Of Centaurs and Doves: Guatemala’s Peace Process

Susanne Jonas, Of Centaurs and Doves: Guatemala’s Peace Process. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2000.

For a small country, Guatemala has an impressive history.  In 1944, a revolution tried to make good on the democratic promise offered by allied victory in WWII.  In 1954, Guatemala gained the unfortunate distinction of suffering the United States’ first Latin American Cold War intervention.  That event, in turn, had two important consequences:  Che, who was in Guatemala at the time, would cite it throughout the rest of his life as a key moment in his political formation, and the United States, seven years later, would try to replicate its success in Cuba with the Bay of Pigs intervention.  In the 1960s, following the Cuban Revolution, Guatemala was one of the first Latin American countries to develop both a socialist insurgency and an anti-communist counterinsurgency.  Practices the United States rehearsed in Guatemala would be applied throughout Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s.  Finally, in 1981, the Guatemalan military unleashed the worst repression in the continent, slaughtering over 100,000 Mayan Indians in a campaign a United Nations truth commission labeled genocide.

Susanne Jonas’s Of Centaurs and Doves documents and analyzes the long peace process that has brought this tragic history, hopefully, to an end.   Following an historical summary, Jonas recounts and analyzes recent events well known to Guatemalanists from the shaky 1986 start of the peace talks through the 1999 failure to pass through popular referendum a number of key reforms.  She ends her book, fittingly so considering Guatemala’s important role in the Latin American Cold War, by considering the topic within a larger “world cycle of peace processes.”

Following the end of the Cold War and of conflicts in neighboring El Salvador and Nicaragua, a number of factors combined to hasten Guatemala’s peace process.  Although the Guatemalan rebels (URNG) had ceased to be a major military threat since the military’s horrific scorched earth offensive in 1982, they still were able to mount significant military operations in certain areas of the country.  Following Guatemala’s transition from military to democratic rule in 1986, activists began to organize a number of new social, indigenous, and human rights organizations.  These groups, some of them directly linked to the rebels and all of them, to a greater or lesser extent, allied to the insurgents’ social agenda, began to push the state toward negotiations.  Likewise, “modernizing elements” within the army and among the economic elites saw an end to the war as a requisite step to “gain access to free trade arrangements such as NAFTA, to foreign investment, and to international funding promised to Guatemala after the signing of the peace accords.”

Between 1994 and 1996, the URNG and the Guatemalan state agreed to six major accords, brokered by the United Nations, that, if implemented, would institutionalize formal democracy in Guatemala.  The accord on human rights held the state to the guarantees provided by the Guatemalan constitution and international treaties signed by previous governments.  The second accord created the framework for the resettlement of internal and external refugees.  The next agreement established a truth commission to investigate human rights violations committed during the civil war.  The fourth accord on “identity and rights of indigenous peoples” formally defined Guatemala as a “multiethnic, multicultural, and multilingual nation,” called for ratification of international treaties that protected the rights of native peoples, and set up a number of institutional and judicial mechanisms designed to protect indigenous communities.  The fifth accord treated social and economic issues and “established a series of basic reforms that could open the door to possible future longer-range changes in the direction of modernizing the state and the landholding structure.”  Finally, the sixth substantive accord laid out a plan for demilitarizing society, for reducing the size and budget of the military, professionalizing the police, and dismantling the intelligence structure which serves as the brains of Guatemala’s repressive apparatus.

Jonas offers guarded optimism:  “On the positive side…. the peace process and the accords have changed many rules of the political game… If the forces of the Left are coherent and intelligent enough to use it well, they now have the space to fight for many of the goals not achieved in the accords themselves… On the negative side, there are serious limitations and flaws in some of the accords and important issues that were left unaddressed.”  These limitations and flaws in the accords are serious:  the failure to restrict the power and privileges of an entrenched and mostly reactionary oligarchy, the inability to fully dismantle a repressive intelligence system which continues to set the limits of dissent, the failure to reform a court system which “still operates within a generalized framework of impunity and threats,” the omission of substantive social and economic reforms, and the inability to hold military and political elites legally responsible for the genocide and terror they inflicted on Mayans and Ladinos alike.

Jonas is fully away of these obstacles to social justice and real democracy but draws her hope from the belief that the framework of formal democracy established by the accords will open the space for popular organizing, which in turn will force elites to cede some political and economic power, thus creating the conditions for a more robust democracy and a decent standard of living.  Liberal democracy, Jonas writes, “has arrived in Guatemala linked to a much broader national project or imaginario (vision) contained in the peace accords.”

But the accords have not created the space needed for greater popular participation.  At most, they have provided a rhetorical wedge to force open that space.  The accord on the Guatemalan truth commission is a good example.  Vaguely worded, the accord established a commission to “clarify” past abuses, but with no legal power to subpoena witnesses or records.  The commission was prohibited from “individualizing responsibility” and from having “legal effects.”  Despite these limitations, the truth commission in February 1999 issued a forceful final report that not only blamed the state and military for 93 percent of the violations committed during the war but essentially condemned Guatemalan history and culture as genocidal.  Despite initial suspicions and anger at the establishment of such a weak commission, Guatemalan human rights activists were overjoyed by the final report and quickly used its findings to lend moral weight to their ongoing attempts to end military impunity.  Two years later, however, with no real structural changes made in the judiciary, the moral weight provided by the truth commission report has meant little in terms of indictments or convictions.

Likewise, the social and economic accord reads more like a page taken from a human relations manual than it does a negotiated agreement reached by two belligerent forces.  Jonas writes that the “accord put great emphasis on mechanisms for broader citizen participation in development, ‘consensus-building and dialogue among agents of socioeconomic development’… [P]lanning and implementation of development projects were to be decentralized through urban and rural ‘development councils.'”  While this accord “envisioned a more just and human development model,” it mandated nothing that would actually help achieve such a noble objective.  It set goals for increasing social spending and called for a more progressive tax system.   Again Jonas is fully aware of the limitations of this accord and agrees with many of its critics, yet she believes that at least it “did provide the space for political forces to put those issues on the agenda.”  Jonas doesn’t point out, however, that it took other issues off the agenda.  By not raising the possibility of even a future land reform, it reaffirmed the absolute right of private property established by Guatemala’s most recent constitution.  Further, by calling for a national land survey to once and for all delineate ownership of all properties, it threatens to undermine the historic claims (and head off potential historic claims in future conflicts) of communities engaged in longstanding land conflicts.

Jonas’s optimism should not be quickly dismissed, for not only is it too early to tell what will come of the Guatemalan peace, but she is also right in her conviction that hope drives politics, both within Guatemala and without.  Considering the country’s vanguard role in the Cold War, we would do well to pay attention to its fate in the Cold War’s aftermath.  For this, Of Centaurs and Doves is a welcome guide.

Greg Grandin
Duke University

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