Guatemala's Indians watch presidential race with apathy or hostility


SAN ANTONIO PALOPO, Guatemala -- Less than six weeks before the Nov. 11 presidential elections, Guatemala's largest group of voters -- Indians, who make up more than 50 percent of the population -- are watching the democratic exercise with apathy, profound reservations or outright hostility.

In the capital, more than a dozen non-Indian candidates are already campaigning at full steam for the first presidential race in Guatemala's history likely to result in the transfer of power from one elected government to another. Streets are lined with political signs. Campaign cars are blasting political slogans from loudspeakers mounted on their roofs.

But in this scenic town on Lake Atitlan about 100 miles west of Guatemala City, where the whole population of 3,500 is Indian and almost everybody wears colorful Indian garments, there is nothing approaching electoral fever.

"Nobody pays any attention to the presidential race here," said Santos Perez, the Indian mayor of San Antonio Palopo. "People are conscious that none of the candidates will do anything for us."

Guatemala's Indians are possibly the most segregated and oppressed native majority in the Western Hemisphere. There are no Indians in senior government positions. While making up nearly half the population, they occupy only nine seats in Guatemala's 100-member Congress.

Most Guatemalan Indians don't speak Spanish. More than 70 percent of them are illiterate. Sixty percent of the children in some rural areas die of malnutrition or diarrhea before reaching the age of 5.

In San Antonio Palopo, there is not one single physician. The first elementary school was opened only two years ago. It is attended by 45 percent of the town's children, and few are expected to stay beyond second grade.

Many "Ladinos" -- as Guatemalans of mixed blood are known -- still use expressions such as "mas estupido que un Indio [dumber than an Indian]," or poke fun at Indian men who wear skirts as part of their traditional outfit.

"This is a racist society in which the ruling class still regards Indians as servants," said Mario Solorzano, leader of the left-of-center Socialist Democratic Party.

Unlike Indians in Brazil, Ecuador and other Latin American countries, Guatemala's indigenous population has barely raised its voice as an ethnic group to demand its rights. Many blame the passivity on the fact that the Indians are divided in 22 tribes, which speak as many dialects.

Fear of military repression is also a factor. More than 100,000 Guatemalans, most of them Indians, have been killed in political violence over the past three decades. As many as 40,000 Indians fled to Mexico in the early 1980s to escape army repression, according to Americas Watch, the human rights monitor.

Although mass killings of Indians during army anti-guerrilla sweeps have dropped since the 1986 inauguration of elected President Vinicio Cerezo, they have not stopped. Most Indian leaders say they still fear for their lives if they speak out.

"We should become a pressure group, but we are afraid of getting killed," said Perez, the San Antonio Palopo mayor who is a Socialist Democratic militant. "We're paralyzed by fear."

So far, the Indians have largely protected themselves from the "Ladino" political establishment by trying to stay away from it as much as possible.

When center-right presidential candidate Jorge Carpio, the front-runner in most polls, made a campaign stop in San Antonio Palopo, fewer than 20 people attended his rally, the town's mayor said. Other candidates wouldn't have fared any better, he said.

In the last presidential elections, fewer than half the town's voters went to the polls. Votes in the town's mayoral race by far surpassed the number cast for presidential candidates.

"Our ties to the outside world are growing," said Mr. Perez, one of the few men in the village who has traded his Indian garments for Western clothing. "But we are just beginning a process that Indians in other countries began decades ago."

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