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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 November, 2003, 12:11 GMT
Establishing Guatemalan democracy
By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

The establishment of democracy in Guatemala goes well beyond Sunday's elections.

Guatemalans inspect remains of war victims exhumed  from a mass grave
About 200,000 people died in the 1960-1996 civil war in Guatemala

Latin America often gets forgotten because elections there are held more often than coups these days. Countries are ticked off on a list of supposed democracies.

But elections do not make a democracy by themselves. That is especially true in Guatemala.

At one time, during the Reagan era, Central America was regarded by the United States as the cockpit of the cold war. Uprisings in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, despite their local origins, were linked by Washington, through Cuba, to the Soviet Union.

Now, following the same logic, these countries must be seen as a test for democracy. In Guatemala, democracy is under strain. It will have to prove that it is solid wood, not just a veneer underneath which the rot simply grows.

The country emerged from a decades-long terrible civil war in 1996 after an estimated 100,000-200,000 people died, most of them killed by the military.

Coup leader returns

There had been an uprising, mostly by the Mayan population, and, as in neighbouring El Salvador, the army's tactics were to sweep through towns and villages, on what they called "limpieza" or "cleansing" operations.

One of the generals responsible for that strategy, Efrain Rios Montt, was one of three main presidential candidates in elections on Sunday.

The biggest challenge for democracy in Guatemala remains establishing the rule of law. Putting a stop to violence is an essential step in that process
Jose Miguel Vivanco

He led a coup in 1982 and managed to get his name on the ballot despite a constitutional rule that nobody who had overthrown a government could stand for the presidency.

He used the argument that since the constitution had been adopted after his coup, the restriction did not apply to him. The courts, to the consternation of human rights groups, agreed.

Montt came in third behind the former Mayor of Guatemala City, Oscar Berger, and Alvaro Colom, once a leftist but who has now moved to the right.

Issue more than fate of one man

But the issue goes beyond one man. It is really about what western diplomats call "the rule of law" in Guatemala and, by extension, anywhere else where democracy is supposed to have been set up.

General Rios Montt
Rios Montt came in third

The US State Department's human rights report on Guatemala in March this year, pointed out that the terms of the peace accords which ended the conflict have not all been fulfilled.

For example, the budget for the military is bigger than the agreement called for.

The US ambassador to Guatemala, John Hamilton, said: "The greatest concern was the increased number of attacks on human rights workers. The numbers and patterns of the attacks point to a deliberate, systematic effort to intimidate human rights workers."

The United States itself organised the overthrow of a democratic government in Guatemala (in 1954). It now says that it must make democracy work.

"The biggest challenge for democracy in Guatemala remains establishing the rule of law," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch Americas division.

Intimidation and violence

"Putting a stop to violence is an essential step in that process."

And it is a not just a question of ending attacks and intimidation.

The Human Rights Caucus of the US Congress also highlighted another aspect. It pointed to concern over the "connection of powerful economic interests, sectors of the police and military, narcotics traffickers and common criminals."

"This connection has given rise to what has been labelled 'The corporate Mafia State.'"

Rally by Rios Montt supporters
Rios Montt supporters running riot in the capital

The Guatemalan government has agreed to a proposal that the UN should set up a commission to investigate the so-called "clandestine groups" said to be responsible for much of the violence.

The Guatemalan-American novelist Francisco Goldman says that such a Commission "is the country's last, best hope."

But he doubted whether it would be effective.

Writing in the New York Times, he said: "Obstacles remain, including ratification by the Guatemalan Congress, which is led by Rios Montt.

"What chances, then, can 'democracy' really have in Guatemala, a remote, rainy, mountainous country?

"If the international community cannot free this small country's democracy from usurpation by a criminal-army mafia, how can it succeed elsewhere?"

The BBC's Claire Marshall
"The ordinary people of Guatemala are hoping that this election is peaceful and fair"

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