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peoples, James Anaya
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GUATEMALA: Civil society -- look how it has grown
GUATEMALA CITY -- Civil society in Guatemala is coming of age, as non-governmental organisations seek to overcome the country`s troubled history of armed conflict. Ten years have passed since the peace accords were signed, and social organisations have cut down on the rebellious lashing out in favour of cooperating with the State and setting forth proposals.

"It is no longer about fighting the State, but rather a question of finding ways to work with the government and propose solutions," Sandino Asturias, director of the Centre for Guatemalan Studies, a non-governmental political research institute, told IPS..

Civil society has been grappling with this transformation ever since the 1996 signing of the peace agreements, which brought an end to the 36-year civil war in which 200,000 people -- mainly indigenous civilians -- were killed.

"The movements are successfully replacing rebellion with constructive action," said Asturias. Sandra Morán, head of Women`s Sector, which represents a number of women`s groups, agreed. "Today, proposals are being drafted; before, attention was focused on confrontation and on avoiding State oppression."

Issues such as the government`s recent push for a "national pact", which has divided social movements, reveal the limited political action capacity and coordination levels of Guatemala`s social organisations.

To work towards a national pact, the government launched a broad national dialogue last month with student, labour, women`s and indigenous groups on issues related to health, nutrition, and transparency in public administration. On Jun. 16 it plans to open up the dialogue to address the questions of inclusion of indigenous communities and rural development.

Yet some of the most representative organisations, such as the Confederación General de Trabajadores de Guatemala (CGTG), a national labour federation, and CNOC, a national umbrella group of campesino organisations, have rejected the invitation to engage in dialogue.

"The government is just using the dialogue to score some points, because it feels isolated," charged Carlos Pérez, executive secretary of the CNOC. Roberto Dueñas, associate director for the CGTG, noted that "dialogue processes have lost credibility, because governments do not follow through on the agreements reached."

But divisiveness is not new to civil society. "There is not the same maturity level here that you find in the Southern Cone region (of South America), where movements have a common agenda. What is going on in Bolivia, for example, could not happen here," Mario Polanco, an analyst with the Mutual Support Group, a local human rights organisation, told IPS.

Polanco was referring to the fact that Bolivian movements, which encompass a wide spectrum of backgrounds and priorities, not only have succeeded in uniting their demands in a common platform, but have received committed support from the government of Evo Morales, the country`s first indigenous president, who took office in January.

In Guatemala, "each organisation prioritises its own work over the common good," said Asturias.

Hugo Ayala, coordinator of a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) initiative to strengthen civil society, said the movement is generally divided along territorial lines or according to issues.

Organisations based in Guatemala City, the capital, tend to look down on local movements, "even though the local groups work more effectively," said Ayala. And each organisation focuses on one problem and ignores the rest, "despite the fact that there is overlap between some issues, such as indigenous concerns and human rights."

The secret to unification has become civil society`s Holy Grail. But in the meantime, significant progress has been made, such as the establishment in 2004 of the Indigenous, Campesino, Union and Popular Movement (MICSP), an umbrella group that counts the CNOC and CGTG among its members, and the Collective of Social Organisations, a network of progressive and human rights groups.

"It is not easy to coordinate a unified front, but the MICSP wants to set concrete objectives and bring us together," said Pérez. On Jun. 8, the movement held a national assembly, inviting 300 delegates from all around the country.

Social organisations do agree on one thing: the need to jumpstart the peace agreement agenda. Ten years after ratification, the goals outlined by the accords have been all but shelved.

The peace accords set out to address issues ranging from the rights of indigenous groups, who represent more than half of the population, to agrarian reform designed to combat the poverty and marginalisation which plague 54 percent of Guatemalans.

The non-governmental Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA), meanwhile, monitors Guatemala`s civil society "maturity," measuring levels with a Civil Society Index, which analyses four dimensions: context, structure, values and impact, based on survey results and public information.

ICA, which has promoted community development and participation since 1979, is part of Civicus, a global civil-participation alliance.

According to the index, 38.5 percent of Guatemala`s social organisations said human rights campaigns have had limited success, while 32.1 percent rated them as moderately successful. Fifty-nine percent said civil society has had little or no impact on public spending.

Legitimacy is also a problem. "There is more to civil society than non-governmental organisations -- it encompasses the entire population, but the people have delegated the responsibility to collectives," said Ayala. "So organisations have gained their representative legitimacy by default, as they do not have broad social support behind them."

Only seven percent of ICA survey respondents believe that women, men, indigenous people and youths enjoy equal representation in the organisations, although 43 percent of their management positions are held by women.

In the meantime, a mere 1.8 percent of Guatemala`s workforce is unionised.

These figures reveal weaknesses that social organisations themselves have criticised. Thus, the second phase of the UNDP programme is focusing on improving the participation of such groups in public policy-making.

"State institutions are not receptive to civil society initiatives," said the UNDP official. Therefore, more pressure must be put on "official local institutions and not just state government," he added.

Compounding these obstacles are the difficult situations in which some social organisations work, particularly those defending human rights, which continue to be targets of intimidation.

In 2005, 193 activists were victims of attacks, according to the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman. Most were social and human rights activists, followed by justice officials and journalists. Only 28 percent of the attackers have been identified; the accused include members of the National Civil Police.

Luis Felipe Polo, adviser to Guatemala`s vice president, admitted to IPS that activists are in need of better State protection, and said "the issue of security is being given serious attention."

This insecurity complicates the work of civil society, but non-governmental organisations are willing to persevere. "Major mobilisations are still necessary to make ourselves heard," said Pérez, on behalf of the country`s campesinos.

Alberto Mendoza, IPS

Published: 13.06.2006
Published by: Magne Ove Varsi