SOLOLA, GUATEMALA, NOV. 11 -- Hundreds of Guatemalan Indians crowded into the plaza of this lakeside town to cast their votes today, their traditional woven blouses and shawls blending into a riot of brilliant colors.
But if the scene was visually rich, it was by all indications a civic dud: None of the 12 candidates for president and few of the candidates for Congress are Indian. Many of the Indians in the plaza said they had no idea who was on the ballot.
"I'm voting because it's the law," one man said, mistakenly. Guatemalans have not been legally obliged to vote in a presidential election since 1985.
Another man waiting in line to cast his ballot was asked if any of the candidates had visited the town.
"Yes," he said.
Had he seen any of them?
Which candidates had the most support in town?
Guatemala's indigenous people, although they comprise about half the country's 9 million people, remain apathetic and suspicious toward the nation's white-dominated politics.
Distinct in language and culture and persecuted for generations, the Indians have been largely unaffected by the advent of civilian democracy here. Despite their numbers, they remain politically impotent.
"People here participate to comply with the requirements, not because they're interested in politics," said the Rev. Pedro Bocel, a Roman Catholic priest at the stately white cathedral that dominates Solola's main square.
No high-ranking government official is Indian, and just nine of the 100 members of Congress are Indian. In this town and many others like it, where four of five people are of Mayan descent, the mayor is a ladino -- of mixed European and Indian blood.
Wealthy Guatemalans in the capital, whose main contact with Indians is often as employer to servant, regard them with a mixture of condescension and scorn. Even in polite society, the expression "dumber than an Indian" is sometimes heard.
In the early 1980s, when the army launched a counterinsurgency campaign designed to wipe out leftist guerrillas, the principal victims were Indians in the highlands -- where the guerrillas operated and took refuge.
Tens of thousands were killed in army sweeps, and about 40,000 more fled into exile in Mexico. While the killing eased after President Vinicio Cerezo, a civilian, took office in 1986 after a free election, Indians still are affected by political violence.
A result, at least in part, is that Indians are politically alienated, seeing politics as a danger zone to be avoided. Many say they never discuss the topic. Although they make up half the population, only a third of the 2.5 million people expected to vote today were likely to be Indians, analysts said. Results are expected Monday.
Nor is it likely that Guatemala's Indians will unite to demand a greater voice in politics. Scattered in remote mountain villages in the north and west, the country's indigenous people are divided into 22 tribes, all of which have distinct customs and dialects.
Many speak little or no Spanish, and often the children do not enroll in local public schools, where Spanish is the language of instruction. When he says Sunday Mass at the cathedral in Solola, Bocel, the priest, uses Cakchiquel, the local dialect, as well as Spanish.
When it comes to politics, he said, Indians are "indifferent . . . uninvolved. There's not much representation."