The Fall of Rios Montt


Months of political violence reached a surprising anti-climax on November 9, as the Guatemalan elections were realized amid relative calm. Even the main result of the election was positive, as General Efrain Rios Montt lost his bid for the presidency and accepted his distant third place.

Of course, after the bloodiest campaign period since before the end of the armed conflict, the elections could not have been realized in complete tranquility. Over thirty candidates and political supporters had been murdered in Guatemala since November 2002, intimidation by Rios Montt’s ruling Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) reached across the country, organized ex-paramilitaries threatened to violently block the elections, and Guatemalans feared a repeat of the July riots which allowed Rios Montt to be illegally inscribed as presidential candidate.

But compared to the violent build-up and the fear of widespread violence and fraud, the elections were conducted smoothly. In at least four municipalities, votes or voting stations were burned by former paramilitaries pressing for the fulfillment of a government compensation program, and a handful of people were shot and killed at voting stations across the country. Although individual minor occurrences are slow to be reported on at this time, it is safe to say that no riots, no bloodbaths, no major disturbances occurred. Votes were even counted and transported legitimately, under extensive and diverse observation.

The result of the unexpected calm was the long-awaited result: General Rios Montt, military dictator during Guatemala’s darkest era, was defeated at the polls. Having been a member of Congress since before the signing of the 1996 peace accords, Rios Montt will for the first time lose his diplomatic immunity when the government changes on January 14, 2004. Legal cases for war crimes and genocide await him in Guatemala and Spain.

In their vote against Rios Montt, Guatemalans elected Oscar Berger of the Grand National Alliance (GANA) and Alvaro Colom of the National Unity for Hope (UNE). With 94% of the vote counted at the time of writing, Berger was in first place with 34% and Colom in second with 26%. The two will face each other in a second round of elections on December 28.

The fact that the election day was relatively calm and clean should not disguise the pre-election fraud which allowed the FRG to hold on to elements of power. Stories of massive vote-buying projects surfaced frequently in the Guatemalan press for months before the election, but the most successful campaigns will likely never be publicly denounced. In the municipality where I live, three left-wing parties held the three top positions going into the vote. At the last minute, however, the local FRG mayoral candidate reportedly sold his house to finance a guaranteed win. The FRG handed out Q200 ($25) per vote, more than most rural Guatemalans ever see at one time. Done at the last minute, with no time for second thoughts or analyzing, the people voted FRG for each of the five contested positions. The same was reportedly done in a neighboring municipality, and I doubt if we will ever know how many FRG mayoral and congress positions across the country were bought in similar fashion.

Still, Rios Montt’s political career is over, and the FRG have left the presidency. After four years of shunning social programs and peace accord implementation in favor of support for the military, narcotics trafficking, and organized crime, the next Guatemalan president can only be an improvement over the last. Whether Berger or Colom is ultimately elected, national priority will lie in the cessation of state violence, demilitarization, a reassessment of commitment to the peace accords, and repairing the damaged business sector.

Given the candidates and the political system they face, however, no miracles should be expected. Oscar Berger represents the Guatemalan oligarchy, the economic elite who have historically had the final say in managing the Guatemalan state, much to the detriment of the majority population. Through the democratic and neoliberal economic transitions of the 1980s and 1990s, the oligarchy gained increasing political power while reaping the benefits of Guatemala’s reinsertion in the global market. At the height of their power, with the Arzú sugar baron family holding the presidency from 1996 through 1999, the oligarchy oversaw the negotiation of the peace accords. While a cease-fire and the return of international favors were to their benefit, the elites ensured that no significant reforms would be undertaken. In fact, implementation of the peace accords was halted nearly entirely, with the exception of financial reforms which pleased both the Guatemalan economic elite and the IMF. The arrival of Berger and the GANA would signify the return of this class, eager to make up for time lost under the FRG.

Alvaro Colom appears to more genuinely support the peaceful, progressive development of Guatemala. However, Colom’s party and his advisors are largely made up of members of the economic elite, former military officers, and FRG dissidents. In addition, the Guatemalan political system has never taken kindly to calls for reform, and Colom would face powerful and entrenched elements from various sectors in any proposal to diminish the wealth or power of these same people.

Nevertheless, a period in Guatemalan history has been closed, and another is about to open. Rios Montt has finally and decidedly been rejected, and the FRG will be remembered as the most brutal government of post-peace accord Guatemala. The next government can only look good in comparison, but there is little that either Berger or Colom will be able to do. Poverty rates remain despicable and on the rise in Guatemala, the country with the world’s most unequal distribution of wealth. Levels of generalized violence reached over the last few years, now rivaling those of Colombia and Honduras, will be immensely difficult to reverse.

Most probably, Berger would spend his administration reversing the slight decline in the power of his oligarchical class. Colom on the other hand, while limited in his ability to actualize change, could represent the first step towards genuine development for the historically ignored Guatemalan majority. In the month before the December 28 elections, however, a lack of political violence will most likely be obvious in the campaigns, as Guatemalans bask in their victory over Rios Montt and the FRG.

Simon Helweg-Larsen lives in and writes from the Guatemalan highlands, where he works in human rights accompaniment.

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