By Louisa Reynolds
Government apologizes for human rights violations during armed conflict while compensation programs for victims are severely underfunded.
Carlos Chen Osorio is the only survivor of a Mayan Achí family whose members were brutally slaughtered by the army in five different massacres perpetrated during Guatemala´s 36-year-long civil war against the inhabitants of Río Negro, a town in the northeastern department of Baja Verapaz.
Chen lost 40 family members and today he leads the Association for the Integral Development of Mayan Achí Victims of Violence, an indigenous organization based in Baja Verapaz that seeks compensation for war victims.
According to Chen, symbolic actions taken by the government, such as public admissions that the State applied genocidal policies against the country´s Mayan communities, are not enough.
“The government has apologized for what was done to us but apologies won´t buy us land or a home,” he said.
President Álvaro Colom is the nephew of Manuel Colom Argueta, former mayor of Guatemala City, murdered at the height of the military repression in 1979, and his center-left administration has sought to portray itself as the heir of the 1944 Revolution, an uprising against dictator Jorge Ubico that ushered in a decade of democratic rule under Presidents Juan José Arévalo and Jacobo Árbenz.
This period, known in Guatemalan history as “the 10 years of democratic Spring,” came to an abrupt end with a coup sponsored by the United Fruit Company and the US government, which feared the spread of communism in Central America.
Government rhetoric frequently alludes to these historical events and the Colom administration, whose slogan is “times of solidarity,” has issued many public apologies for wartime atrocities.
In March this year, Colom apologized to the family members of guerrilla fighter and poet Otto René Castillo and his partner Nora Paiz, who were tortured and disappeared by the army 44 years ago.
But there was an embarrassing moment for Colom during the ceremony when a group of peasant activists burst into the National Palace and demanded that the government should put an end to land evictions in rural areas, exposing the gulf between official rhetoric, which emphasizes peace, justice for war victims and the need to fight poverty and inequality, and the country´s stark reality.
For war victims like Chen, apologies ring hollow when little progress has been made in terms of compensating survivors and ending the dire misery in rural areas that led desperate peasants to join the guerrilla in the first place.
Compensation plans are underfunded
The National Compensation Program has been assigned a US$13.3 million yearly budget: $3.9 million for administrative costs and $9.1 million for the compensation directly, including the construction of basic dwellings (a small, one-bedroom cement structure with a tin roof and outdoor latrine), agricultural or craft production plans which aim to provide the community with a source of income, and compensation of up to $5,200 per victim, and a brief counseling session to help survivors overcome their ordeal.
Director of the program César Dávila explains that this is only a third of the budget established by the War Victims´ Compensation Law, approved under the 2000-2004 Alfonso Portillo government.
According to Dávila, this means that 3,000 housing requests will not be met under the Colom administration, which ends next January.
With regards to the projects that are meant to make communities self-sustainable, 130 feasibility studies have been carried out but only 20 of the proposed projects will be implemented due to insufficient resources.
When the Colom administration´s priorities were questioned since the program is desperately underfunded, Dávila says that the requested budget for the program this year was $28.8 million, but opposition parties in Congress reduced it by more than half to US$13 million.
However, inside sources who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals say that although the program´s budget is clearly inadequate, even the funds available are often squandered. For instance, in only a week, the program office spent $9,800 on glossy advertisements in national newspapers with an upper-class urban readership, trumpeting the program´s achievements, funds that could have been used to build five dwellings for rural families who have spent years on a seemingly endless waiting list.
Was there a civil war in Guatemala?
For the victims of the armed conflict, memories of the atrocities committed against helpless civilians are hard to forget. However, for a new generation of Guatemalans born after the Peace Accords were signed in 1996, the war never happened.
Until now, the national curriculum vaguely states that teachers should explain why the Peace Accords were signed, but the issue is usually treated in a superficial manner and with no mention of why there was a war in the first place.
“I´ve been a university lecturer for 20 years and I´ve noticed that the new generation is completely ignorant about the issue and is not even aware of the fact that we had a war”, says Professor Rodolfo Arévalo.
This is supposed to change this year after the compensation program produced a series of teaching materials on the armed conflicts that will be used in all schools, including games of snakes and ladders for younger pupils, where each square on the board contains a question on Guatemalan history that the student must answer and a guide for teachers on how to address the issue and how to answer questions that may arise in the classroom.
But these efforts, which are meant to ensure that the Mayan holocaust is not forgotten, have been frowned upon by army veterans and right-wing sectors that are reluctant to admit the atrocities that were committed.
“Many people insist that the issue shouldn´t be discussed. The Peace Accords were symbolic and the country continues to be ruled by the oligarchy. Parents have complained when some private schools have tried to teach students about the war. The bottom line is that this country is not interested in knowing what happened,” said high school teacher Rossana Pinillos.