Air Date: November 4, 1997 Program 9744


Eduardo Stein, Foreign Minister, Guatemala
Leaders and members of the former guerrilla movements and the army's military police
Johanna Mendelsohn, Office of Transition Initiatives, USAID
Raquel Zelaya, Peace Secretary of the Presidency of Guatemala

(This text has been professionally transcribed, However, for timely
distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.)

MARY GRAY DAVIDSON: Guatemala: the site of Central America's longest and bloodiest civil war. Unbeknownst to most Americans, this war only recently ended in December of 1996. Now, the combatants have put down their arms and are planning their new lives in a country at peace.

AMILKA: (translated) We believe that the end of the war opened up spaces for political participation and allows us to have a voice where we didn't before. We have better opportunities economically as well. We're being trained and helped to be able to go out on our own.

DAVIDSON: The question now in Guatemala is whether the peace accords, which ended nearly four decades of war, have adequately addressed the problems in Guatemalan society that gave rise to the conflict.

JOHANNA MENDELSOHN: We all know in post-conflict situations that creating stability and security are the most important factors. Taking away guns and giving people an opportunity to get a new start is basic to rehabilitation in any war-torn society. Certainly Guatemala is a war-torn society, 36 years of war left a tremendous amount of disarray and destabilization.

DAVIDSON: During this half-hour of Common Ground, we continue our series of programs on Guatemala, this time looking at two key elements to making this a lasting peace: the army and the former guerrillas. Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It's produced by the Stanley Foundation. I'm Mary Gray Davidson

(With Spanish-speaking voice in background) Avilio Ysidro Porras is in school in Guatemala City learning to be a hair dresser. It's a big career change for him after eleven years as an explosives expert in the Guatemalan Army. The 31-year-old Porras, still wearing his military-issue boots, was a member of an infamous military police unit accused of numerous atrocities during Guatemala's 36 year war. Porras is now enrolled in a vocational training program designed to give the former combatants some useful skills for civilian life.

AVILIO YSIDRO PORRAS: (translated) It's been a difficult transition, going from being in the military and fighting a war. My dream was always to be a soldier and I'm proud I could fight in the war and make my country better. And freer. The work I'm doing now is easy and it's enjoyable, but the transition is difficult, and it's definitely a change. I'm glad they signed the peace accords. It's definitely a positive move for Guatemala, especially after such a violent war between brothers. And after having to live in the mountains, with all the risks we were exposed to, it's a great move. I feel the risks are gone and I can live a calmer, more peaceful life. I wanted to go into the business of hairstyling because it's what my father did. Some of my friends say, "Wow, it must be difficult to do that." But it's not. What's hard is adapting to civilian life.

DAVIDSON: In another part of the school a group of women are learning to sew. They too, worked for the military police, but mainly in the kitchen and the laundry. For most of these women, including Raina Arias, it's apparent it was a job like any other, but the benefits were better.

RAINA ARIAS: (translated) When we worked for the military police we would work one day and then we'd get a day off. Now, working every day is a heavy load because I have to take a bus from my home, which is 60 kilometers from Guatemala City and I am a single mother of three children. When I worked for the police I earned about $150 a month, plus I was given meals and a place to sleep, so my entire salary could be used for my family. God willing I will earn more once I start working on my own. I'm learning new skills and to make such a variety of clothes that I think I will probably be able to earn more in the long run.

DAVIDSON: Far from Guatemala's capital city, in the humid coastal region, is another vocational training center, this one for Avilio Ysidro Porras's former enemies, the guerrilla fighters of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit. Nearly 3,000 identified members of the rebel group have laid down their arms, and several hundred have taken part in training programs such as this one at an experimental agricultural station called "Los Brillantes," in the Guatemalan jungle. Antonio Pirir spent most of his life in the jungles and mountains of Guatemala fighting the government army. Now he's learning to farm these same lands.

ANTONIO PIRIR:(translated) The most difficult thing for us is our lack of formal education. We also need to find a final destination and land to cultivate. We don't know where we'll live and work. Those of us still here in the shelter have no homes to go to. We were only supposed to be here for 3 months, but nothing has been decided yet. And we had to negotiate with the government to stay here longer. The majority of us are peasants and our hope is to work the land and to raise some livestock. Another very important thing for us housing. What we'd like to do is establish a colony or settlement of former guerrillas who will work together. This settlement will be a place where all of us friends can live and work together. We want to farm and keep livestock, bees, fish and poultry, so we need good fertile land, with access to water. We want to stay together and work in a collective manner.

HANK MORRIS: It's interesting that we're in this very spot now; we've been doing this since 1989 in different countries: Nicaragua, El Salvador, and we're here. And the reinsertion process has really, really improved from our part. Not, you have to ask the ex-combatants, but I think the international community is working much better, much better together; the donors are; and I think collectively we're better prepared to be able to accompany and help the ex-combatants help themselves.

DAVIDSON: Hank Morris, a Canadian, is Chief of the United Nations Verification Mission for the demobilization of the former combatants from both the Army and the rebel groups. When I spoke to Morris in late September, nine months after the signing of the peace accords, the reinsertion program was running into some delays.

MORRIS: There's definitely a lapse, there's a loss of momentum in the integration process, for various reasons, most of them sort of out of anybody's control. One, we believe the very short concentration period, 60 days, which was really we think, too short to get all the information that you need for the follow-on courses and capacitation that they need, or training. And secondly, the foundation itself, the UNRG Foundation, has taken a long time to spool up. It's not used to being a civilian organization; it's more of a guerrilla organization and it's a whole new change for them. And then I think the third thing is just the whole thing of working together. This is a kind of a new process, where everybody is working together, has taken a bit longer than usual. Those are the three things that strike me. Right now, it's only delayed. It's certainly proceeding, but obviously, as you can see, this place was supposed to have been finished—the people were supposed to be out and in their, doing useful work in their houses—at the end of August. And now, maybe not even in the beginning of November. Hopefully in the beginning of November they'll be able to be reinserted.

DAVIDSON: Back in the field, which the former rebels have cleared of jungle underbrush, and recently planted with corn, is a 17-year-old boy who goes by the name Freddie. He says he joined the guerrilla movement when he was 12.

FREDDIE: (translated) In those years there was lot of repression from the army, and we had no choice but to go to the mountains and take up the armed struggle.

DAVIDSON: Are you satisfied with the resolution of the war?

FREDDIE: (translated) Yes. For the most part I am satisfied because I think the peace accords provide a basis for a better future.

DAVIDSON: Working next to Freddie is another former guerrilla, busy cutting out weeds with a machete. "Amilka," the name he goes by, has children Freddie's age and older. He hasn't seen his wife or children for 16 years because they left the country when the fighting got bad.

AMILKA: (translated) Since 1986 I've been communicating with my family abroad. But it's not up to me whether we will be reunited. We've been apart for 16 years and I'll have to talk it over with my wife now. When I joined the guerrilla movement my wife was very supportive, and was even involved herself in our work. But then she decided that she and the children would be better off out of the country.

DAVIDSON: Amilka says he's optimistic about the future, especially because the peace accords allow for the former guerrillas to convert their political-military forces into a legitimate political party that will operate within the Guatemalan legal system.

AMILKA: (translated) We believe that the end of the war opened up spaces for political participation, and allow us to have a voice where we didn't before. We have better opportunities economically as well. We're being trained and helped to be able to go out on our own. One of the things that started the war was the extreme poverty in our country. Now, with the opening of political spaces and more participation, and with the training we're getting, we'll be able to make a better life for ourselves economically and socially. We'll increase our standard of living and there will be a greater sharing of the wealth.

DAVIDSON: Are you fully aware of what was in the peace accords, and are you satisfied essentially with their contents?

AMILKA: (translated) In general I know the contents of the peace accords. I think they are the basis for beginning a process of change in our country, to increase the standard of living, to allow for more participation. However, they don't meet the original objectives of the guerrilla movement to take power and make this process of change much more quickly. With the national and international pressure that a peace accord be signed, because of all the lives being lost, we felt it was time to really negotiate and be willing to sacrifice some part of our objectives, and to at least agree with the government to begin a process of change.

DAVIDSON: You're listening to Common Ground, a service of the Stanley Foundation. This is Part Two in a series about Guatemala—it's 36-year civil war and the efforts to rebuild the country since a peace accord was signed in December of 1996. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs. Printed transcripts and audio cassettes are available of this Common Ground program. At the end of the broadcast, I'll give you details on how you can order.

DAVIDSON: The vocational training program at Los Brillantes, and at several other sites around Guatemala, are funded in part by the United States government and the United Nations Development Program. Johanna Mendelsohn is a Senior Advisor to the U.S. Agency for International Development's Office of Transition Initiatives.

MENDELSOHN: The US government, since 1985, when a transition occurred in Guatemala, has actively supported the democratic opening that occurred. That is, the election of a civilian president and the continuation of a succession of civilian presidents in the last decade. What gave a new opportunity for USAID was really the signing of the peace accord in December of 1996, which created the grounds for a more aggressive policy by the international community to accelerate the process of peace. For the United States government, our interest was really in the emergency phase of that operation. Right now, in year one, under the terms of the peace accord, we are in an emergency operation. And that emergency operation will end in May of 1998. What this initial phase consists of is the demobilization of both the URNG, the guerrilla forces, which have so far gone very well and successfully and now the beginning of the demobilization of the military police, which the accords mandated as well. The US government has an Office of Transition Initiatives which deals with emergency post-conflict reconstruction and rehabilitation needs. That office deals with areas that are normally not handled under the traditional development umbrella. By those we mean demobilization of armies, reintegration of people back into civil society, as well as support for the immediate emergency operations. And that is what USAID did in the days following the peace accord. In record time, with the cooperation of the United Nations Development Program, we set up eight camps in six sites for demobilizing the URNG. And this was done around Christmas time, which is quite a feat in itself. The demobilization was only one month off schedule but ended in time. People were processed through centers, given training, and sent out into the field. Those people who had no homes were actually given half-way houses or half-way house locations in which to live. I'm happy to say that at this time, in the fall of 1997, the process is moving so well that those people in training are extremely happy with the kind of programming they are getting.

DAVIDSON: Dollarwise, how much money is the United States putting into this emergency program?

MENDELSOHN: The emergency demobilization program costs very little. The United States government did a 50-50 cost share with the United Nations Development Program. The initial cantonization of the rebels, that is putting them into camps, was about a $3.5 million project, of which the United States government contributed $1.7 million and the UNDP contributed $1.7 million. But that included building structures. What's interesting about this program is that when the buildings were taken down, the materials did not go to waste. We set up a program to give the materials that were used in construction to communities surrounding these camps so that they could take the siding, or the roofing, or the toilet fixtures, or the kitchen facilities, and use them. So there has been nothing that has gone to waste. And it also supports the sense that a change has come to the countryside.

DAVIDSON: And why is the US putting money into this demobilization program? What is the importance of that?

MENDELSOHN: We all know in post-conflict situations that creating stability and security are the most important factors. Taking away guns and giving people an opportunity to get a new start is basic to rehabilitation in any war-torn society. Certainly Guatemala is a war-torn society: 36 years of war left a tremendous amount of disarray and destabilization. So there is a vested interest in our own hemisphere to ensure that Guatemala can advance in a democratic path. And after a long and sad history it certainly looks like it's moving in the right direction.

DAVIDSON: Now you've met with guerrillas and members of the army who are involved in these programs. What changes have you seen occur in them, both in terms of their skills and did you see any attitude changes?

MENDELSOHN: Well I think the attitudinal changes have occurred over time. The ability to have come to a peace negotiation table was, of definition, a change in attitudes. But clearly the ability to get people who've never talked to each other into the same room was essential in this process. Right now you do see changes, even in the ability to create consensus and compromise. The peace negotiations have stopped formally. But there are sub-commissions that continue to work in Guatemala that are formal negotiating processes. But it is a process where people can talk in the same room. They don't have to use a gun to force a process. They can vet their concerns, they can have them shared among international donors, and they can understand the bottom line that there are certain finite resources to move the agenda forward. And the goal is always to keep people looking ahead as to what the future will be, by putting these resources in a very strategic way.

DAVIDSON: And are you confident that this is a lasting peace in Guatemala?

MENDELSOHN: The direction in Guatemala looks very positive. It's the last country in Central America that has yet to negotiate a peace accord and complete the peace accord. It augurs well because of the size of the country, the size of the potential economy that it can have. But there are challenges. It's a country with a large Indian population that must be integrated into the national mainstream. It's a country where there is still large-scale violence that takes place. And these are challenges to the elected government. But they do have a democratically-elected government. They are incorporating people from the war into civil society, and the vibrancy of civil society is very much evident when you visit the country. And these are all positive signs and indicators that peace is at hand.

DAVIDSON: For 30 years Guatemala was ruled by a series of military dictatorships. The army carried out a counter-insurgency campaign during that period to root out anti-government guerrillas. The job ahead, according to Guatemala's Foreign Minister, Eduardo Stein, is to completely overhaul the army, its mission, and its personnel.

EDUARDO STEIN: I would say that there is an expected restlessness within the army, in terms of what the new, concrete missions are for them. How to change from one institution that for over 30 years was organized for counter-insurgency performance. Even the physical installations that they had, the geographical locations of their bases, they were all designed and devised for the counter-insurgency war. All of the intelligence apparatus. All of their resources, the training they had—everything. Now, it's undergoing very important changes. The President has set up a mixed team comprised with civilians and military commanders to revise even the curricular activities of their training. But this is going to take some time.

DAVIDSON: How would you describe the new mission of the army?

STEIN: Well, I think it's both going back to the original definition in our Constitution, as well as going forward to a more modern conception of what a military force should be in a country like ours, in a world like ours. We would like to better specify an aim which has already been stated, for the army to take care of the border areas, but not in the 19th-century conception of defending us against an attack from Mexico, or from Honduras or El Salvador, which is most unlikely, but rather what are the true dangers today for our countries? Well, Guatemala, to put it succinctly, is a corridor for people trafficking—let me say a corridor for narcotics trafficking. There is also a problem with archaeological sacking of our Mayan sites, as well as the colonial art, which is being stolen and taken out of the country illegally. And also there is an important element in taking care of our own natural resources. Central America as a whole, as an isthmus, has a biodiversity rarely matched in the rest of the planet. Just to give you a couple of examples, in Costa Rica, or Guatemala, or Panama, alone, in each country, there are more bird species than in the United States and Canada put together. Just in one tree in our tropical rain forest there coexists over a hundred species of insects. So this biodiversity, which is yet to be fully explored and taken advantage of without damaging the environment, is something that we also should take care of. And there are areas which are so remote that maybe, just with modern redeployment of special forces, these can be taken care of.

DAVIDSON: The police force will also be restructured. Right now Guatemala is in the midst of a massive crime wave, a phenomenon common to many newly-emerging democracies. There are a lot of weapons floating around after the war, and the need for a new civilian police force is great. Raquel Zelaya, the President's Secretary for Peace, explains the difficulties they've encountered while trying to create a new national civil police that is in compliance with the terms of the peace accords.

RAQUEL ZELAYA: (translated) We're facing many difficulties. We've been criticized a lot, but it's very difficult to create a new police force when we can't meet certain requirements put forth in the peace accords. For example, we've been accused of having police with backgrounds of human rights violations. Right now the government is investigating what kinds of violations they are and whether they really took place. Sometimes people are accused falsely. The government is investigating these charges, along with the Presidential Commission on Human Rights, and doing background checks. Guatemala has particular social characteristics that affect the type of police force we have. Sometimes we're criticized by countries with much higher levels of development. The peace accords require that police officers be members of the community they serve. Guatemala has a very high rate of illiteracy and many police candidates don't have high school diplomas. If we required diplomas of everyone, then we'll be criticized for not hiring police from the community. That they don't represent the community and they may not speak the local language. So, we're trying to create a new police force with what we have. There are training programs for the police, literacy programs, and accelerated courses. It's a slow process but we're trying to work towards meeting all the requirements of the peace accords.

DAVIDSON: That's Raquel Zelaya, the Guatemalan Secretary for Peace. When we continue our series of programs about Guatemala, we'll look at the situation for Guatemala's indigenous people and the need to uncover the truth about what happened during Guatemala's war. For Common Ground I'm Mary Gray-Davidson.

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