Foreign Policy Research Institute | November 17, 1999
THE CONVENTIONAL WISDOM took a beating at the polls on November 7, when Guatemala held its presidential and congressional elections. In the presidential race, lawyer Alfonso Portillo, representing the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), received 48 percent of the vote, well ahead of the ruling party's candidate, who obtained only 30 percent, and of the candidate of the former Marxist guerrillas, who received 12 percent. While a runoff is necessary, it is clear that Portillo, who lost the 1996 presidential election by a whisker, will be the next president of Guatemala.
The FRG also seems to have obtained at least a large plurality, if not an outright majority, in the newly elected Congress. Both Portillo and the FRG came out on top in each of Guatemala's 22 departments, from the purely Maya Indian Huehuetenango and Quich‚ to the mostly ladino (mixed blood or assimilated Indian) Zacapa and Escuintla. The party's founder, Efra¡n Rios Montt, was reelected in Guatemala City and is poised to reclaim leadership of the Congress, a position he held from 1994 to 1996. Rios Montt, Guatemala's most popular politician, is the real engine driving the party's—and Portillo's—success, but as a former junta leader he is constitutionally forbidden from running for president. Portillo (intriguingly, a former leftist himself) has twice been his hand-picked candidate for the top office.
Although polls consistently predicted the outcome of the election, Western media reacted with amazement to the victory of Portillo and the FRG. Such news agencies as Reuters, the Washington Post, the New York Times and Le Monde all felt compelled to remind readers that Guatemala went through a long civil war (1960-96) which left some 200,000 people dead (a figure both implausible and unverifiable), mostly due to atrocities allegedly committed by the military against innocent Indians.
These reports display two incriminating weaknesses. The first is their suspiciously uniform and uncritical acceptance of the version of Guatemalan history purveyed by the Guatemalan Left, Western academics, and the human-rights community. The second is their inability to make sense of the Guatemalan voters' unambiguous rejection of precisely that historical slant. The journalists are befuddled at the FRG and Rios Montt's consistent electoral success because, in their view of Guatemalan history, Rios Montt committed atrocities against the very people who now embrace him and his party. But instead of disbelieving the voters, the media representatives should look elsewhere for an explanation.
These are the indisputable facts: As Guatemalan Army chief of staff at the end of the 1960s, Efra¡n Rios Montt led a highly effective counterinsurgency campaign that virtually ended Castroite rural guerrilla activities and urban terrorism. He then ran for president on the Christian Democratic ticket in 1974 and by all objective accounts won a large majority of the votes, only to be defrauded by his erstwhile military colleagues and sent into exile. Following that episode, he converted to Evangelical Protestantism (ironically, his brother is now Guatemala's highest-ranking Catholic bishop) and largely retired from politics. In 1982, following a coup by junior officers that brought down the corrupt military junta that was losing the war against revived insurgents, Rios Montt was brought in to lead the new regime—the first Protestant president ever in a Latin American country. During his seventeen months in power, Rios Montt once again crushed the insurgency—this time permanently—reestablished law and order in the cities, and tried, unsuccessfully, to put the government's finances in order by introducing taxes (unheard of in Guatemala). This last issue triggered his downfall at the hands of a pro-business and pro-Catholic military faction.
But it was the methods Rios Montt used to combat totalitarianism and crime that brought the ire of the Left upon his head. His regime's arming of civilians, mostly Indians, led to the insurgents' collapse by denying them the capability to recruit freely and intimidate the population. And as an unabashed proponent of strict justice, he introduced capital punishment (Guatemala is still the only Latin American country that applies it) against not only terrorists, but common rapists and murderers as well—including members of the police forces. For all this, he is consistently described as "genocidal" by his enemies at home and abroad.
But if that is true, why on earth did the very victims of his alleged atrocities—the Indian Guatemalans—vote for him, his party, and its presidential candidate in such overwhelming numbers? Indeed, in an election whose freedom and legitimacy is undoubted, the current ruling party's candidate got most of his votes from the capital's largely non-Indian, ladino and business classes. The FRG's overall victory throughout the country therefore indicates that most of the FRG/Portillo support came from the 50 percent or more Guatemalans of Mayan origin. That is, if the "common wisdom" is to be believed, the FRG's largest constituency comprises people that the party's standard-bearer once sought to eradicate. It is time to abandon such common wisdom in favor of true common sense. Obviously, most Guatemalans simply do not buy the standard "history" of their country's civil war, no matter how many outsiders try to explain it to them. In light of the electoral evidence (including the minuscule popular support given the former Marxist insurgents), the historical record is in need of serious revision.
To begin with, the decades-long civil war pitted the army and most of the society against the guerrillas; it was not a government campaign against the Indians, let alone a race war. Indeed, Indians constituted the overwhelming majority of the army and the "civil patrols" it armed and controlled. Indians served on both sides in the conflict, suffered abuse by both, and doubtless inflicted it as well.
Equally clear is that the ex-guerrillas and their associated "popular" groups cannot claim to represent the Indians. The Indians, given a voice at the polls, soundly rejected them—a shocking display of "ingratitude" toward the very people who supposedly protected the Indian population from "genocide."
What Guatemalans in general, and Indians in particular, do seek protection from is the country's rampant criminality, and for help they turned to the FRG. They are also wary of those who attempt to win their support either for a leftist agenda or for an irresponsible elite that refuses to pay its taxes, cannot control crime, and in the name of democracy has sought only its own continued dominance.
Unless one accepts the implicit paternalism of the reports in "reputable" media outlets, one is forced to reconsider the standard interpretation of recent Guatemalan history. If not, one is left to explain the Indians' embrace of an alleged anti-Indian, and their rejection of their supposed defenders. To put it slightly differently, one would have to ignore the voice of the voters for the sake of political correctness.
© 1999 FPRI