Following thirty-six years of bloody civil war in Guatemala-during which 1 million Guatemalans were displaced domestically, 250,000 fled abroad, 100,000 were killed, and 40,000 still remain unaccounted for-a UN-brokered peace was finally signed in December 1996 between the government of President Alvaro Arzu and rebel forces known as the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca.
Unlike South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (see above), the Guatemalan accord called for an ambiguous means to deal with atrocities committed during the war. (Since the peace settlement, international teams of anthropologists and medical personnel have documented nearly 500 mass graves in the country, most of them constructed by the Guatemalan military to bury slaughtered villagers.) Over the objections of many indigenous Guatemalans and international human-rights groups, such as Amnesty International, who wanted a full investigation of all war crimes, the peace accord created a weak process for uncovering and adjudicating the past. For example, the settlement let stand a 1984 government amnesty that exempted its security forces from responsibility for acts committed in the war, and extended the life of the Commission to Clarify the Violation of Human Rights, a weak committee established in 1994 to investigate human-rights violations with no authority to charge individuals accused of violations.

But all was not lost. Human-rights activists prevailed on the Catholic church to establish a commission to uncover and record what had transpired during the war. Named the Project for the Recovery of Historical Memory (and known by its Spanish acronym, REMHI), it is modeled in a limited sense on the South African Truth commission. But there are crucial differences: REMHI is not a governmental entity and does not interface with the country’s judicial system. Still, according to Edgar Gutierrez, REMHI’s director, the project has created a means for Guatemalans to come to terms with their past. “First we have to overcome the community’s fear of speaking out,” Gutierrez told a gathering at American University in Washington, D.C., last June. While a genuine sense of domestic tranquillity has yet to be established in Guatemala, he noted, Guatemalans “have been given a political space, which they can use to recover their dignity.” REMHI, working through local parishes, has carefully chosen 600 “animators” who have been trained to take the tape-recorded testimony of victims or their families. The animators speak the local languages and have taken a vow of confidentiality. According to Gutierrez, they have “succeeded in making people who give their testimony feel as if they were undergoing a kind of resurrection....What we have built up is a chain based on trust.” The testimonies have been translated and transcribed at fourteen regional offices. A report detailing REMHI’s findings will be released this fall.

While there is no guarantee that any Guatemalan human-rights violators will be brought to justice, Gutierrez believes the REMHI testimony will help Guatemalans “to heal and have something to live for. As the people recount their suffering, they have a chance to recuperate and to realize they have certain basic human rights.” And most important, “a new generation will then be able to learn from them and to say, ‘Never again!’”

Harvey Fireside is a visiting fellow at the Institute for European Studies, Cornell University.

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Published in the 1997-09-12 issue: View Contents
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