Southern Exposure

Desde as Entranhas dos Labirintos Latinos.

Sunday, November 09, 2003

Guatemala at the Proverbial Crossroads

Today is a critical day for Guatemala's future. It's not just a typical election day; it's also a chance for the citizens of Guatemala to put behind them an absolutely horrific chapter in their recent past. I am not very sanguine about the chances that this will happen, however.

A presidential election is scheduled for Guatemala today. Most of the polls show that neither of the two leading candidates, the right-leaning Oscar Berger, the former mayor of Guatemala City and the center-left candidate, Alvaro Colom will win more than 50% of the vote, necessitating a runoff between them. There is an odious wild-card in the election: Efrain Rios Montt. While the polls show Rios Montt running third, as the New York Times noted today, [free subscription required] the polls are conducted by newspapers via telephone; much of Rios Montt's support is among the poor in the countryside away from easy access to telephones:

"Nobody discounts the possibility that Mr. Rios Montt could win," said Mr. Beteta.

Though there will be hundreds of independent election observers on Sunday, they cannot cover all the governing party's rural strongholds.

"The F.R.G. [Rios Montt's party] can do whatever they want in the absence of security forces, and they control the security forces," Mr. [George] Vickers Latin American director of the Open Society Institute] said. "And if Ri├В┬нos Montt gets into the second round, all bets are off."

Rios Montt should not even be able to run for president. The law forbids anyone who has assumed office via a coup (as Rios Montt did in 1981) from running for president. Rios Montt appealed the decision of the electoral courts to the Supreme Court and managed to have a couple of his cronies packed onto the court, including his former attorney, leaving no doubt as to their ruling. This was also done in the face of street violence clearly orchestrated by the F.R.G.. Subsequent to this, some 21 candidates from parties opposed to the F.R.G. (which currently holds Guatemala's presidency) have been assassinated this election season, to which Rios Montt responded to questions about who is behind these attacks, "I think the passion to be the winner that many supporters have makes certain excesses inevitable, but I see that as normal." It certainly makes one wonder what he envisions as "normal " should he be elected.

If you want to get some insight into the unmitigated brutality that took place during the Guatemalan civil war, read the Guatemala Death Squad Dossier from the report issued by the American Association for the Advancement of Science Human Rights Program. If you want to get the barest and most dramatic thumbnail sketches of the nature of Rios Montt's brutal rule, scroll down to the graph at the end of this post on my blog. Some 10 percent of the 200,000 killings and disappearances that took place in Guatemala's 35 year civil war took place in the less than two years that Rios Montt ruled.

So, while the rest of Central America is moving forward, the largest country in the region is poised to take a giant step backwards. Please pray for Guatemala - even if you're an atheist or agnostic.


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