Image from Flickr user David Amsler.

By Kate Newman and Rodrigo Fuentes

On July 15th, Carlos Mendoza stepped into the Salón del Pueblo of Congress in Guatemala City. He made his way to the front of the room, took the microphone, and began to voice his objections to a bill, which would require biblical instruction in all public and private schools throughout the nation. Mendoza is a member of Guatemala’s Association of Secular Humanists. Speaking calmly, he argued that the bill violated international human rights conventions and the constitutional separation of church and state.

Mendoza’s message was not well received. The audience was mostly composed of Christian leaders; along with Honduras, Guatemala has the highest percentage of Evangelical Protestants in Latin America. The pastors began to heckle Mendoza, shouting, “Satan,” “Save the children,” and “Get out!”

“This is how theocracies begin.”

The man behind the biblical education initiative is Congressman Marvin Osorio, a born-again Christian and member of Guatemala’s LIDER party. Manuel Baldizón, LIDER’s presidential candidate, is ahead in the polls for the country’s September 6 elections.

In an interview on the biblical education bill earlier this year, Congressman Osorio emphasized that his intentions were not political but holy: “This is a vision that the Lord gave me, a vision which is not Marvin Osorio’s… Guatemala should feel blessed because God chose me.” The bill promises to reduce violence by instilling moral values in children and teens.

The Association of Secular Humanists warned: “This is how theocracies begin.”

This concern holds particular weight in Guatemala, where leaders have long used religion to mask and defend criminal activity. In 1982, dictator Efraín Ríos Montt justified his military coup and subsequent rule on divine grounds. He famously gave Sunday televised sermons as part of his national “moralization” campaign.

But his religious convictions didn’t lead to a more peaceful society. Ríos Montt’s tenure continued a particularly violent period in Guatemala’s thirty-six-year civil war, which led to the deaths of over 200,000 civilians. In December of 1982, army special forces carried out a massacre in the village of Dos Erres. They tortured and murdered men, women, and children, leaving more than 200 dead. The UN Truth Commission report estimates that 48 percent of the war’s human rights violations took place in 1982 alone.

Many suspect the Constitutional Court’s decision to annul the conviction was due to pressure from a conservative elite fearing further investigations into its own involvement in the civil war.

In May 2013, Ríos Montt was sentenced to eighty years in prison for charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. His conviction was later overturned following a barrage of motions and appeals by Ríos Montt’s defense team. Many suspect the Constitutional Court’s decision to annul the conviction was due to pressure from a conservative elite fearing further investigations into its own involvement in the civil war. Ríos Montt’s case was set to resume in court last month, but his defense argued that he was mentally unfit to face trial.

Throughout the capital city today, political ads compete for space on lampposts—the faces of candidates wrinkled from the afternoon rains. In rural areas, vast stretches of mountain are painted in party colors; the deep red of LIDER is especially prominent.

A profound sense of weariness with the system is evident even in the political campaigns themselves. “#SiHayPorQuienVotar” reads one candidate’s billboard (“Yes, there is someone to vote for”); “#NiCorruptoNiLadron” (“Neither corrupt nor a thief”) reads another.

Guatemala is experiencing what analysts have called a “Central American Spring”—triggered by corruption scandals resulting in the resignation and arrest of Vice President Roxana Baldetti, tens of thousands of protestors have been filling the capital city’s central plaza, now calling for the resignation of President Otto Pérez Molina.

Crucial in exposing this corruption has been CICIG, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, which operates under a UN mandate alongside national institutions. Although CICIG has been present in the country since 2007, the body has been especially active in targeting corrupt high-ranking government officials over the past several months.

Protestors are disenchanted with the lack of trustworthy options in the upcoming elections. To the beat of drums, carrying torches and banners, they chant, “En estas condiciones, no queremos elecciones!” (“In these conditions, we don’t want elections!”).

Baldizón has appeared before crowds with the Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other.

From his ads, presidential candidate Manuel Baldizón beams at passersby with what looks like the self-assured smile of victory. To many Guatemalans, Baldizón’s win feels inevitable. He holds a lead in the polls—recently 30 percent with his closest follower at about 20 percent. His political campaign message is the simple “Le toca” (“It’s his turn”).

It is not surprising that Baldizón belongs to the same political party to put forth the biblical education bill. Many have noted his messianic campaign techniques: he has appeared before crowds with the Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other. He often gifts wheelchairs at the end of his events; he has been known to carry the handicapped onstage in his arms. Announcing his candidacy during the last elections, he led the crowd in enthusiastic prayer.

Baldizón is not the only presidential hopeful to use religion in speeches and ads, but voters have reason to be especially wary of this candidate. Baldizón has been called the “Berlusconi of Petén” thanks to the power he holds in his home region—close connections to the oil business, ownership of the largest cable company, and sole distributor of news channels in the area. When an interview aired on CNN last month in which the Director of CICIG spoke critically of Baldizón, two channels in Petén lost signal and audio went dead for CNN.

Several of his party members face serious accusations of corruption and money laundering. The Attorney General and CICIG have charged Baldizón’s running mate, Édgar Barquín, with being part of a money-laundering scheme when he served as president of the Banco de Guatemala.

In US embassy cables sent in 2009 and later released by Wikileaks, Ambassador Stephen McFarland wrote that the addition of several new congressmen to LIDER was “helped by Baldizon’s unannounced but widely known offer of USD 61,000 to any deputy who switches to his bench.” Congressman Marvin Osorio, author of the biblical education proposal, switched to LIDER from another political party in February of last year.

Baldizón has been frank about his use of religion as a means of appealing to voters. During his previous campaign, he sounded a shofar, the ram’s horn used in Jewish and some Christian ceremonies. When asked why he used the instrument in an interview with Plaza Pública, Baldizón replied, “Because people identify with the character. When people cry, and get on their knees, and you kneel with them, you enter another sphere. A bond is created: the supernatural.”

On July 22, following CICIG’s formal accusations against LIDER’s Vice Presidential candidate and several congressmen seeking reelection, 3,000 party supporters gathered outside the Supreme Court, carrying signs and candles. It wasn’t a protest, the party’s spokesman clarified, but a vigil, a day of prayer. Joined by several Evangelical pastors, the group spoke against CICIG’s accusations of corruption, money laundering, and illegal funding for their campaign.

It remains unclear how the biblical education law figures into LIDER’s broader strategy.

Barquín, Baldizón’s running mate, addressed the crowd, making clear his party’s stance on cooperation with CICIG. “Democracy has been threatened by international interventionism,” he said, “and dark clouds have been created to slander the leadership of Dr. Baldizón.”

It remains unclear how the biblical education law figures into LIDER’s broader strategy. Some suspect it may be a tactic to divert attention from allegations of corruption. Others suggest a more cynical exchange: LIDER would gain religious votes by collaborating with churches, while Christian leaders would be able to proselytize through the state.

The LIDER vigil was reminiscent of another religious gathering; on November 28, 1982, Ríos Montt spoke before hundreds of thousands of Evangelical Guatemalans in the capital city. “The one in charge here is Jesus Christ,” he cried, as hallelujahs rose from the crowd below. “We defend ourselves not by the army or its swords but by the Holy Spirit.”

That day in November, Ríos Montt called for Guatemalans to reclaim a nation built on biblical righteousness. The country’s political and economic woes would only end, he argued, with the spiritual rebirth of the nation. Today, in his attempts to sway voters and distract from the allegations against him, Baldizón shows similar readiness to use religion as a weapon of political power.

Kate Newman

Kate Newman is a writer and translator based in Guatemala and New York.

Rodrigo Fuentes

Rodrigo Fuentes is a Guatemalan writer, editor, and academic.

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