86. Telegram From the Embassy in Guatemala to the Department of State1

412. For the Secretary and Assistant Secretary Vaughn.

This message is in response to Secretary’s request, when I called on him in September prior to my departure for Guatemala,2 for reports every 3 or 4 months on local situation. Beginning of new year and completion of third month since presentation credentials (September 22) would seem good time for such review.
Principal factors in present situation are:
Elections of President, Vice President, entire Congress, and all municipal authorities are scheduled for March 6, and the electoral campaign is expected to get into full swing this month;
Terrorist activities have increased in last two months. There have been four known kidnappings of leading businessmen, with over $250,000 paid in ransom, several other threats and extortion efforts by the terrorists and possibly others taking advantage of the situation, and several murders.
The regime’s failure to solve some of the country’s problems, the three-year period in return to constitutionality, and the regime’s apparent inability to deal with the terrorist threat, have led to general loss of confidence in the government and to a deterioration of Peralta’s personal standing and prestige.
The military appear to be divided not only in their support of Peralta, but, which could be more serious in the long run, between the younger and older officers since the former see the latter standing in their way of further advancement.
There are several groups, both civilian and military, plotting against the regime, and a general expectancy that a coup will be staged before March. The reasons for feeling a coup might be necessary vary, depending on the plotters, from those who sincerely feel Peralta no longer capable of handling the situation to those who simply would like to get into power and some military who enjoy the status quo and would like to see it continued.
The economic situation has deteriorated during the last few months, with the prospect of an economic crisis during the first half of the year if remedial steps are not taken. The terrorist activities have resulted in the flight of some capital, but more importantly is the almost complete cessation of new investments and a general slow-down in business. The business and industrial groups have panicked as a result of terrorist activities, and this of course is having its effect on the economy.
In this situation Peralta’s attitude and thinking is of key importance. All indications, as reflected in his public statements and to me in private, are that he believes he has complete control of the situation, that the military are united in support of the government, and that the elections will be held as scheduled and the timetable for return to constitutionality adhered to. He says the military are prepared to cope with any situation that might arise, and he therefore tends to minimize the seriousness of the terrorist threat or the possibility of a coup against his regime. There is no reason to doubt his ability to handle any political problem, unless the military are more divided than would seem to be the case, but there is reason for serious concern as to his determination and ability to handle the terrorist situation. We are helping in the security field as requested by Peralta.
Notwithstanding all the rumors of possible coups against the regime, present indications are that the elections will probably be held as scheduled, unless (a) Peralta and the military decide that for security or any other reason they should be postponed, or (b) the Constituent Assembly should feel that it would not be in the best interests of the country to continue the electoral campaign and would persuade Peralta to serve as president for a fixed period. Peralta is so committed to the elections, however, that in either case, especially (a), he might prefer to step down as a point of honor rather than see the timetable altered. The danger of action against the regime would seem to be greater in March, after the elections, rather than during the next two months. If the campaign and the elections are reasonably free, that is, free of any interference by the government or attempt of the regime to impose a candidate, there might not be any problem provided the military are willing to accept the results of the polls. If the elections are not free, however, or the regime attempts to impose a candidate, we might find not only segments of the population but also some of the military taking matters in their own hands. That would obviously lead to a very nasty situation, and one which the Communists and others would tend to seize for their own purposes. It could also raise some very difficult problems for us.
This raises of course the question of our posture and what we should do to assure a smooth transition to a constitutional system. It [Page 206] is clearly in our interest that free elections be held and that a constitutional government assume power. Our ability to exercise any positive influence is limited, however, especially since we have very little leverage with the present regime. I believe our policy during the next six months should be as outlined below, and that while planning ahead we must move only one step at a time:
To do what we can so that the elections are held on schedule. We have and are continuing to let it be known that in our opinion the elections should be held, that they should be free, and that any attempt to overthrow the regime could play into the hands of the Communists and could therefore have serious repercussions not only for Guatemala but also for the rest of the hemisphere.
To assure to the extent we can acceptance of the results of free elections. The three candidates are mediocre, and do not inspire any great confidence, but we should be able to work with any one of them.
Support the new government when it comes into power on July 1, to enable it to meet the problems of the country, and to avoid any need for it to rely on the extremists for support. This last consideration would be especially true if the PR candidate, which is supported by the left, should win.
I regret that the situation does not permit a more optimistic report.
I have shown this message to CAS and DATT and they have indicated their concurrence.
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964–66, PER 2–1. Secret. Also in Washington National Records Center, RG 84: FRC 71 A 2420, Guatemala Embassy Files, 1966, POL Guatemala, Jan–June 1966.
  2. According to Rusk’s Appointment Book, Rusk briefly met Mein on August 31, 1965, the day before Mein received his nomination. (Johnson Library) No substantive record of the meeting was found.