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Guatemala...on the path to stability

by Macarena Aguilar
Guatemala is said to be a country that enjoys an eternal spring. Yet for several decades it has been living under a cloud of turbulence and misery that has plunged its population into a hopelessly bleak situation. With the recent end to 30 years of armed conflict in Guatemala, the Movement is working together to help the country on its road to recovery.

At present, three quarters of Guatemalans are living in abject poverty, while nearly half lack even the most basic services. The mortality rate, already very high, frequently soars as a result of outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and malaria, while malnutrition is increasingly becoming a day-to-day problem. This central American country ranks amongst the poorest Latin American states, competing with Haiti and Nicaragua in the human development stakes.

Even Mother Nature spares little thought for Guatemala. Among other adversities, the country has 30 active volcanoes which pose a constant threat to the population, as demonstrated in May of this year when the Pacaya volcano awoke, to the alarm of the inhabitants, to blanket the streets of Guatemala City in ash. And Guatemala not only has to contend with more than its fair share of lava, but also with recurrent torrential rains that wreak havoc in the country, producing floods and landslides that cause devastating damage to the country’s environment; while forest fires, such as those witnessed this summer in the northern Petén region, cause irreparable damage to a unique ecosystem.

Although the civil conflict is now over, the violence still persists and the social turmoil affecting the entire country poses a real threat to its fragile stability. In spite of this, however, there is no denying the effort that Guatemalan society is making, with the help of various humanitarian organizations including the Red Cross, to improve the situation. It is as though, with the signing of the peace accords, the Guatemalan people have resolved to recapture the essence of the saying that Guatemala is a country blessed with an eternal spring.




A Red Cross Society revived by peace

In the late eighties, the Guatemalan Red Cross was caught in a storm of internal conflict that gradually weakened the organization to such an extent that the doors of its headquarters finally had to be closed. Although during this period some of the branches managed to carry on providing relief for those in need, it was not until 1996 that a process to reorganize and revitalize the diminished National Society was set in motion, with the support of the Federation, the ICRC and the Spanish Red Cross.

The most recent memories of the Red Cross for many went right back to 4 February 1976, when a tremendous earthquake shook Guatemala. Alongside the devastating figures that bear witness to the extent of the tragedy, there is the memory of a National Society relieving the suffering of over a million people. Thousands of tents for the disaster victims, blankets, drugs, and many other items were distributed by the Guatemalan Red Cross volunteers.

Today, for many, the image of the bearers of the great red cross of hope has been revived. As if part of a natural process, the National Society is also making a comeback at this crucial moment in time, as peace is consolidated, to fulfil its mandate.

During this year of revival, we have seen, for example, how over 540 women widowed during the civil war years were cheered by the sight of Red Cross volunteers arriving in their villages in the municipality of San Juan Cotzal to give them zinc sheeting and nails to renovate the roofs of their dilapidated homes. Thanks to a great effort undertaken by young Red Cross members 1,400 inhabitants of La Pastora, a community located some 150 km from the capital, have been provided with safe drinking water and running water in their homes and latrines. Schoolchildren from various communities throughout the country have had fun learning about first-aid techniques. More than 250 people living on the lower slopes of the Pacaya volcano were helped by a team of Red Cross relief workers when the volcano erupted, threatening to wreck their homes. Guatemalans, who had sought refuge in nearby Mexico during the conflict, were met at the border by Red Cross volunteers, who accompanied them on their journey home, tending to whatever needs arose.

Since the moment that peace was restored, a Spanish Red Cross team has been in Guatemala, providing support for vulnerable people, including over 3,000 ex-guerrillas, who were helped through the difficult process of reintegration into society. “The truth is that it never occurred to me that something like this would actually happen. People feel safer now; they don’t feel the same fear and distrust as before,” commented Uliser Robledo, cheered by the sight of his new home being built on the Santa Anita estate, which has been given to him and 35 other ex-guerrilla families, as part of a Spanish Red Cross programme.

Uliser is one of the thousands of Guatemalan guerrillas who have now been demobilized. He was initiated 24 years ago by his fellow fighters into the guerrilla force to which he belonged until the day his life took a radical turn, the day he was sent to one of the demobilization camps. With a shy smile on his face, he admits, “When we were in the camps some of my fellow guerrillas cried when they handed over their arms. But not me.”

Efforts launched by the Spanish Red Cross in Guatemala in aid of the ex-guerrillas include the distribution of food and clothes in eight demobilization camps to help them reintegrate into civilian life and the construction of 232 houses for those who, like Uliser, have settled on lands provided by the government.

“Although building peace is the responsibility of all Guatemalans, international support and assistance is essential at this early stage when grief and suffering are still deeply felt,” explains Isabel Barrientos, the Spanish Red Cross coordinator in Guatemala.

However, the work of the Red Cross in Guatemala has only just begun.

Long-term rehabilitation

Extensive groundwork carried out jointly by the National Society and the Federation to analyse and identify the problems shared by the Guatemalan Red Cross and the country’s most disadvantaged populations served as the basis for a programme designed at the end of 1997. The programme aims to combine institutional restructuring tasks with immediate activities to achieve sustainable development in the country’s communities. Leopoldo Tavares, the Guatemalan Red Cross president remarks, “It is not possible to isolate activities aimed at helping those in need of our services from those aimed at developing the Society’s institutional basis. Both processes are essential and must therefore be carried out simultaneously.”

The resulting scheme, known as the ‘rehabilitation programme’, is coordinated by a Federation team based in Guatemala, in conjunction with their National Society counterparts. With funding from sister Red Cross Societies, including those of the Netherlands, UK, Norway, Sweden, Japan, Denmark, Iceland, Spain and Canada, specific capacity building and technical assistance projects are being set in motion to strengthen governance and management teams, to reinforce branch capabilities and to improve disaster response and resource development strategies.

Other projects involve working with the communities to improve basic health conditions, to increase disaster preparedness and to enhance self-help capabilities, including water purification and mini-projects. At the same time, a participatory planning process carried out by the National Society recently culminated in the production of a detailed action plan to be implemented over the two or more years that the rehabilitation programme is scheduled to run, in the hope that by that time the path to stability will have been forged for all Guatemalans to follow.


Macarena Aguilar
Macarena Aguilar is a Federation information delegate based in Guatemala.

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