemala, still make up 60 percent of Guatemala's total population. The guerrillas' fight for economic and social justice and an end to discrimination was aimed at the country's tiny European elite, which own 70 percent of the land. It was these wealthy landowners, along with their allies in the Guatemalan army, who long resisted demands for economic and social reform.
George Vickers is executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America. Even with yesterday's signing of the peace accords, Vickers says Guatemala still arguably remains the most feudal country in Latin America.
GEORGE VICKERS, Washington Office on Latin America: The traditional landed sector in Guatemala tends to view the indigenous population as subhuman. Its attitude has been that it can get by without people, that it can make--it can improve its own life or protect its way of life without the need to make concessions to the needs of the majority of the population.
CHARLES KRAUSE: The fighting in Guatemala reached its peak in the early '80s, when the army responded to the guerrillas' growing strength with a counter-insurgency campaign called "Scorched Earth." That campaign wiped out over 400 indigenous villages, forcing almost a million Guatemalans, most of them poor peasants from the highlands, into refugee camps or into neighboring Mexico. The military also created supposedly voluntary civil defense patrols. Their job was to control the rural population that was left in the highlands and to serve as the army's eyes and ears in guerrilla-infested areas. It was these civil defense patrols, according to human rights groups, that committed many of the worst atrocities over the past 15 years--murders, rapes, institutionalized tortured, and at least 40,000 Guatemalans who simply disappeared. Although the United States did not train the civil defense units, Vickers says the United States must bear at least some of the responsibility.
GEORGE VICKERS: During the 1950s, the 1960s, and the 1970s, the United States was an important supporter of the Guatemalan army. It trained it. It provided political support, logistical support, material support, and politically supported its fight against the Communist guerrillas.
CHARLES KRAUSE: According to Vickers and most other historians the origins of Guatemala's civil war lie in the polarization that followed a military coup in 1954 that was backed and financed by the CIA. The coup toppled a leftist government led by Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, who had been freely elected and who had threatened to nationalize the vast holdings of the U.S.-owned United Fruit Company, then Guatemala's largest landowner. In the name of anti-Communism, the U.S. continued to support right wing military governments in Guatemala and elsewhere throughout the region until the late 70s during the Carter administration, with its emphasis on human rights. That changed during the Reagan administration, but with the end of the Cold War in the late 80s, U.S. policy again moved toward negotiated settlements of the various guerrilla insurgencies then being fought in Central America, beginning with Nicaragua in 1988. But unlike its neighbors in Guatemala, it wasn't until this year that power finally seemed to shift away from the military to the country's collective leaders.
Since taking office last January, Guatemala's new president, Alvaro Arzu Irigoyen, has fired 13 of the army's 23 generals, those tainted by corruption and by the most serious human rights abuses during the fighting. As a result, after nearly six years of negotiations, the peace process finally began to move toward yesterday's conclusion. Under terms of the agreement, some two to three thousand guerrillas will lay down their arms and be reincorporated into Guatemala's civil society while the army has agreed to reduce its strength by a third--about thirty thousand men. But a sweeping amnesty law recently passed by Guatemala's congress could make it difficult for the government to prosecute those responsible for even the most serious human rights abuses.
Other sections of the peace agreement promise an end to discrimination against the indigenous population, better health care, and schools, as well as economic opportunities for the poor, including land reform. But President Arzu has publicly acknowledged that much will depend on the willingness of the United States and other international donors to support the agreement. It's estimated that Guatemala will need two to three billion dollars over the next several years to pay for the ambitious programs called for in the various peace accords.
CHARLES KRAUSE: We now get two perspectives on the accord. Alfonso Quinones is deputy chief of mission at the Guatemalan embassy in Washington. Piero Glejeses is a professor of Latin American studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, also in Washington. He's written several books about Guatemala. Gentlemen, thank you for joining us.
Mr. Quinones, what's changed in Guatemala over the past year that allowed this agreement finally to be signed?
ALFONSO QUINONES, Embassy of Guatemala: I think there are several factors, a combination of factors, but I would say that perhaps the most important one is the position of the two parties involved in the negotiation to really finalize this conflict by negotiated means.
CHARLES KRAUSE: The two parties being the government--
ALFONSO QUINONES: The government and the guerrillas, yes. And I want to underline and underscore a very important factor, which is the trust that the government of Alvaro Arzu injected into the negotiations. Just to mention a few of the things that happened during this year that Alvaro Arzu has been in power, very important to the peace process, is he publicly met with the guerrillas in Mexico, which was something unprecedented, for a president of Guatemala. He then visited the refugee camps in Mexico. He ordered a stop to counter-insurgency operations as a response to a measure adopted by the guerrillas not to conduct insurgency operations anymore. He ordered also the mobilization of the defense patrols.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Right. I understand that, but do you think there's been a fundamental shift in the basic views of the military and the landowners toward the situation--toward the country?
ALFONSO QUINONES: Oh, definitely it has been. On the army side, for example, and on the footage that we've just seen, it was mentioned, there has been a shake-up in the army. There was 13 generals, if I recall correctly, were released from their positions, as well as many other members of the high-ranking cadre of officers. And nothing happened. I think that they have finally come to terms and have realized that what's their role in their--in Guatemala, the role of the military in a democratic society as one of the agreements clearly mentions.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Professor, do you think the military has, as Mr. Quinones said, now understands its role in a democratic society?
PIERO GLEIJESES, Johns Hopkins University: Well, the role of the military in Guatemala since 1954 has been to help the Guatemalan upper class to prevent any social reform in a country that desperately needs social reforms. I don't see any reason to believe that there has been a change. I hope there's been a change, and every few years, people say that there is a change in the attitude of the Guatemalan military. In 1982, when there was a coup d'etat, the U.S. said there was a change. The American ambassador spoke of light at the end of the tunnel. In 1986, when you had the first civilian president elected in many years everyone said there was a change. But hope springs eternal. I really hope there is a change, but there is no particular reason until now to believe that there is a change. And this change shouldn't come just by the military. It's too easy to make the Guatemala military responsible for everything. It is the Guatemalan upper class that has also bitterly opposed any social reform in Guatemala and has begged for the support of the military to maintain a system of terror in order to prevent social reform.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Do you agree with Mr. Vickers that Guatemala is the most feudal country in--
PIERO GLEIJESES: Yes. USAID in 1982 published a preform on land tenure in Guatemala saying that it was the most feudal land tenure pattern in the whole of Latin America, even worse than El Salvador before the agrarian reform of 1980-81. So the U.S. government--and nothing has changed. There has been no agrarian reform since then. And in terms of the fiscal system in Guatemala is the most retrogressive in Latin America. Guatemala has had one particular characteristic. The IMF, the International Monetary Fund, is to the left of the Guatemalan regime, of the Guatemalan government. And this has not changed.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Let me ask Mr. Quinones. Do you think that your country remains a feudal country without hope of change?
ALFONSO QUINONES: No. I would disagree with some of the things that Prof. Gleijeses has said. I would--one of the main reasons to say that there has been change is this agreement that we just have signed. Within this agreement there has been some issues raised, as the ones that Mr. Gleijeses has pointed out, and this is a finalized agreement. Of course, we have to wait for the implementation. There is a will. There is a commitment to implement the agreements. Within these agreements there is one that calls for reform of social structure, the social economical agreement which also includes issues of land tenure. There are also other agreements that talk about indigenous rights. There are also other agreements about human rights. There are also other agreements about the people that displace people that live in Mexico and refugee camps and also inside Guatemala to be resettled along the country. Of course, we have an agreement, and an agreement was signed. No we have to comply with those agreements, and that's the task that we have ahead. We know that it's not something easy. It's not something easy to accomplish, but we have the will. We have the commitment. Of course, it's going to be difficult from the part of the resources. It has been mentioned that in order to implement the agreements, we will need around $3 billion in the next four years. And it's something that we at this moment in Guatemala, we don't have, and we are accounting on the assistance of the international community. We know that we are not at a time like we were before in which we were going to come with huge economic assistance, but we know that the group of friends, we know that the international community has been with us throughout this conflict, and we are certain. And we are sure and hopeful that we are not going to be left alone.
CHARLES KRAUSE: How much do you think the United States, or how much would you hope the United States would contribute to that 2 to 3 billion dollars?
ALFONSO QUINONES: It's difficult to point out specific figures. I know, for instance, that for fiscal year ‘97 there is a commitment of--if I'm not mistaken--$25 million in one part and the next 22 million--so it's around 40 to 45 million in FYI ‘97.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Professor, do you think that the United States and the other countries should contribute to this fund?
PIERO GLEIJESES: It's a very interesting thing because United States is a country which owes a terrible debt to Guatemala both because of the overthrow of the Abenz government in ‘54 and because of U.S. support for the Guatemalan military was decisive in the 1960s in creating a Frankenstein. So on the one side there is a huge debt. But there is also on the part of Israel, which played a terrible role in strengthening the Guatemalan security forces, intelligence forces, in the late 70s. On the other side I will not give one penny to Guatemala unless it is tied to concrete reforms. One of the reasons for this peace agreement is the hope of the Guatemalan regime to get resources from foreign countries which would allow them to avoid changing the tax system to avoiding for the upper class to pay a cost for the economic development of the country, and all the aid that is given should be tied to concrete and specific reforms. For instance, a reform in the fiscal system.
CHARLES KRAUSE: All right. Let me ask Mr. Quinones, how do you respond to the professor?
ALFONSO QUINONES: There are reforms on the way. We all know that most of the international assistance is tied to certain frame work agreements by the IMF, so--and these agreements are being discussed right now--so there is going to be a reform on the tax system in Guatemala. The specifics at this moment I don't have, but there is going to be a reform. Another issue that it's important to mention is that the taxable class in Guatemala, or the number of people that pay taxes in Guatemala is very low because the way to collect the taxes you have to be registered, and most of our people are not registered, so they don't pay taxes.
CHARLES KRAUSE: All right. But in a word, and we're close to running out of time, but are you hopeful this will succeed?
ALFONSO QUINONES: Oh, yes, definitely, and I'm not just hopeful but I'm certain that it will.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Professor.
PIERO GLEIJESES: I have no particular reason to hope. I want to hope but it is not the key point. The key point is instead of praising the Guatemalan government for this great gesture, this great action to compel the Guatemalan government to institute reforms, this is a regime that does not deserve the least trust. Let's be clear. The Guatemalan army is a criminal institution, not just a few generals, the army. So the important thing is what is going to happen.
CHARLES KRAUSE: I'm sorry. We've run out of time. But thank you, gentlemen, both for joining us.