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WORLD PERSPECTIVE / LATIN AMERICA : U.N.-Moderated Talks Spark Hope for Peace in Guatemala

January 28, 1994|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — Faint prospects for an end to Central America's longest war are flickering again following an agreement by Guatemalan officials and guerrillas to renew peace talks after months of bitter stalemate.

For the first time in the sporadic efforts to end Guatemala's civil war, the United Nations will take an active role as moderator between the two sides as part of an agreement reached here this month.

Many Guatemalans are hopeful that the United Nations can exert the kind of pressure that will be needed to forge peace in a brutal conflict that has claimed more than 100,000 lives and lasted more than 30 years.

Participants in the negotiations also are speaking seriously of achieving a peace treaty by the end of the year, a pledge that raises high hopes.

"I see this quite positively," Guatemalan political analyst Gabriel Aguilera said. "One, because of the mere fact that they are renewing negotiations; and, two, because there is an expressed willingness to finish this year."

Peace talks had sputtered off and on for two years, with minimal progress, until breaking down completely eight months ago. Finally, after a five-day session in a Mexico City hotel this month, the Guatemalan government and the guerrillas of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union agreed to a new agenda and format for talks.

The first formal round of talks is set to begin in late February.

The meeting in Mexico City was the first to take place with representatives of Guatemalan President Ramiro de Leon Carpio, who came to power in June after his predecessor, Jorge Serrano, failed in a bid to seize absolute power.

De Leon's background as a human rights ombudsman led many to believe that he would make peace his top priority. Instead, he disappointed supporters by throwing out earlier human rights agreements reached between the guerrillas and the Serrano government.

For a while, the possibility of negotiations seemed more distant than ever. But with the reputation of his government at stake, and with rebel sabotage hurting the economy, De Leon agreed to participate in this month's meeting, and so did the guerrillas.

The United Nations turned up its powers of persuasion by dispatching Undersecretary General Marrack Goulding, a senior trouble-shooter instrumental in the Salvadoran peace accords, to the meeting.

And some analysts believe that Mexico, prompted by the peasant uprising in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, exerted special pressure on the Guatemalans in an effort to break the longstanding impasse.

The Mexico City meeting was taking place at the same time the Mexican government was struggling to put down its own guerrilla uprising, an ironic twist lost on no one. Days before the meeting began, Mexican officials accused Guatemalans of leading the insurrection, yet Mexico for years has played host to revolutionaries from Guatemala and other parts of Latin America.

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Suddenly, the uprising in Chiapas was being called the "Central Americanization" of Mexico, and the Mexicans may have thought it in their best interest to see the Guatemalan conflict resolved once and for all.

Thousands of Guatemalan refugees who fled the violence of their own country have lived in neighboring Chiapas and other southern Mexican states for the better part of a decade.

In reaching the agreement to reopen talks, each side appeared to have won points. The issue of human rights will be part of the agenda, as the guerrillas wished, while the government succeeded in removing Guatemalan Bishop Rodolfo Quezada Toruno as mediator.

Instead, the bishop, whom some in the government regarded as biased in favor of the rebels, will preside over a separate forum in which diverse grass-roots groups will discuss social and economic issues at the heart of the Guatemalan war.

While the decision to renew the talks gives De Leon's government a boost, the president almost immediately faces another test. Guatemalans go to the polls Sunday to vote on constitutional reforms that De Leon insists are essential to making his government work.

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