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Guatemalan Civilians Talk Peace, Nudge Reluctant Military

PEACE talks between leftist guerrillas and sectors of Guatemalan society have yielded modest political benefits for the insurgents and increased pressure on the government to resolve this nation's decades-old civil war. Notably absent from these talks, however, is the military. Discussions held so far with businessmen and political groups have not produced side benefits in the form of any apparent moderation in the military's stand against the guerrillas.

Still, the forum has gained the Guatemala National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) guerrillas some new listeners, observers say. The next round of talks between the guerrillas and Guatemalan religious organizations is to be held soon in Ecuador. The process will culminate prior to the Nov. 11 Guatemalan presidential elections with a meeting between guerrillas, military officials, and government representatives.

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The negotiations have provided a ``soft pillow for discussion,'' says Julio Mendizabal, executive secretary of the National Reconciliation Commission, who is overseeing the peace process. Within the military, he says, are officers who ``have known only war, and some of them want peace, but haven't said so.''

The talks have been important for the guerrillas because ``they gain legitimacy by participating,'' Mr. Mendizabal says. Reports from talks between Guatemalan businessmen and the guerrillas earlier this month in Ottawa, Canada, were positive, according to rebels and the business leaders. Both agreed on the need to get the economy going.

But if the talks, begun as part of the 1987 Central American Peace Plan, are to produce peace, the Guatemalan military must somehow be moved from its hard-line views, diplomatic and other observers say. The civil war waged by about 2,000 to 3,000 guerrillas will not end, they say, unless the government and military address its root causes.

``We need both peace and justice,'' says Otto Peralta, a leader of the nationwide Association of University Students. ``Even if the guerrillas can form a political party, it won't solve the country's problems.... They'd be killed by the death squads.''

Claudia Arenas, spokeswoman for President Marco Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo, defends the military, saying the Army's views on peace are no different from the government's. As for the guerrillas' safety should they form a legal party, Ms. Arenas says: ``It's difficult to guarantee in Guatemala no political violence. We are trying through dialogue to create a responsible atmosphere.''

The military does, however, face growing pressure to cooperate with the peace process. Since talks began, many moderate politicians and businessmen have voiced the need for a wider political space for opposition views. Indeed, even the center-right Union of the National Center Party has seen two of its mayoral candidates assassinated in recent months.

The rapidly deteriorating economic situation, caused partly by political instability, is also a prod. Inflation has jumped 102.5 percent in the last 12 months. Businessmen expect an increase in strikes as workers seek wages that keep pace with inflation.

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Antigovernment demonstrations have also increased. On Aug. 30, 5,000 students and farmers marched in Guatemala City demanding an end to military-police human rights violations.

International criticism has stung the military as well. In April, the Amnesty International human rights organization reported a sharp increase in rights abuses during the past year. It wrote that police and military forces ``have been involved in many `disappearances,' torture, and death-squad killings.''

The United States State Department also issued a paper lastspring criticizing rights violations in Guatemala. The US earlier this month threatened a cut in aid if the murder of an American citizen was not investigated fully. Three soldiers were indicted.

Byron Morales, a leader of the 300,000-member Labor and Popular Action coalition hopes the peace process will unify society to oppose the ultra-right. Such unity ``will open a democratic space,'' he says, to allow resolution of Guatemala's problems, he says.

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