National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  November 28, 2003

Rios Montt defeat is a small victory for Guatemala

The quick read on the recent elections in Guatemala is that Efraín Rios Montt, the former dictator accused of overseeing genocide in the country’s rural areas during the 1980s, has been banished to political obscurity.

Nearly 80 percent of the country’s 5 million eligible voters went to the polls earlier this month in Guatemala’s second general election since 1996 when a peace accord was signed, ending 36 years of civil war that took the lives of at least 200,000 people.

Rios Montt, who attained power in a 1982 military coup, is associated with the bloodiest portion of that war. While he is credited with maintaining order in the capital, he is charged by human rights and church groups with overseeing the slaughter of mostly Mayan peasants in some 400 villages as part of a campaign against leftist insurgents.

He was initially kept from running by a constitutional provision prohibiting anyone who engaged in a military coup from becoming president. But Rios Montt is a thug, an evangelical who would wave his floppy Bible during speeches in Guatemala City as his army slaughtered in the countryside. A constitutional rule wasn’t about to keep him from running. He cowed the land’s highest court into finding a way around the law.

In the end, the people overwhelmingly rejected him.

In many ways this has to be a major step for a young and tentative democracy. And that kind of victory is welcome anywhere.

But Guatemala -- and what happens there -- is significant to the United States in many other ways. It is a nearby country that continues to confront the United States with questions about our very essence as a people and as a neighbor.

At a time when the United States is making so much about the need to influence the Middle East toward democracy and even making oblique acknowledgement of U.S. past mistakes in the region, Guatemala presents a far more forceful case for amends.

Peasants and human rights workers in Guatemala are still opening mass graves and trying to determine the truth about the bloody recent past.

That Rios Montt should be allowed to run for election in Guatemala without a strenuous objection from Washington places in question all of our well-intentioned language about our purpose for being in Iraq.

For to do what is right regarding Rios Montt, the Bush administration would have to refute the activities of the United States, particularly during the early 1980s, when Rios Montt gained full support and ringing endorsements from the Reagan administration. In fact, earlier this summer, as part of his campaign to achieve new legitimacy in Guatemala, Rios Montt ran a full-page newspaper ad showing him and Reagan together. The text of a 1982 speech by Reagan accompanied the photo: “I know that President Rios Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment. … I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice.”

Whether Guatemala ever overcomes that period of vicious civil war will depend a great deal on the courage and will of the Guatemalan people. But it will also depend in no small measure on the willingness of its giant neighbor to the north to come clean about its involvement in the worst of the atrocities. United Nations and Catholic church reports contain volumes of detail about the violence and about the U.S. role in that sorry chapter.

U.S. government archives contain the rest. They should be opened to full public scrutiny.

National Catholic Reporter, November 28, 2003

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