The Washington Diplomat / February 1997
By Larry Luxner
If Pedro Miguel Lamport had always wanted to be Guatemala's envoy to Washing-ton, he couldn't have picked a brighter moment in his nation's long and troubled history.
On Dec. 29, 1996 -- following 36 years of civil war -- President Alvaro Arz˙ and leaders of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) guerrilla group signed a peace treaty at a ceremony attended by over a dozen Latin American heads of state and thousands of observers from around the world.
The development not only ended fighting that has killed as many as 140,000 people since 1960, but opens the way for massive development aid and renewed investor confi-dence in Guatemala, whose 10.3 million inhabitants make it the most populated country in Central America.
As spelled out in the Dec. 29 agreement, the guerrillas will soon begin demobilizing some 2,500 fighters stationed in eight bases throughout the country. Under the eyes of 155 international observers, the rebels will turn their arms over to UN delegates before either returning to their camps or going back to their homes.
"We have a tremendous challenge ahead," says Lamport, a businessman and long-time friend of President Arz˙. "Now that the peace agreement has finally been signed, we have to concentrate on rebuilding areas where the conflict was prevalent. But we feel that opportunities for growth and development are available for all the country to benefit from."
Despite a family tradition of public service (his late father, Jorge Lamport Rodil, was ambassador to Washington during the Carter years), this is Lamport's first diplomatic posting, and the first time he's been on the government payroll.
The 47-year-old ambassador -- whose Canadian mother accounts for his perfect English -- was only 11 when leftist guerrillas launched their armed struggle against Guatemala's CIA-backed military government, setting off what would become Latin America's longest-running civil war. Against the backdrop of continuing civil unrest, he studied economics at Guatemala's Universidad Rafael Landivar and continued his education at Harvard, Antwerp (Belgium) and New York's University of Rochester.
In 1972, Lamport went into business -- delving into textiles, food exports, distribution of staple goods and bulk chemicals -- and in time became president of the Guatemalan Chamber of Commerce. He later presided over CACIF, a private-sector coordinating committee for agricultural, commercial, industrial and financial associations, and went on to coordinate two key events in Guatemala's return to democracy: the National Dialogue of 1983 and the National Consensus Committee of 1993. The following year, Lamport became the first coordinator of the Special Commission for Peace, acting as liaison between the private sector and parties directly involved in peace negotiations.
"The transition from a military regime to a full-fledged democracy was a very delicate period in Guatemalan history," said Lamport during an hour-long interview at his official residence. "It was vital to be able to establish within Guatemalan civil society the fundamental basis for our constitution, the electoral system and for human rights.
"The first debate was how to establish that constitution, and the private sector had a very important role in expressing its concern. It clearly established the background that would ultimately permit the country to culminate peace negotiations with the URNG. It was through the coordination within civil society that democracy was preserved and strength-ened to the degree it is now. Having been a part during all these years of this process has been my greatest satisfaction."
Referring to the continuing hostage crisis at the Japanese ambassador's residence in Peru, Lamport says he sees little parallel between that country and Guatemala -- even though both have large indigenous populations that feel economically and politically displaced by the wealthier Spanish-speaking ruling class.
"Our internal conflict was not derived from internal problems," he argues, "but as a consequence of the Cold War, during which time democracy could not flourish."
Ironically, many Guatemalans now worry that with the outbreak of peace, thousands of soldiers on both sides of the conflict will find themselves out of work -- which is exactly what happened in neighboring El Salvador after that country's civil war came to an end in 1992. URNG rebel leader Rodrigo Asturias says Guatemala needs $100 million of international aid just to bring the guerrilla forces back into society and ensure lasting peace.
There's no doubt the fighting has taken a huge toll on the Guatemalan economy. Nearly 450 villages were destroyed in the army's decades-long campaign to wipe out communities sympathetic to the guerrillas. Under the peace accords, the Arz˙ government has agreed to implement new programs that could cost up to $2.7 billion over the next three years. With an annual budget of about $1.85 billion, the government is hoping for several billion dollars in aid from such institutions as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Inter-American Development Bank.
Guatemala, whose economy depends heavily on coffee, bananas, cardamom and other agricultural exports, certainly needs the investment. Last year it reported a GDP of $13 billion and per-capita income of $1,200, making it one of Latin America's poorest countries. Even so, according to preliminary statistics, its economy grew by 3% in 1996.
One of Lamport's goals is to steer Guatemala away from its traditional dependence on coffee, bananas and cattle, and towards high-value exports such as garments, electronic components, pineapples, baby vegetables and raspberries.
"This year, non-traditional exports will be greater than coffee in dollar terms. We do not depend exclusively on coffee anymore," he says. "We are much more diversified than that. Any supermarket in the U.S. carries a wide variety of Guatemalan goods from snow peas to frozen broccoli."
Yet non-traditional exports have their own problems. In late 1992, Guatemalan snow peas were blocked from entering the U.S. market when it was discovered that pesticides not approved by the FDA were being sprayed on the crop. Exports resumed, but shipments are now being scrutinized at the port of entry for FDA violations. Likewise, Guatemalan raspberries were suspected as the source of a recent outbreak of cyclospora in 21 U.S. states, the District of Columbia and the Canadian province of Ontario.
Even if non-traditional exports continue their rapid growth, coffee will still be the mainstay of Guatemala's economy for a long time to come. At the moment, coffee represents 27% of the country's foreign-exchange earnings.
Another important economic sector is apparel. In the last few years, Guatemala -- a beneficiary of the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) -- has attracted hundreds of so-called maquila factories which pay local women the equivalent of 60 cents an hour to assemble garments for export, usually to the U.S. market. Yet since passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and competition from neighboring Mexico, Guatemala's maquila growth has slowed considerably.
"We feel we have lost opportunities for much more impressive growth of about 25% a year. Therefore, we are seeking mechanisms by which we can obtain parity with Mexico in those areas where CBI has some type of vacuum," he said."The United States has been very cooperative with Guatemala, although trade opportunities with the U.S. through CBI and other bilateral agreements are much more important than the aid itself."
Two other issues are of pressing concern to Lamport: Guatemala's efforts to fight drug smuggling, and the rights of Guatemalan immigrants living in the U.S. Nearly one million Guatemalans live in this country -- including 60,000 in the Washington area -- though the biggest communities are in Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and New England.
A third issue, that of Guatemala's traditional border dispute with neighboring Belize, doesn't concern Lamport as much.
"We have an embassy in Belize, and Guatemala recognizes Belize as a nation," said the envoy. "Our dispute regards territorial limits and boundaries, and dates back to the late 1800s. We do not yet recognize these boundaries, though we expect to resolve this issue sometime this year."
As for his own future, says the ambassador, he's flexible. "I'll be here as long as the president wants me here."