Of Centaurs and Doves: Guatemala’s Peace Process

Of Centaurs and Doves: Guatemala’s Peace Process

Isaacs, Anita

Jonas, Susanne. Of Centaurs and Doves: Guatemala’s Peace Process. Boulder: Westview Press, 2000. Tables, maps, figures, bibliography, index, 320 pp.; paperback $25.

The December 1996 signing of peace accords had tremendous symbolic significance within Guatemala and beyond. Most immediately, it signaled an end to a brutal 36-year internal war which, according to the official Truth Commission report, claimed the lives of more than two hundred thousand Guatemalans-mostly Maya, mostly rural, and mostly victims of a counterinsurgency army run amok. In Central America, the accords brought closure to almost a decade of laborious peace negotiations, which had produced a similarly historic 1992 agreement in neighboring El Salvador. Beyond the Isthmus, just as the Cold War was first given its Latin American expression in Guatemala with the 1954 CIA-sponsored overthrow of reformist president Jacobo Arbenz, so the process and promise of peace in Guatemala now inched the region ever nearer to closing that chapter in hemispheric relations (Cuba being the outlier).

The symbolism of Guatemala’s peace finally stretched beyond both its Cold War significance and the Central American Isthmus. If peace could be reached in Guatemala, where Guatemalans most resistant to peace responded defiantly to the Salvadoran accords with “never in Guatemala,” then there was cause for modest optimism that negotiations could lead to similar settlements in Mexico, Colombia, and, indeed, perhaps elsewhere in a post-Cold War world fraught with internal conflicts.

Susanne Jonas notes this in her conclusion to this book, a first-rate analysis of the Guatemalan peace process and the first English-language volume to appear on the topic. No one is better placed than Jonas to reflect on the Guatemalan peace process. She writes about Guatemala with an intellectual authority and emotional investment that reflect a long academic and personal commitment. That commitment and the quality of her previous scholarship on the country, moreover, have earned her the trust of Guatemalans who have shared with her their experiences and insights and whose divergent views she has captured in the hundreds of interviews that inform the book. At the same time, Jonas can bring an outsider’s perspective to her study. This position has both encouraged and enabled her to cull the views of the many international participants.

Framed by a thoughtful prologue in which she speaks of the “emotional roller coaster” that the peace process represents for Guatemalans and for the author herself, the book is divided roughly into four sections. The first part offers a context in which to understand the discussions of peacemaking and the early phase of peace implementation that follow in the subsequent two sections. The concluding chapter raises a set of broader conceptual and comparative questions about the meaning and challenges of peacemaking.

In the first, stage-setting section, Jonas explains the dynamic of the era following the termination of the Arbenz regime, which she calls a “Cold War civil war.” At some level, the account is a familiar one, if only to those of us who have read the author’s previous work. The foreclosing in 1954 of democratic political spaces that could have fostered much-needed social reform produced the impetus for revolutionary challenges, which met a remarkably effective counterinsurgency response by an army with ties to the United States. Military successes temporarily wiped out the guerrilla threat while also permitting the establishment of a counterinsurgency state, a combination of military and civilian power, seemingly half human, half beast, earning it the centaur image borrowed here by Jonas and used in the book’s title.

The cycle of insurgency and counterinsurgency resumed during the 1980s. Although the Guatemalan army was never seriously challenged, it was equally unable to score a definitive military victory. Stalemate and increasing international isolation created pressure on the centaurs to transform the counterinsurgency state, lending it a more human face, expressed in a democratic facade (the elections of 1985, heralded as the initiation of a transition to civilian rule.) That opening, however tentative, gradually generated a pro-peace dynamic. On the other side, the guerrillas, now unified in the URNG, responded tactically to their military weakness and its political-human cost. Seeking to regain the initiative in the context of a political opening, they, too, embarked on a strategy of peace.

Readers with knowledge of Guatemala may balk at Jonas’s use of the term civil war to describe the 36-year interval between Arbenz’s overthrow and the signing of the peace accords. Internal armed conflict is the label often preferred, because it portrays the war as fought between two armies, with the majority indigenous Maya population as victims caught in the crossfire. By eschewing that label, however, the author can refine the characterization. Jonas does emphasize the suffering endured by the civilian population, challenging the military strategies employed by insurgents and counterinsurgents alike. But she also highlights the substantial conscientization and politicization that marked the era, when crisis and repression combined to foster the growth of popular and indigenous organizations with their own strategies of resistance.

Insurgency, counterinsurgency, and resistance would eventually cede to peace, given its first tentative push in the waning years of the Cold War as a bold initiative for dialogue emanating from an increasingly restless civil society. The dialogue of the late 1980s eventually led to negotiations involving a growing cast of domestic and international actors, and then to a series of agreements, beginning with a framework accord of January 1994, proceeding to a set of substantive accords on human rights; the identity and rights of indigenous peoples, social and economic aspects; the strengthening of civilian power and the role of the armed forces. The process culminated with agreement on operational issues and the formal signing of peace in December 1996.

Jonas sure-footedly guides us through that byzantine process. She provides both a useful narrative of the process and a solid understanding of the key actors involved and aspects of each of the complex accords. Just as important, she stands far enough back from the process to offer several important observations about how the peace negotiations reflected the broader context and also lent a new, more democratic shape to Guatemalan politics.

Jonas persuasively argues that the process of dialogue and negotiation generated a democratic momentum of its own, sowing the seeds for a culture of trust and compromise, opening up political spaces, and connecting political and social actors (mainly on the political left). This was partly the outcome of a process in which adversaries who originally had opted for negotiation as a means of continuing to wage war became converts over time to peacemaking itself. The negotiations also stimulated democratization by fostering dialogue. Perhaps the most tangible example of this, which Jonas privileges more than do some observers of the Guatemalan peace effort, lies in the innovative decision to form an Assembly of Civil Society (ASC). Civic organizations grouped together in the ASC were asked to submit proposals that brought their insights, views, and demands to bear on the discussion of each peace accord-a process that awarded social movements a role as protagonists in the peace effort.

As in neighboring El Salvador, international actors were also involved in key ways in nudging the Guatemalan negotiations along. Given the United Nations’ central presence in the process, Jonas understandably pays particular attention to its expanding role and to the struggles that its Guatemalan Mission (MINUGUA) encountered at each step. But the author also acknowledges other international participants: the “Friends” intervene at moments to push a stalled dialogue forward, while, in an innovation beyond the Salvadoran process, the views of international financial institutions are solicited with respect to a socioeconomic accord in which they will be asked to assume the part of pseudoguarantors. A specific chapter is reserved for a critical reflection on the evolving role and responsibilities of the United States.

The challenges of implementation are the focus of the third segment of the book, which takes a cold, hard look at the trajectory of Guatemalan politics during the two remaining years of peace signer Alvaro Arzu’s presidential term (1996-2000). With her residual optimism, Jonas records promising developments: the generous pledges of the international donor community and their conditioning of disbursement to the implementation of the accords; the harshly critical report of the Truth Commission, which found the Guatemalan army guilty of genocide; and the continued activism of sectors of Guatemalan society, most notably the indigenous community, since the accords were signed.

Almost despite herself, however, Jonas’s list of disappointments, challenges, and obstacles runs longer. She notes the worrisome resurgence of political violence, pointing to the most dramatic incident, the brutal assassination of Archbishop Gerardi following the release of the damning church report Guatemala: Never Again. She reviews the incomplete process of demilitarization, evidenced partly by the metamorphosis of former military officers into members of the new civilian police force. In separate chapters, Jonas highlights the challenges of implementing socioeconomic and political reform. Reform of the tax system, land tenure, and the Constitution is each analyzed. Many of the impediments are structural, but the halfhearted commitment to peace among political actors or their failure to engage in the pursuit of peace with the requisite energy is also deemed to have further hindered implementation efforts.

In her final chapter, Jonas reflects on the deeper meanings of and the potential for lasting peace in Guatemala and beyond. This chapter is packed with insights, but perhaps because the author refrains from authoritative pronouncements, it feels to the reader more like a brainstorming session. The chapter tackles the limits and opportunities for achieving peace in the current international climate. To pessimists who see the inherent contradictions to achieving a peace that requires social justice in the current neoliberal order, Jonas readily concedes that durable peace in Guatemala, as, indeed, in other “Cold War, civil war” contexts, demands that the root social and economic causes of the conflict be addressed. This implies a full process of democratization, with participatory and social dimensions accompanying the procedural quotient that has been the hallmark of the transitions literature. Jonas insists that this remains possible, resorting here, again, to a focus on agency. Yes, the dinosaurs, or peace resisters, remain strong and perseverant; the Guatemalan state has yet to shed fully its centaur’s skin. But Jonas seems to underscore this partly to galvanize its opponents. Jonas contends that the future of peace lies in the capacity of peace supporters-the political left and popular organizations in particular-to work harder and to discover more productive forms of collaboration; to constructively and collectively define, appropriate, and entrench the peace agenda.

By the end of the book, the reader has acquired a vivid understanding of the Guatemalan peace process. Jonas has done an admirable job of conveying both information and interpretation and has imbued these with a feel for Guatemala. The use of Guatemalan terms, imagery, proverbs, jokes, and labels serves to enliven the text and to situate it in time and place. More generally, though, in this regard, the author delivers on the promise of her prologue. She has indeed taken readers on a Guatemalan roller coaster ride, yanked us around hairpin bends, enabled us to share the emotional ups and downs of the Guatemalan peace process.

Throughout, an optimism infuses the text. Borrowing imagery from the Old and New Worlds, Jonas concludes by acknowledging the unavoidable struggle that peace crafters face, while also highlighting the hopes that accompany the process and the new spaces, rights, and sense of purpose that have already been conquered in a Guatemala that, in Jonas’s view, looks and feels dramatically different today from the Guatemala of a decade ago. Caught up in Jonas’s peace fever, and yet reading the book almost a year into the term of Arzu’s successor, Alfonso Portillo (whose election is noted in an epilogue), one wonders-just a little-whether and, if so, how to cling to that optimism in a Guatemala where the peace coaster seems to have stalled on the incline.

Copyright Journal of Interamerican Studies Spring 2001

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