It happened today - August 8, 2015

Rios MonttHere’s a weird one. It’s 22 years since Efrain Rios Montt was ousted as dictator of Guatemala by his own defence minister after just over 17 months in office.

It might seem just one more sordid chapter in the long unhappy story of Latin American politics, even though Rios Montt is the first former head of state to be tried for genocide by his own country’s courts.

He was convicted and given 80 years in jail, 50 for genocide and 30 for crimes against humanity, but promptly appealed and it’s still going on; as he is 89 he will not really face justice in this world now. And he has much to answer for; his rule was brutal, albeit in a troubled time.

Guatemala was embroiled in a bloody civil war at a time when Latin America was threatened by Soviet subversion. It does not excuse war crimes. But it does underline that the situation seemed desperate.

Which is why there is something I find very revealing about Rios Montt’s otherwise grim tale. Very unusually for a Latin American public figure, he was an evangelical Protestant, a Pentecostal in fact. And rather than hiding this polarizing and unpopular fact, he delivered sermons on the radio on Sunday evenings the whole time he was president.

I was much struck by this at the time for a reason that might seem rather dry. But stay with me here.

Much analysis of politics, especially non-democratic politics, is built on the assumption that people like Stalin or Hitler are only interested in power, or rather obsessed with it. Their ostensible beliefs are taken to be merely tools for manipulating the masses or deceiving foreigners in their mad lunge for formless, purposeless power.

I have never agreed with that, or at least not since Richard Gregor’s third-year undergraduate seminar at the University of Toronto persuaded me that the driving force behind Bolshevism was, well, Bolshevism. And I think Rios Montt is a case study because his vocal championing of an unpopular, outsider religion primarily associated with the United States had no possible utility in his “quest for power”.

Quite the reverse, it threatened it by making his people regard him as an unstable weirdo and somehow un-Guatemalan, especially given his already controversial close ties to the Reagan-era U.S. including the CIA, and to Israel. (His own brother is a respected Catholic bishop who headed an investigation into his human rights violations.)

Other factors contributed to his downfall, factors more significant than his sermonizing. But the fact remains that there’s only one possible explanation for this off-putting proselytizing activity: He believed in it. And if that can be true of a weird and peripheral aspect of the beliefs of an otherwise minor dictator, then it can be true of weird but central aspects of the beliefs of more dangerous tyrants.