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A Rios Montt Presidency & US-Guatemalan Relations
Council on Hemispheric Affairs
Monitoring Political, Economic and Diplomatic Issues Affecting the Western Hemisphere
Memorandum to the Press 03.46
18 July 2003

COHA Research Memorandum:

A Rios Montt presidency could fatally complicate U.S.-Guatemalan relations; Second of a Two Part Statement on Guatemalan Constitutional Court’s Decision to Permit Efrain Rios Montt to Run for the Presidency

* Bush regime rightfully decertifies Guatemala for its failure to cooperating on drug-trafficking but falls short of putting teeth into sanctions by issuing a waiver on economic aid

* Regional and U.S.-Guatemalan relations jeopardized by Tuesday’s Constitutional Court decision

* Guatemala could become the government that Washington loves to hate

* Anti-narcotics efforts and Central American Free Trade Agreement at stake

* High-profile U.S. ambassador no friend of Guatemala’s right wing

A World Pariah

Two days after the Guatemalan Constitutional Court’s explosive decision to permit former autocrat Efrain Rios Montt to run for reelection in November, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Dato’ Param Cumaraswamy, worried aloud that “the highest Court whose essential function is the defense of the constitutional order of Guatemala could come to such a decision, inconsistent with its own previous decisions, is beyond belief. It certainly calls into question the Court’s independence, impartiality, and integrity.” The Special Rapporteur expressed his fear that Tuesday’s decision flew in the face of Guatemalan civil society, the international community at large, and of Cumaraswamy’s own personal recommendations in his 1999 visit to Guatemala, where he urged that “All personalities who were known to have committed human rights violations during the armed conflict should be removed from public office and from the military.” By issuing a blatantly extra-legal decision, the Constitutional Court, several of whose judges were appointed to purposely expansive court, were chosen because of their close links to the ex-dictator.

A Regional Outcast

The United States State Department, like the United Nations, has been unusually critical of Guatemala’s abuses, and has repeatedly suggested that if Rios Montt prevails in the presidential elections, U.S. relations with the nation could undergo considerable stress. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher explained in June that "We would hope to be able to work with, and have a normal, friendly relationship with whoever is the next president of Guatemala…[But] Realistically, in light of Mr. Ríos Montt's background, it would be difficult to have the kind of relationship that we would prefer." This January, the Bush administration announced its decision to decertify Guatemala for insufficient progress in the war on drugs. This decision followed statements by U.S. ambassador to Guatemala John R. Hamilton alleging that the interdiction of cocaine shipments from Guatemala has dropped from an average of ten tons per year to only two tons per year since President Portillo took office, and that the U.S. had continued to provide some $2 million in aid a year to Guatemala even while the Guatemalan Anti-Narcotics Department (DOAN) was crippled by corruption. And although the United States has made use of a “vital national interest waiver” to continue to provide economic aid to Guatemala in spite of the decertification, the U.S. still possesses this as well as other means of persuading that nation’s authorities to cooperate.

Negotiations on the U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement, scheduled for completion this December, could come to a screeching halt if the U.S. decides to put its foot on the brakes over the Rios Montt fiasco. His presidency could bring the U.S. to the point of doing just that, as populist, anti-liberalization Montt may insist on his own embarrassingly anti-democratic policy agenda at the expense of the White House’s proposed hemispheric trade alliance.

Guatemala has become the White House’s token Latin American human rights villain. The U.S.’s willingness to sanction Guatemala for recent abuses is laudable, but puzzling. Analysts wonder why Washington, which tends to overwhelmingly overlook the human rights record of its allies would single out Guatemala as the one hemispheric nation to pummel with self-righteous fury. Some would argue that the reason Bush has condemned Guatemala so sharply is that Guatemala has become for Bush what Paraguay was for the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations: a PR maneuever to blunt criticism that the U.S. is indifferent to human rights considerations. By taking definitive action to combat human rights abuses in Guatemala, the United States can limit itself to making a token gesture while maintaining the appearance of ideological consistency, even while it overlooks atrocities in much of the rest of the world, including such important trading partners as China and Saudi Arabia. The question remains, then, why Guatemala specifically was chosen for the distinction of being listed as one of “America’s most wanted” human rights’ abusive nations. Guatemala’s refusal to join Washington’s “coalition of the willing,” and Guatemala’s traditionally nationalist, inward-looking foreign policy orientation (it minimized its cooperation with the Reagan administration’s contra war against the Sandinistas), certainly have not improved ties between the two countries. Visible U.S. disapproval of Guatemala’s rights and democratic record may be a good move for those who support civic guarantees in that country. Nevertheless, it should not be seen as a wholly altruistic one on the part of the U.S.

What happens next?

Now that the Constitutional Court has spoken its piece, it is up to the Guatemalan voting public to make the final decision as to whether or not Rios Montt should be permitted to once again be installed in the country’s highest political office. Montt plans to run a populist campaign, arguing for the improvement of social safety nets for the country’s poor Mayan majority (the very people he massacred back in 1982-1983). In a political about-face, Montt reached the apogee of cynicism when he professed his support for the prosecution of those leaders responsible for human rights abuses from 1960 to 1966, although he does not promise to personally introduce such prosecutions should he be elected, or extend them to the early years, when he, as dictator, was conducting some of the worst massacres in Guatemala’s history. It is doubtful that any of this will come to pass.

Many analysts and foreign leaders fear that Montt eventually will triumph over Oscar Berger of the pro-business, pro-liberalization National Advancement Party (PAN), who will likely run in opposition to Montt. Montt has spent his time gathering popular support. This year, the FRG-dominated Congress enacted a wage increase for some 250,000 former civil patrol members, who served him as a brutal vigilante force while he was dictator. This pork barrel measure is now being referred to as a vote-buying scheme.

While much of the Guatemalan public views Montt as an “iron-fisted” leader who would be able to act decisively in a country prone to stalemate, Montt, sees his presidential candidacy as one more step in a full-scale political comeback.

In a country that has the largest Protestant population in an otherwise Catholic region, Montt’s opponents fear that his Evangelical allegiances may induce co-religionists to lend him support irrespective of his deeply flawed background. During Guatemala’s brutal civil war, Catholic clergymen tended to side with the leftist rebels, while evangelicals backed Montt’s military and paramilitary groups. During this period, over 20 Catholic priests were murdered, one of the highest figures in the world. Interestingly, Montt’s brother, Bishop Mario Rios Montt, is currently the head of the Catholic Church’s human rights office in Guatemala. In Guatemala, as in so many other nations in the region, religion is dangerously tied to politics and can act as a polarizing force.

Yet initial polls predict a decisive Berger victory. Following Tuesday’s announcement, black ribbons began to appear in the windows of Guatemalan cars and homes, a testament to much of the nation’s mourning for the loss of democracy. Massive demonstrations are planned this weekend in opposition to the court’s ruling. And in a tour of several Mayan villages this June, Montt was pelted with stones by citizens who remembered the family members and friends who they had lost to the military and death squads during Montt’s rule in the 1980s. Rios Montt’s campaign slogan – “I am Guatemala” – places him squarely in line with historic, self-serving megalomaniacs: “pendant moi, le deluge.” For many Guatemalan voters, the most outrageous thing about Montt’s candidacy is not his marred history, but his criminal present. Rampant graft and corruption have surfaced during the current Portillo regime, with Montt in the middle of them, leading many to discredit Montt’s party and its purported defense of penniless Guatemalans.

A Glimmer of Hope

Many of Montt’s most ardent opponents pray that at least some good may result from the Constitutional Court’s decision. Although Montt has heretofore been banned from the Guatemalan presidency, he has maintained continuous and extensive involvement in Guatemalan political life through his good friend President Portillo and through his direct work as president of the Guatemalan legislature.

Many Guatemalans suggest that the very thing needed to permanently remove Montt from political influence is a decisive electoral defeat at the national level. As long as Montt’s presidential failure was the result of constitutional rather than political factors, remnants of his camp could continue to claim that Montt would have made an excellent president had the Constitutional Court only granted him the chance. Now that the stacked pro-Rios Montt court has, the Guatemalan electorate has the unprecedented chance to definitively oust Montt from Guatemala’s political scene by a clear electoral majority.

This analysis was prepared by Maureen E. Maas, research associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Issued 18 July 2003

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being “one of the nation’s most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers.” For more information, please see our web page at; or contact our Washington offices by phone (202) 216-9261, fax (202) 223-6035, or email

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