A Night Like No Other: An eyewitness account of the night peace broke out in Guatemala 10 years ago this month
hristmas in Guatemala came four days late in 1996. Maybe that is why the electric tree was still switched on, the one that goes up each December as a Yuletide foil to the obelisk at the foot of the Reforma. But no one would be there this night; instead, everyone was supposed to go to the Plaza de Armas.
I arrived around noon with my bride of six weeks, Mely, and her sister, Mayra González. Taxi drivers call the place (with provincial irreverence) el parque, and it is that, too. But it is also center stage for the Republic’s history. The National Palace built by Gen. Ubico during World War II fills most of the square’s north side; the Cathedral and the Central American Archive face each other from east and west. It is the city’s most hallowed open ground.
We went early to get front-row seats, so to speak. This turned out to be a yellow line running down the middle of Séptima Calle, in front of the Palace. The street was already cordoned off to traffic, so we perched on the curb, knowing we would have to stand later, and eyed the reviewing stand. Workmen were putting something up. But what? It was big and clear, something they must keep in the Palace basement among the jugs of floor wax. It was protection from, well, me-and anyone else who might get a dare-devilish impulse: a thick acrylic panel.
An hour later, there were still surprisingly few people there to witness a seminal historical event. On Sunday, the Plaza de Armas is usually abuzz with proletarians enjoying their day off. Girls in huipiles abound, chatting with newcomers from their remote village, trading gossip from home for a bearing on their new life in the metropolis. You also find fortune-telling parakeets, snake-oil sellers, cotton-candy pushcarts and hoarse preachers. These were there, but fewer than I was used to. Why? I still do not know; but by three the Plaza was starting to fill. We were on our feet, toes to the yellow line. A soldier was behind the acrylic shield, knocking to test its stalwartness. Finally, I thought, this Sunday was cracking up to be one like no other in the Plaza.
An hour later two huge screens hung before the Palace’s wings, with the three of us, and hundreds of others, in between. Thousands were at our backs. Some stood on crates; others clung to siege-tower-like scaffolds put up by press agencies from which to broadcast and perhaps immortalize the event. We were no longer making Gatorade runs to the nearby Samaritana supermarket; there was already some jostling, and we wanted to keep our “seats.” The papers would estimate the crowd at 40,000. “Look!” Mely exclaimed. I did, and saw that somewhere behind us the mother of all telephone poles was going up (25 meters worth, I would learn later). “The voladores,” she said. “The Cubulco voladores.” I had seen these “flying” campesinos from Baja Verapaz somewhere-perhaps when I was a kid reading National Geographic. I do not remember how soon after this that the national anthem began playing. Guatemala Feliz is stirring even when trickled from a tinny laptop speaker. When thousands of people pound it out to the accompaniment of megaton amplifiers, it makes your marrow tingle. You become lost in the golden oneness of the moment, hypnotized by the exploding octaves. Forgetting that I was not Guatemalan, I flattened my right hand, put my thumb to my chest, and saluted like everyone around me.
The reviewing stand began filling with 3-D versions of VIPs whom I knew from the small screen: heads of state from Central America and the peace-brokering “Contadora” countries (Mexico, Panama, Venezuela, Colombia). Spain, which with Norway had done more than any other country to midwife the Peace Accord, had sent its Parliament president. France had sent its Justice Minister. Belize had sent its Vice Prime Minister, who was booed but smiled anyway. Then the UN Secretary General appeared. “That’s Boutros Boutros-Ghali!” I said. “Boutros-Boutros-Boutros-What?” Mely or Mayra asked, giggling. “What’s he president of?” “The world, sort of,” I replied. I followed Boutros-Ghali’s speech in English through the echo of translation. He was pleased, he said, because Central America’s last civil war was ending. El Salvador’s, he reminded us, had ended four years earlier; he had come over to bless that Firma de Paz, too.
Several other presidents weighed in. Excepting Nicaragua’s elegant Violeta Chamorro, they were all men who seemed to have agreed beforehand to don two-piece navy suits (a gesture of solidarity?). I noted that El Salvador’s President Calderón was taller than the rest, and that Colombia’s President Samper had a 5 o’clock shadow-we were that close. I was stricken by this opportunity for commoners to view the high-and-mighty up close. When your own country has 300 million people, you appreciate what the scale of life in smaller states can give you.
The festivities were a smorgasbord of Guatemaliana: four voladores ascended the pole while other men pushed spokes at its base, generating the centrifugal force to give wing to their comrades. The crowd was peppered with guerilla partisans, who thrust their fists and chanted “U-R-N-G!” Several toros quemantes (flaming bulls) charged the crowd, parting the spectators into screaming wakes. The “bulls” are wooden boxes with human legs (belonging to guys between jobs, presumably), ablaze with myriad live fireworks. After decades of liability reform in the United States, we might see these in Akron. There were plenty of sky-bound fireworks, too. But the telling climax was the arrival of a livestock lorry full of lean, shouting men in bandannas. “The guerillas!” Mely cried. Then I knew it-I knew the war was over. Many of those guerillas had never seen the city, much less the Plaza. The final speaker, following the televised signing inside the Palace, was Guatemala’s President Alvaro Arzú. Rigoberto Menchú was also in there, Mayra said, but I missed her. “Let us now go forward,” Arzú commanded in his conclusion. Then he exited the Palace and I saw him, with no acrylic separating us, saunter down to the granite pedestal in the Plaza to light the eternal flame of peace.
Over the decade, I have visited the pedestal to savor the afterglow of that night. Vandals occasionally snuff the flame, but at other times I find it burning. As such, it is a parable on Guatemala’s progress, a punctuated but inexorable march. My three sons have been born since then, Guatemalans all; the eldest has seen the flame. Someday I will tell his sons how I was present when peace broke out, on that night like no other. “Grandpa, what’d you do during the war?” “Nothing,” I will reply. “But I saw it end.”