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The Way Cleared for a Pentecostal Prophet to Rule Guatemala Again

<i> Victor Perera, who teaches journalism in the Graduate School of UC Berkeley, is author of "Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy (California) and "Rites: A Guatemalan Boyhood," due out next month from Mercury House</i>

As Ramiro de Leon Carpio’s interim two-year presidency limps to a close in Guatemala, hobbled by half-completed reforms and a rising crime wave he is powerless to stop, a familiar specter has surged from the religious right to fill the political vacuum.

On Aug. 14, the Guatemalan Republican Front, the new political party led by evangelical preacher and former President Efrain Rios Montt, won 32 of the 80 seats in the reduced “reform congress,” which replaces a corruption-riddled legislative body abolished by Carpio last year. This interim congress was called by popular referendum to restart stalled peace negotiations with leftist guerrillas and steer Guatemala through its tortuous transition to postwar democracy.

In the wake of Rios Montt’s stunning victory, his two leading opponents, the moderate Christian Democrats and the right-of-center National Action Party, which garnered 32 seats between them, at first endorsed the self-proclaimed prophet for president of the new congress. The die was cast, and the presidency Rios Montt gained in a palace coup in 1982, and lost in another coup 18 months later, appeared ripe for the taking. Everyone in Guatemala knows that Rios Montt, whose presidential bid is impeded by a constitutional restraint against former chiefs of state, would win a popular vote hands down over all other aspirants.

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In 1974, when Brig. Gen. Efrain Rios Montt was robbed of his rightful election victory by former President Carlos Arana Osorio, he fled to California and joined forces with evangelical crusader and recovering alcoholic Jim Durkin, who headed the Eureka-based Gospel Outreach fundamentalist movement. To Durkin and his followers today, the ascendancy of Rios Montt provides a golden opportunity to propagate their teachings and convert Guatemala into the first Latin American country with a Protestant majority by the end of the ‘90s.

Rios Montt was reborn from the ashes of defeat and exile, and returned to seize power in the ’82 palace coup orchestrated by junior military officers and his “gringo” evangelical cronies, co-founders of the Church of the Word ( el Verbo ), a Guatemala-based offshoot of Gospel Outreach.

During his abbreviated tenure, Rios Montt preached the word of God on television while publicly executing accused communists and common criminals; in the Highlands, his army mounted a bloody counterinsurgency, named “Bullets and Beans,” against insurgents of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union, who had recruited thousands of impoverished Mayan Indians.

By the time Rios Montt was overthrown by Gen. Humberto Mejia Victores in August, 1983, he had left an indelible mark on his countrymen: His scorched-earth policy had wiped out hundreds of Mayan villages, creating a million refugees and leaving 15,000 Guatemalans dead or disappeared.

The former catechist who had cleaned toilets in Catholic Maryknoll missions defied Pope John Paul II during his pastoral visit to Guatemala by ignoring his pleas for clemency and executing three convicts tried and sentenced in his notorious kangaroo courts.

What Rios Montt’s ladino and Mayan supporters remember with undying admiration, however, is that he imposed order in the countryside and stamped out political and delinquent crime in the cities and larger towns. It is this achievement that the country’s tiny electorate--barely 731,000 out of 3.5 million eligible voters--commemorated with their ballots on Aug. 14. To Rios Montt and his right-wing allies, the absenteeism of 80% of Guatemala’s voters was a blessing, and a resounding slap in the face of democratic reform.

The voters’ revulsion is understandable, as delinquency and political crime have touched nearly every household in the capital and in outlying villages, and eroded Guatemala’s fledging democracy; the rot was most flagrant in the abolished congress and the courts, where mid-level bureaucrats enriched themselves with graft and extortion, even as congressmen and supreme-court judges raked in millions in contraband.

Last June, after years of fruitless negotiations, the military and the guerrillas finally agreed on a United Nations-sponsored truth commission to gather evidence and assign culpability for the estimated 120,000 Guatemalans killed or disappeared, and more than a million refugees created, in the 34-year-long civil war. Nearly 300 civilian and military observers will begin the task of seeking out survivors and interviewing former combatants in guerrilla encampments and military garrisons. Ignoring anonymous death threats, courageous forensic crews have continued their digging in clandestine cemeteries to collect evidence of atrocities by both sides in Guatemala’s Zones of Conflict in the Highlands and the Peten.

As a result of the elections, the shadow of Rios Montt threatens to eclipse the years of thankless labor by human-rights monitors and mediators in the stalled peace talks between the government and the guerrillas.

Once again, as during the 13-year reign of “benevolent dictator” Jorge Ubico in the ‘30s and ‘40s, who is remembered for executing common criminals side-by-side with his political opponents, Guatemalans apparently long to have their “human rights” enforced by a charismatic caudillo with a velvet-lined iron fist.

If, as expected, Rios Montt eventually presides over the new congress and chooses 13 judges for the new supreme court, he will be in a position to override the constitutional clause that prevents his running for office.

Meantime, his former counselors in Eureka and U.S. evangelicals with dozens of Pentecostal and fundamentalist sects, who have overrun Guatemala since the outbreak of the civil war, are keeping a low profile, scrupulously avoiding the blatant intervention that helped bring down their candidate in 1983.

When the new congress convened this past week, the opposition parties joined forces to block Rios Montt and named to the presidency of congress a member of the National Action Party, Anabela Comparini.

But the former general’s evangelical supporters remain confident that this temporary roadblock will not deter their anointed from his ultimate objective, and Rios Montt will be seated in the presidential chair to welcome the Second Coming of Christ at the end of the millennium. This time around, the iron-fisted caudillo will also wear the mantle of the messianic prophet.


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