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Mixing Religion, Politics

WHEN Gen. Efra'in R'ios Montt seized power in a 1982 military coup, it electrified the evangelical world. The fervent evangelical preacher inspired Latin American counterparts with a vision of political power. Even American evangelist Pat Robertson implored television viewers in the United States to send their prayers and money to help General R'ios Montt in his battle against Satan, alias Guatemala's leftist guerrillas.

In rambling Sunday morning diatribes, the general blasted corruption and the Catholic Church as forcefully as he railed against guerrillas and their sympathizers. One year later, after offering an amnesty to the guerrillas while simultaneously continuing the Army's ``scorched-earth'' campaign to undercut rebel support, R'ios Montt was deposed by yet another military coup.

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But it was no political death. Six years later, Efra'in R'ios Montt is preparing for his ``second coming.''

The former ruler has announced that he is planning to run for president in the 1991 elections. Though the vote is still a year and a half away, little blue calendars are already being circulated with a message on the back: ``Efra'in R'ios Montt: Security, Order, Tranquility.''

``If R'ios Montt formalizes his candidacy, he could be very dangerous [for other candidates],'' says former Army colonel Jos'e Lu'is Cruz Salazar, now an analyst for the centrist Association of Social Studies and Investigations (ASIES).

Not only could he undercut the ruling Christian Democrats, but his presence could exacerbate the rift between evangelicals and Catholics. ``If R'ios Montt ever got to power,'' says Mr. Cruz, ``the conflict would explode.''

Still, the tough-as-nails general has a measure of popular support, even in the most battered highland war zones. One missionary in the region near Nebaj explains that R'ios Montt spent 60 percent of his budget on rural areas, giving people food, electricity, and clean water.

``If R'ios Montt had savvy advisors, he could possibly win the election,'' says Hugo Tulio Bucaro, a former Army colonel who mediated between R'ios Montt and the US Embassy after the general's accession in the 1982 military coup.

``But he's presumptuous and vain. He thinks all he has to do is announce his candidacy and the people will come running,'' Mr. Tulio Bucaro adds.

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Even some evangelicals wonder whether R'ios Montt's current campaign is anything more than a power trip.

``God put R'ios Montt into the presidency the first time,'' says evangelical pastor Juan Cedillo. ``But this time, I'm not so sure.''

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