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  •   Guatemalans Vote on Charter Changes

    By Serge F. Kovaleski
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Monday, May 17, 1999; Page A11

    GUATEMALA CITY, May 16 Guatemalans went to the polls today for the first time since the country's civil war ended in 1996 to vote in a national referendum on sweeping constitutional changes. The election, however, was overshadowed by the slaying of a prominent left-wing politician and other apparent instances of ideologically motivated violence and intimidation that have evoked memories of Guatemala's brutal past.

    "Unfortunately, we are being reminded that our history is very close behind and that we have a tendency to go backward instead of forward," Ramon Cabrera, a 39-year-old entrepreneur, said after voting in this capital city. "Change is not coming easily to Guatemala."

    The 47 reforms Guatemalans voted on were proposed in the 1996 peace accord that ended 36 years of civil war. If the referendum failed, observers said, the peace process would be seriously affected.

    The leftist politician, Roberto Belarino Gonzalez, 40, assistant secretary general for the opposition Democratic Front for the New Guatemala, was shot to death Thursday morning by four heavily armed men in a speeding pickup truck. Human rights observers said the murder stemmed from the fact that Gonzalez's party formed a coalition last month with former guerrillas and other smaller leftist groups and picked a moderate former government official as its presidential candidate for the November election.

    By late this afternoon, turnout among the more than 4 million registered voters was reported to be low, and U.N. officials predicted that fewer than 20 percent of those eligible to cast ballots would do so. There were also concerns that some voters did not understand the package of 47 constitutional changes, which were approved by the National Congress in October. The reforms were designed to address some of the social and institutional problems that were underlying causes of the civil war. An estimated 200,000 people, most of them civilians, died in the conflict.

    The changes, which have been hotly debated during the past several weeks, include official recognition of Guatemala's majority indigenous population, including their languages, traditional dress, legal rights and religious beliefs. The proposals also call for limiting the functions of the army and establishing the national police as the only force to provide daily security for citizens.

    In addition, Guatemalans voted on whether the Presidential High Command, an elite military unit in charge of the president's security, should be disbanded. Human rights groups and other observers have accused the unit of committing many abuses and conducting covert intelligence operations. This year, a Guatemalan truth commission issued an extensive report that blamed the army and associated paramilitary groups for more than 90 percent of the massacres, tortures, disappearances and assassinations during the war.

    Recent polls by two major newspapers, Siglo Veintiuno and El Periodico, predicted the referendum would be close. In Siglo Veintiuno, 86 of 100 people interviewed in the capital said they would vote, with 44 of the 86 planning to cast "no" ballots.

    But in returns late tonight, the reforms appeared to be going down to defeat. The Associated Press reported that with ballots from the 1,234 polling places in the capital counted among the more than 6,000 throughout the country there were 433,796 "no" votes, compared to 131,579 "yes" votes. Turnout was low, at just over 20 percent. No returns were immediately available from outlying areas, where support for the referendum may have been higher.

    On Dec. 29, 1996, the government and a coalition of guerrilla groups signed the peace accords that ended the war and laid out a series of proposals for Guatemala's most significant social, economic and institutional changes in more than 50 years. But turning these agreements into laws or constitutional articles has not been easy.

    Efforts were almost derailed several times in Congress, as right-wing parties such as the Guatemalan Republican Front strongly criticized the changes before eventually voting for amended versions. Twelve of the reforms on the ballot were based on the peace accords, and the overall package was divided into four categories: Social Rights and the Nation, the Legislative Branch, the Executive Branch and the Judicial Branch and the Administration of Justice.

    "This is decisive. There is no fallback. If the referendum is defeated, particularly the army and the indigenous parts, the peace process in effect stops dead in its tracks," said George R. Vickers, executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America. "It will create a very negative dynamic within the country and you will get a lot of political recriminations."

    The most controversial changes are those specifying that Guatemala is a multilingual and multicultural nation with official recognition of 24 indigenous languages in addition to Spanish. The changes also would allow indigenous authorities to resolve local disputes according to their traditions, as long as all parties agree to submit to them.

    But many of those opposed to the reforms covering indigenous Guatemalans who account for more than 50 percent of the population of 11 million said they feared the country would become even more splintered.

    "Instead of trying to unify Guatemala, they [Congress] are going to separate it," said Miriam de Cordon, a housewife from an exclusive Guatemala City neighborhood. "If the people do not have to learn Spanish they will not. The country is going to end up like Kosovo."

    Other critics have complained that Congress was trying to ram through a package of dramatic reforms decided behind closed doors, rather than with the participation of a broad sector of society.

    Manfredo Maroquin, director of the political think tank Citizen Action, said of tonight's early results in Guatemala City: "It is not a rejection of the content [of the reforms] but it is a rejection of the political class. There needs to be more transparency. They need to come up with the reforms in front of the people and not behind their backs."

    As for Gonzalez's assassination, some voters said they believed it was meant to intimidate people who planned to vote in favor of the changes. His slaying came just over a year after Roman Catholic Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi, a beloved human rights crusader, was bludgeoned to death following the release of a church report blaming the army for most of the atrocities committed during the war. The crime has not been solved, and human rights groups have criticized the government for not seriously investigating evidence that some military men may have been involved.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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