179. Transcript of Secretary of State Kissinger’s Regional Staff Meeting1

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to Guatemala.]

Secretary Kissinger: What about the Guatemalan elections?

Mr. Bowdler: Our Embassy has described the elections as a massive, flagrant fraud, which is not an unusual phenomenon in Latin America. There were three candidates, all military men. The government candidate was a former Minister of Defense. His principal rival, the candidate of the coalition of the opposition, was the former Chief of Staff who had been sent to the Inter-American Defense College in Fort Leslie J. McNair a year ago to get him out of the country, and who served as a useful rallying point for the opposition who could not agree on a civilian candidate. The third one is a retired army colonel who was brought in to head the remnants of a left-of-center party, thinking that he might draw votes away from the opposition.

The issues were continuismo and corruption, which is also a pattern frequently found there—unsatisfactory pace of reform, and the high cost of living.

The government held relatively honest and open elections. When they began to count the ballots, they found that things were going the wrong way. So they put into effect their contingency plan, which was a massive rigging of the counting of the ballots.

Now, what does that mean for Guatemala?

I think it is bound to introduce a period of instability. There is a lot of unhappiness and unrest, particularly over the fact that in the last two elections they had open elections. The opposition won in each case. [Page 507] And the government allowed them to take office. This time they are not.

There is a danger that in the armed forces there may emerge a split between those who favor the conservative line of the government and those who favor the slightly left-of-center line of the opposition candidate—a retired general. I think there is also a danger of disillusionment among young people in the opposition, and among certain of them there will be a tendency—

Secretary Kissinger: What does a disillusioned Guatemalan do?

Mr. Bowdler: He resorts to violence.

Secretary Kissinger: An illusioned one also resorts to violence.

Mr. Bowdler: No. It is the disillusioned one that resorts to violence. And there may be a step-up of activity on the part of the extreme Left.

As a result of all this, the government, or elements in the army, may well find that the best alternative is to stage some kind of a coup, palace or otherwise, and deny the election to either candidate, and just put in a de facto government.

For us, I think we have to be careful not to take sides, not to be pulled into taking sides.

And there are elements in the opposition, they are coming to the Embassy and trying to get them to talk to the government, to let them have the results as they came out.

I foresee if this thing does develop into violence, that there will be the press publicity that Guatemala received two and three years ago, with impact upon the Hill as our economic and military assistance is concerned.

There is always the possibility of instability leading to a sudden radical change, although I think that is quite unlikely.

Our posture, I think, should be just to maintain our contacts with all elements, don’t take sides with any one of them. If we have to say anything, emphasize—

Secretary Kissinger: We don’t have to say anything—

Mr. Bowdler: —that this is a domestic matter.

Secretary Kissinger: Why should we have to say anything?

Mr. Bowdler: We may be asked in the press. I don’t know whether we were asked today or not. But it is conceivable we may be asked. If so, I think we just point out this is a domestic matter. If we are pressed, I guess we have to say, yes, we favor constitutional government, and just stop there.

Secretary Kissinger: I would just say we will stay the hell out of it. We concentrate on foreign policy here.

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to Guatemala.]

  1. Summary: Deputy Assistant Secretary Bowdler briefed Secretary Kissinger on Guatemala’s apparently fraudulent elections.

    Source: National Archives, RG 59, Transcripts of Secretary of State Kissinger’s Staff Meetings, 1973–1977, Entry 5177, Lot 78D443, Box 3, Secretary’s Analytical Staff Meet-ings. Secret. All brackets are in the original except those indicating text omitted by the editors. According to an attached list, the following people attended the meeting: Kissinger, Sisco, Brown, Easum, Hartman, Lord, Springsteen, McCloskey, Buffum, Bowdler, Maw, Casey, and Hyland. In telegram 1453 from Guatemala City, March 14, the Embassy reported that on March 12 the Guatemalan Congress voted in favor of Laugerud’s Presidency, certifying the government’s official count and finalizing what the Embassy characterized as “Guatemala’s current electoral farce.” (Ibid., Central Foreign Policy File, [no film number]) In telegram 1488 from Guatemala City, March 14, the Embassy recommended that, given the circumstances of Guatemala’s elections, no congratulatory message be sent to Laugerud until after he had received such messages from “at least several of the larger hemispheric governments and from several important extra-hemispheric governments.” (Ibid.)