Hopes rise for Guatemala peace

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The Independent Online
IT IS one of those 'little wars' that the world has tended to ignore. Perhaps only the 1992 Nobel peace prize award to Rigoberta Menchu, the Mayan Indian whose family was shattered in the conflict, has helped to keep it from disappearing entirely from news pages. But the war between Guatemala's US-trained military and the country's mainly Indian guerrillas has dragged on for 33 years and cost more than 100,000 lives.

Next week in Washington, Norway, hoping to emulate its success in brokering the Middle East peace accord, will mediate between the two sides in the hope of initiating a formal peace process to end Central America's longest and bloodiest conflict.

The Norwegian government said yesterday that the talks run from next Monday to Friday, with URNG (Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit) guerrilla commanders present, although the make-up of the government delegation was still unclear. Tom Vraalsen, the deputy secretary- general of the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, will head the three-man mediation team from his country.

Also taking part will be Rodolfo Quezada, the Guatemalan bishop and peace campaigner, who has been trying to mediate in the conflict for two and a half years, and representatives of the United Nations, the US, Mexico, Spain, Colombia and Venezuela.

The Norwegians admit it is too early for optimism. 'We know our limits. I think that out of 100 attempts, you succeed about once,' a Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

Giving rise to some hope, however, is the track record of Ramiro de Leon Carpio, the Guatemalan President, who took over in June. He quickly sacked the defence minister, purged the military leadership, backed the peace process, pledged to fight corruption and anti-Indian racism and to improve the lot of the Mayan Indians who make up more than half of Guatemala's 10 million people. He promised a war on poverty and illiteracy and appointed a Mayan Indian, Celestino Tay Coyoy, as Education Minister, a move that would have been almost inconceivable before Mrs Menchu's rise to world prominence.

Mr de Leon presented his own peace plan to the UN last month but the fact that it confined peace talks to military matters led to its rejection by the guerrillas and Mrs Menchu, who described it as 'a giant step backwards'.

The URNG, which claims to represent the mainly-Indian peasants but lost support for its armed activities as the peasants tired of war and were forced to flee their homes, wants social issues such as land reform included in the peace process.

The war is largely over. The guerrillas, who may once have counted on tens of thousands, are said to be down to perhaps 2,000 fighters. Diplomats admit privately that the 'scorched earth' policy of the military during the Eighties, killing tens of thousands of civilians and driving similar numbers into the northern jungle or across the border into Mexico, achieved its purpose. Unlike their counterparts in Nicaragua and El Salvador, Guatemala's guerrillas have little to show for three decades of war.

(Photograph omitted)