Guatemala once more under “hard hand” after election runoff?

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Guatemalans went to the polls Nov. 6 for a runoff presidential election between a military man who promised to rule with a "hard hand' (mano dura) and a businessman who promised to carry out public executions.  With a choice like that, it is perhaps not surprising that turnout was low, about 50 percent.

The Patriotic Party's General Otto Perez Molina, the one with the hard hand, won with 53.7 percent over the execution-happy businessman, Manuel Baldizon of the LIDER Party, who got 46.3 percent.

In a region where the left has considerable strength, how did it come about that the runoff was between two right wingers? Perez Molina is credibly accused of involvement in massive human rights abuses during the long period of U.S.-supported military dictatorships that began with the C.I.A.'s overthrow of left-wing President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. Baldizon, besides his enthusiasm for public executions, has been accused by his opponents of having ties to drug cartels.

In the first place, the main center-left political alliance, the National Unity of Hope-Grand National Alliance, of incumbent President Alvaro Colom, made a miscalculation. Under the Guatemalan constitution, Colom could not succeed himself, so his party decided to run his wife, Sandra Torres, as their candidate. But the constitution also forbids relatives, including the spouse, of the incumbent president from running. Colom and Torres tried to get around this by having her divorce him, but the courts did not buy this. So the center-left ended up with no candidate at all.

Further to the left, the "Broad Left" alliance consisting of the Winaq, URNG-MAIZ and Alternative New Nation organizations ran Nobel Peace Prize winner and indigenous Maya rights activist Rigoberta Menchu. However, she only got about 3 percent of the vote Sept. 11. Given Menchu's international and national fame and the fact that the organizations backing her candidacy were, in part, derived from the old guerilla movement, which at one time had considerable grassroots support, such a low figure may seem surprising. But although the wars that were set off by the 1954 C.I.A.-led coup were "settled" by negotiation in the 1996s, Guatemala is still the land of impunity, where the rich and powerful rule the impoverished majority by violence and fear. Rural Guatemalans especially are vividly aware that political activism on the left can get you killed.

The major reason for the move to the right, however, is the consternation generated among the Guatemalan people by a massive increase in violent crimes during Mr. Colom's tenure as president. This is a regional phenomenon, seen also in El Salvador and Honduras. Mexican drug cartels have been colonizing whole areas of Guatemala, especially the Peten, which sticks up into the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula, and along the border with Mexico, so as to control the routes by which cocaine is transported up through Central America and Mexico and into the United States. Gangs like the infamous "Zetas" eliminate anybody who gets in their way. Very seldom are any of the murderers brought to book. Evidently there was a feeling that Mr. Colom's government was inadequate to the task of dealing with this crime wave.

Perez Molina promises that he will use the same methods of dealing with crime used by former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Mexican President Felipe Calderon, in spite of the fact that in both cases a military approach (supported materially by the United States) has led to much greater violence. Perez Molina is going to increase the size and presence of the military and police. What he will do about Guatemala's struggling economy and endemic poverty is unknown.

The new president is likely to get support for this from his 158 seat unicameral Congress. In the Sept. 11 general election, his Patriotic Party picked up 26 new seats (for 56 total), while Mr. Colom's National Unity of Hope-Grand National Alliance lost 37 (leaving them 48). Rigoberta Menchu's leftist coalition picked up a seat, giving them only three in total. Baldizon's LIDER Party picked up 14 seats to give them a total of 14. Most of the other parties represented in Congress are also right wing.

How hard will the hard hand be? Among the first cabinet appointments announced by Perez Molina was of Colonel Mauricio Lopez Bonilla as Minister of Interior, in charge of internal security. Lopez Bonilla was an advisor to dictator Efrain Rios-Montt, who ruled Guatemala from 1982 to 1983. Rios-Montt, with the full support of the Reagan Administration, unleashed a genocidal wave of repression against the indigenous Maya population of the highlands, killing around 70,000.

So chances are the "hard hand" will be very hard indeed.

Photo: The president-elect stands next to the current president (at podium), via the Patriot Party's website.

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