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On November 9, Guatemala held national elections for the second time since the end of its brutal 36-year-old civil war during which an estimated 200,000 Guatemalans were either killed or disappeared.

In the days leading up to and following the Guatemalan elections, Haverford College political scientist Anita Isaacs was part of a team of election observers representing the Organization of American States. Since the Guatemalan peace accords were signed in 1996, Isaacs has spent considerable time in that country studying the challenges of peace building there. Because the current regime has permitted the resurgence of some of the most repressive and corrupt elements from the authoritarian, wartime era, Isaacs believes that the outcome on November 9 is absolutely crucial.

“One of the leading contenders for the presidency is Rios Montt, a former general—now president of Guatemala’s congress—who was a dictator during the worst of the repression,” says Isaacs. “ He and his party have reversed the initial progress made toward the end of the 1990s.” She also notes that there also has been a resurgence of political violence against those Guatemalans seeking some kind of reckoning or accounting for the past.

Following the completion of her last book project, The Politics of Military Rule and Transition in Ecuador, Isaacs turned her attention toward researching the ways in which the international community can contribute to the building of democracy.

“Although the international community was not central to the democratization that swept through Latin America in the 1970s and ‘80s, it did play a secondary role, principally because of the Carter administration’s emphasis on human rights as a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy,” explains Isaacs. She points out that under the Reagan administration, the emphasis on American foreign policy shifted away from human rights narrowly defined toward the notion of exporting democracy, a theory of which Isaacs remains skeptical.

“In the case of Guatemala, the international community did play a role with regard to that country’s peace accord,” says Isaacs,” but I believe that in the long run the success of peace hinges on Guatemala’s resolve to continue toward peace.”

Isaacs was accompanied by her research assistant of the past several years, Virginie Ladisch, a 2000 Haverford graduate, who has studied reconciliation in South Africa and Guatemala.

Prior to joining Haverford’s political science department in 1988, Isaacs worked as a program officer for the Ford Foundation funding initiatives relating to international affairs, governance, and human rights in Latin America and the Caribbean. She earned her undergraduate degree in political science at McGill University, and her D.Phil in politics at the University of Oxford.

Isaacs, who holds the Stinnes Professorship in Global Studies, has focused much of her research on both Ecuadorian and Guatemalan politics. She has published a book and several articles on the politics of military rule, transition, and democratic consolidation in Ecuador. For the past several years she has been researching and writing about the challenges of peace building in Guatemala. Her work is particularly concerned with the topic of transitional justice, and the problematic relationship between the search for truth about Guatemala's wartime past, reconciliation, and democracy.

Students cross in front of Founders Hall.

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