Obituary: Ricardo Ramirez

Nick Caistor
Thursday 17 September 1998 23:02

IT WAS an odd sight. Outside Oslo town hall one day in November 1996, the streets were covered in snow. Inside, the main hall was packed with guests, while up on the podium were the guests of honour from the distant country of Guatemala, plus a huge choir. After the speeches, two stocky men in their sixties exchanged a warm embrace. One was in uniform, the head of the Guatemalan army. The other, the man who had been fighting that same army for over 30 years, was Ricardo Ramirez, then better known by his nom de guerre Rolando Morn.

The embrace of the two middle-aged men marked a historic moment. After several years of hard bargaining, the Guatemalan authorities - and above all the army, the eternal powerbrokers in Guatemala - had finally agreed peace terms with the guerrilla organisations of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity, or URNG, of which Ramirez was one of the leaders and chief negotiators. All the guests signed the agreement, and the choir sang - in English - "Amazing Grace".

Ricardo Ramirez himself was born into a military family in Guatemala's second city of Quetzaltenango in 1930. Quetzaltenango was then a conservative, traditional city in a country where the majority of the people were still of obvious Mayan descent, although all political and economic power belonged to the smaller number of those of Spanish origin. Like many before and after him, Ramirez left the provincial life when he went to Guatemala City as a student at the end of the 1940s.

In the capital, he soon became involved in student politics, at a time when the reforming president Jacobo Arbenz was challenging the structures in a society still dominated by a small elite. Arbenz was deposed with CIA help in 1954, and from then on Guatemalan society became increasingly at odds with itself.

After university studies, Ramirez began to work in trade unions, but by the end of the 1950s he was seeking more radical changes. In 1962 he helped found the Rebel Armed Farces or FAR, the first organised guerrilla group in Guatemala. From then on, his life became one of clandestine struggle, often carried out from abroad.

Throughout the 1960s, he lived in many different countries - Czechoslovakia, where many Latin American revolutionaries went for training, Cuba, Argentina, where he was briefly imprisoned for his guerrilla activities, but above all Mexico. This country, which borders on Guatemala, was for many years a safe haven for guerrilla fighters from all over Central America, and became, as in Ramirez's case, a second home.

In Guatemala meanwhile, four different guerrilla groups had grown up. In 1971 Ramirez helped found one of them, the EGP, or Guatemalan Army of the Poor. The EGP became the largest guerrilla group, attracting more recruits because its message was directed mainly at the poor and discriminated- against Mayan Indians, who continued to suffer whoever was in power in Guatemala.

Realising that they needed to combine their efforts, Ramirez was instrumental in bringing the four different rebel organisations into the UNRG in 1982. But the Guatemalan army was entrenched in power, and employed ruthless tactics against the guerrillas and any suspected sympathisers. An estimated 120,000 people were killed in this civil war, most of them in the 1980s, when the armed forces turned the Guatemalan countryside into a vast war zone, razing villages, rounding up the poor Mayan farmers, and forcing hundreds of thousands into exile.

Although this ferocity guaranteed an influx of new members to its ranks, the guerrilla forces were unable to counterattack effectively, and unlike in neighbouring El Salvador they never seemed likely to topple the state. The Guatemalan army was in fact convinced that it had won the war, and that there was no need to talk peace with an enemy that had been crushed.

The end of the 1980s saw a return to civilian government in Guatemala for the first time in many years. In this new climate, peace talks with the guerrillas were started in which Ramirez played a prominent role. Between 1991 and 1996, he, other guerrilla representatives and government officials went painstakingly through a list of more than 30 areas which they felt needed to be considered to make any peace in Guatemala effective and long-lasting.

Much of this work was done in Norway, which explained Ramirez's presence in Oslo that November day for the signing of the first chapters of the final peace agreement. On that occasion, he gave a speech in which he recognised that it was now time for the guerrillas to pursue their goals of social change and justice through legal and political means, and put down their arms for good.

The peace process was brought to a triumphant conclusion on 28 December 1996 when Ramirez and the other guerrilla leaders were given an ecstatic reception as they finally returned legally to their country for the signing of a complete peace accord. Among its main points, the treaty gave the estimated 5,000 guerrillas an amnesty, set out plans greatly to reduce the size and power of the army, and promised respect and autonomy for the Mayan Indian groups.

Ramirez was one of those who was careful to say that the signing of the peace agreement was not an end but a beginning. He threw himself into the task of reorganising his guerrillas as a political party, becoming secretary general of what was now the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union, and was busy organising its campaign for elections next year when he became ill and died of heart failure after an operation. The United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, who met Ramirez during a trip to Guatemala in July, was among those who praised the way this veteran guerrilla leader had wholeheartedly given himself over to the task of bringing a meaningful peace to Guatemala.

Ricardo Ramirez de Len, guerrilla fighter and politician: born Quetzaltenango, Guatemala 29 December 1930; married Mara del Carmen Flores Rodriguez (three sons); died Guatemala City 10 September 1998.

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