Candidate killed in final hours before election

Candidate killed in final hours before election. Death toll among politicians mounts in war-torn Guatemala’s campaigns
(The Globe & Mail Page A12)
Monday, November 12, 1990

Guatemala City GUATEMALA — BY JEAN KAVANAGH Special to The Globe and Mail — Violence marked the final hours of Guatemala’s presidential election campaign as a member of one of the leading parties was assassinated on the eve of yesterday’s vote.

Jorge Carpio, leader of the National Centrist Union, denounced the assassination of mayoral candidate Manuel Toj in the central department of Quiche, an area torn by civil war.

Mr. Carpio, one of the presidential candidates expected to advance to the second round of voting in January, told reporters that Mr. Toj was the sixth member of the National Centrist Union to be assassinated since July.

Details of the death were not available, but Mr. Carpio said he did not think Guatemala’s leftist rebels were responsible. He did say the assassination was probably political.

The election campaign, called “dirty” by Guatemala’s powerful Roman Catholic church, was rife with violence, including the killing of 10 politicians and an assassination attempt on journalist Byron Barrera that killed his wife. Leftist rebels and a former dictator called on Guatemalans not to vote.

Brian Dickson, Canada’s Ambassador to Guatemala, and Ronald Gould, of Elections Canada, flew by helicopter to voting stations throughout the country, including Quiche and other areas where civil war has raged for 30 years. They were among hundreds of international observers at the election.

Promises of a more peaceful Guatemala came from 12 directions as a dozen men representing 19 political parties and coalitions vied for the presidency of Central America’s most populous country.

Election results were expected today, but it is unlikely that any candidate will receive enough votes to assume the presidency. A second round of voting between the top two finishers is scheduled Jan. 6.

Going into yesterday’s vote, the leading candidate was Mr. Carpio, publisher of one of the country’s biggest newspapers. In the campaign’s closing days, polls showed Jorge Serrano Elias, an engineering professor who earlier was in the middle of the pack, gaining considerably on former Guatemala City mayor
Alvaro Arzu. Mr. Arzu was expected to face Mr. Carpio in the runoff. The three men represent conservative parties that vary little in their economic and social platforms.

The Christian Democratic government of outgoing president Vinicio Cerezo has been plagued by accusations of financial mismanagement and patronage, as Guatemalans endure one of the worst economic crises in recent years.

The Christian Democrats were without their presidential candidate, Alfonso Cabrera, for the last two weeks of the campaign after he was confined to hospital in Texas with acute pancreatitis. Mr. Cabrera trailed badly in the polls and was expected to finish fourth.

Desperate economic conditions, staggering unemployment, a continuation of the 30-year-old war and widespread hunger cause many Guatemalans to question whether a new government can improve their lives.

In this small, lush country of nine million people, campaign rallies were colorful and boisterous. But while the official candidates pleaded for support, an ex-dictator fell into step with the rebels he once fought by calling on Guatemalans not to vote for any of them.

Evangelist and retired general Efrain Rios Montt asked voters to write his name on the ballot to protest against a ruling by the country’s highest court disqualifying him as a candidate. Guatemala’s constitution prevents anyone who ever took part in a coup d’etat from running for the presidency.

Guatemala’s human rights attorney, Ramiro de Leon Carpio, said in an interview there is fear throughout the country that Mr. Rios Montt will attempt another coup before January.

Jorge Briz, president of Guatemala’s major business and agricultural organization, rejected the possibility of a coup, saying the former general no longer holds enough military power.

Mr. Briz, who visited Ottawa in August for talks with a rebel Guatemalan movement, National Revolutionary Unity, said the economy and correcting the mistakes of the country’s first civilian government must be priorities for the new president.

“The fiscal deficit is a major problem,” he said in an interview. “There’s been poor government administration and there is a need to eliminate corruption in the private and public sectors.”

Mr. Briz and Mr. de Leon concurred with human rights activists that Guatemala cannot yet be considered a true democracy because, after 100 years of dictatorship and five years of civilian government, the country is only now learning how democracy works.

“The first civilian elections (in 1985) were the first clean elections with no electoral fraud,” Mr. de Leon said. “In the first two years of the Cerezo government there was much hope and expectation, but between 1988 and 1990 we are back to the same level of violence as 1980-81.”

A lack of military and political will to comply with new laws and the ongoing war are the major impediments to democracy, he said.

Human rights activist Amilcar Mendez also says democracy is impossible in Guatemala as long as rampant repression – kidnappings, torture and assassination – continue.

“Voting is not democracy when there are elections in such a militarized state,” he said. “Human rights atrocities are a historical problem here and none of the candidates are talking about real structural change to the military system.”