Despite dark pasts, Latin strongmen still hold appeal

Efrain Rios Montt, Guatemala's dictator during the 1980s, is running for president on Sunday.

Many Guatemalans shudder when they recall Gen. Efrain Rios Montt's short-lived but iron-fisted rule in the early 1980s. He was the nation's dictator during one of the darkest eras of Guatemalan history, when tens of thousands of Mayan Indians were slaughtered in the Army's drive to quash support for leftist guerrillas.

But if his critics scorn this evangelical preacher and longtime congressional president as a genocidal general, his supporters revere him as the strong, God-fearing leader this turbulent nation needs. With only two days left before Sunday's elections, Mr. Rios Montt is hoping his supporters are numerous enough to catapult him into the presidency.

Polls put Rios Montt in third place, but many analysts here, including some of his staunchest critics, say he has a chance of garnering enough votes to advance to a coveted second place. With none of the 11 candidates likely to win more than 50 percent of the vote, it is almost certain that the top two vote winners will go to a runoff in December.

Given his controversial background, Rios Montt's popularity might seem surprising. But authoritarian leaders still hold appeal in a region where many citizens are losing faith in democracy and yearning for stronger-handed rulers.

Analysts say that caudillos, or political strongmen, a mainstay of Latin American politics, lost ground in the first several years after democratic transitions began in the 1970s and 80s. But that has changed in recent years.

"Rios Montt has a populist, authoritarian appeal which is growing and taking different forms in different countries in the region," says George Vickers, a Latin America expert with the Open Society Institute in Washington. "In Central America and in South America a large number of people in many countries sense that democracies haven't increased employment opportunities or brought about more order. They are interested in having strong rulers who can provide jobs and stability."

A poll released late last month and conducted by the Chilean company Latinobarometro shows that in 14 countries in the region, citizens have less faith in democracy than they did eight years ago. Of all the 17 countries included in the poll, Guatemala supports democracy the least with only 33 percent of the respondents answering that "democracy is preferable to other forms of government." In Paraguay and Ecuador, citizens are increasingly saying that authoritarian governments are preferable to democratic ones in certain circumstances, according to the poll.

The sky-high crime rates plaguing many countries in the region have buoyed the popularity of caudillos, who are perceived as better prepared to combat lawlessness. Many of his supporters recall Rios Montt's rule during the 1980s as one where the streets of Guatemala were safe.

Ana Patricia Ruiz wasn't even born when Rios Montt ruled in 1982 and 1983, but she has heard that life back then was far different than it is today in her crime-ridden neighborhood of Guatemala City.

"I've been told that when he governed everything went according to law, that there was hardly any crime," she says. "I've heard a story of what happened to two men who raped all the women in a house. Rios Montt had them shot. That's justice."

In Argentina, Gen. Antonio Bussi, one of the country's most notorious "dirty warriors" from the 1970s and 80s, won a mayoral election in July, in large part because of the crime issue. General Bussi, who was also elected governor of Tucuman in 1995, is currently in jail facing war crimes.

Ongoing poverty throughout the region is also fodder for populist strongmen.

"After 15 years of democratic transitions in the region, the main problem that these countries face has not been resolved. That problem is inequality," says Manuel Orozco of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank based in Washington. "[Governments] have tried different economic models, and there hasn't been an effect. Some people are using this reality as an opportunity."

In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, a one-time coup leader, has been effective at keeping a large segment of the population behind him by railing against the country's economic elite while taking questionable measures, such as reworking the constitution, to increase his power. In the 1990s, Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, who helped revive the country's economy and eliminate leftist insurgents, is still the most popular of Peru's past five presidents, despite facing accusations of murder and embezzlement, according to a recent poll. He is currently in exile in Japan.

In Guatemala, a constitutional ban on former dictators running for president had kept Rios Montt on the sidelines in two previous elections. This year, a court packed with his allies ruled he could run.

Legal experts say that Rios Montt's candidacy is unconstitutional and threatens the rule of law that this fledgling democracy is striving to embrace.

"This is an important moment in the region," says Mr. Orozco. "It is an opportunity to determine whether society can set aside this tendency and reaffirm the rule of democratic institutions against the rule of caudillos."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.