The New Portillo Government: Demagoguery or Revolution?
The inaugural address, the first measures and some of the faces in the Cabinet of Guatemala’s new President
suggest an ambitious, innovative program. Expectations are running sky high. What will happen if none of this actually gets off the ground?
Juan Hernández Pico
Alfonso Portillo, Guatemala’s new President, took office on January 14, 2000, four hours late. It was an inauspicious beginning, but was not his fault. The new congress was to blame for the delay, since the final meeting of the outgoing 1996-2000 legislature and the first meeting of the new 2000-2004 legislature, which preceded the inauguration in the National Theater of the Miguel Angel Asturias Cultural Center, took place well behind schedule. Several diplomats and special guests, including Panama’s President Mireya Moscoso, fell asleep or left the theater during the long wait, but when the new President began to speak, his startling inaugural address soon made people forget their impatience. The man who took the podium is a member of the rightwing Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), founded and headed by Efraín Ríos Montt, the controversial retired general who took power through a coup in the early eighties and ran the country during the height of the repression. Portillo himself appeared to be a mixture of a religious leader, an astute, critical analyst and a spokesman for the most radical proposals we have heard in Guatemala since Jacobo Arbenz took office in 1950. His words were seasoned with deep conviction and a quick, incisive pace that suggested not so much a wish to leave time for the long, heavily-packed inaugural program—which included diplomatic events, an outdoor fiesta, Mayan blessings and the Te Deum in the cathedral—as an urgent desire to start implementing his program to transform a country whose patience is wearing thin.
A mandate for changePortillo began his speech by emphasizing the people’s "overwhelming" election of the first government since the peace accords were signed. He received 48% of the vote in the first round and nearly 70% in the second, with the lowest abstention rate in a decade. He interpreted the results as a mandate for profound change, and called the day of his government’s inauguration "transcendental."
From the beginning, Portillo declared that he would redirect state spending to meet the people’s priorities rather than satisfy the "pleasure or vanity" of their rulers. After a courteous parenthesis to praise the work of Alvaro Arzú’s government—in keeping with the line he took when they met during the transition period—Portillo again emphasized the sharp contrast between his proposals and his predecessor’s policies.
Five pillars of state reformIn a clear break with the "privatizing" principles that guided Arzú’s government, Portillo announced a "reform of the state." The phrase evoked a state that aims to recover a vast public space rather than one that merely serves to facilitate and arbitrate private interests. "We have had an abundance of state in the army, with its extensive control of the population, and too little state in many other areas."
In one of the main themes of his speech, he spoke of his government’s "five pillars." The first is the consolidation of democracy and reconciliation, with the peace accords as a starting point. He downplayed the fact that the previous government finished negotiating the accords and signed them, emphasizing instead that four governments since 1987 participated in the process. For this reason he described the accords as "a policy and commitment of the state," adding that, "on this point my government will follow the course set by its predecessor."
The second pillar is "the decentralization of power," which implies delegating power to the municipalities. As a sign of this intent, he invited the country’s 330 elected mayors to his inauguration. He announced his plan to reform the departmental Development Councils and to draw up a governability pact with political leaders and civic organizations. He described citizen participation as the soul of decentralization and spoke of cutting back on presidential power and control. To begin this task, he asked citizens to put forth "names of candidates, especially women candidates, to occupy posts in the departmental government offices," so that decisions go from the bottom up rather than the top down, as was previously the case. Will this turn out to have been pure demagoguery? One analyst noted that the candidates had already been contacted when this innovation was proposed.
The third pillar is an economic reform to encourage growth without special privileges. The fourth is a program to eradicate the country’s extreme social inequalities, in which Portillo recognized that Guatemala is third on the list of the world’s most inequitable countries. And the fifth is an all-out attack on impunity and corruption.
Six economic measuresPortillo spoke of the recession currently dominating the national economy. He emphasized that "public finances are severely unbalanced as a result of an imprudent growth in public spending." To deal with this, he proposed six concrete measures. 1) Reduce the national budget by 10%, without affecting social spending, in order to decrease a deficit that currently represents 3.1% of the GDP. 2) Increase tax collection, not by increasing taxes but by improving administration and rigorously pursuing and prosecuting tax evaders. His comment that he will not let himself be "pressured by powerful special interests that would like us to adopt improvised actions" perhaps refers to IMF recommendations to immediately raise taxes as a way to achieve the necessary increase in fiscal revenues. At 9.7% of the GDP, up from 8% when Arzú took office, this is still one of the lowest rates in Latin America. Both the peace accords and the multilateral organizations have called for increasing it to 12%, a goal that Arzú’s government was supposed to reach. 3) Establish a regulatory framework for banks and financial supervision to lower interest rates, encourage savings and control speculation. 4) Review the contracts privatizing the telecommunications and electricity companies, as well as their constantly increasing rates. It is in this area that the sharpest conflicts are likely to break out between his government and Arzú’s National Advancement Party (PAN) in its new role in the opposition. 5) Break up the private monopolies, cut their ability to impose prices and develop institutional initiatives to defend consumers. 6) Launch a strategic plan to encourage national and foreign investment in production, create jobs, find new export markets and speed up free trade negotiations with the countries of Central America and the rest of the world.
The program is impressive, but Portillo was vague on the means to carry it out. It is worth noting that the audience at the inauguration did not applaud the plans to decrease social inequalities or suppress privileges.
Demilitarization: Two important decisionsAnother theme in Portillo’s inaugural address was the country’s demilitarization. He expressed his satisfaction that, in the first session of Congress, legislators introduced a bill regulating the army that will allow him to name a civilian as defense minister. He added that the army would be governed by a new doctrine within a project to be discussed by civil society. Here the new government comes into conflict with the militaristic faction of his own FRG and a sector of the army. In this as in other issues, Portillo has reclaimed crucial aspects of the constitutional reforms that were rejected last May in a referendum with very low voter turnout. This demonstrates that his support—and that of Ríos Montt—for the referendum at the time was not merely opportunistic.
Portillo announced that until he could name a civilian defense minister he was appointing Colonel Juan de Dios Estrada, head of the Playa Grande military base in Ixcán when the peace accords were signed and more recently the country’s military attaché in Honduras. He also named Colonel César Augusto Ruiz Morales chief of staff for national defense, an operational nucleus under the army. The two appointments mean that a number of top-ranking officers, including 17 brigade generals, 2 division generals and 1 vice-admiral, are being retired or relegated—that is, assigned to barracks with salary but no command. At the level of senior officers, this blow is even sharper than the one dealt by former President Arzú in 1996 when he retired 6 generals, although Arzú also retired over 200 lesser-ranking officers at the same time.
The former defense minister, Division General Marco Tulio Espinoza, recognized that there "may be some individual discontent" among the relegated generals, but that it was "a political decision and the army must accept it with dignity and professionalism"—in other words, institutionally. Colonel Ruiz Morales commented to the press that "the President of the Republic took a rather bold decision, which I believe is characteristic of his personality. We’ll have to reformulate our plans to make them compatible with the President’s decisions, once he approves them."
As President-elect, Portillo said on several occasions that he would establish his presidential offices in the "cream-colored house," which has been the seat of the Defense Ministry and home of its minister for the past 40 years. Portillo, referring to the fact that other ministers are not given a home by the state, asked, "Why does the defense minister have such a privilege over and above the other ministers?"
In his speech, Portillo also expressed his satisfaction that the new legislature had immediately introduced a bill to disband the Presidential General Staff, which has been responsible both for protecting the President, Vice-President and their families, and for collecting and analyzing strategic information and intelligence. It will be replaced by an Administrative Secretary to the Presidency and a Secretary for Strategic Analysis, and other means will be found to guarantee the President’s security. This decision marks the end of one of the most hated sources of arbitrary military control, the infamous "files" kept on the population. To cite only one case among many, the former heads of the Presidential General Staff are attributed with the 1990 order to assassinate anthropologist Myrna Mack. The case against them, tirelessly pursued by her sister Helen, will soon be heard.
The Gerardi casePortillo also ordered an investigation to discover those responsible for the "abominable crime" that ended the life of Bishop Juan Gerardi. He said that the results of this investigation will be handed over to the Public Ministry, though he did not commit himself to a time frame, and described the fact that those responsible continue to enjoy impunity as "a national disgrace." He also took up the Historical Clarification Commission’s suggestion to make April 26, the day of Gerardi’s assassination in 1998, a day commemorating "the dignity of the victims" of Guatemala’s internal conflict.
Portillo explicitly accepted the recommendations of both the Catholic Church’s Project for the Recuperation of Historical Memory (REMHI)—which Gerardi presented two days before his assassination—and the Historical Clarification Commission, which was established in the peace accords and presented its report on February 25, 1999. He said that the program to compensate the victims or their families will be carried out, and that efforts will be made to learn the final fate of the disappeared and legally define the status of "absent by virtue of disappearance." He made no explicit allusion to the clandestine cemeteries.
Uncover the truth"The Historical Clarification Commission and REMHI have given us an opportunity to uncover the truth, recognize our mistakes, ask for pardon, ensure justice, dignify the memory of the victims and establish measures of just reparation. Guatemala cannot let this opportunity pass. I am convinced that true reconciliation can only be achieved on this basis," he said. After these words, the President asked for a minute of silence in memory of all the victims of the war.
There can be no denying the importance of these words and the symbolic gesture. It was the first time that Guatemala’s highest authority publicly recognized the results of these two independent studies, and the first time that the state asked for pardon and admitted the need to "uncover the truth" and "ensure justice" based specifically on these studies and not in general terms, as former President Arzú did on December 29, 1998. To what extent will the new President follow through on his words, and to what extent can he, given current realities of power? Whatever the case, there is undeniable historic value to the fact that he said them to the country and the world as he inaugurated his government. This is especially true since the FRG includes retired military officers and civilians—beginning with Ríos Montt himself—who are horrendously implicated in the truth that must be uncovered, some of them in imprescriptible crimes against humanity.
The priority of prioritiesAnother theme in the new President’s address was his list of priorities. One is to protect the environment, to leave a better Guatemala to future generations. Another is to support women’s development and leadership; Portillo announced that his government would create a National Women’s Institute. Another is the country’s indigenous population. He spoke of Guatemala’s great socio-diversity and the need to make its indigenous languages official—another of the measures rejected in the May referendum—which will not "undermine Spanish in any way as the country’s lengua franca." He mentioned the previously announced appointment of Otilia Lux de Cotí, a Quiché woman and former member of the Historical Clarification Commission, as minister of culture and sports—in reality, Portillo said, "minister of the cultures" of Guatemala.
Furthermore, he emphasized the priority his government will place on agriculture, which is another way of that he will put a priority on the fight against poverty among both indigenous people and ladinos. "Rural Guatemala can’t wait any longer," he said. He particularly emphasized the need for legislative support to carry out a cadastral study, a measure of transcendental importance already agreed to in the peace accords. It is essential, he said, to extend social services to "the hidden, forgotten Guatemala." Notably absent among this list of priorities was housing, the central drama in the poor neighborhoods surrounding the capital, where migrants live in overcrowded conditions.
Finally, Portillo named education as the priority of priorities that will characterize his government, around which all others will revolve. He announced that his government will pay attention to the whole course of education from primary school to the university—will this include professional schools for intermediate-level technical specialists?—and that teachers will receive the most attention. "Without education," he said, quoting Carlos Fuentes, "even the rich become poor."
These priorities must be organized in a long-term strategic plan that includes goals, deadlines, personnel, participatory planning methods and budgets. It is also worth noting that they include nothing that was not already included in the peace accords. This is why it is so important that the President has reaffirmed the accords as "state policy."
Populism, demagoguery? Portillo, a middle-class professional who comes not from the capital but from the departmental seat of Zacapa, summed up his priorities by saying, "I am a man of the people and I owe the people."
In the international arenaThe President quoted Pope John Paul II twice in his speech. The second time, Portillo stressed the words in the Pope’s recent annual address to diplomats: "Economic globalization," he repeated, "must be accompanied by the globalization of solidarity." Portillo then sketched out his government’s international policy. He emphasized the need for Guatemala to be more actively involved in multinational organizations working on migration and the fight against drug trafficking, two major problems in Guatemala. He pointed out that in these two areas, as in international aid, the country could work hand in hand with the United States. He insisted that the government would not act under the pressure of international organizations, leaving unclear whether his reference was to the IMF’s most recent dictates, or to the design of a less dependent model. He also emphasized the need to continue encouraging Central American integration and proposed that Guatemala pay more attention to what he called "the Meso-American region" of Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean, as well as the "Greater Caribbean," which also includes Venezuela and Colombia. He particularly thanked the countries that helped negotiate the peace accords—the United States, Norway, Spain, Mexico and Venezuela—and said that they will be priorities in Guatemala’s international relations, along with the European Union, "especially Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Germany and Italy." He expressed his thanks to Canada and Japan as well, and spoke of the importance of Guatemala’s relations with them. With respect to neighboring Belize, he expressed his hope that a settlement to their territorial disputes would soon be negotiated and that Guatemala would become Belize’s strongest promoter on the Central American scene. Not for the first time, but with notable emphasis, he thanked the United Nations for its work in the country though MINUGUA.
At the end of his speech, Portillo spoke of the need for dialogue in a government as complex as the current one. Guatemala has a Supreme Court with justices elected towards the end of the last Congress, which had a PAN majority; a new Congress with a large FRG majority and the PAN now in the opposition; and an executive branch he described as being "of the people." Recalling that he began his speech by describing the day as "transcendental," he then said, "I end it affirming that no one is strong enough to govern alone, and no one is too weak to lend support."
Legitimized by the elections When Guatemalan voters turned out for the first round on November 7, 1999, they gave none of the presidential candidates the absolute majority needed to win. With just over a million votes, Portillo pulled 47.8% of the valid vote; the PAN’s Oscar Berger won 30.3%; and Alvaro Colom of the New Nation Alliance Coalition—the alliance of the former guerrilla group with other leftist groups—won 12.3%. The other parties’ candidates, including one woman, split the roughly 10% remaining. The only share among these worth mentioning is the 1.3% that went to the leftist New Guatemala Democratic Front (FDNG), which broke away from the New Nation Alliance. A united left could thus have won perhaps 15% of the vote. Out of 2,350,000 valid votes, nearly 5% were annulled and 3.5% left blank.
The make-up of Guatemala’s unicameral Congress was completely turned around. The old Congress had 80 representatives, of which 43 belonged to the governing PAN, 2 more than the absolute majority but 11 less than the two-thirds majority needed to reform the Constitution or make similarly weighty decisions. The FRG had 21, the leftist FDNG 6 and the remaining 10 were divided among other parties or independent representatives. In the new Congress, which now has 113 representatives, the President’s FRG has 64, 7 more than the absolute majority but still 11 less than the two-thirds needed for major decisions. The defeated PAN has 37, the New Nation Alliance 9, and three other parties 1 each. The most significant of these is the Christian Democratic Party, whose seat was won by former President Vinicio Cerezo. While the Congress’s make-up has changed radically, the new majority bench will find it as difficult to pull together the two-thirds vote as the PAN did.
Mayors were elected in the country’s 330 municipalities. Thus far—the votes have yet to be tallied in 9 municipalities—the FRG won 147, the PAN 106, the New Nation Alliance 12, the Civic Committees 25, the Christian Democrats 10, the FDNG 5, and other parties 16. The left as a whole now governs 18 municipalities.
The second roundThe Supreme Electoral Tribunal waged a campaign to get out the vote, and there seemed to be consensus in civil society that voting was imperative. The consequent abstention rate of 46% in the first round was the lowest since 1990, when 43.56% of the registered voters abstained from the presidential elections between Carpio Nicolle and Serrano Elías. The abstention rate this time was 7% below the rate in the first round between Alvaro Arzú and Alfonso Portillo four years ago.
Given these results, it was not surprising that many people interested in the good of the country proposed that Berger and Portillo come to an agreement that would make a second round unnecessary. The agreement would have involved Berger’s conceding the elections, but the PAN apparently prevented Berger from following his good political instincts. Experts in constitutional law also pointed out that the second round is mandated constitutionally so that even if Berger had conceded, it would have gone ahead with the third-place candidate, Alvaro Colom.
The second round took place on December 26. Portillo won 68.29% of the valid vote to Berger’s 31.71%—over two to one. Berger won more first-round votes than Portillo in the capital—which has been PAN territory for the last 15 years and elected Fritz García Gallont, Arzú’s former communications minister, as its new mayor—but in the second round he won neither the capital nor any of the departments. Portillo won the elections with a greater number of votes than any other President since the transition to democracy began with the 1984 Constitution.
The abstention rate in the second round rose to 58.93% of registered voters. The figures in both rounds are probably inflated, however, since the electoral rolls have still not been cleared of people who have died or emigrated.
The economy was decisiveWhy were the election results so resounding? The main reason was probably the economy, which suffered a bad year in 1999. Although inflation was kept below 10%, housewives did not feel this to be the case in the markets, where they were often heard to complain that what they bought a year ago for 50 quetzals now costs 100. The persistent fall in the value of the quetzal in 1999, from 6.80 to the dollar in January to 7.80 in November, has weighed heavily on the middle class in the capital and the urban population in general. Rent on many houses and offices is charged in dollars, and imported food and other articles sold in the big shopping centers, together with plane tickets and bus tickets on the most comfortable buses in Central America, are calculated in dollars. The price of fuel has shot up: gas increased from 10 quetzales a gallon at the beginning of 1999 to over 14 at the end of the year. The prices of Guatemala’s main export products—coffee, sugar and bananas—all fell for the first time in years, leading to a loss in export earnings of around US$600 million. Financial speculation, especially in the Russian stock market, chewed up another $500 million. The Army Bank is rumored to have lost up to $120 million in speculation.
You can’t eat cementSince the 1994 constitutional reform prohibited the Bank of Guatemala from lending money to the government, Arzú’s government had to resort to loans from the private banking system to cover social spending. Apparently, it either could not or did not bother to try obtaining money from other less expensive sources. A large number of construction companies closed down, leaving thousands of workers unemployed. Many farm operations became so unsustainable that farmers chose to sell their land to the State Land Bank. Hurricane Mitch worsened the situation of many farmers, and broke two of the leading providers of agricultural credit. President Arzú dared to announce that Guatemala did not need the international offers to reduce or pardon its foreign debt, indeed small compared with that of other Central American countries but whose reduction, given the government’s enormous debt with the domestic banking system, would have had a significant effect.
One thing Arzú’s government could boast of before the elections was its enormous investment in communications infrastructure: over 2,000 kilometers of paved highways and many new rural roads. To construct them, however, it spent more than it could afford, especially after failing to meet the goal of increasing fiscal revenues from 8% to 12%. In good demagogic fashion, candidate Portillo came up with a popular slogan: "You can’t eat cement." He did not acknowledge that cement does permit people to transport what they produce or obtain what they need. Some believe that had the elections taken place at the end of either 1998 or 2000, the PAN and Berger might have won, but because they took place at the end of 1999, the recession was decisive.
The FRG’s Long years on the campaign trailIn 1982, when the leaders of the coup that overthrew the then-President, General Romeo Lucas García, asked General Efraín Ríos Montt to form part of the governing junta, they may not have imagined the strategy he would use to militarily defeat the guerrilla movement. It involved a militarization of society that was to last for well over a decade and that we are only now beginning to dismantle with the peace accords. The concrete strategy was to create a new armed structure in the indigenous highlands, the war’s main arena. No fewer than 900,000 people were enlisted, willingly or not, into this new form of militarization, known as Civil Self-Defense Patrols.
This organization remains latent, and the FRG called on it during its electoral campaign. More than a few military officers, retired after reaching high posts, were happy to answer the call. In the three years since the peace accords went into effect, exposing them to public shame, they have accumulated a good deal of bitterness and a desire to reclaim their standing.
The high crime rate is probably no worse than before, but now that the war is over, many people attribute it exclusively to the inefficiency of the Government Ministry and the National Civil Police under its command. This worked in favor of Portillo’s campaign, which was backed by the hard, disciplined image of General Ríos Montt. The inclination of the country’s Evangelists to favor strict application of the law and rigorous public order also influenced the election results. The lack of progress in the Gerardi case has distanced more than a few Catholics from Arzú’s government, which may have also played a part.
The FRG has actually been campaigning for many years, and its "paramilitary" capacity to organize the masses cannot be underestimated. Indeed, it is not far-fetched to wonder if the proliferation of lynchings in the country, which so discredited Arzú’s government for its inability to maintain order and justice, was not part of this "campaign." The FRG’s systematic opposition in Congress, making no concessions for five straight years, was also a way of campaigning. Alfonso Portillo was able to take advantage of all these factors by maintaining a consistent, unshakable image as a strong, professional man with a striking intelligence and an excellent knowledge of the national problems.
How explain Ríos Montt’s victory?For all that, how could the Guatemalan people have elected a party led by General Ríos Montt, who headed a government responsible for the cruelest repression in Guatemala’s history? Is this an issue only among intellectuals, citizens aware of human rights issues and the international community, or is it also important to most Guatemalans, particularly those who also suffered that repression?
Ríos Montt’s 1982-83 operation known as "Guns and Beans" goes back 18 years, while perhaps as many as 40% of today’s registered voters are between the ages of 18 and 30, and were just children at the time. Guatemala’s demography does nothing to help its historical memory. Furthermore, that operation, which was a more sophisticated means of continuing the "scorched earth" campaign of 1980-82, created a sanitary cordon around the areas where the massacres took place, which helped prevent news about the horrible events from reaching the capital. Moreover, as an indigenous intellectual has pointed out, people within the cordon saw young officers and soldiers but not Ríos Montt. Finally, some analysts have also suggested that history has been reinterpreted, attributing the blame now to some extent to the guerrillas for provoking the massacres rather than to the army for carrying them out. This, as one person noted, is rather like "blaming the biblical massacre of the innocent children not on Herod but rather on Jesus, for having been born there."
Time for the middle classWithout discounting the FRG’s capacity to mobilize the mass of people hurt and humiliated by poverty—a capacity increased by Portillo’s mental agility, populist speeches and demagogic tone—his victory can also be seen as that of a professional middle class that has finally won its moment in history.
The 1944-54 revolution was an attempt at a middle-class revolution, of intellectuals, students, teachers, union leaders, professionals, young army officers. It was ahead of its time, nationally and internationally, branded as "communist" and crushed by US interventionism and the fears of the Guatemalan oligarchy, who purchased the defense of their interests or infused other intellectuals, professionals and officers with them. The military and its "militarist" civilian allies charged dearly for this defense, and began to compete with the oligarchy on its own economic and financial playing field.
It is rumored that Portillo’s campaign depended not only on the organizational capacity of Ríos Montt and the other generals, but also on the political, even Machiavellian astuteness of Alfonso Cabrera, foreign minister in Cerezo’s government and himself a presidential candidate in 1990. It is worth recalling that Portillo’s tortuous political path has taken him from the radical left to the Christian Democrats, who elected him to Congress on their ticket, before moving to the FRG.
Cabrera, like Cerezo and many other Guatemalan politicians, is deeply rooted in the middle class, anxious to shed their dependence on the oligarchy, the military or the United States. More than a few people from President Portillo’s pluralistic campaign team and his new Cabinet share this background. Rubén Calderón, the new Secretary of Peace, was a teacher in Chapingo, Mexico; Edgar Gutiérrez, Secretary for Strategic Analysis, directed the REMHI project; Miguel Angel Reyes, Administrative Secretary to the Presidency, represented the URNG in the peace negotiations; Otilia Lux de Cotí, Minister of Culture and Sports, was a member of the Historical Clarification Commission; Demetrio Cojtí, illustrious university professor and Mayan intellectual, is now vice-minister of education. Many other people of greater or lesser rank in the new government also have a progressive history and come from the middle class. And so far, they all have a big advantage over Cabrera and Cerezo, since they are not marked by the corruption that stained these two politicians when they held power.
Both the Christian Democrats and the various incipient, truncated Social Democratic parties have represented the middle class in Guatemala. The Christian Democrats are fairly well represented in Portillo’s government. It was interesting that they did not present candidates for President, only for some municipal governments and for Congress. Now they have Cerezo in Congress, whose election prevented their extinction as a political party. Portillo has also brought two of their members onto his team: Manuel Maza in the Treasury and Lizardo Sosa in the "shadow cabinet"—an innovative watchdog group Portillo created to oversee the management of government affairs. Above all, they have the influence of Alfonso Cabrera, their eminence gris.
In referring to private enterprise in his inaugural address, Portillo mentioned only small and medium-sized producers. No big business representative has a post in his Cabinet. This is another sign of the political affirmation of the middle class, though it is hard to imagine that the President can govern effectively without a close relationship or dialogue with big business.
The cost of arrogancePresident Arzú’s lineage, combined with an arrogance bordering on haughtiness, is one of the reasons for the defeat of his party and his candidate. These characteristics seem to be typical of the oligarchs who enter the public arena. Arzú never accepted criticism. Even in his final speech as President, when handing over the office, there was no hint of self-criticism. His public farewells on television showed him in the garden of his house in Antigua, virtually accusing the Guatemalan people of ingratitude for not having recognized all that his government did for them. In today’s world, it is hard to govern with the media’s opposition. Alvaro Arzú earned their enmity from the start.
Portillo defeated Berger with the clarity and intelligence of his proposals, but Berger was also defeated by Arzú’s arrogance and a feeling that Arzú would continue to run things in the PAN. Another very important issue for the middle class and people in general was the shadow of corruption that fell over PAN members and President Arzú himself, obliterating the image of honesty and disinterest they enjoyed when he began his term in office. It is said that Arzú left office as one of the largest if not the largest shareholder in TELGUA, the Guatemalan telecommunications company. Four years ago, when he was elected, it was assumed that since he and his people were rich, they would not steal. That image changed, leaving people extremely disillusioned.
So will it be a middle-class revolution?President Jacobo Arbenz represented a revolution of the middle class in 1950-54, one clearly on the side of the people; it was not in vain that they called him "the people’s soldier." But that revolution was violently aborted. More recently Fito Mijangos, Manuel Colom and Alberto Fuentes Mohr—all assassinated—also represented the possibility of a democratic transformation of Guatemala led by the middle class. Has the time finally come for a transforming program like the one Portillo sketched out in his inaugural address to be carried out in Guatemala today? And does he intend to really try?
It is a bad sign that the new President began his term by moving his place of residence from a simple middle-class neighborhood to an exclusive district belonging to the old oligarchy and new financial wizards. It is a bad sign that the congressional representatives immediately gave themselves $750 a month raises to cover public appearance expenses. But above and beyond such signs, the most important thing will be for Portillo to distance himself quickly from the baggage implied by a Congress presided over by General Ríos Montt, who on January 19 delayed the army’s ceremony honoring its new chief by insisting that "they should also honor me." This man who wants to share the honors is the same one who ran the government when the Guatemalan state was guilty of genocide, according to the findings of the Historical Clarification Commission.
What is to come?Portillo’s inaugural address has raised expectations sky high. What will happen if none of this actually gets off the ground? What will happen if the only reason for including people from the left in the new government, especially two people responsible for the REHMI and Historical Clarification Commission reports, was to clean up the image of a government that also includes people responsible for disappearances, torture and other crimes against humanity? What will happen if the structural tendencies of the FRG and other economic and political forces "suck dry" the leftist intellectuals in the government, as political analyst Edelberto Torres Rivas fears? Or if, as some other analysts fear, Portillo’s speech masks a strategy to enthrone a state bureaucracy along the lines of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party? The decades that have elapsed between the PRI’s coming to power and any similar attempt in Guatemala would not be surprising, since more than a few times, Guatemala has followed Mexico’s lead at a later date. Juárez and Barrios are examples, as are the 1910 Mexican revolution and the 1944 Guatemalan revolution.
The proposals and the challenges are on the table. It is now the task of civil society, of all its organizations of intellectuals, human rights groups, groups fighting against impunity, ethnic groups, the environmental movement, women’s groups and religious groups, to prepare the tests to determine the real political will of Portillo’s government. It is their task to demand that the new government take the measures—fiscal ones, for example—needed for it to surmount the financial limits that will otherwise suffocate it, and explain these measures so that people understand them and not only become indignant with them. Social organizations must encourage the mobilization that will restore people’s capacity to negotiate and participate. If Portillo leads a government that achieves even a small part of what he has proposed, Guatemala as a whole will come out ahead. If not, people may lose patience, with unforeseeable consequences.