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Last Updated: 11/04/2003
Deja Vu in Guatemala
Joe Schumacher

General Rios Montt whose human rights record after he seized power in Guatemala in 1982 was truly appalling. It had been hoped that since 1999 the chances of a growing and genuine democracy in that country was going to be good. Since Rios Montt announced his desire to return to power via democratic election, many are desperately hoping against hope that his campaign will come to nothing. The elections loom in a few days from now, November 9.

General Rios Montt, the former dictator of Guatemala who is running in this weeks national election, has been preaching his campaign slogan to whoever will listen; ‘I am Guatemala’, it reads under the 77 year olds photograph on banners and in posters across the country. For many it was hoped that Montt represented a Guatemala that had finally been consigned to history, Montt’s legacy of state sanctioned paramilitary death squads terrorizing the countryside is something Guatemala has spent the last decade edging away from.

Montt seized power in the improvised central American country in 1982 and his 16 month reign is regarded as amongst the darkest days in the country's 36 year long civil war. During that conflict 200,000 people were killed in the fighting between leftist Mayan rebel factions and the Government, which has always represented the interests of business and church establishment of the Spanish speaking ‘Ladino’ half of the population. In a region that has endured many dirty wars, this was certainly the worst numerically, claiming more victims than the conflicts in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Argentina put together. In 1996 a tenuous peace was cobbled together between the rebel URNG, and the military dominated Government. In 1999 Guatemala had its first peace time election and although much of the discrimination and social polarization of the bad old days remain, it was hoped that democracy and a respect for civil rights was beginning to take root in the country.

Amongst the provisions of the 96 peace accord was that no one who had illegally seized power could become president. Unfortunately many of the characters who had dominated Guatemala politics prior to the peace agreement have remained powerful behind the scenes. In the 1999 election the conservative candidate for the FRG party, Alfonso Portillo, defeated Oscar Berger of the Pan party in a runoff. Portillo, who had maintained during the campaign that his conviction for murder was proof of his ability to be tough on law and order, appointed Rios Montt, now a born again evangelical Christian, leader of the Congress.

In July this year, Guatemala’s Constitutional court amended the constitution to allow Rios to run for the Presidency. Around the same time Portillo said he is going to stand down and endorsed Montt's candidacy. Political opponents have accused Portillo of stacking the Constitutional court with lackeys whose job was to ensure the amendment was passed. Further focusing the courts attention were the violent riots that shook Guatemala City while the court was deliberating. The rioters demanded the court allow Montt to run for election. The demonstrators have been described as patriotic students by the ruling party and hired thugs by everyone else. Though the evidence seems to point to that most of the ski mask wearing rioters were bought in from the provinces on buses provided by the Government. President Portillo made a show of decrying the riots, and said he has censured those defense officials who refused his order to confront the rioters.

 The stage is now set for a final tense month in the lead up to the election. Guatemala City, Central Americas largest capital, is particularly fraught and commentators on the scene have noted the somewhat surreal phenomenon of Guatemala's polarized political class reforming itself, as one time rivals unite in their condemnation of the ex Generalissimo and a desire to deny him the presidential palace. Already an agreement has been hammered out between all the other candidates, bar one, that they will unite behind the front-runner if a runoff eventuates with Rios participating. The only dissenter is the current leader in the polls, Oscar Berger.

At the moment Montt is running third in the Polls. Though the fear is that his true support is not being accurately reflected in the polls, as the indigenous Mayans, the backbone of Rios s support, are under sampled in the polls. The reason for Montts support amongst the Mayan community is perhaps one of the most puzzling aspects of this latest episode of politics Guatemala style. Montt has managed to rouse the Mayan population as no other legitimate contender has managed to do, mobilizing through his evangelical Protestantism, the very constituency he tormented in a scorched earth policy 20 years ago. At that time, Montt, claiming the need to stabilize and save the country's rugged countryside from the scourge of communism, authorized the government forces that exterminated the populations of over 400 indigenous villages. An estimated 15,000 people, mostly Mayan men, were tortured and massacred. An estimated 100,000 refugees fled to Mexico. Montts abuses were so bad that the US government even threatened to cut off military assistance, something that helped lead to the coup, by another General, that disposed him.


But now styling himself as ‘the General’ Montt is back: relying on a calculated allure which seems to cross the boundaries of Guatemala's fractured society, offering something different for each social group. He appeals to sections of the middle classes fed up with an endemic crime problem. To Guatemala s poor majority he has presented himself as an outsider, ready to take on the states powerful oligarchies, a trenchant message in a country where 70% of the arable land is owned by 3% of the population.

In fact his ruling party, the FRG are very much as part of the complex web of patronage and corruption that ties the business oligarchies to all the major parties.

However his canniest move as been to ally himself to what Charlotte Denny, a writer in Guatemala, identifies as the American evangelical churches. She writes: Guatemala is at the forefront of the wave of Protestantism sweeping Latin America. A generation ago, a political revolution in the region was inspired by catholic priests preaching liberation; today, the new missionaries counsel patience to their suffering flocks, promising justice in the hereafter.


Not everything has been going Montts way; his campaign has been dogged by the presence of victims rights groups, protesting at most of his electioneering stops. A further shadow is the on-going case bought against him in the Spanish courts, charging the ex dictator with crimes against humanity. Most critically is the unprecedented partnership between Guatemala's old business oligarchies and the relatively new flowering of Guatemala's civil society - human rights groups and a vociferous free press, which has been expressing their outrage at the ex-strongman's reappearance. Their fear is that the FRG may try to steal the election, citing letters from Government officials telling public employees to support Rios, to recent compensatory payments awarded to thousands of civilian members of the squads who helped in counter insurgency campaign in the 1980s. This last act infuriated victims rights groups who continue to campaign unsuccessfully for compensation.

 The election is on November 9th.