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Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Guatemala's Upcoming Elections - "Democracy in the Americas?"

Gen. Efrain Rios Montt riosmontt.jpg guatemalamap.jpg It is election time again, and as millions of Americans commemorate our own more or less imperfect democratic institutions at the polls this week, it is appropriate for us to reflect on the tiny, long-suffering Central American country of Guatemala -- one of several neighbors where, for better or worse, the United States has exerted profound influence for decades on political and economic development.

This Sunday, on November 9, 2003, the roughly 4.5 million out of 13.9 million Guatemalans who are of voting age and have bothered to register will have an opportunity to chose a new President and Vice President, a Congress, the mayors of 300 villages, and 3500 local officials, not to mention Guatemala’s delegates to the (superfluous?) Central American Parliament.

This should be a cause for celebration. After all, this will be Guatemala’s fifth “peaceful, free” election in a row, after the 32 years of military rule that ended in 1986, and the third election since the December 1996 UN-mediated “Peace Accord” that was supposed to conclude the country’s civil war, alleviate poverty, increase spending on health and education, reduce discrimination against indigenous peoples, and bolster democracy.

In fact this latest election, like the Peace Accord, has also turned out to be somewhat disappointing -- an occasion for serious violence, intimidation, outright fraud, and the discriminatory use of government and press power. Because of all the intimidation, and the absence of candidates who dare to present serious alternatives to the status quo, many -- including this writer -- feared that Guatemala would maintain its record as having one of the lowest voter turnout rates among developing countries, with just one out of every three people of voting age bothering to vote in the last two Presidential elections. (In fact, this time around, Guatemalas swarmed to the polls in record numbers, with preliminary figures indicating that 80 precent of registered voters turned out to vote -- see below.)

At this point the outcome remains uncertain, and a run-off between the top two Presidential candidates may well be needed in late December. But it now appears likely that Guatemala will at least avoid the worst case scenario -- the return to power of one of its most reprehensible military leaders ever, General Efrain Rios Montt.

According to the latest polls, the 77-year old former general is likely to get trounced by “safer” candidates from the center-right’s “ladino/ oligarchy” parties, like former Guatemala City mayor Oscar Berger, or civil engineer and long-time bureaucrat Alvaro Colom. BergerOscar.jpgColomAlvaro.jpg (In fact this forecast, at least, made last week, turns out to have been correct -- in contrast to previous national elections, Guatemalans turned out in record numbers to reject Rios Montt's bid.)

For the vast majority of Guatemalans, which of these white faces presides over the next four years of government matters little, so long as it is not Rios Montt’s.

Given Rios Montt’s track record, of course the real question is not whether he has a chance at the Presidency, but why he is not sitting alongside Slobodan Milosevic or some Tutsi army commander in the dock at an international war crimes tribunal. In this respect he has already joined the hallowed ranks of such big-league war criminals as Radovan Karadzic, Augusto Pinochet, Indonesia’s General Wiranto, Liberia’s Charles Taylor, and our own Dr. Henry Kissinger, who have so far managed to escape the scales of justice for reasons that have little to do with their innocence or the scale of their transgressions.

Yet even if Rios Montt loses the election on Sunday, recent events have demonstrated that he and his reactionary supporters, plus the country’s largely unreconstructed military and national police, remain a potent force in this beleaguered, semi-feudal country, where the average per capita income is just $1700, more than half the population lives in poverty, and 70 percent of the land is owned by just the top 2 percent. To understand why his country remains in this situation, and why he and his genocidal henchmen are still lurking around in the 21st century, only two hours from South Beach, we have to take a brief look at his roots.

Ecumenical Genocide. From 1978 to 1986 Guatemala was ruled by a blood-thirsty junta that was directed, in turn, by Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia (1978-82), General Rios Montt (March 1982–August 1983), and Oscar Mejia Victores (September 1983–1985) -- perhaps best known for describing the high level of violence in his country as “folkloric.” Beginning in the late 1970s, this group of US-trained uniformed savages began to systematically annihilate Mayan villages, which they feared might be sympathetic to left-wing guerillas.

The result was a lop-sided “civil war” that a 1999 UN-backed Truth Commission concluded had claimed more than 200,000 civilian lives, 2 percent of the country’s entire population. About 83 percent of these victims were Mayan Indians. While 3 percent of the victims were attributable to left-wing guerillas, the Commission estimated that 93 percent had been murdered by the Army and its death squads, which conducted massacres against some 626 Mayan villages. In addition, more than 1.5 million people were forced to emigrate. The Commission aptly described this entire policy as “genocide.”

In particular, for 17 months in 1982-83, General Rios Montt, a proud graduate of the US military’s School of the Americas (since renamed the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation”) and a self-styled “born-again Christian” who had become an ordained minister in California-based Gospel Outreach’s Guatemala Verbo evangelical church, presided over an especially harsh period of repression, which saw the expansion of the PAC (Las Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil vigilante groups that were responsible for wiping out most of the Mayan villages. A former investigator for the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences’ Guatemala exhumations project told me about one typical incident, near the central highlands village of Rio Negro in March 1982: fig. 1.25. Chixoy Dam, Guatemala.JPG


I organized the technical team that exhumed the gravesite at Rio Negro. We located the bodies of 177 women and children on a mountain side near the village, an hour by foot up the mountain from the dam. According to an eyewitness who was located by human rights investigators accompanying the team, the killings were done by the Patrullas, who were part of Rios Montt’s “Frijolles e Fulsilles” “(beans and bullets) strategy. The investigators located one old woman, a survivor who had managed to get away and witnessed the whole thing. According to her, the Patrullas marched these people up the mountain. The patrol was drinking. They put a tape on a cassette player and ordered the women to dance, “Just like you dance the guerillas.” They started shooting at their feet, then some of the Patrullas took some of the younger women off into the bushes and raped them. When the women fought back, they were hit in the face with rifle butts and knocked unconscious. This was consistent with the mandible fractures we found on a handful of bodies. We also found several infants who had skull fractures. The men of the village had escaped to the mountains, and did not expect the PAC to harm the women or children. They were wrong. They watched the whole thing from another mountain,,,,"

The origins of such policies go back at least to the June 1954 CIA-orchestrated coup against the duly-elected (with 65 percent of the vote!) government of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. Arbenz.gif

A Swiss immigrant and a reform-minded Army captain, but certainly no Communist, Arbenz had the temerity to contemplate polices like land reform, an income tax, a hydro dam that would compete with the US-owned electrical monopoly, and the nationalization (with compensation) of the United Fruit Company/Chiquita’s 600,000 acres in the early 1950s. dulles_allan.gif

Of course variations on all of these “radical” measures had also been widely introduced in the US itself, with results that were generally beneficial to the public at large, if not the landed elite. But in the Guatemalan context, given the cold war passions of the day, not to mention the fact that United Fruit’s former corporate counselors, the Dulles brothers, were influential members of the Eisenhower Administration, it was easy for local elites and multinationals whose oxen were being gored to characterize all these measures as part of some Great Transnational Communist Conspiracy. castillo.armas.jpg

The result was the ’54 coup, and the elevation of Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas – who had previously been working as a furniture salesman in Honduras – to become the first in a long series of thugs with a really quite unusual combination of banality, venality, and brutality.

Fast forward now to the Carter Administration (1976-80), the one exception to the rule that saw US administration after administration cultivate and abet its two key local partners, Guatemala’s military and its land-owning elite. To his credit, Carter condemned the Guatemalan junta and cut off arms shipments, although the CIA quietly maintained its connections. Deaver.jpg

But when Ronald Reagan took office in January 1981, the old public policy of mutual understanding and back-scratching returned. Indeed, Deputy White House Chief of Staff Michael Deaver’s LA/DC- based PR firm, Deaver and Hannaford, was hired by the junta’s cronies, a substantial amount of Guatemalan money reportedly found its way to the Reagan war chest, and sanctions against US arms purchases disappeared. With encouragement from officials like Secretary of State Al Haig, military aid and advice to the junta was also promoted through Israel, which provided more than 300 security advisors, built an entire factory in the northern province of Alta Verapaz to manufacture Galil rifles, the Guatemalan Army’s weapon of choice against the Mayan peoples, and also supplied a computer system for tracking “subversives.”

Meanwhile, on the political front, there was a systematic attempt to erase the bloodstains from Guatemala’s image. US Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Enders praised Rios Montt for his “effective counterinsurgency,” and Ronald Reagan called him “a man of great personal integrity,” “totally dedicated to democracy,” and someone who had supposedly been given “a bum rap” by Amnesty International.

Rios Montt’s Personal Pacification Program. Fast forward once more to the late 1980s, skipping over the abattoir of the Reagan years. After leaving power, General Lucas Garcia discretely retired to Venezuela and contracted Alzheimers, while Mejia Victores quietly divided his time between Miami and Guatemala City. But Rios Montt, who had actually run for President unsuccessfully way back in 1974, still thirsted for power. He remained in Guatemala, adopting a shameless, “in-your-face” stance, and founding a new conservative party, the Republican Front (Frente Republica Guatemalteco, or FRG).

Unfortunately for his Presidential aspirations, the newly empowered Constitutional Court ruled twice, in 1990 and 1995, that Rios Montt was barred from running for President by Article 186, because of his role in the 1982 coup. So for the time being he contented himself with being the FRG’s Secretary General, key financier, and a member of Congress -- which, among other benefits, gave him immunity from prosecution. Meanwhile, he tried to govern through stand-ins.

In December 1999, FRG swept both the Congressional elections and the Presidency, with a great deal from help from Angel Gonzalez, a curious Miami-based Mexican media mogul who, after 1981, quietly managed to gain control of more than 20 Guatemalan radio stations and seven TV channels – including all four private TV channels (#3 and #7, the most popular, plus #11 and #13) that have national coverage. (This was by no means Angel Gonzalez’s only Latin American TV venture, or his oddest acquaintance – in Peru he also reportedly collaborated with ex-Fujimori spy master Vladimoro Montesinos in an effort to buy a TV channel.) angel.jpg
With this kind of help, Rios Montt’s protégé, Alfonso Portillo,a former university professor and self-confessed killer who had to flee from Mexico in the 1980s because he was wanted for murdering two people, became President in January 2000, and Rios Montt became the President of the National Congress.

Portillo’s Debacle. Rios Montt should have known -- what can one expect from a murderer? In the following three years, Portillo’s self-proclaimed neoliberal FRG administration went from commanding a 65-percent electoral majority to earning the dubious distinction, as one Guatemalan newspaper put it, of being “one the most corrupt in the history of this Central American country”— given the country’s history, no mean achievement. As early as January 2001, according to investigations by two leading Guatemalan newspapers, Portillo and his cronies had already started diverting Interior Ministry funds to Panamanian bank accounts. Portillo also reportedly appointed Angel Gonzalez’ brother-in-law, Luis Rabbe, as Minister of Communications, in charge of the country’s only public TV station. A flurry of other corruption, arms and drug dealing charges followed. By January 2002, 92% of Guatemalans had lost all confidence in Portillo’s administration. By the fall of 2003, the vast majority rated Portillo Guatemala’s worst elected head of state ever.PortilloAlfonso.jpg

In January 2003, even the usually hard-shelled US Ambassador refused to attend Portillo’s annual speech to the National Congress, and the Bush Administration informed the US Congress that it intended to decertify Portillo’s drug enforcement program, which had gone through nine directors of its anti-drug unit in three years and was riddled with corruption. As one senior State Department official said, “Narcotics, trafficking, alien smuggling, money laundering, and organized crime in general are on the increase in Guatemala. Some of the leaders have very close ties to (President Portillo) and regularly influence his decisions.”

Even Rios Montt discovered that he was not entirely beyond the reach of the law. Guatemalan courts may not take human rights seriously, but it is very serious about liquor laws. In March 2001, its Supreme Court determined that Rios Montt and 23 other FRG legislators had participated in a conspiracy to reduce the country’s sales taxes on liquor without following proper parliamentary procedures. So his Congressional immunity was lifted against civil liability. That did not affect his immunity from criminal proceedings or military crimes, but it was one tiny crack in the wall of impunity.

In the event, however, the General bounced back again, determined to try once more to run for President. At first the Constitutional Court suspended his campaign for the same reason it had done so in 1990 and 1995. But in July 2003 he summoned thousands of his supporters to Guatemala City on what became known as “Black Thursday,” and literally held the country hostage until the CC relented, allowing him to be listed on the November ballet.

So now we wait for the final outcome. As indicated above, we have reasons to hope for the best – Rios Montt has discovered that he is being dragged under by the abysmal reputation of his fellow efrregista, Portillo. Absent another round of outrageous intimidation and violence by the General’s supporters – many of whom are former PAC members, recalled to action in the rural areas -- this Sunday should bring a least a little good news for the forces of democracy.

But contrary to Ronald Reagan’s hoary characterizations long ago, Rios Montt and his supporters are neither of men “great personal integrity” or “dedicated to democracy.” They are determined, unpredictable, dangerous, and evil. And they were largely of our creation.

After decades of intimate relations with the US and its various corporate interests and governmental agents, therefore, Guatemala today remains one of the bloodiest open sores on the pock-marked face of global capitalism. Not for nothing did Bill Clinton, in one of the finer, more humble moments of his Presidency -- for which he was roundly criticized by Republicans -- travel to Guatemala in March 1999 and apologize publicly to the Guatemalan people for the horrific impact that generations of US polices have had on their social and political well-being.

It is all very well for Americans to celebrate our undeniable achievements as a democratic society. It is also important for us to occasionally remind ourselves the incredible price that some of our poorest neighbors have paid for these achievements. As Rios Montt’s Gospel Outreach church likes to put it, “Eternity is a very long time to be wrong.”


© James S. Henry, 2003. Not for reproduction or other use without express consent of the author.

November 4, 2003 at 05:24 PM | Permalink


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i still don't understand how these former butchers command such electoral successes in guatemala, el salvador, etc. and what is keeping the remnants of the revolutionary oppositon from garnering more votes?

Posted by: myko at Nov 10, 2003 2:01:57 AM

The Gospel Outreach web site you list is not associated with verbo. I think it used to be a Seventh Day Adventist site. The site you're looking for is

Posted by: Michelle Lewis at Nov 26, 2003 4:07:47 PM