General Rios Montt And The Guatemalan Elections

The prospect for peace and reconciliation in Guatemala was dealt a severe blow last week when the ex-dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt, responsible for over 100,000 deaths and disappearances in the 1980s, was enlisted as a presidential candidate. Such desirable concepts as peace and reconciliation have hardly described Guatemala over the last seven years, as the country has deteriorated consistently since the signing of peace accords in 1996. However, the decision of the Constitutional Court to allow Ríos Montt´s candidacy clearly highlights the country´s return to military control and the reversal of minimal democratic steps.

Ríos Montt first came to power in Guatemala through a military coup in 1982. At that time the Guatemalan army, having held successive dictatorships since a CIA-backed 1954 coup, was at the height of a counter-insurgency war with left-wing guerrillas. The war had become especially bloody since the late 1970s, and state tactics against suspected guerrillas left thousands dead, tortured or disappeared. Upon gaining power, General Ríos Montt initiated a “scorched earth” campaign: the military was to cover the country, indiscriminately massacring populations and burning entire villages to the ground. The testimonies that have surfaced are horrendous—in hundreds of villages dozens of men, women and children were beaten, raped, dismembered, murdered and thrown into mass graves. Over 100,000 Guatemalans were killed or disappeared during Ríos Montt´s one and a half year rule. And now, as Ríos Montt presents himself as a presidential candidate, the mass graves left behind from his military campaign are being unearthed on a daily basis.

According to the new constitution which accompanied a nominally democratic, yet militarily designed, transition in 1985, ex-coup participants are barred from running for president in Guatemala. Still, Ríos Montt has remained highly active in national politics, having held the presidency of the Guatemalan congress since 1999 and heading the FRG political party since its inception. In 1989, 1995, and again this year, Ríos Montt has attempted to present himself as a national presidential candidate, arguing that the law barring him is not retroactive from 1985. After over a month of decisions, appeals and counter-appeals in Guatemala´s Constitutional and Supreme Courts, Ríos Montt was awarded unappealable acceptance of his claim by the seven FRG-appointed judges of the Constitutional Court. As of July 31, Efraín Ríos Montt is now listed as the FRG candidate for the November 9, 2003 elections.

The candidacy, and possible election, of Ríos Montt is much more than symbolic; it is a major step in what has been a continual process of reversal or outright rejection of the peace accords. When the Guatemalan government and the URNG guerrillas agreed upon the UN-brokered 1996 peace accords, they laid the groundwork for significant reforms needed for lasting peace. The military was to be reduced in size and function, the guerrillas were disarmed, the rights of indigenous peoples were recognized, and beginning steps were made towards altering the drastically unequal system of land ownership. These were only agreed to on paper, however, and powerful elements in Guatemalan government and society ensured that they would never be achieved. The PAN political party, representatives of Guatemala´s historic economic elite, first stalled any realization of initiatives suggested in the peace accords, then annulled the most basic of these in a national referendum in 1999. (1)

After the 1999 referendum discarded the fundamental reforms of the peace accords, the FRG, with its power base in the military elite, assumed the presidency. Since 2000 Guatemala has not only halted any significant steps towards compliance with the peace accords, it has openly regressed along the violent path of the past. The military is again involved in civil activities, and death threats and attacks against human rights activists and indigenous leaders have become a common occurrence.

Ríos Montt´s fight to have his name placed on the presidential ballot has already been bloody, and his campaign and possible presidential term would surely see more state-sponsored violence. When the first Constitutional Court ruling allowing Ríos Montt´s candidacy was overturned by the Supreme Court (an appeal which would later be overturned itself), Ríos Montt supporters were bussed in from the countryside by the FRG to stage a violent protest in the streets of Guatemala City. Thousands of people blocked routes, burned tires and attacked journalists, killing one. The police and army did not interfere during the rioting, apparently on orders from the FRG government, and the violence was only calmed after a direct phone call from Ríos Montt to a rioter´s cell phone.

Such obvious participation by Ríos Montt and the FRG suggest that violence—and the threat of violence—will play a significant role in Ríos Montt´s campaign strategy, not to mention his presidency should this occur. Most Guatemalans would never even think of electing Ríos Montt, and polls show that he currently only holds 11% of the projected vote. Still, a trend of electoral non-participation due to disillusionment and fear (just 18% voted in the 1999 referendum) means that the minority vote of the elite classes and their supporters could possibly bring Ríos Montt to direct power. Luckily, the elite are split between the FRG and the more popular economic elite PAN party. The election of the PAN´s Oscar Berger would mean more inaction on the peace accords and blatant favoritism for neoliberal financial policies, but the election of Ríos Montt could drag Guatemala back to the horrors of the 1980s.

(1) For a more detailed explanation of the failure of the peace accords, see Susanne Jonas, Of Centaurs and Doves: Guatemala´s Peace Process.


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