Coming to Terms with the Past: Remembering and Forgetting in Guatemala
Rachel Sieder considers the role of ‘memory politics’ in Guatemala’s uncertain path to democracy as government and society attempt to come to terms with the brutality of the counter-insurgency war.
The prevailing orthodoxy maintains that truth-telling constitutes a valuable contribution to national reconciliation. In a more pragmatic light, truth commissions – like the one held in South Africa under the leadership of Bishop Desmond Tutu – also serve to legitimize transitional governments. They symbolically distance them from a repressive past; in general, such transitional governments tend to shy away from legal sanctions against perpetrators on practical and political grounds, arguing that this risks an authoritarian backlash.
Human rights activists, though, may well support truth commissions but argue that they should be accompanied by some measure of legal accountability and sanction against those guilty of gross violations. This point of view has been strengthened in recent years by developments in human rights, particularly the notion that states must protect certain fundamental rights and have an obligation to punish those who abuse them.
‘Memory politics’ is the term used for the combination of international and national, official and unofficial attempts to deal with the legacy of past violations. I want to consider the trade-offs made between truth and justice in Guatemala as it crossed from authoritarianism to democracy in the later 1990s, and the interplay between government, international organizations and civil society involved in attempts to ‘come to terms’ with Guatemala’s violent past.
A CIA-backed coup in 1954 overthrew the reformist Arbenz regime, which had begun to implement a programme of land reform. The subsequent reversal of social reform, combined with repression against former officials and peasant activists, led to the emergence of an armed left-wing guerrilla movement in 1961. This was all but wiped out in the late 1960s in a vicious counterinsurgency campaign which left over 8,000 dead. Political and economic exclusion continued to worsen, leading to a second wave of guerrilla organizing, this time with mass involvement of the majority indigenous Mayan population. Counterinsurgency violence intensified under the military governments of Romero Lucas García (1978-82) and Rios Montt (1982-83). The military subsequently oversaw a return to elected civilian rule: in 1985 a new constitution was approved, and in 1986 Christian Democrat Vinicio Cerezo was returned to the presidency. A peace process began in 1987, but dragged on for years and was only concluded in 1996, following active mediation by the United Nations.
Long before height of the counterinsurgency war under Rios Montt in the 1980s, stark economic inequalities, military dominance, ethnic discrimination, restricted civil and political liberties and violence were commonplace. In the 1980s, the military targeted the entire civilian population in an all-out war designed to deprive the guerrillas – who advocated wholesale land reform – of a rural support base. These wars took place within a Cold War context of potent United States involvement in the region. Many hundreds of students, trade unionists and community activists disappeared or were killed by paramilitary death squads in the cities, but the destructive power of the military was most concentrated in the rural areas.
According to the UN-sponsored Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH), 161,500 people were murdered and 40,000 disappeared during thirty-four years of armed conflict. The Catholic archdiocese of Guatemala, which published the first extensive report into the violations of the armed conflict a year earlier, put the figures at 200,000 killed and 50,000 disappeared. Civil society was transformed by the way the army forced the rural indigenous majority to integrate into its counter-insurgency plans. Perhaps the most destructive feature was the forced involvement of the civilian population en masse in the counter-insurgency violence through paramilitary Self-defence Civil Patrols (PACs) organized by the army in every rural community.
Official truth-telling in Guatemala was both part and consequence of the negotiated end to the armed conflict, which was finally concluded in December 1996. At the end of the war the guerrillas were all but destroyed as a military force, and the army considered itself victorious. Political elites remained fragmented and subordinate to the military. Nonetheless, commitments were secured on key issues including the formation of a public security force independent of the military, the reduction of the military budget and its troop strength by a third, a programme of judicial reform, and the demobilization of the PACs.
Initially the army was adamant there should be no calling-to-account for human rights violations. However, the Catholic church, local human rights organizations, and the UN secured a mandate for a truth commission, the CEH. The agreement for its creation was signed in June 1994, with a remit to investigate violations committed during the armed conflict, clarify the causes and consequences of that conflict, and formulate recommendations to prevent future abuses of human rights. However, it was agreed that its recommendations would not have ‘legal objectives or effects’.
In December 1996, the government and the guerrillas agreed to a new amnesty law, following many amnesty laws passed during the 1980s that protected perpetrators from prosecution. Significantly, however, amnesty for torture, genocide and forced disappearance was ruled out, a reflection of a developing international consensus rejecting immunity for crimes against humanity.
Even before the CEH began its work, civil society groups had undertaken many initiatives to investigate the past, commemorate victims, pursue prosecutions and work with survivors to try and piece together a social fabric destroyed by violence and war. Ritual practices to exhume and commemorate the dead were particularly important for indigenous communities as they struggled to deal with trauma and loss. The Catholic Church was also decisive in promoting a grass-roots politics of memory. The first extensive report into violations during the conflict was published by the Human Rights Office of the Catholic Archdiocese in 1998, and documented atrocities on the basis of thousands of testimonies collected over three years. The Church’s initiative was set up to support the CEH and provide a platform for victims of the violence. The military criticized the report for political bias, and many on the right accused the Church of political interests and the promotion of conflict over reconciliation. Just two days after its publication, the head of the project, Catholic bishop Monseñor Juan Gerardi, was bludgeoned to death at his home in Guatemala City.
The CEH reported in February 1999. It included a detailed analysis of certain paradigmatic cases, and an exhaustive historical analysis of the causes and consequences of the conflict, concluding that political violence in Guatemala was a direct consequence of socio-economic inequalities and a history of racism. Some 658 massacres were documented. In line with its mandate, the report did not attributed responsibility for violations to individuals, but only to institutions; it stated that ninety-three per cent of all cases investigated were attributable to the military and just three per cent to the insurgents. Although the Clinton administration in the United States provided the Commission with both funds and previously classified documents, the report pointed to earlier US Government and CIA involvement in supporting the structures of repression in Guatemala.
The CEH’s recommendations were far stronger than predicted. It found that in 1981-83 the state had carried out a deliberate policy of genocide against the Mayan population, which commissioners emphasized was not amnestied by the 1996 Law of National Reconciliation. They added that all those found guilty of non-amnestied, internationally proscribed violations should be prosecuted, tried and punished. The CEH also called for restructuring of the military and security forces. Additionally, it recommended that the government implement an ambitious programme of compensation, including psychological and economic assistance through a reparations programme to run for at least ten years, the investigation of the whereabouts of the disappeared, and the location and exhumation of clandestine graves. It also called for the establishment of a commission to look for disappeared children, illegally adopted or illegally separated from their families during the armed conflict. It further recommended the building of monuments in memory of those killed, and the official acknowledgement by the state of its responsibility. Finally, it recommended that victims of violations and their direct descendants should be exempt from military service.
Right-wing sectors have criticized the CEH report as biased, but at the time neither the government nor the military openly criticized the findings. Human rights groups welcomed the report and its recommendations. They also promoted the exhumation of mass graves and the construction of monuments to those murdered. Human rights NGOs began to pursue prosecutions for genocide against high-ranking military officers, including former heads of state Romeo Lucas García and Efraín Ríos Montt, through the domestic and international courts.
Democratization in Guatemala requires the subordination of the military to civilian power and extensive reform of judicial and public security institutions. However, institutional reforms alone will not be enough to secure a viable democratic order as long as the arbitrary abuse of power and violence is seen as normal.
The impact of memory politics in this respect has varied. Legal and institutional reforms have been slow and results mixed. The military remains powerful and largely unaccountable, though it is currently mired in corruption scandals and charged with narcotics-trafficking. A new civilian police force is accused of abuses, corruption and extortion. In addition, a rise in common crime has led to the employment of the army in police patrols, raising fears that public security will be re-militarized, and to the lynching of suspected criminals.
The civil patrols, demobilized in 1997, were remobilized for electoral purposes in 1999. The government has committed itself to paying compensation to the civil patrollers – many of whom are guilty of atrocities – while starving the victims’ reparations commission of funds. The judiciary still suffers from chronic intimidation, corruption, politicization, lack of adequately trained personnel, and access. State investigation and prosecution services remain subject to military pressure, and the military remains mainly immune from investigation. Community-based initiatives to come to terms with the past continue, but many activists have been the target of intimidation. Six years after the publication of the CEH report, official attitudes are marked by amnesia and neglect, while some sectors of society even deny the veracity of the report itself.
Memory politics cannot guarantee democracy. Indeed, the danger exists that mobilizing public opinion around issues of truth and justice may give way to widespread disenchantment and frustration if demands for justice and compensation are not met. However, neither can memory politics draw a line in the sand: they are more points of departure than points of closure.
In Argentina and Chile, countries which suffered similar traumas, attempts are being made to challenge restrictive amnesty laws, almost two decades after transitional arrangements on truth and justice were first negotiated. In these terms, it remains early days for Guatemala. Yet the context is far from propitious. Guatemala remains an ‘illiberal democracy’ where political parties alternate in power through the ballot box, but few guarantees of basic civil rights are provided for most of the population. Nonetheless, the politics of memory have challenged the way in which the military has traditionally behaved with impunity, and begun to break down a political culture marked by denial, silence and fear.
They have also begun to promote a culture of citizenship. Victims have found that the opportunity to give testimony and commemorate their dead has strengthened their perception of themselves as individuals and communities with rights. Memory politics cannot secure or consolidate democracy, but they are an essential first step.
- Rachel Sieder is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the Institute of Latin American Studies, University of London.
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