28 September 2006 Edition

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International:Guatemala - Ten Years On From Peace Agreements

Troubled country the world has forgotten

Recently returned from two weeks in Guatemala, Sinn Féin Director of European Affairs EOIN Ó BROIN, in the first of two articles, asks what has changed ten years on from the 1996 peace agreements.

Guatemala used to be a regular feature in the European media. 30 years of intense conflict and ten years of peace negotiations ensured it remained in the headlines. Today, however, it seems that the world has forgotten.

From the 1954 US-led coup d'état against the democratically-elected Arbenz government, through to the 1990s, one of Central America's smallest countries experienced decades of dictatorship, intense levels of enforced poverty, systematic institutional discrimination of the majority indigenous population and war.

During the 30 years of conflict 200,000 people were killed. Hundreds of thousands were displaced, many seeking refuge in neighbouring Mexico. An official government inquiry into the violence conducted after the 1996 peace agreements concluded that 93% of all killings were carried out by the state, in what was described by the UN as genocide.

The predominantly indigenous URNG guerrilla army waged a campaign of resistance from the mountains in the west of the country but was unable to match the ferocity of the state army and its backers in Washington. Despite the overwhelming odds, the rebels survived and provided the country with some hope for change.

In the early 1990s the unelected government, finally realising that a military defeat of the URNG was impossible, agreed to enter direct negotiations which led to a series of agreements culminating in the 1996 peace accords.

Amid the hope and expectation that surrounded the formal end of the 30-year state-led war, Guatemala was lauded across the world as a shining example of conflict resolution. The agreements themselves were impressive, extending beyond issues of demilitarisation and victims of the conflict to cover land and tax reform, indigenous rights and meaningful democracy.

However,ten years on and almost nothing has changed. 80% of the population continue to live in poverty. 40% of the population live on less than $1 a day, the UN's definition of absolute poverty. Corruption and incompetence are the defining features of the country's governing political elite. Meanwhile, a significant level of violent crime, disproportionately affecting Guatemala's poorest, has replaced political violence.

None of this has affected Washington's unflinching support for the government, as evidenced by the current campaign of support for Guatemala over Venezuela for a seat on the UN Security Council.

In the view of much of the country's population, the conditions that led to the conflict remain the daily reality for the overwhelming majority.

Maybe worse than this, following a series of political crisis, the URNG - now transformed into a political party - appears to have lost the confidence of the majority of its natural constituency, leaving Guatemala without a progressive or popular voice for those excluded from the status quo. While a multitude of local political and social struggles continue to be waged, the absence of a meaningful national movement for change casts a long shadow over the country's current political fortunes.

Travelling across Guatemala, you cannot but be affected by the abject poverty of so many people. Worse than this, however, is the absence of any visible hope for change.

Whereas once the country experienced a mass of social and political activism, today this has been replaced by a plethora of religious congregations, both Catholic and evangelical. A strong strain of liberation theology continues to inform much of the religious activism in many communities. But divisions and tensions are also in evidence, as a growing religious dimension increasingly complicates the political and economic divide.

Possibly the most troubling manifestation of the country's divisions, to the outside observer at least, is the political strength of the FRG political party, headed by the former general responsible for the policy of genocide in the early 1980s, Rios Montt. The FRG and its associated former militia the PAC continue to scar the country's political landscape. The fact that they constitute the country's second largest political force while the URNG remain on the margins is one of Guatemala's most glaring contradictions.

In the country's predominantly rural communities, life continues to be dominated by hard labour and low wages. Despite the existence of a minimum wage, many agricultural workers receive as little as 50% of their statutory entitlement. Working between ten to 15 hours daily in coffee plantations, with no social protections and very often no job security, many labourers believe that their conditions are worse today than ten or 20 years ago.

Women fare even worse, often receiving only 30% of a man's wage for the same work - in addition to an enormous domestic workload, looking after large families in homes and communities with no water, electricity or adequate sewerage.

Globalisation has hit Guatemala hard, undermining what little job security may have existed in earlier times, while many poorly-funded public services such as health and education have been privatised, driving up prices for the most basic of social entitlements. Increased poverty has generated greater levels of crime, substance abuse and political apathy, as the struggle for daily survival dominates. In many parts of the country malnutrition is the norm among children.

For the majority of the country's population, securing enough basic resources simply to live takes up all their energy and time.

However, even in the darkest of places there is some hope. Small numbers of people continue to struggle for their rights despite the enormous costs imposed on them and their families. Plantation workers demanding the statutory minimum wage face eviction, unemployment, starvation, police harassment, judicial indifference and even physical violence.

But despite all the odds, communities continue to struggle for their rights, and many hope that from this activism, a new national movement for change may emerge - to give the people of Guatemala at least some chance of a future.

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