Guatemalans for change

December 24, 2003

THEIR GOVERNMENT is beset by corruption. Human rights abuses persist seven years after the end of a 36-year civil war. Agricultural workers account for half of the labor force, and three-quarters of the population lives below the poverty line.

To say that life is hard for many Guatemalans is to state the obvious. But that hasn't dampened their hunger for democracy and change.

On Sunday, Guatemalans will go to the polls to cast their ballots in a presidential runoff election. Their choices are Oscar Berger, a conservative former mayor of Guatemala City, and centrist businessman Alvaro Colom. Guatemalans have already made an important choice - by dumping former dictator Gen. Efrain Rios Montt from the lineup in November balloting. General Rios Montt's poor showing (he won only 17 percent of the vote despite violent demonstrations by his supporters) was widely viewed as a vote against government corruption, human rights abuses associated with the military, and rampant crime.

Now, Guatemalans must decide who can best lead them in the 21st century and vigorously uphold and defend the rule of law. The problems are many: Human rights and political activists continue to be targets of violence. During the first half of this year, the human rights arm of the Organization of American States documented 737 murders and 17 execution-style slayings. Drug traffickers who use Guatemala as a transit point ply their trade with few disruptions. Organized crime operates with impunity. That describes present-day Guatemala.

The country's past also continues to haunt its citizens and its government. The 36-year civil war ended in 1996 with about 200,000 lives lost. Efforts to address past wrongs have often been met with intimidation and violence.

During Guatemala's November elections, the Bush administration expressed concern about its ability to work with a government headed by General Rios Montt. In big numbers, Guatemalans addressed that concern. After Sunday's election, the Bush administration should offer Guatemala's new president the support he needs to better police this country of 13 million. One way would be to offer financial and technical assistance for a U.N.-sponsored commission to investigate illegal groups and clandestine security forces.

Guatemalans have spoken out bravely for change. The man they elect as president will have to be as brave in bringing about that change.

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