Vote points to more trouble

Guatemala: The winners in last week's presidential election offer grim reminders of the country's brutal past.

November 14, 1999|By Rick Rockwell

THE BALLOT box seems to be the ubiquitous solution for fixing the problems in what political analysts like to call "emerging nations." But with its elections last week, Guatemala is proving peace and free elections aren't panaceas when it comes to building democracy.

The election's winners seem to be a return to the country's brutal past. The presidential candidate who won the most votes is an admitted killer. The top legislative candidate of one party is a former dictator who was responsible for policies that left thousands dead. Another successful candidate organized a slander campaign as revenge against government critics before that tactic turned into a scandal.

If you know the recent history of Guatemala -- the stories of thousands who disappeared in the war, the mass graves, the human rights abuses, the suppressive tactics of the government to control information -- then you know the results from this election point to more trouble.

Alfonso Portillo, the presidential candidate of the country's far right-wing party, the Guatemalan Republican Front (or FRG by its Spanish acronym) won 49 percent of the vote. Because he did not win a plurality, a runoff will be held next month. Portillo's victory came despite revelations that he killed two men in Mexico in 1982.

At the time, Portillo was a professor at a Mexican university in the rough-and-tumble state of Guerrero. In Portillo's version of the killing, a group of law students who didn't like his political views picked a fight with him at a party. When the students attacked him, Portillo pulled out a gun and began shooting. After the bullets stopped flying, two of the students were dead, another was wounded, and Portillo was on his way back to Guatemala to duck the charges.

"I have made mistakes like any human being, and I accept my responsibility," Portillo said after his stunning revelation.

For now, the only responsibility Portillo has to face is the judgment of Guatemala's voters. The murder charges lapsed with the statute of limitations in 1995. Although he had kept the killing secret until the election campaign, Portillo turned the charges into a crafty commercial.

He sold voters on the idea that if he knew how to protect himself, he could also defend a nation, especially one beset by one of the worst crime rates in the hemisphere.

Portillo will face Oscar Berger Perdomo of the National Advancement Party (or PAN, by its Spanish acronym) in next month's runoff. In last week's polling, Berger, the mayor of Guatemala City, won 30 percent of the vote. Berger will get a second chance because nine other small parties siphoned off enough support from Portillo.

Hugh Byrne of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) correctly predicted Portillo's victory in this round of the elections. Ironically, Byrne said, Portillo's tough stand on crime created the most impact with Guatemala's voters. "In most societies, when a person kills two people you might think that would work against them in an election," Byrne said.

"This appeals to the macho, 'Let's get tough on crime' situation."

This is Portillo's second attempt at the presidency. He lost to Guatemala's President Alvaro Arzu Irigoyen of the PAN in 1995. But during that campaign, amidthe 36-year-old guerrilla conflict that was ripping the country apart, Portillo wisely stayed mum about the murder charges.

Portillo isn't the only candidate with a bloody history who represents the FRG. The party's founder, Gen. Efrain Rios-Montt, one of the country's former dictators, won a legislative position which could make him the leader of Guatemala's Congress. During the early 1980s, wheen Rios-Montt ruled Guatemala, the military launched a campaign against the country's guerrilla groups that included incursions into neighboring Mexico. That era was one of the worst periods during the war for human rights abuses. Various human rights reports released since the war ended list 200,000 casualties during the conflict.

Byrne predicted other nations might react to the general's electoral victory with charges linked to his human rights record. Rios-Montt enjoys an amnesty against any charges in Guatemala.

"Given the Pinochet situation," Byrne said, "you could have the head of Congress indicted and unable to travel."

Byrne sees the surge of support for the FRG, despite the tainted history of its founder, as a repudiation of the pro-business PAN. "The party's been portrayed as elitist, even corrupt, with a good deal of cronyism," he said.

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