History Education and Reconciliation in Guatemala

Sep 1, 2004


The first truth commission was held in 1974, in Uganda. Since then at least twenty-three such commissions, sometimes called truth and reconciliation commissions, have been held; by definition, they are always temporary institutions, with a mandated life span. While they have attracted increasing attention from scholars of transitional justice, reconciliation and peace-building, we are only just beginning to understand the effect of these bodies—and even to explore the right questions to ask.

Before trying to answer the "big question" of whether truth commissions help to promote reconciliation, it is crucial to see whether the commissions' findings have died with the disbanding of the commissions, or whether they have found spaces in which to live and continue to have an effect within the society, and if so, how. The answer to the "big question" in fact may not be answerable except in a long-term framework, as reconciliation is increasingly understood to be the work of generations. But it should be possible within five years of a truth commission's issuing of its findings and disbanding to examine certain institutions for evidence of influence by the truth commission.

That is what Elizabeth Oglesby has attempted to do in this paper, one of the first to investigate to what degree the findings of a truth committee, in this case, the Guatemalan Historical Clarification Commission [CEH], have been integrated into secondary school history programs, how this happened and what are the politics of post-war and post—Commission education in Guatemala today. Oglesby presents the context in which the CEH was set up—a significant factor, because, unlike the more famous South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the CEH was mandated by the peace accords, was never championed by the political powers in the country, and was more constrained in its reach and mandate than some other commissions.

She then reviews textbooks and interviews teachers and students at a variety of schools across the country, and discusses at length the role of outside actors, especially the United States Agency for International Development [AID], in helping to develop Guatemala's post-war curriculum. Of particular interest is the rise of human rights education and the introduction of an educational discourse around human rights and peace, which, as Oglesby shows, is not unproblematic, since it can function to reduce people's roles to victims, robbing them of political agency and reducing historical memory to that of the "traumatic and sinister story."

Finally, Oglesby assesses what the CEH, with all the problems both it and the country faced in the aftermath of a devastating civil conflict, was able to achieve: it succeeded in creating a public history of the violence and opening up space for further discussion about the past. She suggests that future truth commissions could work more effectively by creating their own didactic guidelines and also by producing "illustrative" case studies of individual experiences of the conflict in a format conducive to use in educational settings.

Key contents of Oglesby's paper are as follows:


Research Methods

Guatemala's Commission for Historical Clarification in Context

Teaching About the Recent Past in Post-War Guatemala

  • Textbooks before and after the peace accords Schools and the "agency" of teachers The Adolfo Hall Civic-Military Institute USAID and dissemination of the CEH report

Historical Memory and the Limits of Peace Education

Final Considerations


Draft—not for citation or reprint without permission of the author.

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