Vinicio Cerezo

By:Jennifer Watson Issue: Biennial of the Americas 2010 Section:Heads of State

A Cord of Many Strands


Aless optimistic man might have given up. Faced with the social, political and economic challenges of his country, another man might have left it all behind for an easier life elsewhere. Yet, Vinicio Cerezo, former president of the Republic of Guatemala and current member of the National Congress, has chosen to stay in his county's service. Two decades after his presidency, he continues to reach out to other world leaders to encourage agreements he believes are crucial to Guatemala's future.

"Continuity and time--those are the two things our country needs," President Cerezo said during his trip to Denver for the Biennial of the Americas. "If we have security, we will have stability. Then, we will have the conditions for people to work and create prosperity."

The relative stability of Guatemala came at a steep price and remains threatened by crime and inequality. As the first civilian leader elected after decades of military rule and civil war, Cerezo knows how difficult it was to promote democracy and economic opportunity.

To preserve those gains amidst new challenges, Cerezo believes his nation must return to the city of Esquipulas to forge another historic multinational agreement.

"We had to convert our government into a civilian system, reorganize our economic system so people in the countryside could produce and export crops, and convince the army to allow people to take the money being spent on guns and war and put it toward our social system." - Vinicio Cerezo

Guatemala today rises from a fragile foundation. Known as the "Land of Eternal Spring," Guatemala lies directly below Mexico on the western side of Central America. Slightly smaller than Tennessee, Guatemala encompasses large cities, Pacific coastal areas, rain forests and lush highlands populated mainly by Mayan villagers. Its soil and climate have made Guatemala an agricultural exporter, with coffee, sugar, bananas and, more recently, ethanol among its chief crops.

Tourism is also thriving in Guatemala. Traces of the great Mayan communities that ruled Guatemala for more than 1,000 years are still found in Tikal and other world-famous archaeological sites. Visitors also come to Guatemala for its hiking, wildlife, Spanish-language schools and beaches. Cities like Antigua, which is ringed by volcanoes and filled with Spanish architecture from Guatemala's colonial past, rely heavily on tourism.

The diverse heritage that makes Guatemala such an interesting place to visit has also led to inequality and conflict. Guatemala is one of the few countries in the world with a significant indigenous population. Although Spanish is the official language, more than 40 percent of the population is Mayan and speaks one of 23 Mayan languages. The remainder of the population is primarily of Spanish or Ladino (mixed Spanish and Amerindian) descent.

Guatemala suffers from economic inequalities that stretch back to colonial days. When the Spanish conquered the Maya in the 1500s, they took the land and established a new economic system that left the Maya in poverty. Guatemala established its independence in 1821, but the economic inequality persisted through the decades and eventually led to military rule and a 36-year civil war that left more than 100,000 dead. A United Nations sponsored commission reported that 83 percent of the dead were Mayan, and experts estimate that another 1 million Guatemalans fled the country. With most of its money going to the military and foreign investors unwilling to do business there, Guatemala sank into widespread, chronic poverty.

Eventually, protests inside and outside the country gained traction, and, in 1986, Guatemala held its first free elections in decades. The man who emerged as president was Vinicio Cerezo, a Christian Democrat with no ties to the military. The son of a Supreme Court judge, Cerezo studied law and survived several assassination attempts before assuming office.

He remembers his inauguration day vividly and ticks off the three problems his government faced. "We had to convert our government into a civilian system, reorganize our economic system so people in the countryside could produce and export crops, and convince the army to allow people to take the money being spent on guns and war and put it toward our social system."

The problems in Guatemala didn't exist in isolation however, within six months Cerezo took a trip to Esquipulas on the Guatemalan-Honduran border to discuss the military conflicts being waged throughout the region. The gathering with other Central American leaders eventually produced the Esquipulas Peace Agreement, which defined a regional framework for economic cooperation, conflict resolution, democratization and refugee assistance. Vinicio Cerezo

The Esquipulas negotiations also laid the groundwork for the UN-sponsored Oslo Accord, which in turn produced the peace agreement ending Guatemala's civil war. Although the final agreement was signed after Cerezo left office in 1991, he was able to improve economic conditions and negotiate a peaceful transfer of power to his elected successor. Guatemala has remained at peace since the mid-1990s and tourists and foreign investors have slowly returned to the country. Until the worldwide recession hit, Guatemala was enjoying an annual economic growth rate of more than 4 percent.

Many of the old challenges persist however, five percent of the population holds 90 percent of the country's wealth, Cerezo said, and the Maya continue to live in extreme poverty. Literacy and graduation rates, particularly among children from rural families, remain extremely low. More schools must be built to accommodate growing populations, and poor families need support so they can send their children to school rather than to work, Cerezo said. "If we don't resolve this problem, our other initiatives will fail," he said. "We need people with the education to grow our economy."

As important as education is, Cerezo points to rising crime as the biggest challenge his country faces. According to the U.S. State Department, Guatemala has one of the highest violent crime rates in Latin America. The country is a major corridor for the cocaine and heroin trade between South and North America, and human traffickers are seizing Guatemalans for forced labor and sexual exploitation. "[Crime] is increasing political instability and diminishing the ability of the government to solve problems," Cerezo said, noting criminals are bribing government officials and recruiting rural villagers into their networks.

Guatemala shares these problems with its neighbors, and Cerezo is encouraging Central American leaders to gather again in Esquipulas to develop common laws for promoting education, trade and security throughout the region. He has had conversations with Central and South American leaders and said they agree that greater cooperation is needed.

"Democracy is increasing, and the richness of our countries and the confidence of foreign investors to come to our countries is increasing," he said. "We realized, however, that without sharing the wealth, without giving people education, health and opportunity to work, we would fail. It would undermine what we had accomplished, and we would risk returning to dictatorships."

He hopes a Central American agreement will be followed by other agreements throughout the Americas. "All the countries must work together,” he said. The gathering in Denver is another step forward in that process.

Jennifer Watson, APR, is vice president of public relations at MGA Communications, Inc., a public relations, marketing and research firm in Denver.