Will Anyone Register the General?
Resolutions and appeals of all kinds have been presented in this case,
but the decision on allowing General Ríos Montt to run for President—
in spite of a constitutional prohibition—is not only a legal one.
The violence around his candidacy has helped unveil the
hidden powers that still pull the strings in Guatemala.
Juan Hernández Pico
Guatemala’s November 8 presidential, legislative and municipal elections, which will continue into December if a second round is required, are of utmost importance. They will either make it possible for all sorts of criminal trafficking to become firmly ensconced within the halls of government, or will send the country’s hidden powers back into the shadows. To be sure, they will continue to operate from outside the state in that second scenario, but they will be much more exposed to the new environment slowly emerging from the transition to democracy, which is inhospitable to them. The fight from now until election day will be waged, as in the Batman movies, to prevent the underworld from overrunning the metropolis.
Taking off their masksWhen President Alfonso Portillo took office, one hypothesis we suggested was that his government would provide a second chance for the middle-class revolution that tried to democratize Guatemala between 1944 and 1954 but was frustrated by the oligarchy, the army and the United States, which branded the project communist, crushed it and sent the country reeling into a 36-year civil war (1960-1996). Now, three and a half years later, Portillo and the ruling Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) have revealed themselves to be the facilitators and beneficiaries of new capital, as exclusive and excluding as the old, with its origins in corruption and global networks of illegal trade crime. This capital belongs to Guatemala’s nouveaux riches, the powers that literally took off their masks on July 24 and 25.
In the early morning hours of Thursday, July 24, a hundred inter-urban buses let 4-5,000 poor Mayan and ladino (non-indigenous) peasants off at five strategic points around the capital: the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Court, the Business Center and Avenue of the Americas, which leads to Las Conchas and La Cañada, two of the capital’s wealthiest neighborhoods that also house many international embassies and agencies.
Their leaders arrived in pick-up trucks with covered license plates, filled with sticks, machetes and nets weighted with stones. The level of organization and discipline was reminiscent of the military as they distributed the rudimentary but potentially lethal weapons among the crowd. Several of the leaders also brandished pistols, which they shot off from time to time. Other pick-ups brought tires to burn in the streets. The leaders directed the crowd to the five strategic points as though well accustomed to leading shock troops.
The mob then went into action, chasing journalists, photographers and camera people who were trying to document what was happening. We saw scenes on TV of people dousing one reporter from El Periódico with gas and then trying to corral him and burn him alive. Fortunately, the journalist managed to outrun his pursuers and escaped. Many people have been lynched this way in the countryside in recent years and the instigators and perpetrators of these crimes have in many cases been identified as former military commissioners and heads of Civil Self-Defense Patrols.
While the leaders had their faces covered with ski masks or wide scarves and wore wide-brim Texas hats, several of them were photographed in moments of unguarded euphoria. Those identified included an FRG congressional candidate and three current FRG representatives including Jorge Arévalo, their top election official and a member of the party leadership. Also identified was a niece of retired General and FRG leader and founder Efraín Ríos Montt, who is currently Congress president, and the secretary of his daughter Zuri Ríos Sosa, who runs the Congress alongside her father as its vice president
The death of a journalistThe armed mobs tried to catch other journalists as well and chased after Héctor Ramírez, known as “Reporter X,” of Channel 7’s news program Notisiete. Ramírez, 61 years old, managed to escape by climbing over the fence around a house, where he stopped in exhaustion and asked for a glass of water. Before they could bring it to him, however, he collapsed from a heart attack and stroke. He was dead by the time help arrived.
The autopsy concluded that he died of natural causes, of course resulting from fear and the stress of the chase. Some people described it as manslaughter, but Conchita Mazariegos, a lawyer with the National Union for Hope and former president of the Constitutional Court, reported that Ramírez’ head showed signs of sharp blows, which meant his death should be considered intentional homicide.
During both the failed murder attempt and the chase after Ramírez, police officers on the scene only observed the events from a distance, without intervening because they had no order to do so. It was patently clear that the shock troops’ impunity had been guaranteed.
Journalists close ranksNotisiete’s editorial policy under the Portillo government has generally been to support the FRG’s interests. Its owner, Angel González, who also has TV stations in several other Latin America countries, lives in Miami, but his brother-in-law, Luis Rabbé, has ties to the army—his brother is a colonel— and was appointed minister of communications, infrastructure and housing in 2000 after an unsuccessful run for mayor of Guatemala City the previous year. Though Rabbé was removed in 2001 for incompetence and such strong evidence of corruption that the US Embassy cancelled his visa, he is running once again as the FRG’s candidate for mayor of the country’s capital.
Ramírez’s death changed everything in the media world. A combination of fear, indignation and solidarity united all TV news programs in a collective mourning that sidestepped the owners’ interests and brought their position into line with the one taken by the written press. The same thing happened at the radio stations. The most impressive part of this was seeing and hearing Notisiete’s anchors express their indignation towards the FRG, recall Ríos Montt’s genocidal past—something few opposition candidates have done—and call for civic resistance to prevent a return to the repression and terror of the past. Their words were spoken with a force rarely heard in Guatemala.
The targets of the crowds now described by the media as “violent mobs” and “raging hordes” were the three high courts with jurisdiction over the registration of electoral candidates; the journalists who filmed, photographed and tried to interview those involved; and the country’s traditional business class. They also included some of that class’ political, economic and oligarchic symbols, including the residence of former President Alvaro Arzú and the two tall buildings of the Business Center. This center contains the offices of Multiinversiones S.A., owners of the Pollo Campero fast food restaurants, whose majority and perhaps only stockholders are members of the Gutiérrez family, and the studio of “Libre Encuentro” (Free Exchange). a televised weekly political debate show led by businessman and journalist Dionisio Gutiérrez, a member of this same family.
The age-old nightmareThe Mayan ethnicity of many of the peasant farmers brought into the capital stirred up one of the recurring racist nightmares of the class that has traditionally held power here: “la indiada,” the Indian masses, coming down from the mountains into the capital and taking angry revenge for the horrors of the Conquest and many other more recent massacres.
The fact that the Mayans were accompanied by non-Mayan or ladino peasant farmers doubled the fears: the wealthy trembled not only at the possibility of an inter-ethnic confrontation, but also the dreaded class struggle. For them, the most striking part of these events was that neither police nor army seemed interested in defending them from this fury. At 3:00 pm, President Portillo reported on national television that he had ordered the police and army to go out in the streets to maintain order. Either he lied, as he has lied throughout his presidency, or they failed to obey him. Which would be worse?
Human rights ombudsperson and archbishop arriveSome 900 people, including women and children, were trapped in the Business Center during the rioting, kept there by force for over ten hours, suffering from the smoke of the burning tires. Finally, tired of seeking police support, Human Rights Ombudsperson Sergio Morales and the Archbishop of Guatemala, Rodolfo Quezada Toruño, decided to go to the center.
Morales, who bravely stayed on the scene the rest of the day, phoned the minister of government, merely informing him that the two were on their way. When they arrived, the leaders of the rioting crowds had withdrawn their forces. The government could not have handled the consequences if either of the two men had been insulted, wounded, or even killed.
July 17: The general can runWhat accounts for all this violence? A week earlier, on July 17, the Constitutional Court had voted 4-3 to accept General Ríos Montt’s appeal against a Supreme Court resolution denying him the right to register as a presidential candidate. By a 12-1 vote, the Supreme Court justices had concluded that his candidacy would violate article 186 of the Constitution, which prohibits anyone who has led a coup d’état or acted as head of state of a de facto regime from becoming President. The article also bars their close relatives from the country’s highest post. In 1982, Ríos Montt accepted the invitation of a group of officers who had just overthrown the government to form part of a military junta. He soon removed that junta with another coup, which left him as head of state until August 1983.
The courts had already issued a long string of decisions against his candidacy in response to his two previous attempts to run for President, in 1990 and 1995. This year, the Civil Registry, the Supreme Electoral Council (by a 3-2 vote) and the Supreme Court reiterated that same position.
The four Constitutional Court justices who accepted his appeal dismissed those decisions, however, arguing that the law cannot be retroactively applied (the current Guatemalan Constitution was passed in 1985). Most constitutional law specialists do not see this issue as relevant here, however, pointing out that article 186 does not involve criminal sanctions but rather establishes the conditions one must meet in order to aspire to the presidency, just as it establishes that candidates must be of Guatemalan origin and enjoy the full exercise of their civic rights.
July 20: The general can’t runAs the highest court in the land, the Constitutional Court’s decision was to be final. Nevertheless, on Sunday, July 20, the Supreme Court provisionally accepted an appeal against it presented by lawyers from the National Union for Hope and its candidate Alvaro Colom Caballeros, based on procedural grounds. The move blocked the registration of Ríos Montt’s candidacy until the Supreme Court issues its final decision on the two procedural issues.
The first has to do with the Constitutional Court’s composition. It is made up of five justices and two alternates, the latter elected by a drawing carried out by the Court’s president in the presence of its secretary. The person who had served as secretary for many years with great competence and honesty resigned on the very day the drawing was to be held, and was immediately replaced by someone known to be favorable to the FRG. The fact that the two alternates then chosen are known sympathizers of Ríos Montt raised suspicions about the transparency of the election, especially since Ríos Montt had brazenly declared to the media several weeks earlier that the court would decide 4-3 in his favor.
The second procedural issue revolves around the concern that some of the justices should have recused themselves on this decision.
Chronicle of a violence foretoldWhen the procedural appeal was admitted, the celebration in the FRG ranks—“Finally, the General is running!”—turned to indignation. Ríos Montt spoke out quite directly: “This has not been done in accord with the law, and when we don’t act in accord with the law, violence may result. The party’s leaders and members may not be in a position to control its sympathizers.” The threat was clear, and the violence foretold was indeed unleashed 72 hours later.
The FRG immediately presented an appeal to block the appeal, known as an ocurso, before the Constitutional Court. It was rejected three to two. The three votes against it were cast by two full justices who had already voted against Ríos Montt’s candidacy (Rodolfo Rohrmoser, elected to his post by the Supreme Court, and Francisco Flores, elected by the Lawyers’ Guild), and alternate Gloria Melgar. Ruiz Wong, president of the Court, and Cipriano Soto cast the votes in favor.
Almost immediately, all the Supreme Court justices recused themselves from considering the appeal against Ríos Montt’s candidacy on the grounds that they had already participated in a previous decision against it. The thirteen presidents of the various Appeals Courts, the institution immediately below the Supreme Court, then reconstituted it. Thus established, the court admitted the appeal, blocking Ríos Montt’s registration as a candidate for the moment. But on Thursday July 24, before this appeal and several other appeals and counter-appeals also pending before the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court could be considered, Ríos Montt’s followers orchestrated the violence in the streets of the capital.
On July 30, the Constitutional Court decided 4-3, with questionable argumentation, to direct the Supreme Court to annul the provisional order against the General’s registration and accept no more appeals, which is unconstitutional. At the same time, it directed the Supreme Electoral Council to register Ríos Montt within 12 hours. The legal battle continues, however, as Ríos Montt was charged for his responsibility in the events of July 24-25.
The face of a crazed manOn the night of the violence, the FRG leadership called a press conference, with Ríos Montt presiding. He reiterated what several party spokespeople had already repeatedly stated, that the FRG “neither planned nor called nor directed nor assumes responsibility” for the disruptions or street occupation, much less for having provoked “the natural death due to a heart attack of journalist Héctor Ramírez.” He did allow that those who occupied the streets were “our sympathizers” demonstrating their indignation.
Ríos Montt did not speak with the self-assurance and cynicism typical of him. He seemed not to hear well or to know exactly how to answer without contradicting himself. In response to the first question, for example, he said, “We’ve already said that we didn’t plan this demonstration, but when we saw what was happening we told people to go to the Supreme Court.” All his answers were along those lines. Many viewers were taken aback by his absent look and popping eyes—the face of a crazed 77-year-old man.
In the end, Arístides Crespo, head of the FRG bench in Congress, tried to divert attention by recalling that the people held hostage in the Business Center had not been the only ones held hostage during the year. He said that journalists and legislators had also been “held hostage a whole day by striking teachers without anyone making much noise about it or any of the protests we see now.” Of course, the striking teachers in January, February and March never used violence, threatened people or carried weapons.
“Make sure they look like peasants” Those who witnessed preparations for the trip to the capital in Santa María Chiquimula heard the organizers telling the Mayans about to climb aboard the three trucks that would transport them to be sure to bring their machetes so people would see that the protesters in favor of Ríos Montt were peasants. When they realized that the machetes were to be used to threaten people, some returned to their villages. We have also heard that Mayan farmers from Joyabaj who had once been forced to join the Civil Self-Defense Patrols were promised that if they went to the capital they would get a second pay installment for their work during the war. (In an extremely controversial move, the government recently began paying compensation to the patrol members, who were responsible for some of the worst atrocities committed during the war.) Others were pressured by threats that if they didn’t go they wouldn’t be given their allotment of fertilizer, which is sold to them at a very low price because it was donated by the government of Japan.
Seven trucks left Joyabaj for the capital. Many people went because of the chance to see the capital for the first time and get five free meals and the equivalent of $5. The slogan in the FRG headquarters in Santa María Chiquimula was “Nothing will stop us!” Several of the people who had spoken up in assemblies called by the FRG, recalling Ríos Montt’s genocidal past to keep people from being deceived, later received threats.
Was the master plan to sow fear? What kind of master plan lies behind this violence, and behind Ríos Montt’s candidacy? There are several possible answers. The most obvious and one of the most likely is related to fear. The fear sown on July 24-25 will get the FRG votes in rural areas and increase the abstention rate in urban areas as people fear more violent events on election day. This will favor the FRG, which is less likely to do well in the capital.
A number of extremely diverse interests converge in this fabrication of fear. First, there are the personal interests of Ríos Montt, who would like to end his life governing the country as its elected President. He is haunted by the fraud committed back in the 1974 elections, when he ran as the candidate of a center-left alliance of Christian Democrats and the United Revolutionary Front, and was sent off to take up the post of ambassador to Spain with his tail between his legs.
He is also haunted by resentment over the coup that removed him from power in 1983 and by the legal decisions barring his candidacy in 1990 and 1995. And above all, he is haunted by the prospect of ending his days like Pinochet, being judged or perhaps even extradited for crimes against humanity, and is doing all he can to avoid that.
Behind Ríos Montt is his family, whose members have their own interests. His wife, María Teresa Sosa de Ríos Montt, is the daughter of a high-ranking military officer accustomed to living in luxury in Antigua and vacationing in Livingston. Their daughter, Zuri Ríos Sosa, is also in politics and dreams of following her father as next in line in the dynasty, while her husband is making a fortune selling fake “brand-name” running shoes. Their son, Enrique Ríos Sosa, has risen from the rank of colonel to become Division General and Head of the Army’s General Staff in only three and a half years, the most stellar rise of any Guatemalan military officer in recent times; all that’s left now is the minister of defense post.
The General’s supportersOther people with a stake in Ríos Montt’s candidacy include his strongest backers in the FRG. These people, who perhaps believed in his honesty and his nationalism, have watched other party members become entangled in corruption and influence peddling. They fear that if they lose these elections, their immunity will be a thing of the past and they will end up being judged for complicity, omission or turning a blind eye to the excesses committed under the current FRG government.
Others Behind Ríos Montt might also include some of the people Portillo invited into his government to give it a leftist sheen, or at least a populist multethnic one, many of whom ended up more interested in the privileges of power than in upholding their political ideals. These people fear that if the FRG loses the elections, they will be left in a kind of “no man’s land,” dismissed by the Right and no longer trusted by the Left.
And of course we can also find behind Ríos Montt the military commissioners and former Civil Self-Defense Patrol leaders who cling to their impunity and local power, along with who knows how many of the former patrol members or their relatives who hope to continue to be paid for their past services.
The most dangerous interests behind the GeneralThe most dangerous supporters of Ríos Montt’s candidacy, however, are the hidden powers that grew out of the armed conflict and are now propping him up as an already somewhat senile puppet. These are the retired military officers who, along with some civilians in the now-defunct National Liberation Movement (MLN), some virulently conservative businesspeople and some contraband dealers and speculators, organized the death squads.
These people took advantage of their official posts in state institutions—especially the customs office and national revenue office within the Finance Ministry, the “promised land” of a certain set of colonels. There they made use of information illegally obtained from army intelligence to become involved in all kinds of corruption and contraband, until they ended up immersed in the broadest range of illegal trafficking. For years they trafficked with the aid received from other countries and other armies to finance the war and respond to some of the population’s needs. They trafficked in weapons and then, since the paths of the various kinds of trafficking all crisscross, in drugs, children, human organs, stolen cars, hired killers, undocumented migrants and terrorists.
General Francisco Ortega Menaldo, General Manuel Callejas y Callejas, Colonel Jacobo Salán Sánchez, Major Napoleón Rojas, now retired, filled some of these strategic posts and have been mentioned as advisers in Portillo’s government, as the “power behind the throne” and no less important the power behind army nominations and promotions. The United States Embassy also signaled these men out, along with some of their most prominent lawyers, by canceling their visas.
Death squads live onThe death squads of years past were also specialists in kidnapping and extorting businesspeople to help military officers gain entrance into companies and businesses as undesired shareholders. These death squads had their place in what was first called “the Regional,” then “the Records” and finally the “Intelligence Section” of the Presidential General Staff. All Presidents of the transition period have been coerced or co-opted by this security service that the military provides their families. Continually renovated and operating as special forces in the dirty deals of illicit trade, and maintaining their ties to active-duty military and police officers, these squads could once again turn into death squads, as we have already seen in the assassination of Monsignor Gerardi and other less known but no less cruel crimes.
They will be readily joined by those who have learned the art of big-time corruption under the FRG government and before: the Alvarado MacDonalds, the Rabbés, the Arévalos, the Barrientos—who have military intelligence experience—and on and on. Then there are those involved in organized crime who have already more or less publicly joined them, such as the Sandoval Morales, the Herrera Castillos, etc.
The possibility that this whole network of hidden powers—a veritable criminal state within the state—might be left without its privileged access to formal, legal state power is a risk they are not willing to run if they can help it. Their criminal capital, which comes from enormous vaults constantly replenished through the broadest imaginable ties to global criminal capital via underground channels that are very hard to flush out or plug up, has enormous influence.
Is the master plan to burn Ríos Montt? Another possible explanation for what has happened and might happen is that this violent action, intolerable in the times of the Pan-American agreement on democracy, is aimed at “burning” Ríos Montt. This more Machiavellian and thus less obvious goal would be to focus all cameras on him and show him in the worst possible light, making it impossible for people to be unaware of his deterioration and senility.
What would be the point? To make it possible to launch a more serious candidate while there’s still time, one who could wage a more intelligent campaign, less tied to ghosts of the past, with a team swept clean of the people most muddied by corruption. This alternative rests on the assumption that at least some in the FRG are paying attention to the polls, which show Ríos Montt lagging far behind, and believe he couldn’t win even on a second round.
Several “alternative” candidates have already indicated a willingness to run for the FRG in case Ríos Montt’s candidacy is barred. They include Arístides Crespo, the head of the FRG’s congressional bench; Edgar Gutiérrez, who established the Secretariat of Strategic Analysis and currently serves as Foreign Minister; and Pedro Pablo Palma Lau, once known as comandante Pancho, one of the former guerillas who have joined Ríos Montt. Palma Lau has stood beside Ríos Montt throughout his campaign, even in some very tense moments such as when the General tried to campaign in Rabinal on the same Sunday that the surviving relatives of one of the most brutal massacres of the war finally buried the victims after their exhumation. Ríos Montt was booed down, pelted with stones and lightly wounded.
It would be an even smarter move to launch one of these candidacies with an indigenous running mate like congressional representative Haroldo Quej, a Kekchí, or Minister of Culture Otilia Lux de Cotí, a Quiché, or Deputy Education Minister Demetrio Cojtí, a Kakchiquel.
And the Vice President’s silence? People have been struck by the fact that Vice President Francisco Reyes López has been totally out of the picture throughout this whole crisis, not even appearing with other FRG leaders at the press conference on the night on July 24. Could part of the master plan involve burning President Portillo as well, forcing him to resign so Reyes López could run the election campaign from the seat of state power?
This scenario would make sense only if it appeared that the army’s interests would be best served by putting an end to the Ríos Montt dynasty through a kind of crypto-coup. This would involve negotiating with the FGR to replace him as the candidate, and negotiating with Portillo to retire his son, General Ríos Sosa, from active duty in the army. It must be remembered that retired top-ranking military officers can now be found in virtually all parties as candidates for Congress or advisers to presidential candidates. What makes this scenario less likely is that the party put so much effort into taking over the crucial state institutions that will determine Ríos Montt’s candidacy: the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the Attorney General’s Office, the Prosecutor’s Office, the National Auditor’s Office and the Tax Administration Office. Thanks to civil society efforts they couldn’t make a clean sweep of it, as the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office got away from them. Nor was there a chance during this presidential period to nominate new justices to the Supreme Court.
Was July 24 a diversionary tactic? Economist and journalist Pablo Rodas Martini called attention to the diversionary nature of the violent acts of July 24. He interprets the brutal maneuver as an attempt to confuse the public and at the same time pressure the Constitutional Court justices to decide in Ríos Montt’s favor. But one unexpected result of the threatening aura that the violent occupation of the streets cast over the election campaign was that a number of workers’ and farmers’ movements and professional associations plus the Forum of Political Parties, the media and a large part of private enterprise came together in a Civil Council for Democracy. The Forum of Parties also suspended the FRG’s membership until it determines responsibilities for the violence of its followers. Several journalists and the son of “Reporter X” proposed filing charges against the FRG leaders.
The Civic Council for Democracy inevitably brings to mind the National Consensus Group, organized in 1993 to oppose the attempt by former President Jorge Serrano to dissolve state institutions through a coup d’état along the lines of the one carried out by Peruvian President Fujimori in 1992. On both occasions, an important role was played by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú, who is not in Guatemala as often these days as she once was because of her responsibilities as UN ambassador on indigenous affairs as well as the threats against her. We must not forget that the Group didn’t stay together long once Serrano’s self-coup had been blocked, and that private enterprise was the first to pull out.
Election observers and the fear of fraudCivil society is also making efforts to publicly buttress the magistrates on the various tribunals involved in the legal challenge posed by Ríos Montt’s candidacy. Another goal is to ensure that the election process is overseen both nationally and internationally from this point on, and not just starting on the eve of the elections. In fact, former Peruvian President Valentín Paniagua, named head of the OAS observation mission for Guatemala’s elections, arrived in the country immediately after the dramatic events of July 24 to begin observation.
The observers should look into several areas, including the results of the population census conducted by the government last December; the work of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal at all geographic levels, and of the poll workers who will go to the most distant rural villages and marginalized urban neighborhoods; the cleansing of the electoral rolls; the work of the company that will print the voting cards and distribute them to the municipalities; the maintenance during the campaign of a free, secure, democratic climate, which is a prerequisite to fair elections; the computerized programs that will process the results; the existence of independent generators to handle possible electricity problems in the Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s headquarters; the counting procedures; the preparation of the official records; the storage and transport of ballots to the Supreme Electoral Council; etc.
Betraying the peace accordsRodas and other commentators believe that the media played into the FRG’s hands by giving their violent street occupation the attention they sought, paving the way for President Portillo to negotiate with the high courts over Ríos Montt’s registration with more intimidating force. This leads us to other points that are also important to keep in mind. First, the previous government’s inattention to the Peace Accords, which bordered on incompliance, paved the way for Portillo’s populist FRG government, with its enormous corruption and incompetence. The administration of President Alvaro Arzú can claim credit for having ended the war by speeding up negotiations with the URNG and signing the Peace Accords, but the peace process then came to a halt. The assassination of Monsignor Gerardi was both indicative and symbolic of this, as Arzú and most members of his government did very little to help resolve the case. Another striking symbol was the fact that Arzú did not officially receive the Historical Clarification Commission report from the Commission
or do much to fulfill its recommendations. Most egregious was the enormous confusion that the governing National Advancement Party (PAN) bench and others in Congress created around the constitutional reforms required to put the Peace Accords into effect. Expanding the 12 reforms absolutely necessary to fulfill the agreements into an unwieldy package of 50 diluted and thus undermined the intent, while the President, his government and his party did as little as possible to help disseminate or defend the critical reforms.
United Nations Development Program (UNDP) studies on Guatemala testify to the fact that Arzú’s government did not even make a dent in the country’s poverty, and that economic growth began to slow down in 1999, during his last year in office. When President Portillo declared in January 2000 that fulfilling the Peace Accords would be state policy and then stopped fulfilling them, no one was surprised, especially after the Fiscal Pact was also derailed. The national project contained in the Peace Accords has so far been betrayed, and if this year’s candidates do not commit themselves to a progressive, feasible process of fulfilling those agreements or carry through on that pledge once elected, they will pave the way for an even more dangerous and corrupt populism than the current one.
The military’s alarming persistenceA second fact to keep in mind is the influence wielded over Portillo’s government by the retired military officers who continue to run the army, and by the Presidential General Staff itself. Arzú made this possible by quickly brushing aside the top officers who participated in negotiating and signing the Peace Accords and putting himself instead in the hands of Colonel Marco Tulio Espinoza, chief of the President’s General Staff. Arzú later made Espinoza a general and appointed him to head both the Army’s General Staff and the Ministry of Defense in another of the most meteoric rises in Guatemalan military history.
The murder of Bishop Gerardi showed that the military is still willing to use its worst methods. Resolving the Gerardi case would have obviously been incompatible with protecting the Presidential General Staff members—who account for two of the three officers convicted in the case—and might have threatened the institution itself. The military shock troop style of July 24 also reveals the persistence of military power, despite the Peace Accords’ efforts to limit it.
There is also evidence that the purported change in army doctrine has had little influence on its officers. For example, in the Rafael Landívar University, some young officers who are studying political science took advantage of a chance to demonstrate the bloody slogans and war cries of the army “kaibiles” or special forces, coming to class with their faces painted and weapons in hand. And when students in the University of San Carlos’s master’s degree program on the Social Psychology of Violence studied the Historical Clarification Commission report, the military officers in the program rejected it with the same vehement passion typical of the generals during the war years.
No political program presented by a democratic candidate in Guatemala will make much ground if it doesn’t take this bull by the horns and subjugate it. The Guatemalan army has not been cleansed like its Salvadoran counterpart was. Nor have the top military officers ever admitted their responsibility or asked for pardon, as happened several years ago in Argentina and this year in Chile. The Guatemalan army’s power and mindset are incompatible with a democratic society, as is the current army budget. Furthermore, the remilitarizing of the institution slated to replace the Presidential General Staff via amendments surreptitiously slipped into the bill now being considered by Congress, strongly denounced by the Myrna Mack Foundation, would be a blatant violation of the Peace Accords.
Guatemala is still a plantationIt is also important to remember that President Portillo has used confrontation virtually throughout his term in office, with a few brief periods of repentance. This is especially true in his relations with private enterprise and the media, particularly the written press. In this he is no different from President Arzú, who was so intolerant to media criticism that he even crushed the weekly newsmagazine Crónica, an excess for which his National Action Party and its candidate Oscar Berger paid dearly in the last elections.
Portillo has repeated time and again that “this country is no longer their plantation,” referring to the oligarchy that has traditionally held power, and he insists this is why they don’t like his policies. Ríos Montt recently borrowed this slogan and the reasoning behind it, arguing that what he proposes to do as President doesn’t please private enterprise because “this country won’t be their plantation any more.”
It may well be that this country will no longer belong to the traditional wealthy class if Ríos Montt or any another FRG candidate wins these elections. But Guatemala’s fate as a plantation owned by a few will remain the same because it will become their plantation, run by and for people enriched by a corruption that dwarfs that of other governments. It will become the plantation of national and international criminal capital and organized crime.
Abysms of inequalityIn its most recent report, the UNDP noted that Guatemala and Central America as a whole are the country and region in Latin America and the Caribbean with the highest levels of inequality. No candidate of any political party who wants to govern Guatemala as a democratic President could do so, even if cleanly elected, unless he or she presents at least a minimal program of three or four points to begin reducing poverty and bridging the enormous gap between those who live well and those who live in misery.
If the candidates do not visit the capital’s marginalized urban neighborhoods and start thinking about how to change urban land use policies, they will only fuel the fire that boils the cauldron of disillusionment and the violence perpetrated by both the police and the gangs. If the candidates do not learn from the histories of the growth and distribution of wealth in the recently industrialized countries—the “Asian tigers”—or open-mindedly investigate the state’s role in establishing urban land use policies and rural land reform, they will never get to the heart of the problem of this plantation that Guatemala is and may well remain.
The candidates have to propose ways, in advance, to deal with the geological, climatic and especially social vulnerability afflicting Guatemala. They have to address the issue of the education budget and administration and teaching methods. They have to explain how they will ensure that people can obtain health care and enjoy healthy conditions. The latter would involve ensuring that cars don’t contaminate, garbage is disposed of efficiently and productively, forests are tended and protected (an interesting job for the army!), reforestation needs are taken seriously and rivers and other water resources are protected. They have to guarantee that any future fraud and embezzlement in the construction of roads and bridges will be severely punished. If these and many other things are not addressed, Guatemala will remain not only a plantation in the hands of a few but a deteriorated one at that.
The unlikely miracle of a broad allianceTwenty-two parties are planning to compete in the November 8 elections. According to Vox Latina’s June poll, most people surveyed can identify only four or five of the presidential candidates. They know Oscar Berger, who lost the last elections to Portillo and is running this year for the Great National Alliance; Alvaro Colom Caballeros, who ran for the leftist New Nation Alliance in the last elections and is now running for the National Union of Hope; Fritz García Gallont, communications minister in Arzú’s government, who was elected mayor of Guatemala City for the PAN and is now running for Arzú’s Unionists; Ricardo Bueso, front man in the purchase of the state communications company TELGUA four years ago, a fundamentalist Evangelical Christian who is running for the Christian Democrats; and Efraín Ríos Montt. Only four of these five are polling at above 5%: Berger (36.9%); Colom (13.1%); Ríos Montt (7.9%) and García Gallont (6.4%). The URNG is only polling 1.6%, with Rodrigo Asturias (formerly known as comandante Gaspar Ilom, son of the great writer Miguel Angel Asturias) as its presidential candidate and Ixil congressional representative Pablo Ceto as his running mate. And Rigoberto Quemé Chay, mayor of Quetzaltenango and the only Mayan presidential candidate, is polling 1.1% in a country that is over 60% Mayan.
Four of the five leading candidates in the survey have affirmed that if the fifth, Ríos Montt, wins the elections, it will be a disaster for Guatemala. Some have openly warned it would put the country in the hands of organized crime and naturalize corruption. This explains the importance of these elections. It would take a political miracle, however, for the candidates to set aside their own ambitions and the conviction that they are irreplaceable and establish a solid alliance to bury the General and the FRG under an avalanche of votes on election day.