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  • Guatemala’s Postwar Prospects
  • Rachel M. McCleary (bio)

On 29 December 1996, the administration of Guatemalan president Alvaro Arzú and the commanders of the guerrilla movement Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG) signed a comprehensive accord putting an end to the Central American country’s 36-year-old civil war. With a formal peace agreement signed, what prospects does Guatemala have for becoming a stable democracy? To what extent does the signing of the agreement contribute to that end? How, finally, will the politically volatile and complex effort to consolidate democracy proceed?

Political scientists usually classify Guatemala as a quasi-democracy or pseudodemocracy because of the extensive political prerogatives exercised by its military. 1 Yet over the last decade or so, and especially since 1993, those prerogatives have gradually been contracting. At the same time, however, civilian elected officials have failed to take responsibility for governing the country. Thus the political space created by diminishing military prerogatives has not been filled by democratic structures and procedures.

Since the mid-1980s, Guatemala has seen a series of pivotal events, including the introduction of procedural democracy (with free and technically fair elections) and the growth of a democratic culture featuring a host of civilian groups. To these developments also, elected officials have as yet failed to respond. With the close of the civil war, the tasks ahead are clear. Democratic culture must be deepened, and democratic institutions matured. Political participation must be broadened, and the characteristic norms and procedures of democratic political life [End Page 129] more explicitly defined and more consistently followed. If these challenges are met, Guatemala should be able to withstand any destabilizing events.

Why were the URNG’s commanders willing to return home under the military’s protection, sign a peace agreement, take steps to relocate permanently to Guatemala, officially disband their armed movement, and form a political party? To begin to answer these questions, one must appreciate the impact of the two key political events that have shaped Guatemala’s recent history—the transition from civilian to military rule that went from March 1982 to January 1986, and the elite political settlement that came in the wake of the “self-coup” attempted by President Jorge Serrano in May 1993. In both cases, alliances between a pair of prominent elites—the leadership of the military and that of the organized private sector—were crucial to progress toward democracy.

The first transition began with the regime of General Efraín Ríos Montt, who took power after a coup on 23 March 1982. It continued under his successor, General Oscar Humberto Mejía Víctores (August 1983–January 1986). 2 Ríos Montt’s government was what political scientists call a “nonhierarchical” military regime—junior officers had brought him to power, and a council of them (the juntita) took an active part in day-to-day governance. 3 No clear separation existed between the military as government and the military as institution; 4 the military government was an integral part of the military institution’s strategy for defeating the URNG. The private business sector, represented by the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations (CACIF), had actively supported the government for as long as it took to defeat the insurgency. 5 But by December 1982, when the URNG had been severely curtailed, that support was quickly being removed.

With the insurgency blunted, the juntita began pursuing short-term, parochial interests, neglecting the needs of the country as a whole. For his part, Ríos Montt, an evangelical Christian, sought to introduce a higher moral tone into government while maintaining restrictions on fundamental liberties, including the ability of political parties to organize. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal, with neither funds nor autonomy, could not carry out elections. The leaders of the political Left had been invited to return home from exile, but without guarantees for their personal safety, they refused.

The military, as a permanent organ of the state, had an obvious interest in political stability. The disarray of the junior-officers’ council and the erratic behavior of Ríos Montt threatened this interest. The organized private sector shared this perception as the Ríos Montt regime made unilateral decisions...

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pp. 129-143
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