Just in case anyone thought that the recent street protests on behalf of Guatemala's murderous ex-dictator, Efraín Rios Montt were a lesson in the level of fervor surrounding his popularity, this article in today's New York Times sets the record straight:
Those tactics were evident last Thursday as roving mobs descended on a downtown high-rise that houses offices of some large corporations. Journalists covering the tumult were chased, and one television reporter died of a heart attack. Just outside a gated community where many diplomats and wealthy businessmen live, groups burned tires and slathered obscene slogans on the barbed-wire-topped walls.
Human rights advocates and opposition leaders saw the protests as a crude attempt to intimidate the judges presiding over the complaints and challenges to Mr. Ríos Montt's candidacy. They fear that last week's violence was also part of a psychological campaign to make people fearful before the election on Nov. 9.
Mr. Ríos Montt insisted that he had nothing to do with the protests, even though he had warned days earlier that he might not be able to control the emotions of hotheaded loyalists if the courts were to reject his candidacy. But officials of his Guatemalan Republican Front were seen at the protests, barely disguised with kerchiefs, directing the mobs, communicating by walkie-talkies and supplying boxed lunches.
The United States ambassador, John Hamilton, called the protests an affront to democracy and a mockery of the right of protest and freedom of assembly. "It is difficult to believe these protests were not centrally planned and organized," he said.
Indeed. Not only did Rios Montt manage to get his supporters on the court that initially gave him their permission to run for office, but his supporters have no sense of shame about their blatant disregard for civil
order and desire for intimidation to satiate their lust for power. He and his followers seem determined to rip Guatemala apart if they have to:
A more general dialogue has yet to take place on the tensions and disputes that have simmered in Guatemala. Edgar Gutiérrez, the foreign minister, said the country was facing problems that it had only covered up with an overly ambitious and unfulfilled peace accord.
"It is a lie to think that forgetting would bring reconciliation," he said. "Now we are at the crossroads of the real problem."
Tom Koenigs, the head of the United Nations mission monitoring the implementation of the 1996 peace accords, said the root problem was that impunity - whether for wartime abuses or peacetime corruption - had long been the rule.
"If you want to resolve this crisis, then you have to stop impunity," Mr. Koenigs said. "As long as that is not resolved, you have a handicapped democracy."
Those comments by Gutierrez and Koenigs underscore exactly what I have long felt are the two biggest obstacles to transitions to democracy from repressive dictatorships. There has to be not only an accounting of the human rights abuses that took place during the dictatorship, but there also has to be some sort of acknowledgment whether through trials or some sort of truth commission a la South Africa's in which alleged perpetrators can only receive amnesty through full and truthful public acknowledgement of their acts. I prefer trials, but in any event, Guatemala has had neither trials nor public acknowledgement by the alleged perpetrators (there was a truth commission of sorts to attempt to establish the facts, but it was largely toothless) and they are paying the price.