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History, Guatemala in the 1990s

Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Leon Carpio, Rios Montt, National Advancement Party, congressional seats

Although the military still exercised ultimate control, civilian leaders continued to govern Guatemala in the 1990s. By the middle of the decade, a wider spectrum of groups was allowed to participate in politics, and negotiations began to end the civil war. But human rights abuses by the military remained the center of internal division and international attention for Guatemala.

In 1990 the United States cut off most of its military aid and all arms sales to Guatemala because of persistent human rights abuses. Despite the official suspension of more than $3 million in U.S. aid, it was later revealed that the CIA had continued to fund the Guatemalan army. The CIA delivered nearly $10 million in financial and military assistance shortly after aid was suspended, and American CIA agents in Guatemala worked to suppress reports of killings and torture by the Guatemalan military. In 1992 Rigoberta Menchu Tum, a Quiche woman from Guatemala, won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on behalf of human rights for the poor and indigenous people of the country. Her work raised international awareness of their struggle.

Jorge Serrano Elias, a right-wing businessman and evangelical Protestant closely allied with Rios Montt, became president in 1991. With the support of the army, Serrano seized dictatorial control of the government in May 1993, but a wave of protest forced him to resign. The Congress elected Ramiro de Leon Carpio, the country’s human rights ombudsman, to succeed him. De Leon supported some reform measures to reduce corruption, but the military remained the major power in Guatemala’s government.

In legislative elections, a right-wing coalition of parties that included Rios Montt’s Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) triumphed in August 1994. However, peace negotiations with the guerrillas moved ahead slowly, aided by a United Nations mission, throughout 1995. In July 1995, for the first time in 40 years, leftist political groups were able to participate in politics. A leftist coalition of parties, the New Guatemala Democratic Front (FDNG), won 6 of the 80 congressional seats in elections in November 1995, putting it in third place behind the center-right National Advancement Party (PAN), with 42 seats, and the right-wing Guatemalan Republican Front, with 22.

In January 1996 PAN candidate Alvaro Arzu Irigoyen, a former mayor of Guatemala City, narrowly defeated FRG candidate Alfonso Portillo Cabrera to become president. Arzu worked tirelessly to reach a peace agreement with the guerrillas, becoming the first Guatemalan president to meet personally with their representatives. Arzu made significant progress in reducing human rights abuses, dismissing military leaders and police accused of human rights violations and corruption. His government also faced a rising crime rate, including a wave of kidnappings, as poverty rose. Although recent fiscal policies had improved many economic indicators, the standard of living for most Guatemalans had continued to decline.

A peace accord between the government and guerrilla forces was finally signed on December 29, 1996, ending the 36-year conflict in which more than 200,000 Guatemalans were killed or disappeared. During that time up to 1 million people had been forced out of their homes or into exile. The peace agreements called for the guerrillas to lay down their arms, while the size of the army was to be reduced; a number of social programs were to be established, as well as a commission to investigate human rights violations. Under the accords, the government also recognized past abuse and discrimination against the country’s indigenous people and pledged to respect the customs, languages, and religious beliefs of the Maya population. In February 1999 the Historical Clarification Commission announced its findings that the nation’s military governments, backed by the United States, were responsible for the overwhelming majority of human rights violations committed during Guatemala’s lengthy civil war. U.S. president Bill Clinton subsequently acknowledged that U.S. participation in that activity was wrong.

Many of the provisions of the peace accord were included as proposed amendments to the constitution presented in a May 1999 referendum. Specifically, the amendments were to make Maya languages, religions, and traditional laws equal in status to their ladino counterparts. Control of the army was to go to civilians and internal security was to be removed from the army’s jurisdiction. However, less than 20 percent of the population cast ballots, and more than half of the voters rejected the reforms. Indigenous leaders attributed the low turnout to poor political organization, mistrust of the government, and the fact that information about the referendum was available only in Spanish and not in native languages.

In the November 1999 congressional elections the FRG swept PAN out of power, winning 63 seats to PAN’s 37. In December Alfonso Portillo Cabrera of the FRG was elected president, defeating PAN’s Oscar Berger Perdomo with 68 percent of the vote. Berger was PAN’s candidate instead of Arzu because Arzu was constitutionally barred from serving more than one term. Portillo enjoyed the backing of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, who was elected to Congress in 1999 as a member of the FRG.

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