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Military Reduction Good News for Guatemala

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There was some excellent news out of Guatemala this past week. In a drastic
cut, the Guatemalan Army will be reduced by half during the next two
months, according to Guatemalan President Oscar Berger. President Berger
expressed the need to fund social services, education and social security
as a major reason to cut the army. The reduction from 27,000 to some 15,000
active troops, will also bring the Guatemalan military to a size more
comparable to neighboring countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.

We fully concur with the United Nations mission that this bold decision by
President Berger's new government represents "the most significant change
for the Guatemalan Army in decades, and [is] one fully in keeping with the
spirit of the 1996 Peace Accords."

Guatemala is a beautiful, resource-rich and culture-rich country with
enormous promise. But it is a promise that has been kept at machinegun
point for nearly 40 years. Civil wars leading to massacres and severe
repression of any type of individual or organized activism, with large
numbers of extra-judicial killings carried out by formalized and
militarized death squads, characterized this recent period. The Guatemalan
army was trained and molded accordingly, its best and most socially aware
cadets relegated to obscurity while the more brutalizing elements were
rewarded. This reality of a time of war created horrible conditions for a
hard-working and decent people.

The Guatemalan Army has been one of the best-trained, armed and organized
armies in Latin America. It was highly subsidized by the United States
during the Central American wars during policies that come out of the 1950s
time of U.S.-led, supposedly anti-communist coup d'etats, but which were
actually based on a racist, "banana-republic" mentality about the peoples
and lands of the Meso-American region. During the counter-insurgency
campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s, the Guatemalan army was ferocious and
brutal. While it did pursue and engage the guerrilla armies that had sprung
up throughout the country, it also massacred hundreds of civilian hamlets
and villages, mostly of Maya peoples, with impunity and in fact as a matter
of policy.

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It was common to hear officials express the dictum made popular by General
Efrain Rios Montt: "If the guerrilla is the fish and the people are the
sea, and we can't find the fish, then we must dry out the sea." Anywhere
guerrilla bands may touch, or carry on a meeting with a mountain village,
that mountain village, now "contaminated," must be destroyed, according to
this concept, which led to the razing by torch and massacre of an estimated
450 to 600 Maya village communities. According to Guatemala's Truth
Commission's report in 1999, the "army committed 93 percent of all human
rights violations during the civil war; and it carried out genocidal
actions and policies during the early 1980s 'scorched earth' campaign that
killed up to 150,000 civilians, mainly highlands Mayans, between 1981 and
1983 alone." This near holocaust of the Maya people and all the surrounding
violence against social organizers has left a country with many traumatized
and often violent individuals, and growing gangs that are an ongoing threat
to daily life in Guatemala.

The problem of social security, perhaps the most negative aspect of
Guatemalan daily live, can in fact be aggravated by the letting go of more
than 10,000 military personnel, well-trained in the use of arms and
coordinated combat action. It augurs well that President Berger's
government has focused on this problem as well and promises action in this
regard. Without providing new and more productive opportunities for those
currently enlisted in the military the problems of instability within the
country could be exacerbated. By channeling the talents and energies of all
its peoples toward developments that make better use of the country's
natural and human resources, a new, healthy, dynamic and yet peaceful
Guatemala can emerge from the ashes of its troubled past.

We are encouraged by the direction Guatemala's new leadership wishes to
take the country. By focusing on building a more safe and secure society -
with a pragmatic understanding of the need for transparency and financial
accountability in government - the foundation for a stable environment that
is conducive to business investment and development is being built. The new
government is made up from a new class of entrepreneurs who apparently seek
a more European-style democratic tradition for their country, with less
violence and hopefully a more shared prosperity with the mass of their
people. We hope this is so, as it helps open a more peaceful, stable space
for Maya peoples to also grow and prosper.

Economy, education and health are also on the plate for the new government
- serious challenges in the long-embattled country. But for the momentous
decision last week, to cut the army and emphasize social progress, we
congratulate Guatemala. Our best wishes for the prosperity of the Maya
communities and their many neighbors in their still promising country.