Guatemala vote marked by ballots -- and bullets

One candidate lives in a home protected by a high wall with a guard tower at each end and by men with automatic weapons.

Another candidate meets the public accompanied by bodyguards brandishing machine guns.

A third candidate's main strategist somehow has survived three assassination attempts in the past 12 months: a bombing, a bazooka fired into his home, and an ambush by armed men.

Guns and politics. It is presidential election time again (March 7) in Guatemala -- but this time with differences both the United States and many Guatemalans hope will begin to reverse an escalating number of political murders by both the left and the right.

That violence, as Guatemala faces a growing threat from guerrillas trying to topple the government, reached a new high in January with more than 500 political murders -- the majority of them civilians.

According to the US Embassy's human-rights report for 1981, ''The greater number (of political murders) are probably attributed to groups associated with the extreme right or with elements of government forces, rather than to the extreme left.''

The Reagan administration, in sharp contrast with President Carter's administration, wants to resume major military aid to Guatemala despite such increasing violence. The rationale is two-part:

* Guatemala needs help opposing a communist-aided guerrilla war.

* The Carter administration's human-rights policy didn't work here; political violence continued to increase during the years the US cut off military aid.

To the United States, it is of no major importance which candidate wins the March 7 election. What counts is that the election be a fair one.

A fair election, it is said here, might help convince reluctant members of Congress to approve military aid for Guatemala. President Reagan recently asked Congress to approve some $250,000 for the training of military personnel for Guatemala, which is probably only a start of what may be requested by the President for this strategically located country of rugged mountains and dense jungle.

Guatemala, a potentially significant oil producer, borders the region of Mexico's major oil fields.

To Guatemalans the election offers the first civilian candidates since 1966. The campaign here has raised hopes of making more progress against the guerrillas and reducing the violence attributed to the government. Violence from both left and right has established a climate of fear in this troubled nation.

A government spokesman denies government involvement in the violence, pinning it on the guerrillas and ''clandestine'' groups of the extreme right.

In the northwest sections of Guatemala, as in this capital city, guerrillas are stepping up their attacks against government targets -- police, soldiers, and civilians suspected of working against the guerrillas.

Each of the four candidates in Guatemala's presidential election represents a somewhat different approach to the nation's challenges, although three of them appear, by US standards, to be on the far right.

By Guatemalan standards however, the candidates range from right to left. They include three civilians and the former minister of defense, Angel Anibal Guevara Rodriguez.

It is considered unlikely that any of the three leading candidates will get a majority. In that case, in a way similar to US law, the National Congress will vote for a winner among the top two finishers.

Since General Guevara's three-party coalition appears to have 33 of 61 votes in Congress, he could win even if he finishes second in popular voting. But the other two leading candidates are making verbal threats of public disorder if the will of the people is, as they say, thwarted.

General Guevara, whose formal campaign poster shows him unsmiling in full military uniform, says the first priority is the fight against the guerrillas. He declines to distinguish between what the current government has done and what he would do. But he has made 10 campaign promises on various law-and-order and social issues and recognizes that such issues are also basic to peace.

The other two leading candidates, by most estimates, are attorneys Mario Sandoval Alarcon and Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre.

Sandoval, a former vice-president, has given some quiet interviews behind the high wall with the guard towers. While he pets his white poodle, a black monkey scampers around a tree in the front yard.

Sandoval, too, puts first priority on cracking down harder on the guerrillas by better equipping and training the military. He also wants to improve the efficiency of the national police. Like the US government, he hopes the election will give Guatemala a ''better image.''

But Sandoval blames former President Carter's human-rights policy for contributing to the growing guerrilla problem here. The US, in stopping military aid, pays too little attention to the human rights guerrillas were destroying, he said in an interview.

Maldonado represents a small right-wing party and the centrist (by US assessment) Christian Democratic party. Some 200 CD party activists have been assassinated during the past two years, according to both the US Embassy and the party's own count. Maldonado says he would try to end the government's alleged involvement in political violence against civilians, charging that right-wing death squads are currently ''conspiring with the police.''

In a Monitor interview, Christian Democratic party secretary and strategist Vinicio Cerezo explained how the government might bring these forces under control.

There are, he says, growing doubts within the military about the war against the guerrillas. Popular support for the guerrillas is eroding, he claims. So, with an electoral victory his party's coalition might be able to persuade the military to ease off in its alleged involvement with police and death squad activities carried out by the right.

This, in turn, could restore public confidence in the government and spur much-needed private investment, he says.

At the same time, Cerezo says leftists would feel freer to put down their arms if they saw an end to political violence. Presumably, later on there would be progress on social reforms. But this strategy assumes guerrillas will stop fighting and ''come home,'' so to speak, under certain conditions -- an assumption some here consider very improbable.The fourth candidate, architect Gustavo Anzueto Vielman is promising a Reagan-type approach to politics: tax reform and trimming the size of government.

Guerrilla forces have been attacking city halls and destroying records, which will make it difficult for some people to obtain the necessary documentation for voter identification cards. There is concern here that guerrillas may also try to interfere with the voting itself.

Illiterates, who make up about 40 percent of the nation, are allowed to vote. Party symbols are used on ballots along with the names. Failure to vote is punishable by fines and jail sentences.

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