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PERSPECTIVE ON DEMOCRACY : Is Squeaky Clean Squeaky Fair? : International election monitors fathomed the contradictions of Guatemala. Will they do as much in Mexico?

November 18, 1990|JORGE G. CASTANEDA | Jorge G. Castaneda, a professor of political science at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, was a member of the NDI election observer delegation to Guatemala

GUATEMALA CITY — Last Sunday's first round of the Guatemalan presidential elections is an excellent example of two fundamental trends in Latin American life and society today.

The hemisphere, with the exceptions of Cuba and Mexico, is living through a significant but circumscribed process of democratization. Second, the opening up of the majority of the region's economies, often beyond what prudence and sound policy would indicate, is being accompanied by a parallel "internationalization" of its politics.

More than 100 international observers officially monitored the Guatemalan vote; this is a new phenomenon that should be viewed in a broader context. Increasingly, Latin American elections, human-rights issues and environmental policies are becoming the object of foreign scrutiny, sometimes supervision and occasionally censure. These twin trends--limited democratization and political internationalization--were strongly present during Guatemala's voting last Sunday. The elections were technically clean and fair by any standards, yet not very relevant to the majority of the nation's inhabitants.

To begin with, voter participation is a major problem. Only about 70% of the population registered to vote, and only half of those went to the polls. A tenth of these voided their ballots or left their ballots blank, so the four major candidates split barely 30% of the eligible voters. The leading candidate received about 25%, representing less than 10% of the eligible voting population. Regionally, the situation is far worse, because the national average disguises very low voter registration and participation in most rural areas.

But disfranchisement is not just a function of abstention, electoral rolls and percentages. Those who vote least also make up the majority of Guatemala's population: the rural, indigenous peoples, whose beauty and dignity are surpassed only by their sadness and misery. Moreover, the significance of these elections for those millions of Guatemalans is further diminished by the fact that the main issues that affect them--land reform, human-rights violations, a negotiated conclusion to the civil war, tax reform and their own marginalization--were not addressed by candidates who freely confessed, in private, that the tacit condition established by the military for allowing a peaceful transfer of power was that none of the contestants make too many waves.

Thus, there seems to be a trade-off between the cleanliness of the electoral process and its real meaning. While this "democracy under surveillance" is not a feature of every nation in Latin America, there are analogous aspects in many countries: Chile, Argentina, perhaps even Brazil, Colombia and Peru. Consequently, there seems to be a growing awareness among observers of recent elections throughout Latin America that ..........

although the formal process is an indispensable ingredient to any solution of the region's problems, it is no more than that.

This is also largely true of the internationalization of the region's politics. It is not a panacea and is fraught with contradictions, inconsistencies and very real dangers. A delegation such as the one sent to Guatemala by the National Democratic Institute and led by former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt can easily mistake the trees for the forest, confusing procedure with substance and technical details with political process. It can wrongly conclude that the four or five days spent by a delegation in any given country are typical of everyday life.

In many cases, the observers are unfamiliar with the language, customs, history and political situation of the country and simply don't have the time to imbue themselves with the necessary information and sensitivity. Furthermore, despite reiterated commitments to nonintervention and respect for sovereignty, it is evident that international observation--along with international enforcement of human rights and environmental standards--does imply a degree of foreign interference in domestic affairs. Acknowledging this intrinsic characteristic of international monitoring should not lead to its rejection or dismissal, but it does introduce a note of caution and this caveat: There is a right way of doing this and also a wrong way.

The National Democratic Institute delegation in Guatemala is an example of doing it the right way. It was a pluralistic, multinational group, including Latin Americans, Europeans, Americans, one Israeli, one Australian and a South African envoy of the African National Congress. The group not only looked at the electoral process but also at the context. It talked--and more important, it listened to the various groups. Most of its internal discussions reflected the ambiguity of the situation: A clean and fair election, yet so meaningless to the country's real problem that it has been described by others as "electoral apartheid."

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