The peace agreements signed in Guatemala City Sunday and witnessed by foreign dignitaries, leaders of indigenous peoples, human rights activists and Boutros Boutros-Ghali in his last official ceremony as secretary-general of the United Nations, may well signify the end of an era in Latin America. Not only because the armed struggles in the region's Thirty Years' Wars are drawing to a close (though remnants persist in Peru and Colombia) nor even because the most radical factions of the hemispheric left have bent their ideological swords into plowshares, but mainly because of the implicit assumptions that pacts such as the Guatemalan one rest upon.
The armed conflicts inaugurated in Latin America in the early 1950s by the Colombian guerrillas of Maiquetia and given their strongest impulse by the victory of Fidel Castro's barbudos in 1959 in Cuba are winding down. In most of South America, they in fact subsided long ago. Only in countries like El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala was real power still being sought through the barrel of a gun by the end of the 1970s. If this was also the case in Peru in the 1980s, it ceased to be so with the capture of the head of the Shining Path, Abimael Guzman, in September 1992. The hostage-taking at the Japanese ambassador's home involved detention conditions for the Tupac Amaru guerrillas in prison, not really the overthrow of the government. And though the Colombian combatants, still led by the legendary Tirofijo "Sureshot" Marulanda, can wreak enormous damage on the country's beleaguered economy and particularly on the Cusana oil-producing region, they are more in the business of surviving than of fighting for power.
Not only has the Latin left abandoned armed struggle as a means of transforming society; it also has forsaken its principles, trading its revolutionary convictions for reformist positions it would have despised a decade or two ago. The program of economic, social and political reforms espoused by the new left may be deemed radical in comparison to the free-market obsession sweeping Latin America, but the substance differs little from, say, that of the Alliance for Progress presented at the Punta del Este conference 35 years ago by the Kennedy administration. Whether today's program is more viable than Kennedy's, revolutionary for its time and ultimately a failure, is debatable. Here, in fact, lies the most important symbolism of the Guatemalan peace agreement celebrated last weekend in the streets of the capital city and in the highlands and Mayan villages devastated by three decades of civil war.
The internecine conflict in Guatemala dates back to the 1954 coup sponsored by the Central Intelligence Agency against the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz. Backed by the Communist Party, the government had implemented a moderate program of social reform, instituting an income tax, a minimum wage, public works and land reform. It was overthrown by an unholy alliance of the local oligarchy, the United Fruit Co. and Washington officialdom. Six years later, a group of army officers, persuaded that elections and peaceful means of seeking power and change constituted an impossible ambition, established one of the first post-Cuban guerrilla insurgencies in Latin America. Though defeated then and again in the mid-1960s, the guerrillas coalesced in 1982 as the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity, known by its acronym in Spanish as UNRG. Two of the signatories of the peace agreement Sunday, Rolando Moran and Pablo Monsanto, go back to the 1960s group.
Will the reformist plank they embrace today--not too dissimilar to the policies carried out by Arbenz--be more palatable to the domestic right wing and its allies in Washington? As President Alvaro Arzu asked rhetorically during the signing ceremonies: Who will cast the first stone, the rebels who took up arms because the Arbenz government had been removed by force, or the Guatemalan wealthy, who will once again refuse to pay taxes, raise wages, create jobs and so on?
More broadly, the real question that peace pacts negotiated throughout Central and Latin America raise is whether the representative democracy to which they are pledged can accommodate the economic and social reforms that many of these countries require. The issue is more than who wins the elections, more than whether everyone abides by their results; it is whether the deep shifts in the distribution of power that virtually all of Latin America needs can be carried out this way.
It may turn out that the guerrillas of the '60s and '70s were wrong from the outset or would be wrong today, whatever the validity of their claims 20 years ago: Reformist, redistributive change can be attained in the region through institutional means. Or conversely, we soon may discover that the hemisphere's ancestral social structures and political culture are far more difficult to bend and mold than many think, and that Che Guevara had a point, after all.
Jorge G. Castaneda is a political scientist and writer in Mexico City. His latest book, a biography of Che Guevara, will be published this year.