176. Telegram 903 From the Embassy in Guatemala to the Department of State1
903. Subject: The Presidential Electoral Campaign—Two and a Half Weeks to Go. Ref: Guatemala 333.
Summary: With but two and a half weeks to go until the March 3rd Presidential elections, it now appears that the contest will be a three-way race which any of the three candidates could win. We believe government coalition candidate Laugerud has pulled slightly ahead once again, and Opposition Front candidate Rios Montt, who has slipped a [Page 501] little, is probably now running second. While Revolutionary Party candidate Paiz Novales still appears to be running third, he is pulling closer and cannot now be counted out. The government has managed to resolve temporarily several labor disputes which were muddying the political scene, and it now appears reasonably confident that it can win with the help of some fraud. Pressures to postpone or cancel the elections [have subsided, and it seems likely at this point that elections] will be held. If, as is almost certain, no candidate wins an absolute majority, the election will go to Congress. While tradition has been for Congress to pick the front runner, this is not mandatory, and there will be some pressure for the government-controlled legislature to elect Laugerud, even if he does not get the most votes, should he run a close second to Rios. Such action would create an unstable situation, as would a government victory involving gross fraud, and the army would probably oppose either one. We continue to believe U.S. interests would best be served by free and peaceful elections which result in the victor taking office, and will thus continue to do what we discreetly can to encourage such an outcome. End summary.
1. Political developments since our mid-January assessment (reftel) now suggest that the Presidential contest will be a three-way race, which any of the candidates could win. Voter apathy has diminished somewhat in the last several weeks, but there is still a very large undecided vote. We believe government coalition candidate General Kjell Laugerud, who has been helped considerably by President Arana’s recent trips to the interior to inaugurate a large number of public works, has pulled slightly ahead, and has the best chance of winning.
2. Opposition Front candidate General Rios Montt has slipped somewhat. This is due partly to the fact that the internecine squabbling between his principal supporters (the FURD under Mayor Colom Argueta and the Christian Democrats under Rene de Leon Schlotter), which Rios earlier seemed to have resolved, has broken out anew, as reflected in the fact that all FURD candidates were dropped from the Front’s congressional slates for Guatemala City and the surrounding district when they were finally submitted this week. Another important factor is that the front has not been able to create an effective grass-roots campaign organization in the countryside, and will therefore have to compensate with an overwhelming victory in Guatemala City (which accounts for 25 per cent of the total vote) in order to win.
3. Front prospects were also dampened this week when Colonel Enrique Peralta reaffirmed on February 12 that he would support none of the three inscribed candidates. Peralta freed his supporters to make their own choices, while recommending cryptically that they not aid the government coalition directly or indirectly. Strong and open Peralta [Page 502] support for Rios would have helped the front considerably, but without it, Peralta’s followers, who represent a wide range of views, will probably not vote in a block for any single candidate no matter what Peralta may urge behind the scenes.
4. The prospects of Revolutionary Party (PR) candidate Colonel Paiz Novales, who was running a poor third only a month ago, now appear considerably improved. This is largely because the PR organization, despite the [garble].
5. Inflation and the high cost of living continue to be the principal campaign issues, and the Front continues to hammer hard on them. Government politicians with whom we talk, however, do not seem to feel as vulnerable on the issues as they did only a month ago. Violence is very much less an issue than it was in 1970, and indeed the level of political violence in this campaign is vastly reduced from what it was four years ago, and we are hopeful it will remain that way. On the positive side, all three candidates are pledging that they will take effective measures to raise wages and production, improve health and education, institute agrarian reform, etc. It is largely a matter of who the voter believes most (or doubts least).
6. The government has managed to resolve temporarily several labor disputes which were muddying the political scene, and government leaders now appear reasonably confident that Laugerud can win with the help of some fraud. Consequently, pressures to postpone or cancel the elections have subsided, and it seems likely at this point that elections will be held.
7. If, as seems almost certain, no candidate wins an absolute majority, the election will go to the Congress which must then elect one of the top two vote-getters. While tradition has been for the Congress to pick the front runner, this is not mandatory; and if Laugerud should come in a close second to Rios, there will be pressure for the government-controlled legislature to elect him anyway. Such an action would cause an unstable situation and would probably be opposed by the army even though the top command as a whole does not want to see Rios win. A Paiz victory would probably not be opposed by either Laugerud or Rios supporters.
8. The Opposition has been claiming that there will be gross fraud, as did the oppositions which ended up victorious in the 1966 and 1970 elections, both of which were relatively free and honest. We have no doubt that the government is indeed planning to use some fraud, such as voting numbers of campesinos and neighboring Salvadorans several times, voting tombstones in remote areas where it is in control, etc. The government will also use its control of the electoral machinery to challenge and nullify as many of the Opposition votes as it can. (All parties can and do challenge votes, which is one reason why the percentage of [Page 503] annulled votes runs close to 10 per cent here.) However, it is questionable whether the government will attempt to significantly falsify the returns once they are in, as was done in Salvador. Were the government to do so, the Opposition, especially Rios if he were the real victor, would probably not sit still, and a very unstable situation would likely develop. Again, we believe that the army wants to avoid being put on the firing line over elections, despite many senior commanders’ aversion for Rios, and we believe the army will oppose any attempt at blatant fraud.
9. We continue to believe U.S. interests would best be served by free and peaceful elections which result in the victor taking office, and will thus continue to do what we discreetly can to encourage such an outcome. We now feel reasonably confident that elections will be held, and are hopeful that gross fraud will not take place.
Summary: In a report on the electoral campaign, the Embassy noted that with the Presidential race growing even closer, it seemed evident the Guatemalan Government would resort to some fraud to ensure an election victory.
Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, [no film number]. Confidential; Priority. Repeated to Managua, Panama, San José, San Salvador, Tegucigalpa, CINCSO, and CINCLANT. All brackets are in the original except “[have... elections]”, added for clarity and those indicating garbled text. Telegram 333 from Guatemala City, January 18, is published as Document 175. In telegram 960 from Guatemala City, February 19, the Embassy reported that Minister of Defense General Rubio had indicated that the army would respect the election’s outcome, and concluded that his remarks appeared to be designed to end rumors that, if elected, the military would not allow Ríos Montt to take power. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, [no film number])↩