Anyone wondering what happened to the 1960s might visit Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. Surrounded by majestic volcanoes and emerald hills, with a calm surface forever changing color, the lake is one of Latin America’s most spectacular sights, and it has become a mecca for foreign travelers. From Berkeley and Boulder, Paris and Milan, the sandaled tourists come, most of them crowding into the small picturesque town of Panajachel on the lake’s northern shore.
No stay at Panajachel is complete without a boat ride across the lake. Passengers are dropped off in Santiago Atitlán, a small pueblo on the lake’s southern rim. The contrast with Panajachel could not be more striking. Poor and densely populated, with narrow rutted streets and crumbling houses, Santiago is a typical Mayan village. Most of its residents wear traditional Indian clothes—the women, intricately woven scarlet dresses; the men, striped embroidered pants extending to mid-calf. Santiago’s woven textiles are popular with tourists, and by day the town is filled with American and European bargain-hunters.
At night, however, Santiago Atitlán becomes a far more menacing place. Guerrilla activity has grown lately along the lake’s southern shore, and the sound of armed clashes can be heard from the surrounding hills. More frightening are the bands of masked men who prey on the town. “There are attacks here all the time,” says Juan (not his real name), a seventeen-year-old seminary student. One night earlier this year, Juan’s father, a campesino working part-time as a public health aide for the Catholic Church, was walking with a friend on the outskirts of town when they were set upon by a group of men wielding machetes. The friend was killed, and Juan’s father was badly wounded. No one knows who carried out the attack or why, but the connection with the Church probably played a part. “Many of those who are attacked here are working with the Church,” Juan said. He has had to interrupt his studies to help support his family. “Anyone who works with the Church is seen as working with the people.” And that, he said, was enough to make one suspect.
Guatemala seems to be simultaneously moving forward into a new era of tolerance and sliding backward into the Dark Ages. President Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo—“Vinicio” to both friend and foe—is about to complete five years in the National Palace. Barring some last minute upheaval, he will be only the third civilian president this century to finish his term—a step forward for Guatemala’s democratic system, which was installed only with the election of Cerezo in 1985. Guatemalans vote on November 11 for a new president, who will take office on January 15.
On the other hand, Cerezo’s performance has given democracy a bad name. In Guatemala I heard many stories about his wild parties, his affairs with women, his sudden, extraordinary wealth. On weekends, which can last as long as four days, Cerezo retreats to the …