Three years ago, during biannual municipal elections here in the central Guatemala highlands, the town of San Andres Izapa came close to electing its first Indian mayor.

According to local residents, 95 per turns showed the Indian candidate cent of whom are Indians, early refar in the lead. The victory was unofficially confirmed by radio broadcasts from Guatemala City, 50 miles away.

When the government announced the official returns several days later, the Indian had lost. The winner, the government said, was the "Ladino" candidate -- a member of the Spanish-based ethnic group that loosely includes all non-Indian Guatemalans.

Indians in San Andres Izapa tell this story with more amusement than malice. To them, it is representative of a fact of life. In Spanish, the word "Ladino" means "shrewd," and it is a label for whites here that neither the Ladinos themselves nor the dark-skinned Indians argue with.

While more than half of Guatemalas 6 million people are pureblooded Indians, descendants of the ancient Mayas, they have remained almost totally removed from the political and economic life of the country.

An electoral majority, Indians are rarely nominated for office by Guatemala's four recognized political parties. Those who are nominated turn up winners when the Ladino government counts the votes.

Out of 61 deputies in the country's unicameral legislature, only two are Indian and both were elected last year.

Although most Guatemalan Indians are farmers, their plots are small, and quite often rented. The 2 per cent of the population that owns 90 per cent of Guatemala's land is almost exclusively Ladino.

"That's the way this country works," said one American observer, a longtime resident. "You have the Ladinos running things, and the Indians being run."

There are indications, however, that Guatemala's "silent majority" is about to speak out, if only with a tiny squeak. In December Indian activists announced the formation of the National Integration Front, the beginnings of an India-based political party with dreams of a new Mayan empire.

"If we don't get involved in politics, we will never get any political power, said party leader Marcial Maxia Cutzal. "We have realized that without political power, we will never get anywhere."

Maxia said the front's goals are to give Guatemalan's on the fringes of national life a way to participate in their own government. In the long-run, he said, "We will create an authentic nationality that is based on the historic values of our Mayan ancestors."

So far, organizing efforts have been limited to small meetings in towns with large Indian majorities. Most rural Indians say they have never heard of the group.

The reaction by Ladino political sectors, however, has given the front an importance that far outweighs the extent of its activities. The most serious charge is that it is a "racist" organization, fomenting division at the very time Guatemala is trying to create an "integrated society."

Front organizers have been variously accused of being "rich" Indians on a power trip and "fronts" for Ladinos trying to manipulate "illiterate" Indians. At least one of Guatemala's four official parties, the Christian Democrats, has accused the Indian organizers of trying to steal its own Indian members.

Other Ladinos have noted that some Indians serve as mayors, and many others are professionals who "perform their functions with the same rights authorized to everyone." An Indian party, the reasoning goes, is therefore unnecessary.

While discrimination is not written into Guatemalan law, it is overwhelmingly visible. Guatemala is the only Central American country where the Indian culture -- long decimated by the Spanish conquistadores , the ancestors of the Ladinos -- has managed to survive. For every advance they have made in modern Guatemala, however, the Indians have had to trade a part of their heritage.

While Indians speak any one of a score of distinct Mayan languages, school in most Indian towns is taught in Spanish, usually by Ladinos. Indians who enter secondary schools are put into uniforms and forbidden to wear the colorful traditional costumes worn by their parents.

Asked their opinion of Indians as a group, some Ladinos respond with statements such as: Indians are lazy; or they emit unpleasant odors, have bad manners, and are incapable of learning. Indians successful in the Ladino culture are primarily those who change their surnames, learn to speak Spanish fluently and dress like Ladinos.

Racial and cultural discrimination are not unique to Guatemala in Latin America, any more than they are unique to the United States among developed countries. In Colombia, light-skined people who live on the high mountain plains have traditionally ruled the dark-skinned Costenos , or coastal inhabitants, many of whom decend from African slaves. Once dominant Indian cultures in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador have long been effectively excluded from power and often from the chance for a decent standard of living.

The new Indian party here has already encountered what promise to be its two biggest roadblocks to organizing.

The first is the government's almost certain refusal to certify it as a legitimate political party, without which it cannot run candidates for national office.

The front's biggest problem, however, is the Indians themselves. From long, negative experience, many Indians distrust all politicians -- both Indian and Ladino. They feel that any Indian who attempts to succeed in the Ladino system is by definition corrupted.

Although Indians said in interviews that they would always vote for an Indian candidate, no matter who he was, they admit that they are divided among themselves, both between Ladino political parties that have merged to recruit Indian voters and between communities that have little communication with each other.

Isolated on mountaintops, many Indian communities are self-contained. Just a decade ago, one Indian spokesman said, "Two towns 30 miles apart didn't even know each other existed."

This isolation, and a concerned disdain for involvement in Ladino activities, are the principal ways Guatemala's Indians have managed to keep their culture intact. A taciturn and introverted people, especially among outsiders, they prefer to keep their own counsel, and that of village leaders elected by traditional hierarchies rather than votes.

But the world has been moving in on them. The same progress that brought them Ladino and foreign doctors to cure their ills, agricultural experts to improve their food supply, roads to increase their markets and education has also brought a knowledge that they are being taken advantage of.

There is no going back. Now active in agriculture cooperatives initiated by foreigners, the Indians want the opportunity to buy their own land, and a say in the prices paid for their goods.

If their children are to be educated, they want them educated in the language of their parents. If their villages are going to be opened to tourists, they want the benefit of those tourist dollars.

The question is whether the Indians are willing to override parochial interests to join together in a struggle for rights they are all denied. That joint struggle is what the Ladinos fear and, even though movements like the front may never get off the ground, the mere suggestion of new awareness among Indian voters may be an impetus to improvement of the Indian situation.

"The front won't get a single vote on its own," said a Guatemalan priest who works in Indian communities, but at least it has brought the Indian problem out in the open where it can no longer be ignored.