175. Telegram 333 From the Embassy in Guatemala to the Department of State1
333. Subject: The Presidential Electoral Campaign: Assessment and Analysis
Summary: As the March 3 Presidential elections draw nearer, the race is narrowing down to a two-way contest between conservative government coalition candidate General Laugerud and left-of-center Opposition Front candidate General Rios Montt, with middle-of-the-road Revolutionary Party candidate Paiz Novales running a poor third. The edge previously enjoyed by Laugerud seems largely to have eroded, and indeed there are many, including a number in the government, who doubt that he will win. At this stage we would say that it is anybody’s ballgame. There is a distinct possibility that if the government concludes it can not defeat Rios, and thus ensure a continuation of its conservative policy approach to Guatemala’s problems, it will seek to preserve its position by postponing elections or refusing to recognize a Rios victory. President Arana’s role in this is crucial because no unconstitutional attempt to frustrate the electoral process blatantly is likely to succeed if the President opposes it. We continue to believe that U.S. long-term interests would best be served by free and peaceful elections, since their outcome will provide the best likelihood of a continuing succession of stable governments friendly to the United States. We will thus continue to do all that we discreetly can to encourage such elections and GOG acceptance of the outcome, whatever it may be. End Summary.
1. Political developments since our last general assessment (Guatemala 5699) indicate that the Presidential electoral race is narrowing to a two-way contest between government coalition candidate General [Page 498] Kjell Laugerud and Opposition Front candidate General Efrain Rios Montt, with Revolutionary Party (PR) candidate Col. Ernesto Paiz Novales running a poor third.
2. The edge which we believe Laugerud held at the end of November seems to have largely eroded. Laugerud’s slip has been due in large part to the fact that Paiz Novales, who got the PR nomination as a result of a GOG maneuver to split the opposition, has not been able to mount a convincing campaign and consequently has not drawn significant support away from Rios Montt as the government hoped he would. Another important factor is that Laugerud, as the government candidate, is suffering from public discontent with the spiraling cost of living, which is hitting hardest at those who are at the lower end of the economic scale and who comprise that vast majority of the voters.
3. Rios, on the other hand, seems to have been able to resolve most of the internecine squabbling between the forces of his principal supporters—Mayor Colom Argueta and Christian Democratic Leader Rene de Leon Schlotter—and to find the money to carry on an effective campaign.
4. The recent gains made by Rios have government leaders worried, and there are a number who now have serious doubts that Laugerud can win a reasonably free election. These doubts are also shared by a number of military commanders who would lose their jobs if Rios wins. Among these groups there has been considerable pressure on President Arana to move to cancel the election or to prevent Rios from taking power if he wins. Others in the inner group, such as Minister of Government Herrera, Minister of Finance Lamport, and Foreign Minister Arenales are still hopeful that Laugerud can win or come close enough to permit stealing the election without being too obvious. And there are those around Arana who, we believe, are counseling him not to consider cancelling elections even if Laugerud’s chances do not appear good. Among these are Vice President Caceres Lenhoff; former Guatemala City Mayor Ramiro Ponce Monroy, who is heading the government coalition’s congressional slate from the capital; and Minister of Defense Rubio. President Arana’s current reaction to the situation has been to exhort coalition politicians to redouble their campaign efforts, and to move more directly to attempt to put his own popular appeal, which is considerable, fully behind Laugerud. The President recently presided over a meeting of over 200 coalition mayors in the Peten, a meeting during which Laugerud promised the mayors they would receive 5 percent of the national budget for their municipalities, a move designed to garner popular support. The President has also initiated a new round of trips to the interior to inaugurate the vast number of public works projects which are now in process as part of the government campaign.[Page 499]
5. Our own estimate of the campaign is that it is still anybody’s ballgame. Laugerud has slipped, but he still has a number of advantages, such as Arana’s support, having made personal visits to many hamlets Rios can never hope to reach, strong local campaign organizations, ample financing, and the fact that his people count the votes, albeit with the opposition looking on. Rios is benefiting from the natural tendency of Guatemalans to vote against the incumbent (a tendency which will be strengthened by the continuing rise in the cost of living), a more charismatic personality, the support of a number of very popular political leaders, and the fact that he has found the money he needs to campaign effectively. There is a great deal of apathy about the campaign, and we believe at least half of the voters are not yet committed. One important factor which remains enigmatic is the position of Col. Enrique Peralta. Peralta has consistently insisted that he will boycott the elections if he can not be a candidate himself, but many of his supporters are urging him to take a position in favor of one of the candidates. The PR “old guard” is hoping to get Peralta to support Rios, and if he does so it will boost Rios’s chances considerably. If Peralta should support Paiz Novales, this would probably help Laugerud, since it would pull support away from Rios. If Peralta were to support Laugerud, which is very unlikely at the moment, it would probably put him out in front again.
6. If in the coming weeks the government coalition supporters should become strongly convinced that Laugerud can not win a free election, the present pressures to cancel elections will increase enormously. President Arana’s attitude in this will be crucial, because no unconstitutional attempt to frustrate the electoral process blatantly is likely to succeed if the President opposes it. There are, as we have mentioned, a number of senior military commanders (including the Chief of Staff), who are firmly opposed to a Rios victory and who would be eager to move to prevent it. However, our contact with a number of middle-level and junior officers convince us that the majority of the Guatemalan officer corps does not want the army to become directly involved in the electoral campaign, and we do not believe they would support their commanders against the wishes of their Commander in Chief. Moreover, we believe that Minister of Defense Rubio, who has told us only recently that the army would be “covered with mud” if it intervened, will follow his President’s wishes.
7. As for the President, we have no doubt that he would find a Rios victory unpalatable, and that he will do all he can short of gross fraud or staging a coup to prevent it. However, his attitude in the face of strong pressures to act in a clearly unconstitutional or grossly fraudulent manner is less certain. He is a very proud man who is keenly conscious that his actions during this electoral period will largely deter[Page 500]mine his place in Guatemala’s history. And we believe that he very much wants to avoid going down in history as the man who broke Guatemala’s fragile but growing chain of democratic constitutional succession. Arana could well decide to take the line which Minister of Defense Rubio confided to the Chargé recently—that there should be elections and if Rios wins he should be allowed to take office, because the army can always throw him out later if that becomes necessary. This would get the ball out of his court.
8. We continue to believe that U.S. long-term interests would best be served by free and peaceful elections, since this outcome will promote the best likelihood of a continuing succession of stable governments friendly to the United States. We will thus continue to do all that we discreetly can to encourage such elections and GOG acceptance of the outcome, whatever it may be.
Summary: The Embassy noted that the Presidential campaign had become a two-way contest between the government’s candidate, General Laugerud, and Opposition Front candidate General Ríos Montt. Noting the danger of electoral irregularities if Laugerud failed to win sufficient votes, the Embassy concluded U.S. long-term interests would be best served by free and peaceful elections.
Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, [no film number]. Confidential; Priority. Repeated to Managua, Panama City, San José, San Salvador, Tegucigalpa, CINCSO, and CINCLANT. In telegram 559 from Guatemala City, January 28, the Embassy reported that government leaders and politicians believed that Laugerud would win the elections and were talking “less about the possible need for a coup.” (Ibid.) On February 6, Clare prepared a draft contingency paper outlining U.S. responses should the Guatemalan Government employ blatant fraud, postponement, or a palace coup to thwart the electoral process. (Ibid., ARA/CEN Files, Guatemala 1974, Briefing Paper) Telegram 5699 from Guatemala City, November 30, 1973, is ibid., Central Foreign Policy File, [no film number].↩