The moralizing of a vocal Protestant head of state was difficult in a Catholic country

As suddenly and almost as unexpectedly as he came to power 17 months ago, General Efraín Ríos Montt was “relieved of his responsibility” as president of Guatemala by the military high command on August 8. He was succeeded by General Oscar Humberto Mejía Victores, his defense minister.

The new head of state pledged to continue the basic reforms instituted by Ríos Montt, including cracking down on administrative corruption, respect for human rights, and a return to democracy. He said the process leading to elections, which already was in progress, would be continued. The official communique issued at the time of the coup gave two main reasons for the action: the personal ambition of a small group to “perpetuate itself indefinitely in power” and the “abuse” of a “fanatical and aggressive religious group” that “used the position of power of its highest members for its own benefit.”

Some observers saw the real reason as an attempt by senior military officers to regain the control lost when junior officers engineered the March 23, 1982, coup that deposed President Romeo Lucas García. There had also been increasingly shrill criticism of Ríos Montt in recent weeks from politicians and Catholic church spokesmen. A controversial new 10 percent value-added tax—essentially a sales tax—which began August 1 as part of a fiscal reform package, had also caused unhappiness, as had rumors that the government was planning to institute an agrarian reform program.

Behind the rhetoric of “sectarian fanaticism” it seems there was a religious element in the removal from office of Guatemala’s first evangelical president. A spokesman for the Committee for a Catholic ...

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