GUATEMALA Why They Like Rios Montt

September 25, 2007

"Horrendous," was the reaction from Americas Watch. "Lure of the Iron Fist," reported the Miami Herald. "The 900-pound gorilla of Guatema- lan politics is back," headlined the Village Voice. Efrain Rios Montt, the evangelical general who seized power in 1982 and moralized over the air- waves while his army massacred peas- ants, was running for president. Soli- David Stoll is the author of Is Latin America Turning Protestant? (Univer- sity of Californa Press, 1990). darity activists in the United States were appalled, and so were most of Guate- mala's professional politicians. As the November 11 vote drew near, it was clear that the dreaded ex-dictator had become the most popular candidate, as much as twelve points ahead of his nearest rival. If the retired general had not been knocked off the ballot by a constitu- tional ban against past coup partici- pants, he probably would have been elected president. The constitutional court upheld the ban a month before the voting, to the relief of the political es- tablishment but to the disappointment of many Guatemalans. As Rfos fumed on the sidelines telling supporters to deface their ballots, they swung instead to a dark-horse candidate, born-again businessman Jorge Serrano Elias. Bol- stered by the general's downfall, Ser- rano ran a close second and stands a good chance of winning the January 6 runoff. The Second Coming Why the survivors of Rfos Montt's regime would want him back a second time is a mystery to North Americans schooled on human rights reports. "We had huge fights all summer," reports a visitor to Quetzaltenango-fights with Guatemalan friends who didn't want to hear of the human rights case against their candidate. Contrary to early assessments, Rios Montt's electoral support was not lim- ited to evangelicals, the middle and upper classes, or to Guatemala City. From the start, the campaign was loaded with contradictions. At headquarters in Nebaj-one of the areas hit hardest by Rios Montt's scorched earth tactics eight years ago-I was surprised to find that, despite the general's well- known feelings about alcohol, his sup- porters showed up slightly inebriated. These were Catholic Ixil Indians. Never mind that their candidate was a Protes- tant general who was accused of perse- cuting the Catholic Church, and whose army had destroyed every rural settle- ment in their part of El Quich6 depart- ment. These Ixils had found something to admire in Rios Montt which has so far eluded his critics. The men recalled how, a few months before he took power in March 1982, another general-army chief-of-staff Benedicto Lucas Garcia-showed up in a helicopter. He threatened to exter- minate the town if it did not stop col- laborating with the guerrillas, who at that point seemed on the verge of tak- ing over the western highlands. Be- cause of his fundamentalist rhetoric, Rios Montt ended up with a worse international reputation than Benedicto or the latter's brother, military presi- dent Romeo Lucas Garcia (1978-1982). But for many Guatemalans, the born- again general was an improvement. 4"A campesino seen was a campes- ino dead," Nebajefios say of the Lucas Garcia brothers-in contrast to Rios Montt, who they credit with saving their lives. "Lies, lies!" a Nebaj teacher shouted when I insisted that his beloved general had covered up massacres. "If it hadn't been for Rios Montt, we all would have disappeared! Before, there were killers waiting on the corner; you couldn't even go out, because they would kill you. But Rios Montt took away all that." While foreigners focus on how the general continued the previous regime's anti-guerrilla offensive, survivors are more interested in the differences-- from the unpredictable, chaotic terror of a floundering dictatorship to Rios Montt's more predictable textbook campaign. Another Catholic campes- ino in Nebaj remembers Rios Montt for his "ley de amistad" ("law of friend- ship"), actually the "leyde amnistia," or the amnesty Rios Montt gave to refugees. The most obvious reason Nebajefios like the former general is that he offered them the chance to sur- render without being killed. There are two ways of looking at Rios Montt, as reformer and as human rights violator, but separating the two is a mistake. In 1974, he was generally thought to have won the presidential election as the reform candidate for the Christian Democrats, only to be de- frauded by rivals in the army high command. It was to protest another electoral fraud, at the height of the violence between the army and the guerrillas in 1982, that junior officers installed him in the national palace. Unknown to the coup plotters, Rios had become a born-again Christian, and in office he proved to be an outspoken one. Every Sunday over the airwaves, he railed against corruption in Guate- malan life. He suspended kidnappings by security forces in the capital, and in the countryside he replaced a few abu- sive commanders. But as he wagged his finger at adulterers and bribe-takers, he also denied the army massacres which continued under his administration, crimes eventually admitted to by his own evangelical advisors. Apologists argue that Rios Montt's orders to respect lives were stymied by the same colonels who overthrew him after 16 months in office. However, for victims of the stepped-up rural mas- sacres that occurred early in his admini- stration, Rios Montt's vows to trans- form Guatemala's moral landscape were a cruel propaganda hoax. The Catholic Church and the Left denounced him as a fanatical tyrant who was plunging the country into a holy war. Internation- ally, he became known as the born- again butcher. Since then, the Catholic hierarchy-- including the general's own brother, the bishop of Zacapa-has continued to decry evangelical growth as a U.S. political strategy. Everything about Rfos Montt's government dramatized the loss of Catholic authority. His closest advi- sors were elders from the congregation he had joined, the California-based Church of the Word. The evangelist Luis Palau came to celebrate the Prot- estant centenary in Guatemala and, with Rios beside him, proclaimed that the country could become the first "re- formed" nation in Latin America. Rios cannot be credited with the evangelical boom, but his brief rule drew attention to evangelicals and de- fined them in new ways. What had seemed an acquiescent mass of the poor and the middle class, apolitical and oth- erworldly, now appeared to have a he- gemonic vision for Guatemala's future. Moreover, partially due to the repres- sion against clergy and lay activists, Catholics increasingly began to describe Textbook counterinsurgency: In Nebaj, survivors of army massacres remember Rios for the amnesty he offered refugees VOLUME XXIV, NUMBER 4 (DECEMBER/JANUARY 1990/1991) themselves in pietistic terms borrowed from the Protestant movement. These inroads made Guatemala the most evangelical country in Latin America. But as pietism conquers the population, Guatemala's public institu- tions continue to suffer a discrepancy between word and deed worthy of Sta- linist Eastern Europe. Nothing works the way it is supposed to; nothing is what it seems. And the all-powerful Praetorian army continues to define the permissible for the civilian government elected in 1985. Seen as Outsider Many Guatemalans are less worried about the army than their dwindling ability to buy food and medicine, and a frightening rise in street violence. Their burdens have not been eased by the spectacle of the Christian Democrats. Outgoing President Vinicio Cerezo and his wing of the party leadership have not defended Guatemala's "democratic opening" from the assaults of the army and the extreme Right, nor have they protected the poor from the cost of economic stabilization policies. Instead, they are widely seen as having enriched themselves at the public's expense, confirming traditional Guatemalan wisdom that politicians seek office only to steal, and make campaign pledges only to break them. Cerezo's hand-In a corrupt political system unable to articulate popular demands, many view Rios Montt as a charismatic reformer picked successor, Alfonso Cabrera, is rumored to have links to drug traffick- ers and won ony 17% of the vote. In short, many thank the Christian Democrats for making Rios more popu- lar than he was in 1982-1983. Partly due to army repression, political parties in Guatemala tend to function only as patronage rackets, unable to articulate popular demands. Here the former head *of state has impeccable credentials. When he closed Congress in 1982, rul- ing by decree through a Council of State, he earned the undying enmity of Guatemala's political establishment. That is why they see him as a wild card threatening to rupture the fragile agree- ments which returned the country to civilian rule. But for ordinary Guate- malans, Rios Montt's hostility to the parties makes him look like an outsider, an alternative to the politics of oppor- tunism. Flocking td his campaign were po- litical novices and two small, discred- ited right-wing parties, but not the larger conservative parties or the country's influential business lobbies, who re- gard him as unpredictable and danger- ous. The campaign had a populist effer- vescence, organized around a charis- matic figure with a simple message about law and authority: "Guatemala is not the police, the captain, the mayor, or the congressman," he told a crowd in Nebaj. "Guatemala is you! The mayor may think he is the authority. The captain may think he is the author- ity. The policeman may think he is the authority. But authority is he who obeys the law! Even if he has a pistol or a machine gun, this is not authority!" Human rights activists find it hard to believe that the army uniform which Rios Montt wore in campaign pictures is, for many Guatemalans, an icon of credible authority. The hopes invested in the born-again general are older than the country's Protestant churches; the figure he cut was instantly recogniz- able as the old-fashioned caudillo, the man on horseback who saves the na- tion. In fact, the authoritarianism which foreigners hold against Rios Montt appeals to many Guatemalans who, shaking their heads at the latest out- rage, are willing to say: "We need a strongman to control us." Here is un militar recto, they say-a just military man-even as they fear and despise the army for all the killing it has done. This is not exactly the lure of the iron fist. If it were, another retired general running for president-Bene- dicto Lucas Garcfa-would have at- tracted votes instead of ridicule. Rios preached that Guatemalans can save themselves and their country through moral exertion. "You know why I like him?" a frustrated development or- ganizer explained. "Because he used to get on television, point his finger at every Guatemalan, and say: 'The prob- lem is you!' That's the only way this country is ever going to change." For NACLA REPORT ON THE AMERICASpeople disgusted with the day-to-day toll of chronic corruption, he was the moral crusader who promised to fire teachers who don't show up for school, prosecute civil servants who demand bribes, and stop tortured bodies from being dumped in the streets. Evangelical religion is providing a new language for talking about the problem of authority in Guatemala. A social scientist tells the story of a preacher who, in his testimony to juve- nile offenders, describes the murders and rapes he committed before becom- ing a Christian-for which, no small surprise, he has never been brought to justice. In this double identity as sinner and saint, common in evangelical testi- mony, there is an echo of the double identity of the Guatemalan state. De facto, the army is the country's most destructive institution, responsible for the murder of tens of thousands of citi- zens. De jure, it maintains peace and stability. And Rios Montt, a general responsible for carnage, paradoxically became a symbol of national redemp- tion. The uniform in his campaign pic- ture held out the hope, however illu- sory, that he could overpower the most flagrant abusers of authority. What was most interesting about the general's campaign was his attempt to translate the military values so abhorred by foreigners-obedience, discipline, devotion to authority-into a new cul- ture of civic responsibility. In an inter- view with the Village Voice, not all of which is this reassuring, he said: "I don't propose an economic program, but rather an ethical and moral one. Our problem is disorder. We have to put order into our lives. We need law, or- der, and discipline. Not Fascism or Nazism, just order and discipline. Re- storing order is not a question of admin- istrative measures. It's a matter of set- ting a moral example. What's impor- tant is that the people understand that we know what the law is and that we will apply it. Democracy isn't letting people do whatever they want. Democ- racy means fulfilling your duties." Ironically, this law-and-order can- didate had to violate the constitution in order to run. While remaining unre- pentant about his own human rights record, he complained that the courts ruling against him were violating his human rights, and threatened to appeal to the World Court at the Hague. When the courts enforced the constitutional ban against his candidacy, some sup- porters threatened to take the battle into the streets. But that would have alien- ated many evangelicals and other law- abiding supporters, and it did not mate- rialize during what proved to be an orderly election. There was also fear of the same kind of military "reform coup" which put the general in office the first time. But there has been no sign of such a move from the army's all-important base commanders. Despite some sympathy for Rfos, especially in the junior ranks, he has usually been at odds with the army's command structure since being sidelined by military president Gen. Carlos Arana Osorio in 1974. Some of the people most uneasy about Rios Montt's presidential bid were evangelical leaders. His preemptory ways offended them in 1982-1983; the military chain of command he envi- sioned from God through himself to the nation did not sit well with the mutual deference which characterizes inde- pendent church leaders. Disenchanted Electorate Instead of following Rfos Montt's advice to deface ballots, many of his supporters shifted to another candidate preaching moral reform--a civilian with a'cleaner record. Enter Jorge Serrano Elias, an evangelical businessman who placed a distant third in the 1985 elec- tions and has since stayed in the public eye through his role in semi-official meetings with guerrilla leaders. Al- though Serrano served as president of Rios Montt's advisory council in 1982- 1983, he is no surrogate for the general; the two have become bitter rivals. Ser- rano ran low in opinion polls until Rios was thrown off the ballot, then he surged ahead of several other candidates to close the gap with frontrunning news- paper publisher Jorge Carpio, whose most obvious qualification is that he spent a fortune advertising himself. Each received about 25% of the vote. The bloc of voters which turned from Rios to Serrano has revived per- ennial talk of religious strife. Some Catholics continue to fear that evan- gelicals will join the army in another wave of persecution against them, as A dual identity as sinner and saint VOLUME XXIV, NUMBER 4 (DECEMBER/JANUARY 1990/1991) occurred in certain cases in the early 1980s. But many of the voters who switched from the born-again general to the born-again businessman are Catholics themselves. (Five years ago, many evangelicals voted for the Chris- tian Democrats.) And Serrano himself is a conciliatory personality, a contrast to Rfos Montt's aura of fanaticism. Neither Serrano nor Carpio are likely to have much to offer most Guatema- lans. Both candidates for the January runoff claim to represent the "stabiliz- ing Center" or "modernizing Right" (although Carpio's running mate hails from the far-right National Liberation Movement). Both talk about restoring faith in government, and they each offer the free market as the solution to pov- erty. Neither is likely to challenge the army, although as conservatives they would probably face fewer coup at- tempts than the Christian Democrats. Neither has a solid social base, nor much of a mandate; abstention was the most popular option during the No- vember voting. Solidarity activists and Guatemalan politicians are all breathing easier with the general out of the picture. But in the countryside, stories still circulate about Rios Montt traveling around the coun- try in disguise, meting out justice to corrupt officials, like a king in a medie- val folk tale.

Tags: Guatemala, Efrain Rios Montt, popularity, human rights, religion

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