Victory in the US Congress: Reparations for the Chixoy Dam and the Military Ban

32 years ago today, 177 women and children were brutally murdered in Pokoxom during a series of state-ordered massacres which left a death toll of 444 Maya Achi people. The Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA expresses support for the survivors of the community of Rio Negro, who lived through brutal violence committed as part of the construction of the Chixoy hydroelectric dam.

On January 16th, after a protracted battle, the US Congress passed a consolidated appropriations bill for 2014. The bill includes various restrictions on funding from the US Department of State (DOS) to Guatemala’s armed forces — a clear, if partial, victory against impunity and militarization.

Reparations for the Chixoy Dam

Chixoy dam

The Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam Reservoir. Photo by James Rodríguez.

The restriction that has received the most attention in Guatemalan news relates to reparations to 33 communities impacted by the construction of the Chixoy Dam in the early 1980s. Members of these communities, including survivors of the gruesome Rio Negro massacres, have waited for over 30 years for compensation and recognition of the injustice and abuse they suffered. The legislation bars the Guatemalan army from receiving funding under the Act until DOS certifies that Guatemala is taking credible steps to implement the Reparations Plan which the Guatemalan government signed in 2010, but never implemented.

In February, the organization representing the 33 communities affected by the dam — Adivima — released a statement criticizing the lack of progress in the implementation of the Reparations Plan. Adivima reported that, in the month after the bill was passed, the communities were neither approached by the government, the World Bank or IDB, nor were they informed of any concrete steps taken by the government to address the issue.

GHRC and partners are calling on the US Government to seek input from the communities as part of the evaluation process the bill requires. The US Appropriations Law creates a historic opportunity to finally compensate the communities that lost their homes and hundreds of loved ones, but if they are locked out of the process, we risk re-victimizing the very communities the law is meant to support.

The Military Ban

The bill contains another restriction, which has been largely ignored, related to ongoing and past human rights abuses committed by the Guatemalan Army. The language accompanying the bill bars DOS from granting funds from the Foreign Military Financing Program to the army until the Secretary of State certifies that the army is meeting certain conditions. The restriction is narrow, and still allows funding under this program to the rest of Guatemala’s armed forces.

That doesn’t mean that the restriction isn’t significant, though, or that it isn’t a thorn in the side of the Guatemalan government. When the current Guatemalan Ambassador to the US took over his post, he publicly stated that his number one priority was the removal of this very condition. Why does it matter so much to the Guatemalan government, when there’s a relatively small amount of money at stake?

The conditions state that to receive these funds, the Guatemalan Army has to:

1) Have a narrowly defined mission focused on border security and external threats, and a credible plan to end the army’s involvement in internal law enforcement;

2) Cooperate with civilian investigations and prosecutions of human rights cases involving current and retired military officers;

3) Publicly disclose all military archival documents relating to the internal armed conflict in a timely manner in response to requests by civilian judicial authorities.

What the bill is implicitly saying is that the Appropriations Committees believe that the Guatemalan Army currently doesn’t meet these criteria, and that’s the rub.

On the first point, Guatemala is clearly and unapologetically moving in the opposite direction. Under President Pérez Molina’s leadership, the Guatemalan army has been consistently deployed to carry out tasks that would normally fall to the police; soldiers have been stationed in various parts of the capitol to combat crime and insecurity, checkpoints were set up on highways across the country, and several army bases have opened in parts of the interior. In addition, the current government has imposed a form of martial law 13 times, putting the army in temporary control of the population.

The Guatemalan government has also taken steps backward on the disclosure of military documents. In January of 2013, the Defense Ministry classified documents from 1982 requested by the Human Rights Prosecutor’s Office claiming that the information is still current and could endanger national security. There is also fear that many documents from the internal armed conflict were destroyed or remain hidden, despite a heavily publicized declassification process which began in 2011. In the archive created, which is supposed to cover the entire 36 year civil war in Guatemala, there are only 12,200 documents. By comparison, Guatemala’s police archive contains 80 million.

With the passage of the Appropriations Bill, it now falls to DOS to keep the pressure on Guatemala, and not just act as a rubber stamp. In other cases, like those of Colombia and Honduras, DOS has certified that those countries’ governments were abiding by Appropriations Committee imposed conditions despite abundant evidence presented to the contrary. Hopefully Congress will oversee the process this year so the conditions have a real impact on human rights in Guatemala.

In response to the bill a defiant President Pérez Molina stated, “We’re not anyone’s game. We’re going to do what we need to do.” He also singled out one Appropriations Committee Aide in particular as responsible for the bill. The President claimed that this aide “thinks he owns Guatemala just because he’s an aide to a senator.”

Senator Leahy, Chair of the Appropriations Committee responded by pointing out that the committee had authorized close to $100 million for Guatemala for this year. He also wrote, “Instead of blaming a member of the US Congress, Guatemalan authorities should comply with their responsibilities…”

Senator Leahy, with the help of his staff, has been a stalwart advocate for human rights and the rule of law in Guatemala for over a decade, using his position as the head of this powerful committee to keep US funds from supporting repressive policies. It’s little wonder that the Pérez Molina administration resents his efforts.

Ultimately, though, it will be up to the people of the US to guarantee that this law truly offers Guatemala incentive to change. The conditions are not a way for the US to insert itself in Guatemala’s internal affairs, but instead a tool for citizens to ensure that we’re not exacerbating an already explosive human rights situation, and instead supporting the ongoing struggle for justice.

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