On 1 March 1989, the CNR inaugurated the GND with representatives from various political, social and economic sectors in Guatemalan society. The aim was to identify and promote consensus on the major topics of concern to peacemaking. In contrast to later mechanisms, the GND was not structured as sectoral dialogue because the sectors as such were not yet organised. Yet the process involved a diverse social mix , with 84 delegates representing 47 organisations as participants. There were full delegations from: the government; political parties; media organisations; churches; refugee groups; cooperatives; the Unity of Popular and Labour Action; the Council of Labour Unity; the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission; the University Student Association; the Worker/Owner Solidarity Movement; the Federation of Small Businessmen and Producers; the Education Federations; and the National University of San Carlos.
Several key sectors were absent. The government refused to allow URNG participation until it decommissioned, although Bishop Quezada agreed to read URNG documents into the official record. The formerly exiled political opposition associated with the URNG was only allowed limited involvement based on a 'voice but no vote'. At the other end of the political spectrum, the GND was boycotted by the military and several right-wing political parties as well as the Coordinating Committee of Farming, Commercial and Financial Associations (CACIF) and the National Farming and Ranching Union (UNAGRO), who together represented the interests of large businesses and landowners. They claimed that the GND was unrepresentative and would be susceptible to manipulation. Others were concerned that the exclusion of the URNG and its political allies indicated that the government wanted the GND to be only a 'cosmetic dialogue' with strict limits on the issues addressed and the breadth of participation. They saw it as a forum to help legitimise the Christian Democratic government of President Cerezo and his policy of active neutrality in order to end Guatemala's international isolation. Furthermore, it is notable that neither women's nor Mayan organisations were represented, in part because a history of discrimination and exclusion meant their voices and organisations were not widely acknowledged by those with established authority.
The participating organisations identified the issues they wanted discussed. Out of a large initial list, fifteen topics were accepted and classified into four main areas: (1) support and reinforcement of the democratic system; (2) organisation and participation of citizens; (3) quality of life; and (4) economic policies. Representatives of the participating organisations made proposals on the topics they considered a priority, which were then discussed in plenary session by delegates from all the participating groups. Bishop Quezada led this process on behalf of the CNR, which supported him throughout.
It was anticipated that the process would be structured with an opening and a closing plenary session – at an undetermined future date – but most of the actual dialogue would take place in fifteen working commissions, each of which was mandated to address a specific agenda issue and to prepare written proposals. After the opening plenary, progress was slow. By late April, none of the working commissions were functioning and several of the participating groups had not appointed their representatives. Gradually, however, they formed and began to present their papers to be debated.
The diversity of themes addressed in the GND reflected the different interests of those represented and their expectations regarding strategies to end the war. A common thread that emerged from the discussions was shared concern about the continued militarisation of the country, despite the civilian government. It was the first time in decades that Guatemala's underlying structural problems were discussed in public and therefore posed considerable safety risks. Without basic personal security guarantees, there were constraints on the openness of the dialogue. Bishop Quezada tried to offset this threat through private meetings with influential figures. Yet neither the government nor even the military had complete control over the forces opposing change in the country, who had their own operating dynamics and determination to pursue their own agendas.
The working commission on human rights presented a set of proposals that included the abolition of the paramilitary Civil Defence Patrols and the resolution of land problems of Guatemalan refugees. The proposals attracted considerable opposition. Soon after, numerous participants from popular sectors and opposition groups began to receive death threats. The reluctance within the GND to discuss continuing human rights violations against its delegations began to undermine the effectiveness and legitimacy of the process. In June 1989, nine of the university student leaders were detained by the security forces, one of whom – Ivan Gonzalez – never appeared again. Thereafter a number of other GND members were kidnapped and tortured. With security deteriorating rapidly, in October the CNR decided to disband the GND, leaving the process unfinished.
The GND nevertheless had a number of important outcomes. It was the first time that the problems generating armed conflict were discussed openly in the public arena. Although it did not result in conclusive outcomes, the analysis was vitally important several years later when it helped to define the official negotiating agenda between the URNG and the government. Furthermore, it set the stage for the involvement of the public and transformed the closed characteristics of the negotiations. The demands for political negotiation stopped being the exclusive concern of the parties directly involved in the conflict, who started to realise that a solution to the armed confrontation had to involve civil society. The social participation that the GND enabled decreased the perception of the conflict as a purely military issue and gave it a political nature. It was a powerful impetus for the URNG and the army to end their manipulation of the peace process as part of their war strategies. Furthermore, the dynamic of discussing and negotiating proposals was highly significant given Guatemala's authoritarian political traditions. It helped to stimulate the beginnings of democratic culture. The safety issues that constrained the GND – and ultimately led to its closure – were eventually addressed in the 1994 human rights accord that mandated a UN human rights mission. This became a key factor in helping to decrease the levels of repressive violence to enable a climate for civil society involvement in peacemaking.
The GND was also a turning point for Guatemala's religious organisations in the peace process. With the exception of some of the new fundamentalist evangelical groups, they found a common voice and became an integrated sector so that their perspectives would have greater recognition and authority. The GND also supported the re-emergence of the popular movement that had been severely weakened by the murder, disappearance and exile of its leaders during the war. In general, throughout the GND, representatives of political parties displayed a greater capacity to participate in discussions and to elaborate proposals. However the GND provided important skills-building experience for participants from diverse social organisations who were better prepared to participate effectively when the Civil Society Assembly was later formed. As a consequence, organised Guatemalan society changed from being a spectator to being an active force in the peace process.