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Welcome Mr. Figurehead Guatemalan President

Thursday, July 5, 2001

* Bush meets today with a well-intentioned, but powerless president, while ex-dictator Rios Montt is the real day-to-day ruler of the country

* Almost 70% of all Guatemalans find the Portillo government the most corrupt presidency in the past 16 years as well as condemn it for being ineptitude

* Bush-Portillo White House meeting destined to be an exercise in futility as State Department continues to minimize human rights violations in the country and ignore Sister Ford's recent murder

* Unsolved killing an example of why Guatemala (along with Colombia) is the worst human rights violator in the Americas

* Guatemala is part of the arrant fiction of the formulation that, as President Clinton repeatedly had phrased it, "There are 34 democracies and one dictatorship in Latin America today."

* Respect for U.N- brokered Peace Accords nonexistent

In a White House meeting today between President Bush and visiting President Alfonso Antonio Portillo Cabrera of Guatemala, the question of human rights is scheduled to be on the agenda. If the State Department's preliminary announcement is any guide, Portillo will be toasted for the country's high level of compliance with the U.N.-brokered 1996 Peace Accords. If so, this should be seen as a mockery, which has been directly contradicted by the highest U.N. official in the country, who describes the human rights factor there as being one of "great promise," not performance. Nor has the State Department acknowledged that the U.N. Committee Against Torture found that the human rights situation in Guatemala was "deteriorating." Under the terms of the accords, 119 of its 179 provisions have yet to be filled. In fact, President Portillo is a well-intentioned, if powerless figure, with the real source of authority being held by former dictator and ex-general Efrain Rios Montt, the president of the country's national assembly. Rios Montt, who despotically ruled the country in the early 1980s, was responsible for the "beans or bullets" and scorched earth policies that ravaged the rural regions of the country, destroying Indian villages and decimating the indigenous culture. All told, the deaths of thousands of descendants of the Mayan civilization occurred under his rule. Rios Montt had to content himself with a legislative post due to a constitutional provision forbidding former dictators from holding the highest office.

State Department minimizes grim situation in country The State Department, traditionally slow on the draw when it comes to denouncing human rights violations throughout Latin America, except when it comes to Cuba, did not, in its preliminary remarks, allude to the murder of Barbara Ford, a Sister of Charities nun, who was murdered a number of weeks ago in the northern part of the country. Her death, which is being at best only lackadaisically investigated, has been generally attributed to right-wing forces. The case is now being presided over by the country's judicial system, which is among the most corrupt in Latin America and is generally seen as being heavily influenced by the military and the country's economic elite. The protracted investigation and judicial proceedings against three members of the military, who recently were found guilty of the 1998 murder of Roman Catholic Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi, was the only such outcome in modern Guatemalan history, even though the military has been responsible for most of the deaths of the more than 200,000 civilians murdered since 1965. Among the victims during the same time period were more than 20 Catholic priests and nuns, making Guatemala along with El Salvador, the scene of the killing of more Catholic clerics than any other country in the world.

On a recent Saturday morning in Guatemala City, Barbara Ford, who had worked in the Quiche for twenty years with emotionally traumatized victims of Guatemala's civil war, was brutally murdered. Thousands of mourners later packed the country's national cathedral to commemorate her life with a hand-scrawled sign in the back of a pickup truck summarizing the feelings of those in attendance: "All of Quiche is hurting." The police said she was a robbery victim, but the Secretariat of Strategic Analysis, the government's intelligence agency, said, "She may have been seen as getting too friendly with enemies of the state," meaning the leftists. It is more than likely that her shooting down was only one more horrifying instance of a broadening political crisis that has been witnessed in Guatemala for more than a year.

Rios Montt rules the roostA defining factor contributing to the crisis is the current makeup of the national congress. President Portillo, of the right-wing Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), was overwhelmingly elected to the presidency in 1999 on a populist platform pledging an increase in employment, help for the rural poor, and a curbing of the burgeoning crime levels in the country, as well as the implementation of the U.N.-brokered Peace Accords. Rios Montt was a founder of the FRG. The congressional elections also reflected a strongly conservative bent on the part of the FRG's local candidates, with their winning 63 of 115 seats, with the slightly less conservative National Advancement Party (PAN) collecting 37 seats. Any doubts over the right-wing's domination of Congress evaporated with the election of the notorious former general and dictator, Rios Montt, as president of that body. Since then, the latter has emerged as the country's most powerful legislative figure and is now regarded as Portillo's inflexible mentor, if not overseer.

A scandal envelops Rios Montt Rios Montt's legislative standing, however, was shaken last year by a scandal that developed over the illegal secretive alteration of a proposed act increasing taxes on alcoholic beverage products. After the measure passed Congress, the taxes were mysteriously reduced by more than half in the final version of the law. Called "Guategate," the scandal involved 24 FRG Deputies, including Rios Montt, many of whom undoubtedly were being paid off by the industry for their vote. The Constitutional Court approved an investigation by the Supreme Court of Justice, an action equivalent to an indictment. It also stripped the accused Deputies of their Congressional immunity and directed Rios Montt and five others to step down from the Congressional Executive Committee (Junta Directiva). Defiantly, the old ex-dictator refused to vacate his position, alleging that the Court lacked "legislative jurisdiction." Later, President Portillo appeared before congress and declared his support for Rios Montt and the FRG members of the Junta Directiva, indicating that he would not enforce the court's mandate.

The matter was resolved in Rios Montt's favor, after another court found in April that he and the legislature's vice-president were innocent of wrongdoing. Critics immediately condemned the ruling as "politically motivated," and an opposition party leader, Mario Flores, declared, "It's as if they gave the FRG a blank check to do whatever it wants without worrying about the law." Ironically, the greatest loser may be President Portillo, as suggested by a poll in which 67% of respondents said they thought his administration was the most corrupt experienced by Guatemala in the past 16 years. Meanwhile, Rios Montt still retains his legislative authority. Another highly contentious issue is the government's ongoing failure to implement most of the 1996 Peace Accord's main commitments. The head of the United Nations verification team in Guatemala (MINUGUA), Gerd Merrem, observed recently that "Aside from the absence of war, the accords remain a great promise." In particular, only very modest progress has been made in the crucial areas of social, economic and military reforms that were the centerpiece of the Accords. Planned for fulfillment within the four years ending in December 2000. A November poll indicated that only about 6% of Guatemalans still think the Accords are important, while 69% have forgotten about them altogether.

Non-functioning Peace Accords According to the U.N. Human Development Report for 2000, six million Guatemalans, or some 57% of the population still live in poverty, earning less than two dollars per day, while 27% live in extreme poverty, earning less than one dollar per day. This is in contrast to the wealthiest 20% of the population that receives 85% of all income. As for the nation's indigenous majority, almost three-quarters live in rural areas where they are economically and socially "excluded" from basic government services. One contributing cause is the failure to implement the Peace Accord's commitment to raise tax collections from 8% of GDP to 12%, with critics placing much of the blame directly on the FRG-dominated Congress. According to Hector Rosada, a former Peace Commission secretary, "the last word on important questions lies with Efrain Rios Montt, a man who does not believe in the Peace Accords."

The highly charged issue of human rights still plagues Guatemala. In November, the U.N. Committee Against Torture cited the "deteriorating" human rights situation regarding verified cases of torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. The report also stated that the "victims of acts of intimidation, harassment, and death threats are judges, prosecutors, plaintiffs, witnesses, staff from human rights organizations, and journalists." These acts are "meant to...halt the advances made in politically sensitive legal proceedings where military personnel, state agents, or members of intelligence services are implicated." Representatives and offices of many human rights groups have been threatened, robbed, and attacked, while the government has done very little to provide protection or to punish the offenders. Appallingly, Interior Minister Byron Barrientos, an old ally of Rios Montt during the General's 1982 coup, regards human rights groups as the enemy, and has publicly accused some of them of organizing acts of terrorism. The now successfully concluded trial of five defendants accused in the brutal, 1998 assassination of Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi, the late president of the Catholic Church's Recovery of Historic Memory (REHMI) project, prompted a wave of violence and threats against some of the country's few honest judges and ministers. The defendants had included a retired colonel and ex-chief of Military Intelligence, his son who is an ex-Army captain, an ex-military member of the secretive Estado Mayor Presidencial (EMP), a cook and a priest. In March, two unidentified men attempted to break into the home of one of the three presiding judges in the case, Iris Jazmin Barrios, and several days later, two grenades were launched at her house. The highest profile threat was against the President of the Constitutional Court, whose home was fired at, and who received menacing telephone calls. At least eight to ten other individuals connected with the Gerardi case, including prosecutors, witnesses and one judge, had to flee the country under death threats.

As for other violence, there has been a horrifying increase in murders, assaults, kidnappings, robberies, vigilante attacks, and lynchings, making Guatemala one of the most unsafe and violence-prone countries in the hemisphere. Although the government blames common criminals, there is evidence that the crime wave is mainly the result of organized crime networks that may be linked to the military and to the civilian-run National Civil Police, the understaffed and inadequately trained and funded law enforcement agency mandated by the Peace Accords. Last year, over 30 banks were robbed, and in at least 11 cases, the bullets used by the thieves were manufactured by the Guatemalan armed forces. One response of the government to the crime wave has been the recent presidential authorization of joint army-police patrols, an action that has wide public backing, despite the fact that it violates the Peace Accord requirement limiting the Army to protecting national sovereignty and integrity.

Rumors began to circulate last October and continued into March that a governmental coup d'etat might occur. Refuting the rumors, President Portillo boasted that "this Presidency is not going to crack, or worry, or be intimidated or be paralyzed," and he blamed the rumors on unnamed opponents and "disgruntled forces" in the private sector who object to his reforms, but made no reference to his own pathetic performance.

Portillo's popularity crumbles Criticisms of his politics have been voiced by groups on all sides, with some columnists urging the population to take to the streets to demand his resignation. Much of the criticism against him reflects a widespread belief that Portillo is not really in control of the country, or even of his administration. It is said that he does not show up at meetings and otherwise ignores his duties. Evidence also abounds that extra-legal forces within the government retain great power, much of which is sanctioned by Rios Montt. Webster defines crisis as "an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs," a definition that concisely describes the current political situation in Guatemala. Perhaps the only hope is that the present government, inept as it is, will survive and that Portillo will regain some of his early and short-lived enthusiasm and idealism. A coup is probably unlikely because it would undoubtedly provoke formidable repercussions both from within and outside the country. However, as long as a conglomeration of powerful, reactionary groups and individuals can impede the administration's resolution of the crisis, Portillo's hold over the flow of events will continue to deteriorate, and his campaign promises will end up being nothing more than trivial illusions, except for the State Department. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-partisan and tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the floor of the Senate as being "one of the nation's most respected bodies of scholars and policy-makers."


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